On the one hand, we can point with pride to an impressive blossoming of libertarian scholarship and intellectual activism. Libertarians are now represented in the academy in numbers that would have amazed the original members of the Mont Pelerin Society. The Cato Institute and other libertarian and free-market think tanks have achieved great success in winning a place for libertarian ideas in the political and policy debate. We have made great strides in getting libertarian ideas taken seriously in intellectual and opinion-shaping circles.
But getting taken seriously by tiny intellectual elites is one thing; winning acceptance in mass public opinion is another thing altogether. As an intellectual movement, libertarianism has come a long way. As a political movement, however, we’re still pretty near square one. The Libertarian Party crested in 1980 with a million votes or so in the presidential election; since then it has contented itself with being a fringe group that is generally scoffed at when it isn’t being completely ignored. And whatever success we’ve had in spreading libertarian ideas, we’ve accomplished very little in the core political task of expanding the number of active libertarians. According to a 2000 Rasmussen poll, only 2% of Americans self-identify as libertarian. To put that number in perspective, according to a 1999 Gallup poll, 6% of Americans believe that the moon landings were faked.
So we have some hard facts to face. We committed libertarians are a very small group of people with very unpopular views. And now that Goldwater-Reagan small-government conservatism has more or less disappeared, we have no effective representation in the political arena.
When I discovered libertarianism I was very excited by the ideas and the commitment to freedom. But after several years I realized that libertarians weren't going to accomplish anything. The movement has very little appeal outside the small coven of true believers. They are too passive; they don't engage in the kind of perpetual organization and activism that is required of any movement that actually wants to be successful.
The long-term goal is to achieve a generally liberal outcome. Libertarianism is a variety of liberalism, but it is not one that can actually achieve that long-term goal. So the challenge then is to fashion a variety of liberalism that can achieve that goal, and that is what I am trying to do. Lindsey agrees:
What needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” voters from across the current left-right spectrum. One that recognizes a more expansive role for government than committed libertarians would like, but which nonetheless supports both economic and personal liberty. Here, then, is the way forward as I see it: to articulate an appropriately inclusive political vision that puts freedom at the center of its commitments.