The Trouble With Ideology

One thing people often say about libertarians is, "Well, there are some things I disagree with them about, but I admire their consistency." Supposedly, libertarians have a pure philosophy, and they're willing to take unpopular stands in the service of it. That stands in contrast to, say, conservatives who talk a lot about "getting government off our backs" but also think the government ought to do things like control what women do with their wombs.

Today, the country's most prominent libertarian is Rand Paul, the Republican Party's nominee for a Senate seat in Kentucky. You'll recall that Paul's debut on the national stage came when he couldn't bring himself to endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964, since it violated the individual freedom of Jim Crow-era restaurant owners who wanted to serve only white people. As Talking Points Memo tells us today, Paul and his Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, are battling over drugs. Paul apparently believes that the federal government ought to cut back on some drug enforcement activities and leave most of it to the states. But he's quick to say that he opposes legalization of marijuana, even for medicinal purposes.

Drug legalization is about as perfect a test of one's belief in a consistent libertarian philosophy as you could come up with. The question is whether the government should be able to tell you what decision to make about what to put in your own body, because the government has decided (rightly or wrongly) that it's bad for you. It's hard to say you're a libertarian and not support legalization.

But of course, if you're running for office, you've got to deal with the fact that legalization isn't overwhelmingly popular, depending on where you are. So you have a conflict: The philosophy you espouse comes with a political risk. And we know what tends to happen then. Which is why Rand Paul is once again twisting himself into a pretzel trying to make sure everyone knows how much he hates drugs. We should note that Rand Paul's father Ron, at whose knee he learned the libertarian philosophy, supports legalizing drugs. But then again, Ron Paul represents one congressional district in Texas, where he doesn't have to worry much about getting re-elected, while Rand is trying to win votes in an entire state.

What all this tells us is that libertarians are going to continue to have their hopes dashed by Republicans who can't resist the siren song of government, and for whom philosophical consistency is less important than political expediency. And the libertarians know it. Brink Lindsey of the libertarian magazine Reason magazine writes in their latest issue that the contemporary right "is capable of checking at least some of the left's excesses, and thank goodness for that. But a clear-eyed look at conservatism as a whole reveals a political movement with no realistic potential for advancing individual freedom. The contemporary right is so deeply under the sway of its most illiberal impulses that they now define what it means to be a conservative." Lindsey goes on to condemn Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the other avatars of today's right, saying, "The spirit of freedom is cosmopolitan. It is committed to secularism in political discourse, whatever religious views people might hold privately. And it coolly upholds reason against the swirl of interests and passions." Which is about as far as you can get from today's conservative movement, inside or outside the GOP.

-- Paul Waldman

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