A Field Guide to Libertarianism

Last week Rand Paul spoke to students at UC Berkeley. On the face of it, the event might have had a Daniel in the lion's den flavor to it: Tea Party darling goes to the most liberal campus in America to be heckled and scorned. But when Paul started to denounce the NSA's omnipresent surveillance regime, he was greeted with cheers and applause. Privacy, he said, was the central issue for the coming generation.

Conservatives like Paul have a situational relationship with privacy (I wrote about this in an earlier essay.) Paul doesn't believe that the NSA ought to keeps records on every digital exchange that takes place, and bravo! for saying so.

At the same time, Paul believes the state has every right to regulate your private life when you are making decisions about reproductive choice, and he believes that gay couples should not enjoy the same protections under the law as straight ones. Privacy for some people, some of the time in other words.

But the fact that Paul got a warm reception in the People's Republic of Berkeley -- and the fact that Paul has made a particular point of speaking on college campuses -- underscores that his brand of libertarian politics does not map neatly onto the right vs left spectrum that we use as a shorthand for our politics.

Central to the libertarian worldview is an antipathy toward the federal government -- in varying degrees and for various reasons depending on who you talk to. Those who harbor these feelings trace their lineage back to (some of) the founding fathers. (Though as Jill Lepore has described in her book The Whites of their Eyes, Tea Partiers have a somewhat confused relationship with American history).

Barry Goldwater brought libertarianism to the national stage during his 1964 run for the presidency. It and he seemed, well, kooky at the time, and ever since then we have largely seen it as a phenomenon on the far right of the political spectrum -- like white-supremacist survivalists bunkered down in Idaho or Texas.

At the very same political moment, however, an anti-government left emerged in opposition to liberalism of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It emerged most energetically as part of the anti-war movement. As the Vietnam War went from feckless interventionism to full-fledged fiasco, more and more Americans turned against the federal government altogether. Carl Oglesby, a leading figure in the Students for a Democratic Society, was influenced by libertarian thinking and once proposed an alliance between SDS and its right-wing analogue the Young Americans for Freedom.

You can also see strains of that anti-government thought in the movements for black separatism and self-sufficiency associated with the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, for example. Which helps explain that bizarre meeting Malcolm X had with members of the Ku Klux Klan. They had some points of view in common.

The anti-government left can also claim a long American tradition going back at least to Henry David Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience. His denunciations of the American government (servant, as he saw it, to the interests of slavery) were ferocious and unyielding. He was happy to go to jail -- if only briefly -- for his beliefs.

That overlap between what we usually call the political right and left remains to this day and confounds many who want to simplify American political dynamics. Paul, for example, has become a voice for shrinking the size of the military budget, and in this he has to a certain extent picked up the mantle of Dennis Kucinich. Way back in 2011, I visited several "Occupy" encampments and in every one of them found a campaign tent for Ron Paul, then running for president. Even Barry Goldwater, late in his life, insisted that people had a constitutional right to be gay.

The current vogue for libertarianism has some demographic explanations. At one level, it has a natural appeal to young people, and I suspect mostly young men. They read Ayn Rand in 10th grade and, bursting with a sense of their own independence (and anger at their repressive parents!), they see themselves as John Galt. (My own sense is that women, whose frontal lobes mature more quickly, tend to read Atlas Shrugged and shrug their shoulders). Most of us grow out of these teenaged infatuations and recognize that the world is perhaps a bit more complicated. Those who don't wear Paul for President buttons.

The other group are those whose politics were shaped during and by the 1960s, and whose political outlook is essentially bitter. These cranky boomers include not only the angry white guys who've grabbed our attention, but also some who marched against the Vietnam War, wept at the Kent State massacre and have never trusted government since.

In the end, of course, libertarianism today does not amount to a philosophy or even a political program. It is nothing more than a grab-bag of personal grievances the source of which is always the same: the government. As such, it substitutes conspiracy theory for consistency of thought. During his visit to UC Berkeley to preach the gospel of small government, for example, I doubt Rand Paul saw the irony: Berkeley has become one of the leading intellectual centers in the world in large part because of state and federal money.

Still, Paul is attempting to build a coalition of the aggrieved, and if he succeeds that coalition will cut an oblique angle across the right-left political spectrum. After all, who doesn't have complaints? Blaming the government is easier than actually trying to address them.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government" (Oxford University Press).