Michael Totten

The Libertarian Temptation

When I first met my wife Shelly she said she had “libertarian curiosities.” Noooooooo, I thought to myself. I had been there. I had done that. And I said so.
Back in the early 1990s I joined the Libertarian Party. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I did know they favored freedom more than anything else. It helped that they were different from the Democrats and Republicans. 1960s left-overs were unappealing then as now. And the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, where Pat Buchanan declared a “culture war” on America – with the nightmarish Pat Robertson by his side – was enough to keep me out of the GOP for a long long time.
I was put on the Libertarian mailing list. It turned me off pretty fast.
They wanted to legalize dope. Fine, fine, I’m still fine with that. They also wanted to abolish the IRS. They wanted to privatize the roads and set up toll booths to pay for it. (Any idea how much the tolls would cost each time?) They wanted to quadruple my college tuition by yanking subsidies from universities. They would have ruined me.
So back to the Democrats I went, convinced that Libertarians were a crazy-ass cult of liberals seduced by right-wing loopiness.
Since then a lot more people have joined them. They haven’t joined the Party, necessarily, but they do call themselves libertarians. They are small-l libertarians, not the goofballs I knew.
Thank goodness for that saving small-l. It mellows them. And now their ideas are spreading.
Matt Welch has a new piece in Reason about a young libertarian leader in France.

Sabine Herold, to put it mildly, is not your typical Frog. Herold, the 22-year-old leader of Liberté, J’ecris Ton Nom (Freedom, I Write Your Name), has in the last few months emerged as the massively popular and highly photogenic leader of — zut! — a burgeoning pro-market, pro-American counterculture in France. Earning comparisons to Joan of Arc, Brigitte Bardot (!), and Margaret Thatcher in the panting British press, she represents something French politics hasn’t seen in years: a public figure eager to take on the country’s endlessly striking unions.

My mother’s second husband gets tremendous rewards from his union. I’ll never be able to hate them. I owe, we all owe, tremendous thanks to the labor movement for bringing us weekends (as well as lots of other goodies), even if we aren’t in a union ourselves. French unions, though. Hmm. They are to ours what the French Revolution was to the American Revolution. In other words, they are not my step-father’s unions. Go for it, Sabine. Take them on.

It is startling to hear any Parisienne, let alone a college student, drop references to F. A. Hayek in casual conversation, describe Communists as “disgusting,” or lead pro-war demonstrations in front of the American Embassy. Herold is fond of issuing heretical statements guaranteed to make any good fonctionnaire’s skin crawl.

I must say that I like this woman. She doesn’t seem to be one of the doofuses who sent me crazy mailings in the 90s.

“It’s annoying,” Herold says, “because in France, we start striking, and then we go to negotiate. It would be so much more interesting to go negotiate first, and then if nothing happens, just go on strike. I don’t know, maybe it’s an old love of the Revolution, or that people missed World War II and they want to be in another kind of Resistance.”

In other words, French unions should be more like American unions. And not be such poseurs. The French resistance is dead, along with its spirit.

“I think one of the big problems in France is that we are anti-American without knowing why,” she says. “It’s just kind of a natural thing. I mean so many people I meet are anti-war, and they’ll just say that Bush is stupid and the Americans are awful imperialists. It’s just their typical answer, and they never think of why. That’s crazy. I think it’s because we’re all being brought up like that, especially at school. It’s incredible how we’re taught about America — they’re always explaining, for example in geography or history courses, how Americans are imperialistic.”

Indeed. The French think that we are what they used to be. It’s axiomatic for them. If it takes a libertarian to make them come to their senses, then that’s fine by me.
It’s not news to everyone but it is news to me that there are different kinds of libertarians, just as there are different kinds of lefties and righties. Reason magazine is a lot more…reasonable than I would have thought. As Matt Welch told me, their libertarianism is not an ideology. Rather, it is a way of looking at the world. Social liberalism plus a healthy respect for the market economy.
I’ve never been totally comfortable with the Democrats, but my frustration with them right now is higher than ever. I’ve been tempted many times to declare myself libertarian again. The folks at Reason are some of the smartest around, certainly preferable to the fossilized anachronisms at The Nation. They’re also more refreshing than the crusty old conservatives at National Review, though NR does save itself with Victor Davis Hanson’s brilliance and Jonah Goldberg’s humor.
I’ve received a great deal of email from moderate libertarians inviting me over to their side. Join us, they say. We’re the centrist alternative you’ve been looking for.
Well, maybe. Sometimes. But not always. They have an isolationist streak that doesn’t work for me at all. They fight my beloved New Urbanism. And I still can’t get out of my head the stateless utopia of toll-booths.
I’m weary of ideology. I’m not in the market to buy one. So I will have to pass. But I’m glad the French are getting a whiff of this stuff. They need it. And its influence in America, though it sometimes can be extremist, is welcome.
My wife’s curiosities were more worth having than I realized three years ago. Libertarians matured while I wasn’t watching. So I take back what I said about them back then.