Chris Beam learned an important lesson this week: If you write about libertarians, be prepared to defend your take for the next six or seven revolutions of the Earth. I wrote about Reason senior editor and sometime Slatester Radley Balko's critique of Beam, and Balko wrote back . Two quick things. Here's Balko quoting me.
Do libertarians promise utopia? Sure.
No, they don’t. People use the utopia canard to make libertarianism seem creepy and cultish.
My full quote was: "Do libertarians promise utopia? Sure. So do the socialists who came up with the ideas that motivate Democratic politicians." I was agreeing with Balko, basically, that it's a dead end to accuse ideologues of promising rainbows if their ideas are adopted. But we disagree on this point I made, referring to the class of 1994 Republicans as libertarian-minded.
There was nothing "libertarian-minded" about Newt Gingrich & Co. Yes, the Contract With America had some language about eliminating a few federal agencies. And those plans were jettisoned almost as soon as the new GOP freshmen were sworn in. The 1990s GOP held firm on a few economic issues that had some culture war resonance (welfare reform, for example), but there were no guiding libertarian principles on display during Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker. They were primarily social conservatives.
Balko is misremembering this, which is easy to do, because the Gingrich Republicans did end up disappointing everyone. (Tom Coburn, the truest libertarian member of the Senate, and Dick Armey, the most credible pol in the Tea Party movement, both rebelled against Gingrich in 1997.) The Contract did not mention abolition of any federal agencies and it wasn't jettisoned. It was not a social conservative group of promises. Republicans did not abandon it; they held votes on everything in the Contract, failing to implement some policies while succeeding in passing some slightly weaker policies (the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, tort reform) over Bill Clinton's veto.
But I was talking about Gingrich
the Republicans who took power in the states in the 1990s. Those Republicans took the reins from Democrats, passed relatively lean budgets and government reforms, then got to preside over lengthy booms -- they could keep cutting taxes while increasing spending. (George W. Bush
, as Rick Perry inconveniently pointed out in 2007.) This is the part of Beam's article that resonated with me. Voters like low taxes, and they hate regulation and policies that take away choices. Libertarians are winning on all of that. But voters like services and Republicans like being re-elected, and the pattern -- the Reagan years, the Republican Revolution -- is that a libertarian attack on entitlements is followed by a backlash then a Republican promise to keep those entitlements strong with the new money coming in.