LAS VEGAS _ This is what the vortex of evil looks like. A well-dressed man onstage in a ballroom at Planet Hollywood is talking about investment in rare metals. Knut Andersen of Swiss Metals has come to the annual FreedomFest conference in Sin City to share investment opportunities with libertarians and other freedom-loving nuts.
Nuts? Oh, yeah. If there’s one thing the political left and right in America agree on – strongly – it’s these libertarians. They’re the absolute worst.
Salon has called libertarians a “cult” and a “freakshow” and “crazy” and a “con” and a “scam” for “petulant children,” and those are just some of the headlines it has used since 2014.
New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie says libertarians are “dangerous.”
How dangerous? Human YouTube comment Ann Coulter says libertarian voters are “idiots” who should “drown.”
Slagging libertarians is so commonplace online that Washington Post criminal justice blogger Radley Balko keeps a running list of all of Salon and Alternet’s libertarian headlines going back two years. It stands at 140 and counting.
The mezzanine level of Planet Hollywood is lined with booths and tables representing various libertarian organizations, businesses and media. Folks behind the tables are handing out literature and business cards, selling books and giving away pieces of candy, or non-means-tested fructose handouts, if you prefer.
I’ve printed Balko’s list of libertarian headlines, and I’m carrying it with me through the convention floor. You’re all loons, I tell every libertarian I talk to, and here’s the proof. One-hundred-and-forty articles from Salon and Alternet cannot be wrong.
I stop by the table for The Free State Project, where I meet Carla Gericke. The Free State Project is a migration movement that is trying to attract 20,000 libertarians to the state of New Hampshire, and Gericke is its president. When I read her some of the headlines, she laughs.
“We have a left-right paradigm in this country that functions in order to have just those divisions, and libertarians are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, and that makes people’s heads explode,” she says.
This is not the last time the gap between the way people think and how they vote will come up. Indeed, many Americans do hold libertarian views, but fewer self-identify as libertarians.
Millennials are typical. They maintain libertarian views on issues but tend to vote for the two major parties. Via Reason, the magazine of “Free Minds and Free Markets”:
A Reason-Rupe survey of 2,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 finds 66 percent of millennials believe government is inefficient and wasteful — a substantial increase since 2009, when just 42 percent of millennials said government was inefficient and wasteful.
The magazine noted that millennials also support more government action and higher spending in a number of areas.
(Full disclosure: I once wrote a freelance article for Reason.com. I am an independent voter.)
Gericke says The Free State Project can only make a small impact on a state with 1.3 million people, but the movement is seeing results. Some of its members have run for office and won. Some have moved to New Hampshire and opened businesses. One guy managed to legalize nano-brewing.
I mention to Gericke that beer is a very important issue that can bring positive attention to libertarians.
“We aren’t crazy,” she says. “I have several degrees. I’m a lawyer.”
That last bit didn’t help her case, but I got where she was coming from.
The word “cult” gets thrown around a lot with libertarians. Why? The movement has a fair share of towering figures whose views fall outside the commentariat’s comfort zone. In America, the poor fools who revere anyone whose beliefs fall outside the perceived mainstream are easy to mock. Yelling “cult!” is a lazy way of dismissing a group’s views without actually having to engage it in an argument.
The names Mises, Hayek, Rothbard and Friedman were invoked by speakers and attendees all weekend. The one name no one mentioned at any of the panels I attended was Ayn Rand, the most divisive libertarian figure of all. (You can read Ayn Rand’s Playboy interview here.) Rand is a philosopher and the author of the “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” both of which are revered and reviled and are roughly the weight of aircraft carrier anchors.
If liberals and conservatives hate libertarianism, they absolutely loathe Rand, which is why it was imperative that I stop by the table for The Atlas Society, which is a think tank that promotes Rand and her philosophy of objectivism.
“We’re the fringe of the fringe,” said Laurie Rice, a writer and researcher with The Atlas Society.
I showed her the headlines and asked Rice why she thought so many people write such scary stuff about libertarians.
“It’s scary to be responsible for your own life,” she said. “It’s scary that there is no one out there to take care of you, sometimes – that you have to make your own way and find your own path through life and create your own meaning and earn your own money. That’s not a reality that we create politically. That’s a reality that exists in nature. Our politics merely acknowledge that and try to make the best of it.”
Rice has read your mean blog posts and tweets about Ayn Rand, Internet. I gave her a chance to respond.
“It’s a misconception that (Rand) detested the common man or people who didn’t have extraordinary abilities,” Rice said. “Her villains were crony capitalists. They were rich and elite people who used the power of government to suppress other people’s freedom.
“The biggest misconception is that (Rand) believed in a cruel selfishness or a rugged individualism, that she believed your self-interest was at the expense of others. That’s not true. She actually believed in what in objectivism is called a harmony of interests, which means your interests are congruent with those who share your values who are working in collaboration with you.”
This was another common theme I encountered – the persistent belief in libertarianism as social good. Where some see the free market crowd as a bunch of capitalist pigs, the young people at the roots of the movement emphasize the ways its makes the world a better place.
Elise Thompson, 22, is a donor-relations coordinator for the Foundation for Economic Education, which teaches high school and college students about free markets.
“Entrepreneurship is benevolence, in a way,” Thompson said. “Profit is a part of that, but it’s not always a motivating factor.”
In other words: It’s not all Koch brothers, Ayn Rand supermen and shrinking the government so small you can “drown it in a bathtub,” according to many of the folks I talked to. There is a widespread belief that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” will high-five America into the 21st century, if given the chance.
“We really advocate for the optimistic side of libertarianism,” Thompson said. “For us that means libertarianism isn’t just about inequality or profit. It’s about a free, flourishing entrepreneurial society. We’ve found that with our students, when you show them the positive sides of free markets, what Uber is doing to end regulation and things like that—those elements of their lives when they don’t realize the free market is coming into play—it’s inspirational to see them latch onto the ideas.”
FreedomFest panelist Naomi Brockwell, who goes by the handle Bitcoin Girl, came to libertarianism as an adult. She found it after moving to New York City from Australia and meeting Barron’s economics columnist Gene Epstein, who became her mentor.
“I’m a libertarian because I care about people,” she said. “I learned about these ideas and thought, ‘This is how we help people.’ I hate seeing people who are disadvantaged and don’t have the same opportunities. Let’s create a level playing field, not by equalizing outcomes but by equalizing opportunities.
“They say a young person who is a conservative has no heart, and if you’re a liberal when you’re old, you have no intelligence. I think if you’re a libertarian when you’re young, you have both.”
Libertarianism’s pessimistic side also was on display at FreedomFest. It’s a world of doom and gloom and preppers and conspiracies. Pessimism is not libertarianism’s dominant mood, but it’s present. Here are some of the panels from the conference:
“The American Dream is Alive and Well – Abroad!”
“How to Protect and Manage your Wealth Offshore”
“Where in the World to Invest Money Now?”
“How to Thrive in an Era of Financial Repression and Market Bubbles”
“How to Handle the Coming Market Turmoil”
“America’s Coming Bankruptcy and What it Means to You and Your Money”
“Everything is Bad and We’re All Going to Die Because Obama”
OK, I made that last one up, but the rest are real. The implication is that the country is being run terribly, and we need to prepare for bad times.
Some of the public comments and questions at the end of panels revealed that attendees had zero faith in the current government and little hope in a future where Republicans or Democrats continue to hold power. More than one attendee knew the exact number of the national debt ($18 trillion).
I spoke with David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and he raised the issue of libertarian negativity without me even asking about it.
“I do think libertarians tend to have too negative a view of the way public policy is going,” Boaz said. “There was a great book called ‘The Road to Serfdom.’ It was a prophetic warning. Too many libertarians think that’s the way the world is going, but I don’t think that’s true.”
Libertarian leaders such as Boaz, as well as Reason honchos Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie, tend to be bullish about the future, which they see as bring driven by increased individual choices fueled by entrepreneurship and technology.
But the conversations in the hallway between attendees weren’t as rah-rah. One possible explanation for that: freedom-lovers don’t drop major coin on airplane tickets, hotel rooms and conference passes when they think the future is puppies and sunshine.
The highlight of FreedomFest was “The Big Debate” between conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Stephen Moore and liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Moore played the conservative guy who’s way too eager to debate everyone in his dorm. Krugman was the fidgety academic.
Moore and Krugman debated the economy and Obamacare, with each man producing a series of facts and charts that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the other man was mentally unfit to operate a doorknob.
It’s easy and probably comforting to some to think of libertarians as one big solid block of government-opposing, tax-lowering, dope-smoking, freedom lovers, but that’s not the case. Libertarians are not lockstep in their worldviews. That makes sense, as this is a group of people that doesn’t want the country to be in lockstep about virtually anything.
The diversity of thought was reflected in the way the crowds reacted to the FreedomFest’s various speakers. Not every idea the crowd applauded was something that would have gone over well at one of Ayn Rand’s famous smoke-filled salons. Some of the ideas it cheered were downright Republican. Many of them cheered Glenn Beck, for Hayek’s sake.
The audience at the Moore-Krugman debate, which consisted of people who seem to want very little or no government, listened politely as the guy on the left argued for massive amounts of government and the guy on the right argued for slightly less massive amounts of government. They cheered the guy on the right a lot.
Krugman made the crowd groan a few times, and I think it hissed once, but this supposedly perpetually angry group of Americans showed more respect to Krugman than college students have been paying to conservative speakers on campus of late.
For my money, Krugman won the debate, even though he did not have the home crowd. In fact, he openly antagonized the audience, saying, “There is a version of the world you want to hold. It just isn’t true.”
It was an enlightening moment, because Moore and Krugman peddle confirmation bias for a living. Whether or not Krugman realized that he also was talking about himself and every block of voters in America, I have no idea.
After the debate, as we filed out into the hall, I heard one guy say, “I don’t like him, but Krugman made some good points.” I doubt many folks in the crowd will vote for Hillary or Bernie Sanders based on what they heard on the stage last week, but people actually listened, and they talked about the debate for days.
FreedomFest closed with a speech by Donald Trump. I have listed the most substantive quotes from Trump’s speech here:
And those are all of them.
To the audience’s credit, it booed him once.
As far as a bipartisan array of pundits and political junkies are concerned, libertarians are and will always be evil Ayn Rand acolytes who will not rest until America has no public roads to drive upon or fire stations in front of which to place its Dalmatians. It is the party of tinfoil hat crazies.
After spending three days talking and listening to dozens of them, I can report that none of the libertarians I spent time with were crazy, unless you think it’s crazy to spend any amount of time in your life on politics, which is debatable.
The Free State Project’s Gericke, whose job is to recruit and interact with libertarians, made an excellent point, one that critics of libertarians would be fair to consider. She said the eccentricity of the most fringe elements of libertarianism is a design feature, not a flaw.
“The words ‘weirdo’ and ‘eccentric’ come up because it’s a movement that actually accepts people,” she said. “You’re going to attract people who might feel like they don’t fit in somewhere else. You run the gamut. It’s fiscal conservative, suit-and-tie types to anarchists.”
Cato’s Boaz says the big libertarian tent synchs with the belief that peaceful people should be able to do whatever they want to do. There are a lot of people who want to do a lot of things, and the people who really, really want to do a lot of things with no one to bother them—they’re different than you and me.
“I don’t want to drink raw milk, but some people do. I don’t want to smoke marijuana, but some people do,” Boaz said. “It’s also true that a lot of Republicans still want to fly the Confederate flag, and only a few years ago it was the Democratic Party that put the Confederate flag on top of the South Carolina statehouse. Bernie Sanders looks at a world full of Venezuela and Greece and says, ‘Let’s be more like those countries.’ Who are the crazies?”
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