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April 25, 2014 12:07 PM Big Tent Libertarianism

By Ed Kilgore

The New York Times’ Nick Confessore has a fascinating piece today about Rand Paul’s efforts to build a fundraising base among wealthy donors with more-or-less libertarian views. Some of his targets appear to have been part of his father’s donor community—largely dominated by low-dollar givers—but others save much of their money for more conventional libertarianish networks like the Koch Brothers’ empire.

The article indirectly explores the murky issue of what qualifies as libertarianism these days, which in turn is central to all the terminological issues surrounding the triumphant if sometimes conflicted conservative movement. If, as is reasonably asserted more often than not, “limited government” is the glue that holds The Movement and its subsidiary the GOP together, do those for whom Limited Government is a virtual religion have a special place? Or are their differences with other conservatives over, say, drug legalization or foreign policy too large to be absorbed?

It’s probably helpful to realize that those who share a radical Limited Government ideology often do so with very different visions of the country in mind. Yes, some of them have dogged-eared copies of Atlas Shrugged on the nightstand, and imagine America as a vast Galt’s Gulch where the creative genius of capitalism is given full play. They could not much care less whether said genuises or the nameless time-serving proles who work for them smoke dope or abort fetuses. But others with a libertarian’s hostility to federal power do so in the hopes of reestablishing state sovereignty, embued with a vision of a Righteous Kingdom rooted in the hardy folk virtues of the South and West. And still others pray for a theocracy, formal or informal, made possible once the Secular Socialists of Washington are removed from the scene. And all sorts of people with less highly developed ideological viewpoints reflexively support any and all efforts to reduce or remove the federal government as a counterweight to their own personal economic power.

The first group of Limited Government radicals may be the only ones who self-identify as libertarians, or who have voted for the party of that name, or who were paid-up members of the Ron Paul Revolution. But it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could join hands in a presidential campaign focused on pushing the GOP out of its ancient habits of compromise and tactical acceptance of Big Government—the “Dime Store New Deal” scorned by Barry Goldwater—once and for all. The big question, however, is whether donors and voters sympathetic to Rand Paul’s basic attitude towards the federal government are put off by his highly logical but still alien opposition to the kind of Big Government Foreign Policy that Goldwater championed. After all, Paul’s presidential competitors will offer a lot of federal-government-bashing and tax relief and budget-cutting and deregulation and maybe even milder sanctions on dope-smoking—without the painful doctrine that American Exceptionalism cannot be imposed globally by force of arms.

So for some of the people Confessore is writing about, the choice may be between the sort of Big Tent Libertarianism Rand Paul offers, and a libertarian-inflected conservatism that eschews ideological rigor for the simple instincts associated with economic privilege and resentment of government-assisted “losers.” It will be interesting to see how they vote with their dollars.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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