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What’s not to like about Libertarianism?

BRIAN DOHERTY is a senior editor at Reason magazine and the author of "Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement."

LIBERTARIANISM may seem hopelessly marginalized in American politics. The national record of the Libertarian Party since 1972 -- the first year it fielded candidates -- isn’t too bright. Ed Clark, the party’s presidential candidate in 1980, received 921,000 votes, the highest ever, but Michael Badnarik, the 2004 nominee, garnered merely 397,000.

Americans continue to be suspicious of radical third-party alternatives -- if they are lucky enough to be aware of them -- thanks largely to media that foster a feedback loop of “they can’t win, so why cover them?” However, including about 600 candidates on every level -- local, state and federal -- the Libertarian Party attracted more than 13 million votes in 2006.

But counting votes for third parties isn’t the best way to judge the growth and prospects of libertarianism in the United States. Libertarian ideas should never be counted out in this country because they are at the heart of its founding.

The central insight of libertarianism is in the Declaration of Independence. We have the right to life, liberty and the ability to pursue happiness (though no guarantee of achieving it). Government’s only purpose is to help protect those rights -- and if it fails, we have the right to alter or abolish it.

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But from the declaration on, in some libertarians’ telling, it has been downhill for liberty in this country. Certainly libertarian sensibilities were offended by the expansion of government’s ability to tax, manage and regulate the economy and our private lives in the 20th century, and by the projection of U.S. military might overseas for reasons other than direct defense of the American people.

In the immediate aftermath of the New Deal, the modern American libertarian movement first began to coalesce in the works of such feisty American female novelists and philosophers as Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane and Ayn Rand, and in the insights of Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek.

But the libertarian movement began as a reaction to how alien the ideas of unbridled individual and market liberty had become. When former Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce chief Leonard Read launched the first libertarian think tank, the Foundation for Economic Education, in 1946, his ideas about limited government and free markets were so marginal in the United States as to seem almost seditious.

Lane was investigated by the FBI in the early postwar years for daring to write on a postcard that Social Security was the sort of socialistic government management of people’s lives we fought wars against. True Social Security, she insisted, was canned vegetables and slaughtered pigs in your cellar. She and Paterson refused to accept anything from the Social Security system.

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In 1950, the Buchanan Committee, a House panel investigating lobbying efforts, found Read and his foundation positively un-American because they opposed price controls, public housing, the draft and loyalty oaths. The committee subpoenaed records, called Read to testify and ordered some of his supporters to report on which organizations they backed. One foundation funder, Southern California Edison Vice President William Mullendore, denied Congress’ right to make such a “harassing and burdensome inquiry” into his attempts to influence his government. Mullendore got away with his defiance -- but today’s campaign finance laws allow such governmental intrusion.

When, in 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used libertarian ideas to decry the excessive growth of government, he was defeated by what was at the time the largest margin of votes in U.S. history. He also was condemned as “psychologically unfit” by more than 1,000 psychiatrists (who never met him) for his belief that the managerial-welfare state in the United States had strayed too far from the country’s roots.

Libertarian ideas had a tumultuous period of expansion in the years after Goldwater. Rand became a campus favorite, selling novels of uncompromising libertarianism to tens of millions. A Harvard philosophy professor, Robert Nozick, won a National Book Award for his 1974 book, “Anarchy, State and Utopia,” which rigorously maintained that if we have rights, then most of the functions of the modern state, including redistributing wealth and outlawing certain drugs, are philosophically illegitimate.

Also in 1974, Hayek won the Nobel Prize for economics. Hayek is best known for his 1944 book, “The Road to Serfdom,” which demonstrated to those who believed in a benign socialism that government economic control tends inexorably toward political tyranny. Two years later, Milton Friedman, a man as well known for his libertarian polemics as for his economic contributions, also won the Nobel Prize for economics. Libertarian ideas were moving toward the mainstream.

And then Ronald Reagan, who declared that “the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism,” won the presidency. Libertarians never believed that Reagan fully lived up to his small-government promise. But his libertarian ideas were a key part of the GOP’s electoral appeal.

Over the decades, both major parties have successfully run on libertarian fumes: see Reagan’s talk of tax cutting and entitlement reform; control over inflation since the 1980s, largely thanks to Friedman’s monetarist ideas (Friedman also persuaded President Nixon to end the draft in 1973), and President Clinton’s overhaul of the federal welfare system, which echoed the beliefs and data in libertarian Charles Murray’s 1984 book, “Losing Ground.” One of the biggest policy debates of the Bush presidency has been about privatizing Social Security, an idea in the works at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, since the 1980s. Introducing market incentives and competition into government services -- ideas that originated at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles -- are increasingly popular with local and state governments looking to cut costs and improve services.

A full libertarian victory is certainly unlikely, as a cursory survey of the leading presidential candidates going into 2008 shows. But libertarians can take heart in Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with military intervention overseas, with the prospect of an entitlement state in which recipients far outnumber taxpayers and with government manipulations and intrusions in education, immigration, abortion and stem cell research. In such a political context, libertarian wisdom about keeping government out of our lives as much as possible looks more and more promising.


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