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Rand Paul Will Break Libertarian Hearts, Just Like Reagan Did

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For Senator Rand Paul, winning the Republican presidential nomination will involve a delicate balancing act of keeping faith with his libertarian roots while also appealing to the broader conservative base of the party. On issues like the war on drugs and government surveillance, Paul has articulated strongly anti-statist positions that are rarely heard from either party. Yet to be a plausible Republican presidential candidate, Paul, to the disappointment of many of his more orthodox libertarian followers, is increasingly sounding like a typical conservative, especially on foreign policy.

Paul’s conundrum shouldn’t surprise us: Libertarians have always been an uneasy fit within the broader Republican coalition. Libertarians claim to have roots in classical liberalism of the early modern era, but only emerged as a salient and self-conscious political movement in the 1930s, as a reaction to the expansion of the welfare state initiated by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. That didn’t make libertarians comfortable Republicans, though. As purist counter-revolutionaries who wanted to roll back FDR’s achievements, libertarians all too often found Republicans to be cowardly and unreliable allies. In 1940, Ayn Rand, later famous for her didactic pro-capitalist potboilers, campaigned for Republican candidate Wendell Willkie. The experience was disillusioning for Rand, who concluded that GOP timidity itself was the main hurdle to fighting socialism. “Nobody can defeat us now—except the Republicans!” Rand wrote to a friend in 1943.

Over the next 70 years, Rand’s disenchantment with the Republicans would be sounded with dismaying regularity by prominent libertarians, who would often prefer to make common cause with eccentric fringe political formations—including left-wingers—rather than the party of Eisenhower, Nixon, and the Bushes.

The late Murray Rothbard, a towering intellectual and political activist in libertarian circles, was a striking example. During the 1940s, he belonged to New York’s Young Republican Club, but during the Cold War he concluded that the GOP’s militarism was a betrayal of the traditional anti-war and isolationist principles of the Old Right. During the 1950s, Rothbard preferred Democrat Adlai Stevenson to Eisenhower, and while some other libertarians like Milton Friedman jumped on the Goldwater bandwagon in the early 1960s, Rothbard still distrusted the Republicans. “Goldwater and the Conservative Movement are not only not libertarian, but the preeminent enemies of liberty in our time,” Rothbard wrote in 1964 in a letter to a small libertarian magazine called the Innovator. “For the Goldwaterites are, first, aggressive and ardent champions of American imperialism and intervention in political affairs all over the globe; and, second and most important, are eager advocates of nuclear war against the Soviet Union.” During the heady days of the late 1960s, when he dreamed of a new politics cutting across the traditional left-right spectrum, Rothbard even forged an alliance with the Maoist Progressive Labor Party, preferring them to Nixon’s Republicans.

Although Rothbard had a propensity for extremist gestures, he shouldn’t be dismissed as a fringe figure, at least not among libertarians. His application of Austrian economic theory to America, formulating a critique of the Federal Reserve as a central source of bad policy, was widely influential, not least on Rand Paul’s father, Ron Paul. Moreover, Rothbard’s allergic reaction to the Republican Party was widely shared within the libertarian movement, culminating in 1971 with the formation of the Libertarian Party (LP).

The party—founded by David Nolan, an anti-statist advertising man who was disgusted by Nixon’s embrace of wage and price control—quickly gained the support of a wide swath of the libertarian movement, including generous subsidies from David and Charles Koch. David Koch was even the LP’s vice presidential candidate in 1980. In the 1970s, the Koch Brothers seemed to have shared Rothbard’s hope that libertarians forge a partnership with the radical left. In the mid-1970s, Charles Koch made a bid to buy The Nation magazine, hoping to use it as a wedge for an opening to left-of-center opinion. When that attempt failed, Koch financed Inquiry, a libertarian journal that published many left-wing radicals like Noam Chomsky.  

For Rothbard, the mission of the LP was to be a “party of principle,” as against the GOP, a party of expediency. This disgruntlement with the GOP remained core to the LP’s identity. Andre Marrou, who was the LP’s presidential candidate in 1992, despite his checkered history of not making child care support payments, voiced the common consensus when he said in 1991 that Nixon “really disappointed me. He didn't cut government like he said he would—just like Bush and Reagan.” After a lifetime of spurning the GOP, Rothbard returned to the Republican fold in 1992, just three years before his death, giving his blessing to George H.W. Bush. Rothbard became a born-again Republican because he saw Pat Buchanan’s success in the primaries as proof that there was a still a vital anti-establishment wing to the party. Ron Paul, who was deeply swayed by the ideas of Rothbard and his ideological mate Lew Rockwell, made a similar return to the GOP. The Koch Brothers, perhaps out of pragmatism, have also turned their energies toward the Republican Party.

Yet if there has been a Republican turn among libertarians, it is worth remembering that this movement has come from people who don’t see the GOP as their ideal vehicle but rather as a necessary evil. Moreover, Rand Paul is not necessarily one of those people. Unlike his father, he didn’t leave the Republican Party and return as a blistering libertarian voice. He has always been a Republican, albeit one that spoke with a libertarian lilt, so his current move to the party’s center is entirely predictable. As history shows, the Republicans who most closely echoed libertarian rhetoric often proved the biggest disappointment: “Ronald Reagan raised many libertarians’ hopes only to dash them,” Brian Doherty notes in his authoritative and enthusiastic history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism. While almost all Republican presidential candidates dream of being the next Reagan, Paul is shaping up to be the Gipper Redux in the most disillusioning way possible for libertarians: a politician who stirs hopes that are certain to be dashed.