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August 12, 2014 9:43 AM Selective Libertarianism

By Ed Kilgore

As you can imagine, David Frum is not real jazzed about the idea that America is experiencing what Robert Draper called “the libertarian moment.” But constructive GOP scold that he is, he does think the Republican Party is going through such a moment, and it baffles him that it isn’t even doing so in a political viable way:

Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans’ post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction.
Nor is it the strength and truth of libertarian ideas that explains their current vogue within the Republican Party. Libertarians have been most influential inside the GOP precisely where they have been—and continue to be—most blatantly wrong, such as when they predicted that the cheap money policies of the Federal Reserve would incite hyperinflation or that the United States teetered on the precipice of a debt crisis.

Frum casts about for explanations of the libertarian trend in the GOP without really settling on a theory. Maybe some of it’s attributable to post-Iraq-War isolationism, he suspects. Maybe there’s a sort of “despair” at work among those weary of fighting Big Government.

I personally think he gets closer to real insight with this comment:

Like all political movements, libertarianism binds together many divergent strands. It synthesizes the classical liberalism of the 1860s with the human-potential movement of the 1960s. It joins elegant economic theory to the primitive insistence that only metal can be money. It mingles nostalgia for the vanished American frontier with fantasies drawn from science fiction. It offers three cheers both for thrift, sobriety, and bourgeois self-control and three more for sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. It invokes the highest ideals of American constitutionalism—and is itself invoked by the most radical critics of the American state and nation, from neo-Confederates to 9/11 Truthers.

In other words, what he’s been calling “libertarianism”—in itself nothing if not a coherent set of views, maintained right up to and beyond the gates of delirum—is really a set of of impulses that uneasily coexist. They are only selectively “libertarian” in any real sense, and the selectivity helps explain why the least popular themes are sometimes the most prominent. And one very large and perhaps the largest impulse is coming from the direction one might least expect: the Christian Right.

It’s a particular breed of Christian nationalists that have found common ground with other limited-government extremists and given them the special verve associated with people who believe the U.S. Constitution is as divinely inspired a document as the Holy Bible, and that the United States (understood as the only nation free by birthright from European secular statism and the various false religions of the Third World) is a Redeemer Nation so long as it hews to its original governing model.

It’s interesting to me that someone as smart as Frum and as willing as he is to criticize his own party seems to be missing this element of the problem he is addressing. All you have to do is look at the people Paul and other Republican “libertarians” (themselves usually culture-war conservatives, in an “aberration” no one quite seems able to explain) seem most comfortable working with, and more often that not it’s hard-core Christian Warriors like Ted Cruz. They even have a name for their common creed, which is “constititutional conservatism.” And I continue to think looking at that creed is more illuminating than viewing the “libertarian moment” inside the GOP as a sudden rise in the popularity and relevance of the Cato Institute.

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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