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Sorry, Libertarians: You Will Never Convert Liberals

You should be skeptical that libertarianism will gain any meaningful traction on the left.

In her piece at The Week, Shikha Dalmia contests my earlier skepticism about the “libertarian moment” and refers to me as “a conservative writer with libertarian leanings” – a description I protest. At worst, I’m guilty of being a libertarian with conservative leanings.

Now, I only mention this slight because I’m someone who’s supported the legalization of gay marriage, drugs, and prostitution; advocated for the privatization of about everything government runs; written in favor of  immigration and sentencing reform and so on. If I’m considered a “conservative,” how could I possibly believe that millennials who support socializing large swaths of the economy are cut out to be the libertarian foot soldiers of the future? Maybe, we need a better definition for “libertarian.” Or maybe we – if I may refer to myself as a libertarian for a moment– are engaged in self-delusion.

Mostly, though, I’m skeptical that libertarianism can gain any meaningful traction on the left. But Dalmia, like others, contend that young people will soon see the light. We’re talking about young liberals here. If they embrace libertarianism on social issues and national security issues, “you can bet” they will end up there on the economy.

Maybe the success of market-based ideas will provide the kind of unrelenting joy and freedom that compels millennials to become economic libertarians. If that’s the case, though, why hasn’t it happened before? Surely the success of Uber or Airbnb isn’t the first or best, or even the most dramatic, instance of the free market or deregulation benefitting American consumers. The liberals of my generation didn’t transform into libertarians because they went from listening to cassettes to downloading songs instantaneously from the net. Progressives have always found common ground with libertarians on social issues and national security issues, yet few have ever come around on the economic side.

Americans expect the marketplace to perform. They tend to notice capitalism when it fails. I suspect – and obviously there is no way to prove this conclusively – that widespread belief that the last recession was triggered by rampant capitalistic excess probably plays a bigger part in the political development of millennials than the triumph of a democratized cab service. In the same way, the stagnant job market of the Obama years is more likely to persuade some of those coming of age to move away from progressive economics. (And, by the way, I believe treating an entire generation of Americans as one massive group is bad idea.)

Moreover, just because a libertarian sees the nexus between same-sex marriage and deregulation or immigration reform and low taxes, it’s doubtful the average young person views the menu of issues in front of him from a similar prism of ideological consistency.

Dalmia makes the following point, for instance:

The Reason-Rupe poll found that millennials might want a strong safety net, but they want it to stay out of their soda size and trans fatty foods. They also want to be able to access such blasphemous items as incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags at grocery checkouts without nagging from the Nanny State.

Doesn’t that prove that they don’t have libertarian instincts? A while back I wrote a book about the Nanny State, a movement driven by big-city liberals but often embraced by red-state social conservatives.  Like Big Government, Nanny State initiatives are almost always unpopular in polls but popular in practice.

Let’s take Boulder, since it’s been treated as the epicenter of marijuana reform. A young city, there are a number of issues that make Boulder feel especially libertarian. It is also one of biggest nannyistic towns in the country. Cigarette smoking bans in Boulder are about the most restrictive in the nation – even though it’s reasonable to suppose more people still inhale tobacco than marijuana in Colorado. In Boulder, where I’ve spent plenty of time, the First Amendment is treated with the reverence of the Second, and coercive environmentalism is basically sacrament. In Boulder, voters don’t care about individual freedom as much as they care about issues that infuse them with moral comfort. When I look at polls of Millennial outlooks, I see Boulder.

Ekins argues that young people aren’t as socialistic as I claim and points out that when you dive deeper into Pew’s polling data you find millennials, more or less, agree with their parents — the same people who brought us 15 years of expansionist federal policy on almost every front — on regulations, taxes, market competition and profit.

Looking at the millennial cohort broadly, as I will detail below, we find millennials are similar to older cohorts across a number of economic issues, are favorable toward business and profit, and are growing increasingly concerned about government efficacy.

Is it really a libertarian position to have a favorable disposition towards business and profit? Because, to me, that just sounds like a traditional American opinion. And Ekins concedes that the acceptance of social liberalism “has not gone in lock step with hostility to free markets.” And I suppose that’s good news. But not exactly the making of a “moment.”

Some persuasive pieces have convinced me that libertarians may have tripped on an opportunity here. What irks me most about some of the “libertarian moment” talk, though, is that it rests on the notion that most target-rich group is the young progressive left. Actually, the biggest “libertarian moment” in recent history came during 2010 midterms, when voters elected a number of idealistic (if imperfect) economic libertarians who often openly identified as such. When I think “libertarian,” I think of Colorado Springs, a conservative outpost south of Denver where, though social conservatism holds the majority back from embracing issues like pot legalization, there is a strong concern for economic freedom, property rights and a skepticism about government power that is often manifested in policy.

That’s the movement that produced Rand Paul and Justin Amash. Those are the people that have to succeed to ensure the growth of libertarianism on the right. Yet, those voters don’t seem to excite the secular libertarian intellectual as much as the ones that only incidentally agree with them on a few social issues. And that seems like a big mistake.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.

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