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Toward a Healthier Libertarian Movement
Libertarianism can have a bright future. But first it needs to break its decades-long alliance with the GOP.
I worry about the future of the libertarian movement.
America faces an acutely precarious political environment, with immediate and severe threats to liberty that go beyond what P. J. O’Rourke once called, “wrong within normal parameters.” It’s not just that we’re staring down rising inflation and a possible recession. It’s that one of the two major parties, always a few marginal voters away from winning elections, has made clear it will subvert those elections, rejects the rule of law, and has abandoned any pretext that institutions should constrain the pursuit of power.
The contemporary Republican Party doesn’t much value individual and economic liberty, either, but is instead committed to enforcing a narrow conception of what it means to be a “real American,” drawn along nationalist, racial, populist, and culturally reactionary lines. It is happy to use state power to punish those who dissent. This amounts to a genuine crisis of liberty, and one from which our democracy and our freedoms might not recover. If given another opportunity in the White House, the GOP’s preferred autocrat and his enablers will have the experience and groundwork necessary to inflict potentially fatal damage to the country’s governing institutions.
We need a strong defense of liberty, one that can appeal to the many Americans, on the right and left, who worry that our basic freedoms are on the line in a way unique in recent memory. We need a strong libertarian movement because liberty is under threat, libertarians have the most principled and developed arguments for liberty, and, because we needn’t get caught up in partisan loyalties, we can speak across party divides.
Yet many in the movement are actively moving in the wrong direction, not just with the alt-right takeover of the Libertarian Party, but also in doubling down on a Republican-fusionist approach to policy advocacy. Partisan entanglements and cultural tribalism have obscured how much of a threat the American right represents, both to the country and to libertarianism itself.
For our purposes here, the “libertarian movement” means American libertarianism’s political mainstream: the Libertarian Party (the movement's most recognizable brand), but also DC’s public policy scene. This essay is about the ways portions of the libertarian movement have drifted from core principles and what’s needed to get back on track.
How We Got Here
Most people, and I know this from having spent a decade as a professional liberty advocate, view libertarianism as part of the right. We’re “Republicans who smoke pot” (although I am neither a Republican, nor do I smoke pot) or else “Hippies of the right.” When I was at the Cato Institute, we were constantly frustrated by journalists referring to our scholars as part of the “conservative Cato Institute.” And while it’s true that libertarians aren’t conservatives (in fact, conservatism is fundamentally in opposition to libertarianism), there’s a simple reason so many people think we’re on the right: We’ve spent decades signaling to them that we are.
The left is where the libertarian movement finds its intellectual antecedents. Libertarianism began as a movement within liberalism, against the conservatism that defined the right. As Murray Rothbard put it,
[T]here developed ... two great political ideologies, centered around this new revolutionary phenomenon: the one was Liberalism, the party of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of the Industrial Revolution, of progress, of humanity; the other was Conservatism, the party of reaction, the party that longed to restore the hierarchy, statism, theocracy, serfdom, and class exploitation of the old order. ... Political ideologies were polarized, with Liberalism on the extreme “Left,” and Conservatism on the extreme “Right,” of the ideological spectrum.
In the middle of the 20th century, when libertarians joined with the right against the threat of communism, libertarianism came to view itself not just in alliance with the right, but as part of it. This was an odd fit from the beginning, because while both libertarianism and conservatism opposed communism, the conservative objection had more to do with the Soviet Union as a great power threat to American global dominance, communism’s “godlessness,” and the ways domestic communists were advocating for racial justice, worker empowerment, and social liberalization. Communism was bad, and the Soviet Union did appear to be an existential military threat to the United States (though, with access to Soviet archives, perhaps less of a threat than it appeared at the time).
But why communism, as an ideology, was bad looked rather different from a right-wing versus libertarian perspective. CIA director Allen Dulles and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover spent a lot of time rooting out communists. But it had more to do with being cultural reactionaries and viewing global communism as a threat to politically connected American multinationals than it did the libertarian fears of central planning vs. free market economics and creeping authoritarianism. Conservatives at the time worried about communism taking away our “American freedoms,” yet worried rather less about Jim Crow taking away some Americans’ freedoms. In other words, this alliance against the threat of communism didn’t mean there was much, if any, compatibility between libertarianism and the American right when it came to philosophy or public policy.
Frank Meyer, at the National Review, concocted the confused muddle that came to be known as “fusionism,” the idea that conservatives could embrace a libertarian view of (very) limited government, while libertarians could embrace the right’s idea that free citizens should cultivate, and a free society is dependent upon, specifically conservative virtues. The problem with the deal was that libertarians were correct about government, but conservatives were wrong about virtue. Limited government is good, but so are the liberal virtues of tolerance, celebration of diversity, dynamism, and radical self-authorship.
Then Ronald Reagan came along and supercharged fusionism, making libertarians believe they’d finally ascended in the conservative movement, all the way to the top. After all, it was Reagan who said, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” But, of course, it was also Reagan who launched his political career by promising to crack down on the freedom of expression and association of students protesting a deeply unjust war.
A Distorted Libertarianism
This shift, from liberal to conservative, had a number of consequences for libertarianism, even though there are many libertarians it doesn’t describe. First, libertarian organizations came to see the right as their primary outreach direction. Even today, many libertarians put most, if not all, of their student outreach efforts into young conservatives. Comparatively little attention is given to young progressive groups; their members are dismissed as “not gettable,” simply too opposed to liberty to be worth the effort. This is related to another consequence of fusionism, namely a greater emphasis on economic freedoms (where conservatives and libertarians used to at least somewhat agree) than social freedoms (where conservatives have more difficulty getting on board with liberty).
The result, at least within mainstream libertarianism, is that conservatives tend to be welcomed, and their anti-liberty deviations more readily overlooked (Hoppeanism, the Mises Institute, and lawmakers like Thomas Massie and Rand Paul), while progressives are made to feel unwelcome, their deviations seen as evidence that they can’t be potential allies (AOC is wrong about plenty of economic issues, but is one of the more libertarian members of the House when it comes to criminal justice, surveillance, and other civil liberties).
This means a movement dominated by people who came from the right. “But what does it matter where people came from if they’re all now libertarians?” you might ask. Yet people are naturally tribal, and we rarely drop our influences entirely. If you came from the right, chances are you’re more comfortable around those still on the right, and tend to find greater salience in political concerns of the right. And chances are you’ll tend to feel culturally distant from people on the left, and to brush aside social and policy concerns mostly talked about by the left.
This leads to a lopsidedness in assessing threats to liberty, an asymmetry regarding which issues libertarians are loud about (those palatable to conservatives) and which they’re quieter on (those upsetting to conservatives). This means, for example, too often taking the right’s side in the culture war, or having more sympathy for it, while mustering greater skepticism for social arguments originating on the left. This mood affiliation with conservatives means giving them the benefit of the doubt, while holding the left to a higher evidentiary standard, and being more willing to (even if unconsciously) strawman their views. It means putting more effort into working with Republican lawmakers than Democratic ones, and continuing to view Republican lawmakers as “friends of liberty” even as they expose themselves as deeply anti-libertarian in a rightward direction. Libertarians are quick to forgive, overlook, or downplay GOP deviations as minor points of disagreement, especially when it comes from lawmakers, like Massie and Paul, who are seen as friends of the movement. At the same time, lawmakers on the left, who in fact hold pro-liberty views on a range of issues, get tarnished as “socialists.” They are only the enemy because they happen to hold non-libertarian views in a leftward direction.
When it comes to the activism of the Libertarian Party, probably the most recognized brand in our movement, as well as the general tenor of the young libertarian movement, we see a flood of right-wingers, including right-wing reactionaries. As long as you’re “fighting back against the left,” you’re welcome, even if what you’re fighting back against is the left’s calls for greater openness and toleration, and the breaking down of unjust, and often state reinforced, social hierarchies. (It’s part of the reason libertarians have generally been bad at talking about race, sneering at issues of racial justice, even though our political theory has a great deal of importance to say about the topic.)
All of this creates a feedback loop of increasing right-wing radicalism. Anyone from the left or center-left who looks into libertarianism will get a strong first impression that it’s partisan and tribally right-wing. It doesn’t help that the Libertarian Party has been taken over by “paleolibertarians,” who are openly nationalist, xenophobic, anti-semitic, anti-LGBT, anti-feminism, and frequently pro-Trump and pro-coup. Or when they see prominent libertarians inflating the threat of “wokeness” while treating the Trump administration as just another set of politicians, wrong within normal parameters, to advise.
People I’ve talked with on the left have told me on several occasions that I’m the first libertarian they’ve come across who they didn’t think was a right-winger, and who didn’t immediately make them feel like libertarianism was only a place for conservatives. And while I’m decidedly not the only liberal libertarian, their experience of our movement, especially online, was so off-putting that it should be cause for real concern. Young people who are now exploring and developing political identities do that work online, and libertarianism is usually showing them a movement that is needlessly and wrongly hostile to many of their values.
This doesn’t just mean that the libertarian movement’s rightward signaling has cut them off from potentially becoming libertarians, either. Given the way American politics sorts itself into teams, and the way talking across teams is challenging for many, people with libertarian sympathies turned off by the movement’s right-wing appearance are likely to end up further from libertarianism than if they hadn’t explored it in the first place. “Those guys are awful,” they think after their first impression. “I want to make sure I’m very much not like that.”
Holding Back Change
Libertarianism is fundamentally a radical philosophy. “Libertarians ... are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed,” Rothbard wrote. “But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians... As we have seen, Conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty.” Fusionism’s legacy is in making much of the libertarian movement forget that. (Including, it’s sad to say, Rothbard himself. Later in his career, he abandoned his own principles and turned instead to paleolibertarianism, which is libertarian in name only.)
This mistaken identification with conservatism and the Republican Party brings opportunity costs. By allying ourselves with one side, we miss out on chances to work with people outside of that political and cultural tribe. But the damage goes deeper.
Libertarianism should be positioning itself as an appealing alternative to rising illiberalism, and as the philosophical foundation of the cosmopolitan side in the emerging cosmopolitan/populist divide. We have an opportunity to reinvigorate our movement, and help instill a deeper culture of liberty. But doing that means breaking free from partisan alliances, and no longer seeing ourselves (and thus encouraging others to view us) as part of a right-wing that is turning increasingly against cosmopolitanism and liberty.
Within the libertarian movement itself, both in the Washington think tank scene and in grassroots activism, however, there’s less desire for change than there ought to be. Instead many argue that the old strategies are still worthwhile, and that no matter how bad the right has become, the left is still always and only the enemy.
Even where there is a desire for change, or just where there’s a recognition of how far from libertarian the Republican Party and American conservatism have drifted, there are strong incentives against acting on it. Part of that is financial. Libertarian organizations get much of their funding from right-of-center sources, because decades of the fusionist strategy meant looking to the right to fundraise. But money’s not the only issue.
There’s the cultural alignment discussed earlier. Because so many libertarians came from the right, their social networks are largely within the right. Pushing back on conservative alliances means pushing back on friends, peer groups, and circles in which libertarians often feel most comfortable. This isn’t helped by the fact that libertarianism is very white, male, and middle- and upper-class, making it harder (but not contradictory) to empathize with the concerns of the poor, women, and minorities. Which, in turn, makes the movement a less welcoming place to those groups, and so even less diverse.
This cultural affiliation plays out in news consumption habits, too. I’m frequently discouraged by how many libertarians turn for political commentary and cultural analysis chiefly or exclusively to right-wing sources. If they want to learn about ideas, arguments, and ideologies of the left, they don’t go to the people who believe or advocate them, but instead look to what right-wing sources have to say about them. No one should turn to James Lindsay to get up to speed on critical theory, nor Stephen Hicks on postmodernism, nor Dave Rubin on social justice, but too many do.
Arguably there is also the ongoing influence of Ayn Rand. While a case can be made that the philosophy of Objectivism is not right-wing—and Rand herself was socially radical for the time—Randianism frequently takes on a right-wing flavor in its approach to social justice matters, its belligerent foreign policy, and Rand’s (often ignorant) rejection, and lack of curiosity about, philosophies different from her own.
Lastly, we can’t dismiss simple sunk costs thinking. The libertarian movement has spent over half a century developing deep ties to the right, cultivating relationships with Republican lawmakers, working itself into conservative circles, and recruiting largely from the political and cultural right. It has an infrastructure in place, and human capital built up to those ends. That’s a lot of resources, and decoupling from the right means not only giving up on some of them, but also putting new resources into building relationships with people we aren’t as used to. It’s far easier to say “We can make this old thing work” than it is to admit it’s time to try something new.
The Way Forward
Even if it’s hard, though, change is needed. A non-fusionist libertarianism can be a voice for principled radicalism in America’s political realignment, while more seriously combatting the immediate threats to American liberties coming from the right. Seeing the right and the GOP as the best or only path forward for libertarianism hasn’t produced many great victories, and it’s difficult to imagine how it will in the future. Even if we view the Reagan-era Republican Party through the foggiest of rose-colored glasses, that era was an historical aberration, and one unlikely to come back. The fact is libertarianism doesn’t have a home on the right, and it never really did. We were more like tolerated house guests, kept around because we were sometimes rhetorically useful.
How to change, then? How can libertarianism break free of fusionism and, in so doing, become healthier, more diverse, more forward-thinking, and, yes, more effective? The first step is pushing back on our right-wing branding. Whenever I say it’s time to abandon fusionism, I’m told, “The left wants nothing to do with us.” (Of course, the right is increasingly explicit that it wants nothing to do with us.) And while the many fruitful conversations I’ve had with people on the left, even the far left, show that’s not true, it is the case that the left is more skeptical about libertarianism than the right used to be. But it’s a mistake to view that as a consequence of something more libertarian about the right. Instead, it’s merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, the consequence of decades of libertarians telling the left they’re part of the right, and telling the left that, when it comes to liberty, they are always and exclusively the enemy.
Likewise, I’m told, “The right is more welcoming to us.” While that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, with the intellectual vanguard of the right going out of its way to repudiate liberalism, if we do find more friends among the right, it’s because, again, we spent decades embedding libertarians in the conservative movement. If you and a bunch of your friends crash a party, the fact that you now have friends at that party tells you nothing about whether the other attendees want much to do with you.
Breaking the feedback loop means putting in the effort both to reach out to a more diverse audience and to be an audience to more diversity. It means, at the very least, subverting the stereotype of libertarians as right-wingers by no longer signaling that we’re right-wingers. Mere denials when, for instance, journalists refer to libertarian think tanks as “conservative,” aren’t enough, because actions, or silence on important issues, make those denials more difficult to believe.
Rebranding as genuinely politically independent, as no longer “of the right,” won’t happen overnight, but it can’t happen at all until we start. We need to convince potential new allies, potential new libertarians, and just everyday Americans that we're not on board with the insanity of the American right–and especially that we’re not Republicans, because the Republican brand is irredeemably tarnished.
Against a Counter-Fusionism
That shouldn’t be taken as a call for libertarians to enact a left-fusionism with Democrats and progressives. If fusionism was a mistake, it’s a mistake we shouldn’t repeat by picking a different team. The left is decidedly un-libertarian, too, and many on the left have such a strong moral aversion to radically free markets that they’ll never get fully on board with libertarian economics. It’s wrong to downplay the threats to American liberty and prosperity coming from the Democratic Party. Genuine independence is possible. Yet we also shouldn’t let recognizing the threats to liberty on the left turn into mindless, partisan false equivalence. In the current political environment, forcing an equivalency on the two parties in terms of the immediate and dire threat they represent to the basic institutions upon which our freedoms depend is unserious and dangerous.
Ending right-wing fusionism doesn’t mean cultivating a left-wing variant. The path forward is found in abandoning partisan alliances and focusing instead on issue specific opportunities. But those opportunities, if we go looking for them, are hurt by decades of fusionism and the continuing projection of libertarianism as part of the right. The Republican Party has become so toxic to so many that libertarians who appear to have either embraced it in its current form, or are seen as uncritical fellow-travelers, risk rejection when we talk to activists and lawmakers on the left to help with criminal justice reform, anti-war activism, or other causes where one would think we might find common cause. You cannot persuade anyone of what you are saying if they think you are a threat, and so long as we lack true independence, but are instead part of an increasingly authoritarian coalition, we’ll be seen as a threat.
A Healthier Liberty Movement
Reagan’s GOP isn’t coming back. Classical liberalism’s home within the right was short-lived, and the Republican Party has reverted to the full-throated populism endemic to the American right throughout its history. The economic freedom where libertarians once aligned has been replaced by nationalist calls for autocracy and efforts to use state power to punish businesses that don’t toe the social conservative line. That’s simply what the GOP is today. A libertarian-Republican coalition doesn’t make sense anymore, if it ever did. If the GOP gets worse, and there’s every reason to believe it will, then libertarians risk being judged by history as the people who fretted about marginal tax rates while palling around with lawmakers who voted to steal a presidential election and who are actively trying to return an authoritarian, and arguably fascist, leader to power.
The path to a healthier libertarian movement is abandoning partisan alliances, and reaching out to a diverse audience, including an audience outside the right. Network beyond conservative circles and put in the effort to understand non-conservative ideas fairly. We need to be a more open audience to ideas outside our comfort zone. Not just because we might learn something, but also because putting the effort into understanding, and welcoming engagement with, the ideas of others, outside of conservative circles, makes others more likely to be willing to engage our ideas, as well.
In having those conversations, though, we need to be aware of how our messaging is coded right and how changing it can make it appealing to new audiences, without abandoning our principled commitment to radical liberty. We should take seriously the concerns of people outside of conservatism, and be ready to discuss how liberty provides answers to those concerns, instead of brushing the concerns off as ill-informed, ideologically blinkered, or “woke.”
In a country pulled in illiberal directions, with a growing number looking for ways to use the state to punish their cultural enemies, a strong commitment to liberty is crucial. The good news is, libertarianism can thrive and persuade, building a new culture of liberty across partisan divides. But it’s going to take shedding learned perspectives that, while perhaps comfortable, are counter-productive. It’s going to take abandoning the idea that libertarianism needs to “pick a side” and instead embracing robust, non-partisan, conspicuous independence.
Libertarianism can find its bright future. But the first step is admitting how dark the American right has become.