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Dear Libertarians: Stop Being Nuts

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If nothing else, Mark Hemingway's terrific reporting from the Libertarian National Convention will leave readers informed and amused. As Hemingway's largely sympathetic article for The Weekly Standard makes clear, the Libertarian party has a problem: its membership, while well meaning, is downright loony. The article is worth reading in full. Among other tidbits:

  • Activists at the party were "selling solid copper "Barter or Trade" coins with marijuana leaves imprinted on them."
  • Conference attendees included "Starchild" a well-known San Francisco "sex worker."
  • The entire convention eventually turned into a "goat rodeo"/"freak show" over arcane matters of party rules and leadership.

And this kookiness -- as Hemingway strongly implies -- is a real problem if one wants to build an effective pro-liberty movement. Personally, my own views in favor of economic deregulation, low taxes, school choice, gun rights, and gay marriage are pretty much small-l libertarian. But it's hugely unlikely I'd ever vote for anybody the current Libertarian party puts forward or, indeed, leave the Republican Party for any reason. From the self-evidently loony birther/truther conspiracy theories that seem to resonate in Libertarian and Republican-libertarian circles to the crazy-but-not-self-evidently-so plans to abolish the Federal Reserve System that have gained some mainstream credibility, libertarianism has gone off the rails in ways that transcend the harmless kookiness that Hemingway observed. It's simply not a credible governing philosophy in its current form. And this makes the conservative/libertarian "fusionism" that comprises the heart of the conservative movement inherently unstable going forward.

A brief detour into the history of the Right can explain why. Fundamentally, the modern political Right draws on a "fusionist" idea that Burkean conservatism emphasizing "habit and tradition" is best served by personal freedom, limited government, a strong defense, and free markets. This presents some obvious tensions -- say when it comes to weighing the obligation of government to protect human life with some women's desire to end pregnancies -- but these types of difficult choices are the very stuff of Democratic governance. And, more often that not, fusionism works: it seems obvious that a government that dictates personal economic choices can make it difficult (or impossible) for people to live in accord with their own values.

Problems, however, emerges when the equilibrium between the two gets upset. While some people of faith would like to see all sexually explicit material banned, for example, there's little enthusiasm for doing this in the modern Republican party because it's so obviously an affront to personal freedom. But much of what the Libertarian/libertarian movement now disdains the traditions and habits of that conservatism has supported.

Nobody alive today can distinctly remember a world without the Federal Reserve System, and essentially everyone in the workforce has always assumed that Social Security and Medicare would continue to exist in something like their current forms. Likewise, few Americans want to abandon Israel, cut and run in Afghanistan, or stop being a global force for freedom and democracy. And these are all things that conservatism, in the Burkean sense, ought to defend. Except on Medicare -- where libertarian-ish Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden have put together a plausible enough plan to rethink the system -- the libertarian portion of the Republican Party has essentially come to reject the habits and traditions of America without offering plausible alternatives.

Ryan's initial social security plan -- which would have sharply cut benefits while increasing government liabilities by having the federal government guarantee principle deposits into semi-private funds -- was entirely unworkable. Replacing the Fed with a gold standard would cause an economic contraction big enough to make the recent recession look like a walk in the park. So are increasingly popular-among-libertarians proposals to sharply slash defense spending, cut-to-nothing the trivial amount the country spends on aid to its allies, and adopt an isolationist posture towards the world. And so forth.

The bottom line is simple: Simply wishing that government would vanish is no substitute for figuring out how to run it. When government gets cut, it's best to target first the obvious absurdities -- bailouts for beach-home owners, farm subsidies, and Warren Buffett's Social Security checks (none of which, its true are the causes of current deficits) -- and be much more deliberate about fundamental reforms. Libertarians can offer practical solutions. They don't need to get in bed with the political Left. But, if they want the fusionist alliance to keep going and the political right to remain in power, libertarians are going to have to stop being nuts.