Challenging the Myths of the Libertarian Right

The emergence of Rand Paul as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination marks an important turning point: Extreme libertarianism has entered the mainstream of American politics.

This shift has been coming for 30 years, a period of growing attacks on government as "the enemy" combined with extolling the laissez-faire idea that the free market can solve all our problems.

These attacks have not emerged out of thin air. Billions of dollars have been spent by corporations, foundations, and wealthy individuals to fund a large conservative policy and media infrastructure on the right, led by think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute.

In recent years, though, the right has moved even further to the right, as more base Republican voters have embraced libertarian ideology and deep-pocketed funders like the Koch brothers have put more resources behind promoting this extreme worldview. Meanwhile, a new generation of young libertarian politicians—including not just Rand Paul, but Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and others—has put a polish on positions that once were considered fringe.

The good news is that rising libertarianism is being met with rising pushback. The financial crisis and a prolonged economic downturn have spotlighted the dangers of deregulation and a hands-off approach to an economy that so clearly is not working for ordinary Americans.

Over the next year, Demos aims to sharpen and amplify the growing challenge to libertarianism. In concert with one of our strong supporters, Gordon Gamm, we are launching a concerted effort to critique and discredit libertarian ideas.

The Gordon Gamm Initiative (GGI) will have two components. The first is a series of reports that will look at key libertarian ideas and unpack them in ways that show how shallow and unworkable they are.  Demos won’t be able to counter every bad economic idea being promoted on the right. But we can and will take on some of the central myths of libertarianism.

The most dangerous of these myths is that the free market alone can ensure a stable and productive economic system. In a paper to be published this fall, Demos Distinguished Fellow Robert Kuttner will credit business and the market for its creative force of economic growth. But the paper will make a strong argument that excessive reliance on the market to perform economic activities not only leads to inequality; it also leads to economic inefficiency and inevitable economic crashes. Using historic and current examples, Kuttner will show how wrong the libertarian prescription is for America and why we need a proper balance between government and the market.

Demos will also critique the “market knows best” philosophy by looking at the financial sector, where libertarian ideas have been applied in ways that produced disasters like the crash of 2008, but also, every day, produces deeply distorting effects on the economy. While Wall Street is supposed to serve Main Street by mobilizing capital for productive purposes, deregulation has led to the opposite: Wall Street has been extracting wealth from the real economy to serve its own ends. This fall, Wallace Turbeville and Kuttner will publish a report showing how tighter regulation of Wall Street is a key to both stabilizing and growing the U.S. economy.   

Finally, Demos will directly counter another dangerous libertarian myth, which is that market actors can self-regulate, and be trusted to safeguard the public interest without oversight from government. Nearly every day brings evidence that contradicts this myth, with an unending stream of news stories of how corporations do harm to workers, consumers, investors, or the environment in pursuit of the bottom line.  But too often the bigger picture lesson of these abuses is not hammered home: namely, that we need active government oversight of the private sector, and we need to protect and strengthen the safeguards Americans have put in place over the years to insure the health of food and drugs, the effectiveness of safety systems in the workplace, and financial regulations that balance the interests of consumers and the public against the needs of business. 

In the coming year, Demos will publish a paper by Distinguished Senior Fellow Michael Lipsky that makes exactly that broad point. The paper will show that effective, calibrated regulation improves our health, our well-being, our safety, and our lives. Regulation also helps businesses by guiding them to compete in ways that enhance the value of their products, and clarifies the rules under which they must operate. Lipsky will contrast these outcomes to the negative consequences of deregulation.

The second component of the GGI will be an ongoing, continuing effort to spotlight the failures and myths of libertarianism, responding to new political and policy developments in the run-up to the 2014 election, where libertarian ideas and candidates are sure to figure prominently.  We will produce a weekly blog on PolicyShop that will highlight the failures of libertarianism day in and day out.

We are convinced that the Gordon Gamm Initiative at Demos will contribute significantly to public understanding of the deep flaws of libertarian, free-market fundamentalism, and will make a consistent case that there is a better way that is much more productive for our economy and our country. 

So, stay tuned, and stay connected.


Lying is not unusual for Republicans, here is an instance:
"Indeed, Speaker Boehner suggested that all of the $800 billion of additional revenue in his initial December 3 [2012] offer could be raised by limiting tax expenditures rather than by raising tax rates." -- from the CBPP paper Tax Expenditure Reform, Feb 2013. Later in the paper we learn that $1,072 is the total amount of tax expenditures. So Boehner is saying "we" can eliminate 75% of all tax expenditures. Not at all likely. I suspect this is a bald lie from his lips. Not only that but he proposes to lower the highest marginal tax rate from 39.6% to 25%, and still balance the budget (on the backs of poorer Americans receiving charitable assistance such as Medicaid and tax expenditures such as EITC, food stamps, etc.). Again, not likely. My point is that the Republicans make such outlandish proposals that they should be publicly humiliated. Democrats and others should confront Republican Senators, Congressmen and women with the absurd nature of their proposals. We need a book of basic questions to show their hypocritical stance. I hope this effort mentioned in the article will create a groundswell of informed opposition, because informed criticism is lacking. I live in a Tea Party Congressional district, the level of informed opinion is nil.

Mr. Rapaport, you can fool some people all the time, and all people some of the time, but you will not fool everyone all of the time.

You can try to argue against the philosophy of libertarianism, but if you don't even understand the philosophy to begin with, you will fail. And judging by the above article, you seem critically deceived as to what libertarianism actually is.

For starters, I would suggest you actually research what the libertarian position is on incorporation. I'll give you a hint...incorporation is firmly anti-libertarian. A reduction in state power necessarily also results in a reduction of corporate power, since they depend on each other. Ideally, corporations, products of state privilege, would not even exist in a truly free market.

I am an FDR Democrat.

Pres. Barry Obama is not.

I have the greatest respect for Dr. Kuttner.

I have no respect for a Democratic Party organization that embraces the Obama Administration's bottomless bailout of its Wall Street allies--and endless war in the Middle East.

If Democrats who know better continue to play ball with Wall Street's Obama--many disgusted progressives will be voting for Rand Paul--who is at least pro-civil liberties and anti-war.

That would be a change many could believe in.

PS--Paul's idiotic draconian budget cuts mirror Obama Administration proposals.

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A quick look at history reveals free-market capitalism without regulations or oversight leads to: monopolies (Standard Oil and Robber Barons anyone?), pollution (DDT, The Jungle, and Love Canal e.g.), suppression of workers (Labor movement circa 1910), rampant gambling on Wall Street (1929), and so on. I shake my head in wonder as today's citizens and politicians have obviously not had an American or even World History course. They seem to think our government (which is us) just does "this stuff" to be mean, and labor unions sprouted from the earth unbidden to destroy American corporations. Thoughtful analyses you describe may be valuable, but until voters get another taste of 1865-1920 free-market capitalism run amok, I seriously doubt viewpoints and voter choices will change. I've become a fatalist.

I find it extremely disturbing that this caricature of libertarianism continues with little refutation. With so much information literally at our fingertips, too many people must be either unashamedly dishonest, or have some serious reading comprehension problems.

"The emergence of Rand Paul as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination marks an important turning point: Extreme libertarianism has entered the mainstream of American politics."

The President can legally kill American citizens or imprison them forever, in secret, without any due process. This doesn't worry any liberals, but for some reason the anti-war and pro civil liberties Paul is 'extreme'.

That's besides the point - This 'article', is so outside of honest discussion it almost reads off as satire - to those that aren't consumed by partisan quackery at least.

"Meanwhile, a new generation of young libertarian politicians—including not just Rand Paul, but Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and others—has put a polish on positions that once were considered fringe."

Rand Paul? He leans heavily libertarian, that I can understand. But Paul Ryan? The man who believes in a warfare state and corporate bailouts is a libertarian? Ted Cruz also isn't a libertarian.

All it takes is an honest half hour of research online to understand what libertarianism is. There is no libertarian 'right' or 'left'. Aboslutely zero libertarian ideals were in place as policy during the 2008 crash - in fact - never in the history of mankind (except for maybe some drug legalization in Europe) for the crash to be blamed on it - additionally - it was libertarians who tried to warn everyone about what was going to happen - Peter Schiff and Ron Paul - both were laughed at.

Do you have to sacrifice your views to agree with me? No. You just have to stop being a douche bag and argue honestly - with integrity - so that we can all have coherent disagreements. Corporations do not fund the libertarian party - they fund the democrat and republican parties. Why? B/c corporations receive no special privilege in a libertarian society - no bailouts, subsidies, limited liabilities, no personhood and no monopolies.

"This shift has been coming for 30 years, a period of growing attacks on government as "the enemy" combined with extolling the laissez-faire idea that the free market can solve all our problems."

The free market cannot solve anything, only people can. Libertarians believe that government has a legitimate duty to protect property rights - and property rights include first and foremost YOUR BODY.

To call Paul Ryan a libertarian is so utterly ridiculously beyond belief it's beyond insane. There's no way someone can be this stupid - I think this is deliberate disinformation to get people to view libertarianism as some 'extreme' form of the right (utter nonsense) b/c democrats do not want a party that actually values personal liberty competing with them. The very rise and presence of libertarianism condemns all the phony hypocrites on both the left and right, and this 'piece' is just one little cog in a desperate damage control machine destined to fail.

Miles may not realize that my late mother--who headed the CCD--liked him--but perceived a lack of testicles when it came to things that did not advance his career.

Miles' career has been dead longer than my mother. There is some poetic justice there.

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