America has become a lonely place for libertarians. Calls for limited government and expansive personal liberty are lost in the howling winds of the 2020 election, but a resurgence of the ideals of classical liberalism may be possible closer to home, on the streets of Philadelphia.
A libertarian believes in the doctrine of free will, with a special emphasis on individual rights and the free association of individuals with institutions. In a simple sense, they want the government out of their life.
It was a real, independent political movement in the 20th century which exercised influence in the GOP, especially on free market issues. In recent popular culture it found expression in the Tea Party movement, as a response to massive government bailouts and centralization after the 2007-08 financial crisis. Today, libertarian ideals are barely considered in political discourse.
While often maligned as “Republicans who smoke pot,” libertarians lost their focus on issues of personal liberty as their free-market influence grew within the Republican Party. They allied with social conservatives as the party expressed more liberal economic views and fostered a market of globalization and innovation. This focus and these principles, and the success for business shareholders they fostered, cost the libertarian “movement” the rank-and-file Republican voter.
I went to a Tea Party rally on Independence Mall and was dismayed that the assembled group didn’t stand for anything. They defined themselves by what they were against. No movement that promises only opposition and resistance can last very long
While evangelical drift and a near-paranoid emphasis on national security at the cost of individual liberty drove civil libertarians from the GOP, the working class who had become increasingly Republican found themselves left out of the successes of globalization and free trade, as more and more jobs were shipped overseas. The GOP base grew more populist, and free market ideas less popular. Later, the dam would burst in 2015 as Trump descended on the golden escalator, railing against formerly-bipartisan trade agreements forged by the elites in both parties.
But as the Tea Party rose, Democrats — completely smitten with and controlled by coastal elites, starstruck by celebrity activists, and enabled by a complicit media — did not step into this political vacuum in the GOP to win back the disaffected. The Tea Party was born and on the surface grassroots libertarianism seemed ascendant. But, in reality, the Tea Party movement wasn’t libertarian at all.
I went to a Tea Party rally on Independence Mall and was dismayed that the assembled group didn’t stand for anything. They defined themselves by what they were against. No movement that promises only opposition and resistance can last very long (remember Occupy?). By the end of the Obama presidency, bulldozed by the juggernaut that is Donald Trump, libertarians were homeless. After libertarian stalwarts and Never-Trumpers pulled their support from the GOP, they were repelled by a resounding “Good riddance!” from rank and file Republicans. In light of the protectionist, tariff-ridden trade policy and anti-immigrant position of the party today, Milton Friedman is surely spinning in his grave. Nobody seems to care. People seem willing to trade the self-responsibility and risk of failure necessary for true freedom for government planning and predictable, mediocre government assistance. Whereas George Washington anticipated “the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty… justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people,” libertarianism has become a faint little flame with no fuel to sustain it.
It seems the entire nation has embraced intolerance, and competitive free markets are threatened by industrial policy aimed on one side at China and on the other at a “Green New Deal.” Protectionist support for big business, and barriers to entry against small business are ascendant. Once again, the working people of Pennsylvania and elsewhere have been cheated of their potential by ideologues and crony capitalists from the left and right.
A crisis like the one caused by Covid-19 can give cover to government overreach positioned as shutdown orders and fiscal stimulus. Society can be quick to cede self-determination in the face of threats to public safety or economic collapse. Liberties relinquished during challenging periods are difficult to reclaim when conditions improve.
It’s become apparent that local governments are not nimble and are mostly terrible, and the Democrats that have held control of Philadelphia without opposition for decades have been exposed as incompetent.
Yet, the embers of a libertarian resurgence may be found in the kindling of the shutdown. People are fed up with the limitations imposed on their behavior by overreaching state agencies. It’s become apparent that local governments are not nimble and are mostly terrible, and the Democrats that have held control of Philadelphia without opposition for decades have been exposed as incompetent. A valuable opportunity exists for people willing to push back against decision-makers who think they know better, and obviously don’t. A city’s success depends on shared values and opportunity. Thanks to the fumbling governance of politicians like Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, we have little of the latter and none of the former.
There is still a key role for libertarians to play if they can reach back to the local roots of the movement. While the mayor and other city officials concern themselves more with national issues, as opposed to key services like picking up the trash, reducing violent crime and promoting, rather than shutting down, small business, libertarians can sway significant numbers of working class and minorities with sound arguments on the roots of our freedoms. Local activists should focus on desirable, winning grassroots issues like school choice, entrepreneurship, and reduced regulation and taxation against new businesses.
Once again, libertarians and the libertarian wing of the Republican party can stand for something positive and deliver on the possibility of the American dream. Libertarianism promotes mutual respect and a deep resolve to allow for others’ points of view in debate while always promoting individual responsibility. In the city of Philadelphia, where the canon of liberty coalesced into a government of principles and values that became the envy and inspiration for free-thinking, motivated people around the world, the ideal of limited government that fosters community, civil liberties, patriotism and innovation can be reborn.
George Hofmann is the author of Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, their daughter and two poorly behaved dogs.