Las Vegas — Yeah, I told you so.
As the presidential campaign season kicked off, many of my friends and colleagues insisted that the United States was having a “libertarian moment.” I thought otherwise, and argued (in Politico) that the admirable Senator Rand Paul, the closest thing to an out-and-out libertarian with any currency in mainstream political circles, would have a hard time seeking the Republican nomination not in spite of his libertarianism but because of it. The idea that Americans are closet libertarians who desire a regime of economic liberalism and a hands-off approach to social questions is not supported by the evidence.
Americans were never closet libertarians. In the event, the two presidential candidates Americans got most excited about were Donald Trump, a nationalist, and Bernie Sanders, a socialist. Between the two of them, they make a pretty good national socialist. Trump won his party’s nomination and Sanders ceded his to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is (arguably) a little bit more of a nationalist and (arguably) a little bit less of a socialist, but in many ways a much better distillation of the partnership between big government and big business that characterizes our current political moment.
How’s that libertarian moment working out for you?
I am writing from FreedomFest, the annual Las Vegas gathering of libertarians ranging from those we’d recognize as ordinary conservatives to the Libertarian-party types, goldbugs, marijuana obsessives, and the rest of the merry liberty-movement pranksters. The discussions have ranged from libertarianism in the Islamic world to Black Lives Matters to New Hampshire secession, a subject that may be of some interest to my fellow Texans.
“Hopefully, the whole world will soon look like this.”The conversations here are familiar: The proponents of free people and free markets have a “branding problem,” and, if we could only figure out the right words to say in the right order, then people would flock to our banner. At the Planet Hollywood hotel and casino, a famous libertarian activist sweeps his hand over the adult video games, the burlesque dancers at the Heart Bar, the people wandering around with foot-high daiquiri glasses and says: “Hopefully, the whole world will soon look like this.”
And we libertarians wonder why we’re losing.
The Las Vegas area is in fact a pretty good test case for libertarian theory and an excellent example of its limitations. The legalization of prostitution in nearby lightly populated counties was supposed to provide all of the benefits familiar from anti-Prohibitionist arguments: moving prostitution off the streets, bringing it under responsible regulation, eliminating the influence of organized crime and criminal exploitation, etc. A drive down West Tropicana, where the street corners are full of underage girls and lost addicts plying the oldest trade in the oldest fashion, suggests very strongly that this hasn’t happened. So do the arrest numbers. So do the human-trafficking operations that help stock the nearby massage parlors. The casual marijuana peddlers offer similar testimony about the state’s relatively liberal marijuana laws. So does the fact that you can go to jail for organizing a dollar-a-point bridge game here where “gambling is legal.”
Las Vegas’s vice economy isn’t libertarian at all: It is one of the most tightly regulated economies in the United States, staffed by union members and dominated by politically connected cartels and their friends in elected office.
The real world does not unfold according to our neat ideological models.
There’s a difference between a world that has a Las Vegas in it and a world that is Las Vegas.Legalization of drugs and prostitution probably would reduce the harm these do to the world, and that is a strong if not dispositive argument for the libertarian approach. The idea that the world would be better if it looked more like Las Vegas — rather than more like, say, Provo — isn’t a very good argument. It isn’t a very popular one, either. There’s a difference between a world that has a Las Vegas in it and a Las Vegas that has the world in it.
There are many very bright and thoughtful people here, but the level of self-delusion one encounters is remarkable. There’s not a lot of Trump love here, but there is a Trumpkin faction, too, arguing that his disruptive effect on the political consensus opens up opportunities for libertarian reform. Maybe it does. It also opens up opportunities for the opposite, and given Trump’s own views — which are anti-libertarian in every significant way — that seems much more likely.
The people who don’t like free markets and free people, who want to control who you can buy from and sell to, or regulate who can criticize a politician and when and how, don’t think that way simply because libertarians have never figured out how to translate the gospel into their language. They have other values and other agendas. The white nationalists in the Trump camp and the Black Lives Matters activists opposed to them do not secretly want to be libertarian individualists on the Randian model: They want their identities affirmed by state action. They want a politics of Us and Them. Populist movements cannot survive long without a Them.
Most people do not want their values to be tolerated – they want their values to prevail. The complexity of the real world exceeds what can be adequately addressed by our ideologies, and the variety of real human beings — and real human experience — means that there are real differences in basic, fundamental values. Most people do not want their values to be tolerated — they want their values to prevail. The terrorists in Nice and Orlando are not fighting for toleration. Neither are the neo-socialists now migrating from the Sanders camp to the Clinton camp or the Trumpkins who are sure that their frustrations and disappointments are being artificially and maliciously inflicted on them by a nefarious elite.
And that’s why we are not having a libertarian moment, but a nationalist-socialist moment.
I told you so.
This article first appeared at the National Review. Kevin Williamson will be speaking at FEE's 2017 Annual Retreat.