Momentary lapse in judgment

The world is a lot freer and better off than it was 40 years ago. And we may be even freer and richer 40 years from today. But we are manifestly not experiencing any kind of “Libertarian Moment,” as Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch wishfully and lamely argue in the 40th anniversary issue of Reason magazine.

Now, these fellows are not idiots. They read the news. Even when they wrote this thing up before the election, it was clear the way things were headed. Obama and the Democrats were going to win by demonizing the fictional deregulatory bugaboo of the Bush administration even as Hank Paulson & Co. shoveled hundreds of billions toward Wall Street. Jeepers. Sure doesn’t seem like a libertarian moment, does it? The article very well could have been titled “The Libertarian Moment (Except for the Libertarian Part).”

So Gillespie and Welch came up with a clever way around the reality of the moment: Politics doesn’t matter. Specifically, politics is “always a crippled, lagging indicator of social change.” You see, thanks to technological innovation and ever-rising wealth, individuals are (and will only grow increasingly) more in control of their own lives and destinies than ever before. True, perhaps.

But, you know, whatever you might say about conservatives and liberals they don’t usually say they oppose wealth and innovation. True, they have different ideas about how to achieve those ends, but that is why politics matters. Libertarians need to persuade policymakers (and to some extent, the public) about why their distinctive proposals are the best way to encourage economic growth, innovation and social harmony.

Further, the priority that libertarians place on — oh, just to name one thing — liberty is one that the vast majority of people simply do not share, at least to the same radical degree or level of consistency. Gillespie and Welch know all that. They spend every working day chronicling the idiocy of politicians and the manifest number of ways in which the values libertarians care about are treated like dog shit, not to put too fine a point on it. They even discuss the sad state of affairs succinctly in the article.

So to get around the facts of the matter, they made this bogus cultural argument that is so loaded with caveats and weasel words that it amounts to nothing, really. Some of it is profoundly moronic. Just one example:

… social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook do not structure interaction as much as provide a not-so-temporary autonomous zone to facilitate it. Individual users tailor the experience to their own desires rather than submit to a central authority. The inhabitants of such a world are instinctively soft libertarians, resisting or flouting most nanny-state interference, at least on issues that affect their favorite activities.

Huh? Do you know what a “soft libertarian” is? Yeah, me neither. How can you be instinctively soft about something? I’ve got an instinct to eat and drink regularly to, you know, survive. But I’m pretty hard core about it. I’m not just nitpicking here. These young, Web-native social networkers were the very ones who supposedly helped win the election for Barack Obama — who is a liberal Democrat, which last I checked was distinct from libertarian. But who knows? Perhaps he is one of those soft (flaccid?) libertarians I keep reading about.

Indeed, two-thirds of voters 18-29 went for Obama. This is the guy now pushing for a $500 billion stimulus package courtesy of the Next Century’s Taxpayers Are Good For It Piggy Bank, who OKd warrantless wiretapping and whose first instinct was to name a torture backer to run the CIA.

It is obviously true that people enjoy wealth, and want to have a say in their own lives. In that very superficial sense, there are lot of soft libertarians out there. But the through line between those near universal desires and the understanding of the political elements that best bring those things about is nonexistent or exists in only the most haphazard sense.

It is that gap — the fact that the vast majority of the public and nearly all politicians  either do not buy the libertarian arguments or disagree with libertarian values (at least when rigidly defined) — that is a recipe for something far from the libertarian moment. Indeed, it does not take much imagination to see how we may be at a critical turning point where impending decisions could make the world a lot poorer and less free when the time comes for Gillespie and Welch’s successors to assess the moment in 2048.

Reason is a fine publication, and I get that they wanted a positive hook to hang their 40th anniversary on. But that is no excuse for libertarian triumphalist baloney. The real story is that all that wealth and technology — the yield of the still sheltered sphere of liberty — is under threat now, and is constantly under threat. It’s not a happy story, though. It never is. But it needs to be told, most of all to ourselves.

(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)