As libertarian politics have become more mainstream, thanks in large part to Ron Paul, what it means to be a libertarian has changed so much that most libertarian originalists — such as Nozick, Rand, or Rothbard — would probably not count as libertarians today. Instead, the libertarian label has been assigned to and largely adopted by two groups, the first group describing itself as constitutional conservatives, and the second as fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
At its core, libertarianism is the set of political philosophies valuing liberty above all, and as a means to liberty, the voluntary association of free individuals. It can be argued even that "pure" libertarianism cannot even exist within the key institutional features of liberal political structures.
In Libertarianism: A Primer, Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz defines libertarianism more progressively, as “the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others.” Often, the only exception is taxation in order for the government to establish a standing army and court system — a system called “minarchy.”
Under such an understanding of libertarianism, and as Christopher Beam of New York Magazine explains, the Constitution was a libertarian document that limited the government to a minarchy, and “all the government-run trappings that came after — the Fed, highways, public schools, a $1.5 trillion-a-year entitlement system — were arguably departures from our country’s hard libertarian core.”
With this loosening of this minarchy has come a loosening of the libertarianism on which it was built. By endorsing a minarchy within the confines of the original American political system, a new phenomenon of libertarian constitutionalism has emerged.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been mindful of this distinction, distancing himself from his truly libertarian father by creating a sort of Republicanism with libertarian principles. He is an example of a politician increasingly appealing to the mainstream by moving from libertarianism to libertarian constitutionalism. For instance, Paul has backtracked from his criticisms of the part of the Civil Rights Act that allows the government to enforce anti-discrimination laws against private businesses. Rand Paul himself acknowledged, “I’m not a libertarian. I’m a libertarian Republican. I’m a constitutional conservative.”
Much as the Tea Party was in 2010, many Republicans now realize that the libertarian label is not the vehicle to win elections. The new "modern libertarian" guard is re-branding what it means to be a libertarian, making it a more reasonable and compatible philosophy that can function within the Republican Party and the American system of government as a whole.
One such Republican is second-term Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mich.). He says there is a new breed of Republicans who “are much more libertarian in their views and have the debt as their primary concern and will fight to protect civil liberties. It’s only a matter of time before these individuals work their way up in ranks and become leaders."
Amash is well aware of the political benefits of the libertarian label: “It gives you credibility with people who might be mistrustful because you are Republican,” he told me. “It shows you are serious about following the Constitution and defending American people’s liberties.”
The second group calling themselves libertarians is those independents who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. The Zogby polling company, for instance, asked whether people were “fiscally conservative and socially liberal, also known as libertarian.” While the positive responses accounted for an impressive 44% of respondents, they are not actually libertarians. I image most of them, for instance, oppose the libertarian principle that the fundamental rights of citizens are equal to property rights, and you can easily give them up or bargain them away. Under that principle someone could sell himself or herself into slavery.
The truest form of libertarianism that remains in American politics exists in the Libertarian Party, where in 2012 the candidate, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, became the first libertarian to get over a million votes. His relative success, however, was not fuelled by his libertarian values but rather his pro-marijuana legalization and pro-gay-marriage agenda.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) embodies the rising tide of libertarianism within the Republican Party and the country. As his GOP faction and the Libertarian Party move forward they will continue to reshape what libertarianism means in the 21st century. Led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), these constitutionalists can be a dominant force in the GOP for 2016 if they tap into many Americans’ war-weariness, economic anxiety, and frustration with an overreaching government.