The New York Times on Rand Paul’s Libertarianism

January 26th, 2014

If you are interested in the state of libertarianism in American politics, please take the time to read the Times A1-above-the-fold profile of Senator Rand Paul. There is a lot to digest, but in my mind, the takeaway is that libertarianism is no longer off the wall.

As Rand Paul test-markets a presidential candidacy and tries to broaden his appeal, he is also trying to take libertarianism, an ideology long on the fringes of American politics, into the mainstream. Midway through his freshman term, he has become a prominent voice in Washington’s biggest debates — on government surveillance, spending and Middle East policy.

I think this reverses the causation and the correlation. Rand Paul isn’t bringing libertarianism into the mainstream. Libertarianism has become the mainstream due to statist policies of both major parties. Rand Paul, if nothing else, is the torch bearer of this shift. The phrase “libertarian-minded Republican” is now acceptable.

Though the profile calls Lysander Spooner an “anarchist,” faults the works of the Von Mises Society, and highlights some of the outlandish statements of Murray Rothbard, on the whole it is pretty fair. That the Times is even mentioning these topics makes it mainstream, and on-the-wall.

Mr. Paul’s marathon filibuster in March instantly transformed him into a leader of a party seeking a fresh message, even as he found unlikely fans in the American Civil Liberties Union and Jon Stewart.

But tucked into Mr. Paul’s lengthy monologue — its 76,000 words would fill a 300-page manuscript — was another narrative, told in a sprinkling of obscure references. He cited the Posse Comitatus Law of 1878, which restricted the federal government’s use of the military to enforce laws in this country and is seen by libertarians as a vital barrier to totalitarianism; Lochner v. New York, a 1905 Supreme Court decision that struck down Progressive-era workplace regulations; and the theories of Lysander Spooner, a Massachusetts abolitionist who turned against the North in the Civil War, which he deplored as unjust aggression against the Confederacy.

These arcana drew little notice — except among dedicated libertarians, who took them as evidence of Mr. Paul’s solid mooring in a subset of ideological axioms. The Spooner reference, in particular, excited those attuned “to the dog whistles of anarchism,” said Brian Doherty, a libertarian writer. “In my particular community, that was a big, big day.”

A search of the Times’ archives for “Lysander Spooner” from 1851 shows only 6 hits, and only two in the 20th century! I’ll take it.

Onward and upward.