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Michael B. Keegan

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Cafeteria Libertarianism: Where the GOP Goes to Snack

Posted: 10/19/11 12:38 PM ET

You would have been forgiven for experiencing some ideological whiplash earlier this month when, after listening to two days of speeches emphasizing the profound threat that rights for gay people, legal abortion, and the freedom of religion pose to our society, the attendees of the far-right Values Voter Summit handed a resounding straw poll victory to self-proclaimed libertarian Ron Paul.

Paul's particular brand of libertarianism has taken hold in the imagination of the Tea Party, allowing its leaders and activists to claim a patriotic devotion to absolute freedom while simultaneously supporting policies that curtail the freedom of women, gay people, and religious minorities.

Who wants to be called a Right-Winger, Neocon or a Neanderthal these days? Welcome to Cafeteria Libertarianism.

"Libertarianism" has become the new code word to cover all that conservative Republican politicians love. They love to invoke a libertarian philosophy when they cut taxes for corporations and the rich, rail against health care reform, take the ax to the social safety net, deregulate Wall Street and block clean elections laws. It's about freedom, they say. Come on, let's get the government off of our backs!

The trouble is, the current GOP's newfound embrace of libertarianism is a hoax. What today's GOP practices is what I call "cafeteria libertarianism": picking some freedoms to champion and others to actively work against. It's an attempt to make the same old policies sound more palatable by twisting a much misunderstood ideology -- with a uniquely marketable name -- to help make the sale.

Take California Rep. David Dreier who is anti-choice and ironically, to say the least, anti-gay. When asked by a local news station this summer how he could appeal to Tea Party voters, Dreier responded, "I describe myself as a small-'l', libertarian-leaning Republican. I want less government and lower taxes. I believe in a free economy, limited government, a strong defense and personal freedom, that's why I'm a Republican." Dreier's supposed embrace of libertarianism came as a surprise to those of us who have been following his life and politics for years. But Dreier's not snacking alone at the Libertarian cafeteria -- "libertarianism" has become a code word for GOP politicians hoping to appeal to Tea Party voters and corporate funders without the rest of the country taking notice.

When Republican politicians call themselves libertarians they, with very few exceptions, mean they want a small government when it comes to corporate accountability and a big government when it comes to people's private lives. They don't want Congress to regulate mine safety, but they do want to penalize small businesses that offer abortion coverage for employees. They don't want to get in the way of Wall Street bankers fleecing consumers, but they'll spend endless resources throwing up any and all possible barriers to gay people who want to marry whom they love.

It's this cafeteria libertarianism, actively pushed by the corporate Right and wholeheartedly embraced by the Tea Party, that has allowed Congress and state legislatures to launch an all-out assault on corporate regulation, workers' rights, and campaign finance restrictions -- all while simultaneously conducting an energetic campaign to intervene in women's health care, throw up bureaucratic hurdles to the right to vote, harangue practitioners of religions they don't like and decide who can and cannot get married. Of course you need some powerful intellectual trickery to pull this off -- how else can you say that you're all for states' rights and at the same time support amending the Constitution to prohibit states to define marriage?

The expert at this kind of trickery is libertarian poster boy and perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul, who enjoys an admiring following in the Tea Party movement and among some liberals who like some of the items that Paul has selected from the libertarian menu. Paul, despite his reputation as a hard-line maverick, picks and chooses the liberties he supports just as much as the rest of the GOP: sure, he famously defied his party to oppose the PATRIOT Act and the War on Drugs, but he also called Roe v. Wade a "big mistake" and supports the federal "Defense of Marriage Act." And he's far from alone: the oxymoronic anti-choice, anti-gay libertarians are now legion.

Paul has also ably demonstrated why the GOP's actual libertarian beliefs are misguided at best and dangerous at worst: when Hurricane Irene hit the east coast this summer, taking dozens of lives and causing billions of dollars in damage, Paul reacted by calling for the end of FEMA and saying disasters should be dealt with "like 1900." 1900, of course, was the year of the infamous Galveston hurricane, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. And at a Republican debate this summer, Paul was met with cheers from the crowd when he said that an uninsured man suffering a life threatening illness is an example of "what freedom is all about." This is the new standard of freedom?

True liberty is the freedom to live our lives the fullest, care for our families in comfort and make our own decisions about life's fundamental personal issues. That's something we can't do if our government isn't there to ensure public safety, a healthy environment and a basic safety net when things go wrong... or if our government is dedicated to meddling in our personal lives.

Let's all agree that we love liberty. But the pick-and-choose liberty and libertarianism that Tea Party Republicans espouse is not only intellectually dishonest, it's monumentally bad for America.

 

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