I just returned from a historic event, the nominating convention of the Libertarian Party. (I spoke but was not a delegate and declared no support for any particular candidate.) It was a thrilling, raucous, contentious, fun, serious, and, ultimately, an ebullient event filled with high drama and intense argument.
I had keynoted the last convention in 2014, and the difference between that event and this one was palpable. What made this one historic where the other was not? The remarkable events of this year within the two major parties have created an unprecedented opportunity. The sense of this was easily discernable. This was not a civic club. This was not a social gathering. This was not a liberty-themed meetup.
The big-picture significance of all of this was largely lost on most commentators and delegates at the LP convention. This is a political party. And it matters. The Trump takeover of the GOP, and the entrenched power of the Clinton machine with the Democrats, mean that people who are looking for freedom from power have nowhere within the system to go. This opens the possibility that a new and clear voice can be heard within national politics that points the way not toward more government control but toward the cause of human liberty itself.
What struck me, however, is how the big-picture significance of all of this was largely lost on most commentators and delegates at the LP convention. Despite the ominous sense of responsibilities, they argued ad infinitum about ideology, theory, personality, and strategy. But I found few people who understood the full meaning of what is taking place.
What we have developing here is a new epoch in American politics: an authentically liberal (in the classical sense) political movement in the US is being born as an alternative to a deeply corrupt and ideologically dangerous mainstream dominated by two parties that have trended inexorably socialist and fascist.
In terms of mainstream politics, it’s the interwar period all over again: brown shirts versus reds. Except for this: there is a way out this time. This new movement has a message that is clean and clear: enough is enough, let us be free. Freedom works; government power does not. The emergence of a national political party that stands for liberty might be necessary but it is surely not sufficient. It is a sign of the rise of a broader and potentially transformative social, cultural, and intellectual movement that offers a third way beyond left and right.
Labor, Tory, and Liberal
Consider the way politics has fleshed itself out in most developed democracies over the last 150 years. There have been three broad camps (or parties), which we can call Labor, Tory, and Liberal. The names of the first two have changed (left, right, socialist, fascist, Democrat, Republican, conservative, fake “liberal”) but the themes have remained the same. The third force is known in most parts of the world as liberal except in the U.S. where it is called libertarian today.
Labor was born in opposition to free markets, from the conviction that wealth was being wrongly distributed toward “capital” and at the expense of labor. This party has included labor unions, welfare statists, social democrats, socialists and even communists. It favors higher taxes, more regulatory control, and restrictions on commerce. Over time it came to represent the public sector bureaucracies and, finally, to embody every resentment against free enterprise you can dream up.
What the Tories and Labor have shared was a common desire to curb laissez faire.The Tories represent a different branch of the ruling class: the large banks, corporations, landed aristocracy, the dominant racial heritage, and the rich generally. They later came to include the interest groups that had a strong interest in an imperial foreign policy. This party had a different set of complaints against commercial freedom. It is too disruptive of tradition. It rewards the wrong people. It threatens business monopolies. The Tories long favored their own flavor of government control to restrain the “excesses” of freedom.
What the Tories and Labor have shared was a common desire to curb laissez faire based on conviction that society needs some plan emanating from the top, imposed by wise and public spirited people with the power to rule. In U.S. history, these parties have had different names, but everyone knows them today as Democrats and Republicans. They have traded places many times but always moved toward the same general goal: an ever bigger state and ever less liberty.
The Liberal Party
And who are the Liberals? The liberal idea was born in the high middle ages and Renaissance, with the rise of commercial freedom and the prosperity that followed. It began with the realization that religious freedom is possible and need not send society reeling into chaos. The idea of freedom extended out during the Enlightenment to include speech, press, property rights, and foreign trade. By the 18th century, it came to include a love of peace and an aspiration for universal human rights.
Liberalism came of age in the 19th century, and its achievements were legion: social mobility for the whole population, new technologies of liberation, the end of slavery, the advance of women’s rights, the vast expansion of income and living standards, the explosion of population. Its economic form was capitalism, the greatest generator of wealth for the masses of people ever discovered. The message of Liberalism was clear and exhilarating: all humans have rights that cannot be violated by the state, and, so long as this is the case, society can manage itself without authoritarian control.
The storm clouds gathered and disaster struck in the 20th century. Liberalism was dealt a terrible blow by World War I.It was a beautiful period, filled with optimism. But Liberalism had its enemies on the left and on the right. The storm clouds gathered and disaster struck in the 20th century. Liberalism was dealt a terrible blow by World War I and the government controls that followed in its wake. In the course of one decade in most parts of the developed world, we saw vast and sweeping victories against liberty as wrought by both the Labor and Tory forces: labor controls, income taxes, central banking, product regulation, racial segregation, zoning, marriage controls, speech controls, prohibitions, and imperialism as a national habit.
Even before the Great Depression kicked off unprecedented experiments in central planning and economic control, Liberalism had nearly vanished from politics, academia, and popular culture.
Ludwig von Mises was writing in Vienna at the time and attempted one last explanation of the Liberal philosophy. His brilliant 1927 book on the topic remains a statement for the ages. He pointed out that at this stage of history, all existing political parties represented a lobbying force for some segment of the population. Only liberalism, which had no party, represents the common interest of everyone. But given the size and scope of government, even he doubted that liberalism would return in his lifetime, and sadly he was right.
The Liberal Diaspora
Given this situation, where did the liberals to go? They were homeless by the time World War Two broke out. Following the war, they had been largely driven out of national politics. They were excluded from legislative priorities and media culture, not to mention academia. So the handful that existed turned to writing, publishing, independent educational ventures, civic organizations, and think tanks.
A beautiful example of this was the establishment of the Foundation for Economic Education in 1946 by Leonard E. Read. He saw a need for liberalism to have a voice and made FEE its home. He preferred the term liberalism but, sadly, the term had been taken over by Labor and the left.
Read was the first in the postwar period to suggest the substitute term “libertarian” and, later, came to reject all labels in favor of what he called the “freedom philosophy.”
By the early 1970s, the movement had grown to the point that it attempted its own political party. It was obvious that with Richard Nixon in control of the Republican Party, liberalism had no voice. The preferred name of Liberal was still taken, so a new party was named the Libertarian Party. Despite some small victories, it has never really taken hold as a viable competitor to the two major parties. (You can read a good timeline of the party here.)
The Union of Tory and Liberal
Still, the Liberal movement grew, under the influence of FEE and the Mont Pelerin Society, among many new upstarts. The names of their intellectual leaders are now household names among libertarians: Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Rand, Lane, among many others.
In the 1980s, in the United States and the UK, the Tories were led by two individuals who adopted liberal rhetoric: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. In both their platforms, we saw a fusion of concerns for individual freedom (focussed on economic freedom) together with traditional Tory concerns for national security and restrictions on civil liberties.
It was as decisive as it was ugly: the liberal spirit had finally been purged from the Republican party.This alliance of interests produced some remarkable results such as deregulation, tax reductions, reduced use of money printing, and freer trade. The results were brilliant by comparison to the malaise of the previous decade. Economic growth boomed. Technological innovations grew at an unprecedented pace. Such were the achievements not of the Tory element of the administrations but of its liberal sectors, that which curbed the growth of government and backed private enterprise, thereby unleashing human creativity all over the developed world, and inspiring a global revival of Liberalism.
Within living memory, the party of Liberalism came to be stuck with this partnership. It has generally been beneficial, though muddy. The message of freedom became mixed up with other concerns central to Tory ideology: war, corporate monopoly, financial manipulation, prohibitionism, and social control. To this day, this is a serious problem for the Liberal party. We get stuck with the bad reputation of Tory policies, though we technically bear no responsibility for them.
The 21st Century Tory-Liberal Divorce
It was a long time coming but tensions finally boiled over in 2015 and finally with the apparent nomination of Trump in the spring 2016. Trump, representing an old Tory ideology devoid of the virtues of Liberalism, reasserted the raw statism of interwar politics. His central pillars are familiar to anyone of a certain generation: mercantilism, migration restriction, military belligerence, censorship, prohibition, even to the point of praising internments and recalling a pre-Enlightenment view of religion and society.
Just when everything seems lost, you look around and see something beautiful.It was as decisive as it was ugly: the liberal spirit had finally been purged from the Republican party. There was no more room at the table (and anyone who claims otherwise is not looking at reality). It represents a repudiation of Reaganism, Thatcherism, and the coalition that drove the world to recovery. You only need to compare the speeches of the Reaganites on economics and immigration with those of Trump. They are world’s apart.
The shattering of this coalition is the single most significant political event of our times. It is done. It is a fact. It is decisive. And it will change everything for the foreseeable future.
Liberalism Defines Itself
Just when everything seems lost, you look around and see something beautiful. For 45 years, activists have been struggling to keep the awkwardly named party alive. And it does live! It is on the ballot in every state. It has a full and well-developed platform. It is ready for action.
In the last six months, some awesome people stepped up, ready for the nomination at the top of the ticket. The results were not to every taste but still extraordinary in broad terms. The party rejected the extremes at all ends and voted to nominate two former governors as standard bearers, two men who speak plainly and clearly about freedom in all its forms.
People can complain about this particular issue or that one. But no one can dispute that both Gary Johnson and William Weld represent the Liberal spirit that is now called libertarian. The difference with the Republicans and Democrats is unmistakable. The LP is neither left not right, neither Labor nor Tory, but a third choice: Liberalism as traditionally understood. That is the ethos of the party and the message of its candidates to the American people and the world at large. It is a breathe of fresh air.
In other words, believers in liberty are exactly where we need to be. It’s a big tent, as it should be. It includes as many varieties of Liberalism as there are people who want to be free
And please remember: it's not just about politics. In fact, politics is the least of it. The LP (and I wish it were called the Liberal Party) is finally positioned to be the political voice of a cultural, social, and entrepreneurial resistance movement to the left (Labor, Democrat) and right (Tory, Republican). The takeover of the GOP by illiberal nativists/protectionists/authoritarians is what finally pushed it over the edge.
No, history does not end with this election. One could say that it is just now beginning, now that we finally have a choice, for the first time in our lives.
People often say that America has a two-party system. People always believe that the status quo will last forever. The truth is that the status quo always lasts until, suddenly, it doesn’t.
Times are changing. Liberalism is back.