By Alan Wolfe

What do libertarians and Stalin have in common? Plenty

Posted on June 22, 2015

WHATEVER else happens, 2016 offers one of the most interesting US presidential elections in decades. It already includes a libertarian from Kentucky, Senator Rand Paul, and a socialist from Vermont, Senator Bernie Sanders. Americans, polling has shown, dislike socialism. Let Paul have any success, and they may like libertarianism even less.

Libertarianism is not merely an economic doctrine or a political worldview. It proposed, as Ayn Rand realized, a secular substitute for religion, complete with its own conception of the city of God, a utopia of pure laissez-faire and the city of man, a place where envy and short-sightedness hinder creative geniuses from carrying out their visions.
For many American voters, libertarianism now has a certain freshness because it seems to cross the otherwise impregnable line between Right and Left. Sharply reducing the role of government in American life, libertarianism’s primary objective, appeals to conservatives because it offers an end to Obamacare, Social Security and other programs that transfer public money to the less well-off. Yet it also attracts liberal voters who ardently oppose invasions of privacy and bloated defense spending.

Paul’s appeal doesn’t stop there, however. He understands that the GOP base is getting older and whiter -- which bodes badly for the party’s future. He is reaching out to minorities. By attacking his party’s attempts to restrict the vote, Paul could attract many African-American and Latino voters. He has also appealed to younger voters by calling for less restrictive drug laws, for example, and speaking at college campuses, where older Republicans have been loathe to appear. Paul is, in many ways, the Republican Barack Obama.

But do not be fooled. Libertarianism has a complicated history, and it is by and large a sordid one. Its most popular 20th-century theorist, the novelist Ayn Rand, for all her talk of freedom, was an authoritarian at heart. She was intolerant of dissent and conspiratorial to a fault. Libertarians elected to public office on the basis of her ideas, including former Republican Representative Ron Paul, Rand Paul’s father, have adhered to such radical positions as abolishing the Federal Reserve.

Rand Paul has somehow moderated the crankier side of the movement that has shaped his career. Though isolationism is built into libertarianism, Paul has strongly defended Israel’s actions in the Middle East, which appeals to Republican neo-conservatives. At the other end of the political spectrum, he drew in both libertarians and the left with his 10-hour filibuster protesting the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance of Americans.

Politicians often change positions based on what voters and donors demand. But Paul’s efforts to appeal to different audiences represent something more than political pandering. Libertarianism is not like other sets of ideas, and Paul’s maneuvering is not quite business as usual.

For libertarianism is among the most rigid of modern ideologies. The theorists who formulated its core principles were seekers after political purity. They created an ideal world designed to work perfectly -- but only if human beings acted consistently. Society, to them, was like a Swiss watch: Let every part play its designed role, and the whole thing would run on its own accord.

Libertarianism in that sense is not merely an economic doctrine or a political worldview. It proposed, as Ayn Rand realized, a secular substitute for religion, complete with its own conception of the city of God, a utopia of pure laissez-faire and the city of man, a place where envy and short-sightedness hinder creative geniuses from carrying out their visions. If there was anything its founders hated more than governmental authority, it was religious authority.

Such a religious-like ideal requires careful scrutiny to ensure that no one breaks the rules or, in religious terms, commits a sin. Individuals are free to act in their self-interest -- indeed, are required to -- but if they grow lazy or are swayed by emotions or altruism, society’s best achievements will come crashing down around them.

Libertarianism, in short, resonates with an avid quest for political purity. The ideas of both conservatives and liberals are flexible enough to give way, at least on occasion. Obama, for example, regularly advocates compromise in principle, and conservatives, who do not, nonetheless fight frequently with each other. Those associated with libertarianism have no such room to maneuver; those who disagree are treated like apostates.

Yet if libertarianism is principled, it is also an impracticable set of ideas. Republicans who want to increase the defense budget can, and do, get results. Democrats who sought national health insurance finally realized their objective after decades of trying. But how, exactly, does one get government “interference” out of business when business wants it there most of the time? Is a libertarian foreign policy even imaginable, let alone workable? Truly principled libertarians believe that government should refrain from telling women what to do with their bodies, but should there be no regulation of medical procedures?

Libertarianism seems to be a philosophy designed not for governance but for opposition. It is loud and powerful when saying “no,” but often impotent and speechless when required to say “yes.”

Match the idealism of libertarianism with its impracticality, and it is no wonder that Paul’s campaign may wander from one extreme to another.

Paul, for one thing, has a major problem with his friends. Pure libertarians, like those devoted to his father, watch his every move, suspicious that he will sacrifice their zeal in favor of wider appeal. To keep them pleased, Paul must from time to time speak directly to their fears. His effort to hold up a Senate vote on extending the National Security Agency’s authority to collect Americans’ telephone records served that need well. Taking a page from Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Paul knows the symbolic value of seeming to stand alone to stand for his people.

The effect, by early accounts, was electric. Paul was fulfilling his destiny as the successor to his dad. The trouble is that not all votes are symbolic and, for that reason, easy to cast. Let there be a vote on something substantive, especially where budget deficits are involved, and Paul is likely to disappoint true believers.

Paul has an even greater problem with his enemies. It is not that difficult to be a Republican member of Congress from a conservative district in Texas and be a faithful libertarian. Ron Paul proved that. It is harder to be a libertarian as a senator representing an entire state -- even a conservative one like Kentucky. Yet Rand Paul has managed to pull that off. But to have a chance for the presidency and remain faithful to libertarian principles is a far more difficult -- if not impossible -- task.

It is here where the impracticality of libertarian ideas will torment the Paul campaign. For Paul to stand with Israel is to issue a direct slap to the isolationism of his father’s passionate supporters. Nor is pandering to the neo-con hawks likely to satisfy. Strong support for Israel exists in both parties, and no matter how hard Paul expresses his solidarity with that country, he can never hope to compete with a national-security consensus that he has so often challenged.

Paul’s problems at the national level are exacerbated because however inspiring libertarian principles may be to the truly committed, they are elitist at their core. The more 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his vice-presidential choice, Representative Paul Ryan, sounded like Ayn Rand’s hero John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, the more unpopular they became. Contempt can get you attention, but it is unlikely to attract votes. Presented with a libertarian nominated by a major party, voters are likely to find him scary if true to his convictions and weak if he is not.

So crowded is the race for the Republican nomination that Paul might possibly get it. The fact that all the other primary candidates will most likely attack him throughout the debates, could possibly attract sympathy voters. But even if he were to somehow pull that off, he would, as a presidential nominee, have to be a traitor either to his father or to his party, the one caring only to make a point, the other desiring nothing less than winning.

Other ideologies bend but rarely break. A libertarian nominated by a major party is more likely to break than bend. The good news is that if Paul were to win the Republican nomination, libertarianism’s unfitness for the modern world would be revealed for all to see. The bad news is that the poison of its extremism would enter into the body politic, perhaps never to be fully ejected.

Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science at Boston College and also director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life.