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America's selective libertarians

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By Jonah Goldberg
Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

There's an old rule in journalism: All you need are three good examples to prove a trend.

By that measure, writer Robert Draper had more than he needed to declare a new “libertarian moment” in American politics. In a New York Times Magazine cover story, Draper made exactly that case. His chief evidence: Young people are more libertarian today and libertarian ideas are having a renaissance on the right. Also, self-described “libertarian-ish” Sen. Rand Paul's star is on the rise, thanks in part to national exhaustion with foreign interventions. Plus: recent victories for legalized weed and gay marriage.

These things are largely true, but Draper is still wrong or at least not quite as right as he would like.

As liberal writer Jonathan Chait notes, much of the polling showing that young people are libertarian has been done by organizations eager to find that result. So while it is true that young people are more “libertarian” on social issues and foreign policy, they are also more progressive on the role of government. Pew finds that 53 percent of millennials favor “bigger government.” Chait writes, “That young voters actually favor ‘bigger government' in the abstract is a sea change in generational opinion, not to mention conclusive evidence against their alleged libertarianism.”

Chait's right.

On the other hand, it's also true that young people are more libertarian than ever before. How can that be? First, as The Federalist's Ben Domenech points out, the millennials are the biggest generation in American history. It can be collectively more socialist while still containing more libertarians than ever before.

Second, it's the most diverse generation in history and non-whites favor bigger government by wide margins.

Last, not only is the millennial generation collectively inconsistent, most individual young Americans are inconsistent, too.

Everyone considers himself libertarian on the issues he's libertarian about. If you think government shouldn't collect your email and phone logs, you're libertarian on national security issues. If you think you have a right to carry a firearm, you're libertarian about guns. And so it goes with drugs, property rights, free speech, health care, etc.

In principle most Americans simply want government to do good where it can and do no harm anywhere else. Moreover, people want to maximize freedom in the abstract, but they are loath to pay much of a price for it in their own lives.

People tend to be libertarian only after it's demonstrated to them that the government can't deliver the results they want. And that, I think, is the elephant in the room Draper largely misses.

Example is the school of mankind and they will learn at no other, Edmund Burke observed. What he meant was that you can't just tell people X won't work; they have to see and experience the failure of X on their own.

To the extent that libertarian ideas are gaining new currency outside the GOP, it's because of government's failures. Particularly for young people, the yawning chasm between the efficiency of the private sector and the haplessness of the public sector is poisonous to faith in government. The VA scandal, the clownish rollout of the ObamaCare website and the near wholesale inability of Barack Obama to deliver on his economic promises have done more to breathe new life into libertarianism than a thousand lectures about Friedrich Hayek's “Road to Serfdom” ever could.

Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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