Right-wing icon Charles Krauthammer thinks one of the biggest themes of 2013 was rising libertarianism. It’s an interesting idea that isn’t without basis — think marijuana and same-sex marriage — but I’m not sure one can say that these “libertarian” results indicate a new spread of libertarian ideas.
To be fair, Krauthammer’s point seems mainly to be about the liberalization of social attitudes, which typically means the liberal social positions of libertarians. But libertarianism is more descriptive of an attitude than a set of policies, and there’s reason to believe that the expanding social libertarianism that he mentions is actually in the service of statism.
Consider Rhode Island. It isn’t the libertarians pushing for liberalization of marijuana laws and same-sex marriage, it’s the statist progressives. That isn’t to say that libertarians oppose the changes, but in Rhode Island (as increasingly across the country) they’ve got their hands full trying to reclaim property rights and slow the advance of the regulatory state, and on those counts, they’re being rapidly undermined.
Having crisscrossed social strata, in my years, it’s difficult to see some of these social issues as deriving from popular uprisings. To my experience, the average American doesn’t care much one way or another whether people can buy pot. They might fight head shops on their own streets, but it isn’t the issue itself that has made it a matter of political interest; it’s more the insinuations that the issue allows one politician to make about another; it’s more the collision of politics and special interests.
And, of course, increasing the number of crimes gives the statists more to control and more justification to tax and regulate.
I think what may have happened is that statists have had a revelation. The news reports, after all, point out that the federal government is not planning any action against Colorado for putting its pot laws at odds with those of the United States… provided the industry is heavily regulated.
Perhaps the shift has something to do with the rapid expansion of state-kickback-generating casinos. We’re seeing in Rhode Island the state government’s panic as Massachusetts moves to cut into its gambling revenue. One can’t help but imagine government budget worriers beginning to look at other products on which they could claim a monopoly and for which they could impose heavy taxes, like drugs and prostitution. In fact, that’s a refrain I’ve heard with increasing fervor: “We ought to make it legal and tax it like crazy!”
Same-sex marriage is not so simple; an immediate government payout doesn’t explain a shift in big-government attitudes. Rather, traditional marriage is key among the cultural institutions that offer a competing social plan to reliance on government. In this case, I think what Krauthammer refers to as an astonishing shift in social attitudes has also largely been a test of the power of leftist strategies to manipulate the language, silence opposition, and kneed a new ethos through pop culture and legal maneuvering, largely through the courts.
From the big-government perspective, the best part of all of this is that the wisdom of the ages is that activities like drug use and pervasive gambling really do cause societal harm, while strong cultural institutions, like traditional marriage, really do facilitate social health. My libertarian side thinks it’d be better for the state to stay out of these transactions, for the most part, but my practical conservative side understands that there has to be something to counterbalance that tendency.
There is a difference between liberalizing social laws from a position of cultural strength and doing so from a position of cultural decay. Strong cultural institutions would regulate socially destructive behavior in a network of voluntary agreements. That’s the libertarian ideal, to the extent that it has a socially conscious component. Unfortunately, all progressives and far too many modern libertarians ultimately don’t wish to empower cultural institutions, either.
So we get the other route… socially destructive programs in a setting of cultural decay will produce more government programs to deal with the harm, surely amounting to more grist for the statist mill than puritanism ever did. So, as with state-run casinos, the government will get a huge chunk of revenue from selling sin, and then it will argue for expanded services (and taxes) in order to address the consequences.