Why the Libertarian Moment Isn’t Here

There is no individualism without individual responsibility.

Libertarian_Protest_SignThe debate over whether the “Libertarian Moment” has arrived and whether it will arrive on Monday or Tuesday is symptomatic of why the moment hasn’t arrived.  No one is debating whether the socialist moment has arrived. They’re either championing it or fighting a rear guard action against it.

The debate over the libertarian moment and its train schedule is a debate about ideas and issues rather than people. And it’s the people who make the moment.

Socialism’s big moments arrive when people feel helpless. It does well during depressions and recessions. That’s how we ended up with FDR, Clinton and Obama.

Socialism is a sleazy insurance salesman. Its product may be bad, but people are a lot more likely to buy it when they’re worried about the future. Europe turned to socialism after its people lost confidence in the future and themselves. America is turning to socialism after a similar crisis of confidence.

Reagan’s greatest gift to his country was averting a similar implosion by trading the malaise of the Carter years for a sense of national confidence. Aside from all his policies, he kept the sense of failure at bay.

Cheerleaders for the libertarian moment note that confidence in government is low. But so is confidence in the future. Those who don’t believe in the future also don’t believe in themselves. Without a sense of individual confidence and competence, there is no libertarian moment. It’s not enough to realize that government has failed. People also have to believe that they can succeed.

Some libertarians think that discrediting government by showing where it has failed is enough.  It’s not. The libertarian moment can only arrive when people have more confidence in their ability to succeed on their own than they do in the institutions of government. The black community is an extreme example, but confidence has plummeted among middle class whites at an alarming rate.

The libertarian moment hasn’t arrived in some of the most corrupt countries in the world whose populations are well aware that their leaders are incompetent thieves. It isn’t going to arrive here just because Americans decide that their country is run by incompetent thieves.  It won’t make them any more willing to change than many of the migrants arriving from south of the border and looking for an even bigger big government than the corrupt totalitarian mess that they left behind.

Predictions of a libertarian moment have been based on conflating liberal trends, such as pot legalization and gay marriage, with libertarian ones. It’s easy to sell the future as libertarian if you prioritize social liberalism over fiscal conservatism. And as David Harsanyi put it, there is no libertarian moment without fiscal conservatism. If you can’t tie fiscal conservatism to social liberalism, all you have left is the left.

Libertarians have found it a lot easier to sell social liberalism to conservatives by promising them the youth vote. They haven’t had much luck selling fiscal conservatism to their allies on the left except when it comes to military budget cuts. And that isn’t a libertarian value, unless Obama is the libertarian moment.

Can fiscal conservatism be reconciled with social liberalism? That question is a lot easier to answer in Silicon Valley than it is in Detroit.

The libertarian paradox is that those Americans who stand to benefit the most from fiscal conservatism are also social conservatives. Fiscal conservatism has something to offer prosperous middle class families who are less likely to be enthusiastic about social liberalism.

The mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism is appealing to wealthy men. It’s much less appealing to a single mother raising two kids, a family in the ghetto or for that matter a family in one of the suburbs that host much of the actual drug trade.

Libertarianism was rooted in the individualism of a society where values and character were taken for granted. A society where single motherhood is the norm, where families are vanishing and there is no meaningful sense of adulthood is a place where social liberalism is popular and fiscal conservatism is an act of wanton cruelty.

Pajama Boy dreaming of cocoa and permanent ObamaCare and Sandra Fluke agonizing over the cost of unsubsidized birth control are the permanent children of the future. They want their social liberalism, but they also want someone else to pay for the consequences.

The only way to bring fiscal conservatism and social liberalism together is responsibility. And that’s not as popular a libertarian selling point as denouncing the NSA or agitating for legal pot.

A workable libertarianism will have a social conservative edge. Its social liberalism will be premised on the innate conservatism of responsibility. That won’t mean everyone wearing gray suits and avoiding strong language. But it will be based on a society of adults accepting responsibility for their actions.

The left accepts social liberalism and rejects fiscal conservatism because it rejects individual responsibility. The right accepts fiscal conservatism and rejects social liberalism because it is skeptical of the sense of responsibility of a lot of the population.

There is no libertarianism without individualism and there is no individualism without individual responsibility. Without responsibility, social liberalism is a gateway drug to socialism.

Rugged individualism isn’t an immutable law of nature. It comes from the individual character.  Or it doesn’t. A relevant libertarianism must be a movement of character as it once was. That’s a bigger challenge today than it was during the days of Rose Wilder Lane or Ayn Rand.

The trendy libertarianism of the moment is too focused on removing laws and not nearly as conscious of what laws everyone will live by. That is why its moment will never come. It advocates ideas such as amnesty without considering the consequences. Like its socialist counterpart, it insists that something must work because its ideas say that it will. It does not take into account how people actually behave.

Government is not the enemy. It is a symptom of the problem. There is no way to get rid of a nanny state, until the child grows up. A trendy libertarianism that cheers a dissolute social liberalism of irresponsible behavior and then wonders why it can’t convince the potheads filling up Denver’s homeless shelters to buy into fiscal conservatism is not the solution. It’s part of the problem.

The libertarian moment will come not when there are no laws, but when everyone lives responsibly by their own laws.

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