Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Libertarianism has seen better days.
A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of America's center-right belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential election, however, protectionism surged -- not only in the GOP, but among Democratic ranks as well. Now, amid the age of Donald Trump, libertarianism's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory.
"I fear that the classical liberal/libertarian idea and ideal will be seriously tarnished by the policies and politics of the Trump Administration," Dr. Richard Ebeling, one of our time's greatest Austrian School thinkers, recently told me.
He continued: "Virtually all of Trump’s proposed policies involve a continuation or an intensification of government involvement in social and economic life. He acts as the all-knowing government central planner when he calls in business executives and tells them where to invest and what products they should make to 'create jobs.' He undermines respect for and protection of essential civil liberties when he ridicules the freedom of the press and their way of reporting on his administration’s actions and his words."
Ebeling went on to state his worry "that with the assistance of the mainstream media the Trump Administration’s anti-freedom policies will tarnish the real case for a free society and a free market. That is, people who want lower taxes and fewer regulations on business will be identified as the people who also believe in torture, discrimination against immigrants, violations of civil liberties, and the instigation of trade wars because of aggressive nationalist attitudes."
While libertarianism is easy enough to discuss in a superficial, explicitly political context, what does it mean in a deeper, philosophical sense? Of course, such a question necessarily delves into the realm of politics, but at the same time, there are finer aspects of libertarianism that defy any neat category political science has on offer.
Fortunately, Dr. Jason Kuznicki is here to help us figure all this out.
"Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute’s online journal of debate," the Doctor's Cato biography reads. "His ongoing interests include censorship, church-state issues, and civil rights in the context of libertarian political theory. He was an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism and the author of Technology and the End of Authority: What is Government For? (Palgrave, 2017). Kuznicki earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize."
Kuznicki recently spoke with me about the ins and outs of libertarian thought. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: Are the bleeding heart and natural rights schools of libertarianism, at a fundamental level, compatible?
Dr. Jason Kuznicki: I dare to hope that they are, but a lot depends on what’s meant by the natural rights school. If you mean a strict propertarian approach, then probably not. But if you mean an approach to rights that take rights to be the necessary conditions for voluntary social cooperation, then possibly yes.
Cotto: During the years to come, which variant of libertarianism do you see gaining popularity in the United States?
Kuznicki: We are in a strange time right now politically, with the Republican Party having lately undergone a realignment that is still sorting itself out. It seems clear that ideologically the Republicans are further from classical liberalism or libertarianism than they have been in a long time, perhaps since the New Deal or before. Although Republicans do still favor deregulation – as do I – they are quite hostile to libertarian goals in other areas; worryingly, the promised suspicion of foreign military interventions seems to have evaporated shortly after Trump took office. The administration is now escalating the war in Afghanistan and has sent 1,000 combat troops to Syria as well. I strongly disapprove.
The news from day to day seems to generate, whether rightfully or not, an environment of perpetual crisis. In times like these, I do not believe that many are apt to choose unfamiliar new ideologies. It strikes me as wildly improbable, then, that a deontological, Rothbardian libertarianism is going to deliver us here.
But what might succeed politically is a defense of our core classical liberal values, including free trade, the free movement of people, and the free flow of ideas. These are not radical or new ideas; they are old and tested, and they work. Classical liberalism is not really a new ideology or a special subtype of libertarianism; it is almost the assumed background to almost any other project that an American might happen to think up. It is a deep part of the American political culture, and it is also my hope for the future.