This essay is going to lead into a joke about libertarian moments. But before I can deliver the punchline (and syllogism), we must first wade through the history of the libertarian moment. What is the moment? Are we in the moment? Was there ever a moment? Let us find out together.
Messrs. Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch published an essay titled The Libertarian Moment for the December 2008 issue of Reason Magazine. What, precisely, constitutes the libertarian moment? The authors explained:
We are in fact living at the cusp of what should be called the Libertarian Moment, the dawning not of some fabled, clichéd, and loosey-goosey Age of Aquarius but a time of increasingly hyper-individualized, hyper-expanded choice over every aspect of our lives, from 401(k)s to hot and cold running coffee drinks, from life-saving pharmaceuticals to online dating services. This is now a world where it’s more possible than ever to live your life on your own terms; it’s an early rough draft version of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s glimmering ‘utopia of utopias.’ Due to exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture, and the decline of both state and private institutions of repression, never before has it been easier for more individuals to chart their own course and steer their lives by the stars as they see the sky. If you don’t believe it, ask your gay friends, or simply look who’s running for the White House in 2008.
The 2008 Libertarian Moment article was written in the aftermath of then-Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s spirited, albeit unsuccessful, run for the Republican nomination for president (Mr. Paul finished fourth in the delegate account behind the nominee, then-Arizona Senator John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney respectively). Messrs. Gillespie and Welch took a broader view than the Paul campaign, but readers should keep the Paul campaign in mind.
Did the promised libertarian moment come to pass? Subsequent commentary leaves one uncertain. In 2013, The Atlantic posted an interview with Mr. David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the libertarian Cato Institute, titled America’s Libertarian Moment. The first question the interviewer, Ms. Molly Ball, posted to Mr. Boaz was:
Is there a libertarian moment happening in America?
Mr. Boaz responded with some optimism from the libertarian perspective, but the fact that this was the first question suggests that not everyone was in accord that the promised libertarian moment had arrived.
The 2013 piece came in the wake of another spirited (and again) unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination by former Congressman Paul, who on that occasion finished third in the delegate count behind nominee Mitt Romney and runner-up Rick Santorum. Mr. Paul’s son, Rand Paul, was elected to the U.S. Senate representing Kentucky. While the question of who is a libertarian is often contested, the Senator Paul is generally considered to have libertarian tendencies. As Mr. Boaz note in the interview, Mr. Rand Paul “calls himself a libertarian Republican, small L-capital R.” I note this not to render an opinion on whether Mr. Rand Paul is a libertarian and, if so, to what extent he is one, but instead to provide context for the upcoming deluge of libertarian moment articles.
In 2014, The New York Times Magazine got into the act, publishing an article by Mr. Robert Draper titled Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived? (If you have to ask…) Mr. Draper wrote:
But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.
For the first time? Someone apparently does not agree with Messrs. Gillespie and Welch from 2008!
By August 2015, Mr. Rand Paul was officially a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. One would think that things would be looking up for the libertarian moment, but we return to Mr. Boaz who published an article titled Is the Libertarian Moment Over? (Did we ever agree that it began?) Lest one call out Mr. Boaz for giving up too quickly, he was in fact responding to an Washington Post op-ed by Mr. David Weigel, who noted that the presidential campaign of Mr. Paul was not gaining traction (it never would). Mr. Boaz cited to the co-founder of the libertarian moment, Mr. Gillespie, to shoot down the suggestion that the moment was tied to Mr. Paul’s political fortunes:
Nick Gillespie of Reason correctly tells Weigel that ideological movements and moments aren’t tied to any one political leader: ‘It’s a mistake to conflate Rand Paul’s electoral success with that of the libertarian moment.’
The libertarian moment still lived (maybe).
In March 2016, long after the demise of Mr. Paul’s campaign, Reason, which had brought the term libertarian moment to the fore in 2008, published a most incisive article on the libertarian moment titled A Short History of Libertarian Moments. The author, Mr. Jesse Walker, delivered the sharpest analysis that I will quote in this article:
That phrase has been bumping around ever since Matt wrote a Reason feature with Nick Gillespie called ‘The Libertarian Moment’ back in 2008. The term got more exposure after Robert Draper published a piece in The New York Times two years ago called “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?’
(This is a long way of saying that the libertarian moment transmogrified from a 2008 essay title into a meme.)
By May 2016, we knew that the major party nominees for president were Mr. Donald Trump for the Republicans and Ms. Hillary Clinton for the Democrats. Notwithstanding the fact that the original 2008 libertarian moment article suggested that the victory of then-President of the United States-elect Barack Obama was in some ways part of the libertarian moment, few libertarian moment proponents saw the prospect of Mr. Obama’s preferred successor, Ms. Clinton, facing off against Mr. Trump (who was endorsed by Mr. Rand Paul, but not by Ron Paul, who declined to endorse any of the candidates) as the harbinger of a greater libertarian moment. Perish the libertarian moment? Nay! Perish the thought! Perceived widespread dissatisfaction with the perceived dearth of libertarian virtues in the two major party candidates meant that the libertarian moment would come in the form Libertarian (capital L) Party’s nominee for president, or so promised Mr. William Irwin in a blog post titled The Libertarian Moment Is Now:
What is bad news for some Libertarians, is good news for some disaffected Democrats and Republicans: [Gary] Johnson is moderate in his views. What’s more, in a culture that craves choices and options, a culture in which we can order our coffee in 87,000 different ways at Starbucks, shouldn’t we have more than two choices for president? Shouldn’t we be able to combine the elements of liberalism and conservatism that appeal to us most? Shouldn’t we at least consider a candidate Thomas Jefferson could have voted for?
Nearly 4.5 million Americans agreed with Mr. Irwin, delivering Mr. Johnson the best presidential performance in the history of the Libertarian Party. Was the moment realized? Mr. Johnson’s nearly 4.5 million votes were good for just over three-percent of the popular vote total, which ultimately gave him the same number of Electoral College votes (recall how the president is elected) as Mr. Ross Perot won in 1992 when his third-party run netted more than 19-percent of the vote: none. Baby steps to giant strides and all, but I do not think that was quite what those who were tying the libertarian moment to Mr. Rand Paul’s presidential prospects had in mind. Speaking of Paul, former libertarian-leaning presidential candidate Ron Paul received one Electoral College vote from a faithless elector in Texas who opted to vote for Mr. Paul instead of the state’s popular vote winner, Mr. Trump. Moreover, Ron Paul was a disaffected member of the Libertarian Party in 2016 after having served three stints in congress as a Republican. Thus, he became the first Libertarian to secure an electoral vote since John G. Hospers in 1972 (also from a faithless elector), and the first to do so in an election in which he was not a candidate.
(I am not sure that a single faithless elector Electoral College vote was what the libertarian moment essays were getting at, however.)
A surface-level internet search suggests that the Trump presidency coincided with a marked decline in the genre of libertarian moment writing until the onset of a certain virus from Wuhan, China led to decidedly non-libertarian and sometimes selectively-enforced restrictions. The outlet which defined the libertarian moment (the phrase, not the moment) complained that some commentators were using the pandemic to proverbially dunk on libertarianism. One writer at The Atlantic sought to learn what the civil and political libertarians thought of the whole affair. At least one writer at The Guardian bashed Sweden, a known haven of libertarianism (that is a joke) for its response to the virus (along with some dubious claims about how the virus from Wuhan spread, but I digress).
But once the opinion writers begin arguing about libertarians in a moment, you know what will follow.
To the best of my recollection, the 2020 presidential election between then-President Trump and Mr. Joe Biden inspired similar enthusiasm about the prospects of libertarianism among self-described libertarians as did the 2016 race. If you recall, some libertarians believed that the Libertarian Party’s electoral moment would come in 2016. Perhaps there would be hope in the Libertarian Party? Not so, opined Mr. Kevin Mahnken of the left-wing The New Republic in a November 2020 pre-election essay titled The Libertarian Moment That Never Comes (the libertarian moment returns!):
Nearly four years removed from its best electoral performance in history, libertarianism finds itself on familiar terrain: tantalizingly close to a breakout moment that remains forever out of reach. Bereft of serious candidates or political capital, it is a philosophy with many potential adherents and yet no national standard-bearers; a movement teeming with ideas that have all been carted off by, or dissolved within, rival factions.
(For whatever it is worth, I opine that there are adherents of libertarian ideas in the major parties and that the Libertarian Party in and of itself is largely a non-entity outside the context of provocative national convention performances, as it was in 2016 notwithstanding its strong performance by third-party standards.)
My research for what will ultimately be a joke article (I am taking a long time getting to the joke) revealed a recent renaissance in libertarian moment think-pieces, which is notable because I will venture that the current administration has not brought forth a flourishing of libertarianism through its policies. Lest one thinks that we are looking ahead to a libertarian moment, Mr. Scott Lincicome stated in a February 2022 article titled This ‘Libertarian Moment’ Could Be More Lasting that we are already in one:
But a funny thing happened on our way to democratic socialism: America pushed back. Across the country, in all sorts of ways, Americans reacted to the state’s activism, overreach, incoherence, and incompetence and… kinda, sorta, embraced libertarianism. Some writers are now starting to notice. ‘It’s too soon to call this a libertarian moment,’ says the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker, using the frequently invoked term for the sudden onset of fiscally conservative, socially liberal policies that just as suddenly retreats after invocation. ‘But we seem at least to have reached a point where doubts about the wisdom of growing state control are salient.’ Conservative columnist Sam Goldman sees something similar: a ‘new libertarian moment’ that’s arrived in the form of ‘opposition to restrictions on personal conduct, suspicion of expert authority, and free speech for controversial opinions have become dominant themes in center‐right argument and activism.’
People complaining about non-libertarian policies that are enacted notwithstanding their complaints means that the libertarian moment has arrived. Heads I win, tails you lose. Noting that Mr. Lincicome’s article was published at The Dispatch and only syndicated to Cato (I cited to the Cato version), I will at least grant that no two entities have had their finger on the pulse of American politics and Republican voters the last few years quite like The Dispatch and The Wall Street Journal.
(That was a joke, to be clear.)
Two days later, Mr. Oliver Wiseman of The Spectator World threw cold water on Mr. Lincicome’s libertarian moment declaration:
But talk of a libertarian moment feels, at best, premature. In many important debates, the libertarians are losing. Take big tech, where the prevailing mood on both sides of the aisle is hostile to the behemoths of the internet age and eager to use the tools of the state to counteract what they see to be an inappropriate amount of political and/or economic power. Or consider policing and crime: the progressive libertarianism of defund the police is political kryptonite in a country facing a violent crime wave.
This passage indirectly hints at the importance of defining libertarianism (see the reference to progressive libertarianism). However, I think it offers a more verbose version of my heads I win, tails you lose analysis of Mr. Lincicome’s argument.
Are you still unsure whether we are in a libertarian moment? Has there ever been a libertarian moment? Brace yourself: Mr. L.B. Muñiz published a June 2022 Substack essay titled The Post Libertarian Moment. The what?
What I discovered was that in order to have liberty survive the 21st century we needed to contend with ‘The Post Libertarian Moment.’
If I were to grapple with the post libertarian moment, which seems to presume (A) that a libertarian moment had occurred and (B) that we are now in the midst of a post libertarian moment, I would never get to my punchline moment. Thus, I leave you to grapple with the post libertarian moment think-piece on your own time.
You may note that with one exception, none of the libertarian moment headlines I discussed in this article were tied to a specific locale. While they all generally focused on the United States (save for one non-libertarian moment libertarian piece I linked to), the headlines themselves do not state that the libertarian moment can only occur in these 50 states plus territories. The world is a big place. The New Leaf Journal is largely American-focused, but I have looked outside our borders to bring you exciting content about China, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Japan, Israel, and (probably) more.
If we take a global view, we will discover that we are in fact in the midst of a Libertarian moment.
On November 19, 2023, Mr. Javier Milei of Argentina’s Libertarian Party won Argentina’s presidential election by a wide margin over the Peronist standard-bearer, Mr. Sergio Massa. Now there will be people who tell you that Mr. Milei, who describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist, wants to abolish Argentina’s Federal Bank, and previously supported a human organ market, is not a true libertarian (for whatever it is worth, I was able to correctly guess many things about Mr. Milei the moment I learned about his now-former support for an organ market). Some left-leaning libertarians take issue with some of his social views. Others, such as the Associated Press, describe him with many non-libertarian terms such as “far right” and “populist” (see my earlier Leaflet on the Associated Press’s tendency to editorialize in ideological descriptions). But rather than venture into the weeds of the libertarian definition debate or examine how Argentina’s having a 143% annual inflation rate has a tendency to expand the universe of plausible electoral outcomes, I will resolve the matter simply:
All members of the Libertarian Party are Libertarians Mr. Milei is a member of a Libertarian Party Therefore, Mr. Milei is a Libertarian
(Careful use of capitalization intended.)
Having taken the opportunity to drop a syllogism in these humble pages, I now ask what one should call the moment a country elects a Libertarian as the head of state? What would be a good word for such a moment? But far be it for me to tell you what to think or how to live your life. Far be it for the government to do so! If you desire to take a moment to think about the question presented, however, neither let me nor any state actor (especially any state actor) infringe on your individual liberty to do so. Make this your own personal libertarian moment (if you want to, that is).