Where Are Libertarians Going?

Since 1998, Antiwar.com has been in the forefront of the battle for peace and the restoration of the Constitution: I have personally written thousands of columns commenting on this or that aspect of the struggle, and my cowriters have contributed many tens of thousands of words to that same effort. And so I’m wondering: have we had an effect on the national discourse?

I think the answer to that question is indubitably yes, although it’s hard to measure such things because so many other factors, entirely independent of us, have worked in tandem with our ongoing campaign: Ron Paul’s campaigns for the presidency, public disillusionment with the Iraq and Afghan wars, the rise of a generation less addicted to the "legacy" media, the ongoing disappointment of many progressives with the administration of Barack Obama, and last but certainly not least the Snowden revelations.

What was particularly serendipitous for us libertarians was the order in which these events took place. By 2008, when Ron announced his first bid to secure the Republican presidential nomination, two thirds of the American people thought the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting, and had never been worth fighting, although they still supported the war on the Afghan front – it would take them five more years to come to the same conclusion about that disaster.

In 2001, when the US government began its decade-long rampage across much of the Middle East and the rest of the world, the Internet was in its infancy. The "legacy" media still exercised its iron grip on public opinion, and Antiwar.com – although our readership was large and growing – was still a blip on the screen. By 2008, as the Ron Paul brigades were upending the Republican Establishment, the Internet was well on the way to displacing the Lost World of Print, our readership had skyrocketed – and the movement to rein in the American Empire was on the rise.

Yet we were still a small if vociferous minority, and the Old Media was stacked against us. It’s amazing to recall the "news" reports that excluded all mention of Ron Paul from accounts of the GOP presidential sweepstakes, and the ill-concealed contempt "news" anchors openly displayed toward the Paul campaign. However, this attempt to blank out the biggest anti-Establishment grassroots movement in many years backfired badly, and soon there was no way the mainstream media could erase the Paulians, who were emerging from the grassroots nationwide.

Ron put libertarianism on the political map: he took what had been a movement pretty much consigned to the margins and gave it a public face that many thousands of mostly young people found very attractive. In short, he gave the movement heft – and a future. Not only that, he united a movement that had been increasingly divided on a number of vital issues, and the most important aspect of this unifying effect was the popularization and generalization of his anti-interventionist foreign policy views. Up until that point, foreign policy was the outlier when it came to discussions of how to apply libertarian theory to concrete issues of the day. Ron settled the question once and for all internally. When Bush first invaded Iraq, there was actually a debate inside the libertarian movement over what stance to take: today, it is inconceivable that such a debate would even take place over, say, the invasion of Iran by the US.

That’s what I call progress.

Yes, there were some libertarians who weren’t at all happy with Ron’s rise as the libertarian lodestar, but they eventually stopped snarking (or, at least, they turned down the volume) and gave in to the inevitable.

The second Ron Paul campaign built on the great gains achieved by the first, organizing the various Paulian groups state-by-state and moving in on the Establishment apparatus that was trying desperately to rebuff them. And once again the backlash against a reified and largely irrelevant GOP leadership was big enough to deliver into our hands the leadership of several state and county party organizations in spite of the bosses’ increasingly hysterical efforts.

Looking back, we can see the three phases of growth our movement has gone through: 1) the challenge – roughly congruent with Ron’s first campaign for the GOP presidential nod, 2) the follow-up – which coincided with the second Paul campaign, doubling and consolidating our gains, and 3) the culmination – which we’re now in the midst of, and which will (hopefully!) manifest itself in an all-out assault on the citadels of power.

The Paulian movement solved the strategic conundrum of the libertarian movement by doing three things: 1) Settling the ideological issue of what a libertarian foreign policy would look like, 2) Settling the tactical issue of how to approach the problem of conquering power, and 3) Settling the question of leadership.

The adoption of a full-throated anti-interventionism was the essential ingredient in demonstrating to the public that these weren’t just "Republicans who smoke pot" – an unfortunate meme that would’ve led to the trivialization and sidelining of libertarians as a serious political force. The Paulian "entryist" strategy in the GOP permanently dethroned the third party route as the preferred tactic of libertarian activists and underscored their seriousness as contenders in the electoral arena. And the prominence of the Paul family settled the question of leadership when Rand Paul, Ron’s son, ran for an open Senate seat in Kentucky and won.

Up until this point, the media had looked to thinktanks and other intellectual spokesmen for libertarianism whenever they wanted to get the libertarian perspective on a given issue: now they were looking to elected politicians, and that gave the movement an aura of credibility previously lacking.

Thus poised to mount a serious campaign to re-libertarianize the United States, and take back our old republic, libertarians were given yet more impetus behind their efforts by Edward Snowden – not coincidentally a Ron Paul supporter.

The revelation that our government has been spying on us for many years, without any compunctions and in violation of the Constitution, has blown the lid off the "mainstream" consensus that government is our friend, that the folks in Washington are well-meaning (if not real competent), and that libertarians – with our constant warnings against overweening government power – are just paranoids. A majority of Americans now say the biggest threat to the country is a government that has gotten too big for its britches.

So, it should be easy sailing from now on – right? The third phase of the libertarian movement’s growth and maturation is going to be a cakewalk!

Not so fast.

It’s true that the objective conditions – the state and mindset of the country – have never been better, from our perspective. However, the subjective conditions – the state of our movement, both ideologically and organizationally – are far from perfect, or even adequate. Yes, the major ideological questions have been settled: for just one example, there are no more "liberventionists" with any real influence. Yet there have been some flinches, and this is connected to the question of leadership: no one leader is going to be perfect, of course, but in balancing principle and pragmatism, the Senator from Kentucky sometimes tilts toward the latter even when it hardly seems necessary.

More broadly, some ideological currents within the libertarian movement often veer dangerously close to the twin dangers of opportunism and sectarianism, with the former trying to reconcile libertarianism with whatever is popular at any given moment, and the latter retreating into an ultimatist stance that rules out taking any political action whatsoever – because politics, in the sectarian view, is inherently corrupting. The good news, however, is that both these problems – opportunism and sectarianism – are considerably less bothersome than they’ve been in the past.

The opportunists are fast learning that hiding or otherwise downplaying our libertarian views doesn’t work: people are neither fooled nor made more amenable to libertarianism when we try to present ourselves in a context that is less than forthcoming. As for the sectarians, who have always been few in number, they are even less numerous now that they can look to the example of Ron Paul and see that "radicalism" and electoral politics aren’t necessarily incompatible.

As we march into 2014, libertarians – especially those who have a special animus for America’s wars of aggression – have every reason to be optimistic, not only in the long run but also in the short term. New opportunities for coalitions – and recruitment of new libertarians – abound: we have only to take them up. Libertarians have the organizational weight and the intellectual fortitude to win – but the path to attaining liberty in our time is far from assured. The key to our continued success is remembering how we got to this favorable position in the first place: not by modifying our principles to be on the "right" side of any current controversy, but by consistently applying and boldly advancing the philosophy of liberty in the face of a political Establishment that wants us to disappear.


You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].