“Let’s say Ron Paul is Nirvana,” said Kennedy, the television personality and former MTV host, by way of explaining the sort of politician who excites libertarians like herself. “Like, the coolest, most amazing thing to come along in years, and the songs are nebulous but somehow meaningful, and the lead singer kills himself to preserve the band’s legacy.

“Then Rand Paul — he’s Pearl Jam. Comes from the same place, the songs are really catchy, can really pack the stadiums, though it’s not quite Nirvana.

“Ted Cruz? He’s Stone Temple Pilots. Tries really hard to sound like Pearl Jam, never gonna sound like Nirvana. Really good voice, great staying power — but the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.”…

Libertarians, who long have relished their role as acerbic sideline critics of American political theater, now find themselves and their movement thrust into the middle of it. For decades their ideas have had serious backing financially (most prominently by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David H., ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian Party ticket), intellectually (by way of policy shops like the Cato Institute and C.E.I.) and in the media (through platforms like Reason and, as of last year, “The Independents”). But today, for perhaps the first time, the libertarian movement appears to have genuine political momentum on its side.

***

Some accuse Paul of adjusting his views to try to please all Republicans, trying to placate supporters who backed his father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), while also making inroads with the state’s religious conservatives.

It’s been a very tough balancing act for him to keep his dad’s base happy, take some stances the evangelicals don’t typically support, and still reach out to them,” said Greg Baker, the political director of the socially conservative Iowa Family Leader. “It’s eroded trust with both groups. … I’ve seen him speak a few times. He seems like he’s pretty good on marriage or Israel when I see him and then I see him on TV and he contradicts himself.”…

“A lot of people are concerned that he’s not coming off as authentic as his father did. The real debate among liberty folks is whether his perceived lack of authenticity is just a campaign tactic or is it something we’re going to see persist,” said Joel Kurtinitis, a former Ron Paul staffer and the outreach director of the libertarian group Liberty Iowa. “We’re really waiting for someone to take that stand the way Ron did without any backtracking or lack of sureness in his statements.”

***

If anything, the string of Obama foreign policy failures has moved the GOP away from Obama and Paul toward a more muscular foreign policy that recognizes the essential leadership of the United States in the world and the impossibility of delegating this task to others.

Paul will either have to run much further than Clinton when it comes to his own foreign policy positions — thereby offending the hard-core libertarians and forfeiting whatever authenticity he claims to have – or he will have to bet there is a hidden appetite for Obama-Hillary foreign policy in the GOP. If he runs in 2016, he will be facing a phalanx of Republicans — Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.). and Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Mike Pence of Indiana, to name just five potential adversaries — who are tougher on foreign policy, more consistent on support for Israel and less vulnerable to self-contradiction from prior statements and votes. (And don’t forget about Rick Santorum, who bedeviled Paul the Elder and the doggedly pro-Israel Mike Huckabee.) Protesting that he is continually misunderstood or his record misrepresented just isn’t going to cut it. To the contrary, whining suggests that Paul is unprepared and ill-suited to sustain the bumps and bruises of presidential politics.

***

For a generation, the U.S. government has been interfering in other peoples’ business while neglecting our own—making commitments without consideration of what it would take actually to keep them. It has spoken loudly while whittling down America’s stick. We have earned disrespect. Today, nobody takes America seriously. Would-be President Paul has made clear that his America would speak much more softly. Good. But he seems to have given little thought about what kind of stick the U.S. government needs to secure America’s peace as well as about what strokes may be needed to restore respect.

Today, China is building a military reasonably designed to control the western Pacific Rim from land bases. How would President Paul counter that? China has warned that any serious attempt to safeguard the independence of the islands off its coast might lead to the nuclear destruction of American cities. Would President Paul defend America against Chinese missiles, or Russian ones? As Muslim potentates from Palestine to Pakistan consider whether to (send or allow, it matters not) any of their zealots to kill more Americans, what reason would President Paul give them to hold them back? If and when terrorists from country X strike America, what if anything would he do to those in power there? In the meanwhile, what would he do to signal seriousness? Would he continue to subsidize the Palestinian Authority’s nursery of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism?

Paul‘s pronouncements on foreign policy, promising as they do retrenchment from foolish commitments, are faithful to the physician’s maxim: “First, do no harm.” But foreign affairs, as well as medicine, require more than refraining from harm.

***

Take two of the most frequently cited issues that herald the libertarian renaissance: legalized pot and gay marriage. Both of them, I would argue, are only inadvertently aligned with libertarian values. These are victories in a culture war. Both issues have rapidly gained acceptance in the United States, but support for them does not equate to any newfound longing to “uphold the principles of individual liberty.”

Many supporters of pot legalization are, for example, probably just as sympathetic to nanny-state prohibitions on products they find insalubrious or environmentally unfriendly. More seriously, many of the most passionate proponents of same-sex marriage are also the most passionate proponents of the government forcing Christian bakers and florists to participate in gay marriages and impelling religious business owners to subsidize contraception for their employees…

It’s odd that stories about the impending libertarian ascension always treat economics as an addendum to the itinerary. Especially when one considers some of the greatest thinkers of classical liberalism were (and are) economists. It’s yet to be seen if grassroots conservatives will maintain their libertarian economic outlook should they ever find themselves in power. But at least some in GOP have embraced an agenda driven by actual idealism.

Now, with all that said, most Americans want nothing to do with libertarian economic policy. As Kevin Williamson pointed out not long ago in Politco, the love Americans show for their expensive and inefficient programs makes a libertarian moment in the near future unlikely. No matter how often voters tell pollsters they crave more choice, limited governments and free market solutions, elections tell us that they’re lying.

***

The point is that before you rage against unwarranted government interference in your life, you might want to ask why the government is interfering. Often — not always, of course, but far more often than the free-market faithful would have you believe — there is, in fact, a good reason for the government to get involved. Pollution controls are the simplest example, but not unique.

Smart libertarians have always realized that there are problems free markets alone can’t solve — but their alternatives to government tend to be implausible. For example, Milton Friedman famously called for the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. But in that case, how would consumers know whether their food and drugs were safe? His answer was to rely on tort law. Corporations, he claimed, would have the incentive not to poison people because of the threat of lawsuits.

So, do you believe that would be enough? Really? And, of course, people who denounce big government also tend to call for tort reform and attack trial lawyers.

More commonly, self-proclaimed libertarians deal with the problem of market failure both by pretending that it doesn’t happen and by imagining government as much worse than it really is. We’re living in an Ayn Rand novel, they insist. (No, we aren’t.)

***

The “libertarian moment” is not an event in American culture. It’s a phase in internal Republican Party factionalism. Libertarianism is not pushing Republicans forward to a more electable future. It’s pushing them sideways to the extremist margins…

Despite the self-flattering claims of libertarians, the Republicans’ post-2009 libertarian turn is not a response to voter demand. The areas where the voting public has moved furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction—gay rights, for example—have been the areas where Republicans have moved slowest and most reluctantly. The areas where the voting public most resists libertarian ideas—such as social benefits—are precisely the areas where the GOP has swung furthest and fastest in a libertarian direction…

Libertarianism diverges from ordinary conservatism in many ways, but perhaps most fundamentally in this: Whereas ordinary conservatism emphasizes the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government action, libertarianism presents government as alien and malign…

The libertarians interviewed by Robert Draper talk about their movement’s exciting, bold ideological vision. Yet the true secret to its post-2008 appeal is just the opposite. Those conservatives who succumb to libertarianism do so in despair, not hope. Instead of competing to govern the state, many now feel that their only hope is defend themselves—with arms if necessary—against an inherently and inevitably hostile and predatory state.

***

During a radio interview discussing my column I was challenged by a host who believed my own perception of Paul was naïve, and then challenged by a caller who was adamant about the government being intrusive, unnecessary and fundamentally wrong. Then I presented the caller with the same hypothetical I do to so many of my self-professed libertarian friends: I’m injured in a plane or car crash. There is one hospital located in the town in which the crash has taken place. Do you believe the hospital has a right to refuse to treat me on the basis of race, and that the government has no moral or legal imperative to require the hospital to treat me?

One can make a convincing argument that a florist refusing to provide flowers to a same-sex wedding, or an upscale restaurant not welcoming African Americans, aren’t really major civil rights issues. (Frankly, in this day and age, if a restaurant refused to serve me I might use the power of the Internet to help put it out of business, but I wouldn’t see the point in suing someone to serve me when there are plenty of other dining options.) But when it comes to issues like government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans, there is more at stake…

This is why as disillusioned as some African Americans, including myself, are with both Republicans and Democrats, we are unlikely to feel at home among libertarians. As long as leaving America’s most vulnerable unprotected remains a core piece of libertarianism, it is unlikely that the libertarian movement will find many allies in communities of color.

***

[S]omething new and different is in the air. You can see it in the bizarre, black-swan cashiering of politicians as varied as former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the sitting Democratic governor of Hawaii (who just lost his primary). You can see it in historically low ratings not just for Congress as an institution but in the way people feel about their own representatives. Mostly, though, you can see it in the way people are living their lives beyond the puny, zero-sum scrum of politics, where people as different as Glenn Beck and Glenn Greenwald are building new forms of media and storytelling and community. Whatever else you can say about politics as bloodsport, Obama sucking even worse than Bush, etc., this much is true: People are also getting on with their lives and building new businessess, communities, and worlds in ways that are pretty damn amazing…

I have no idea who will be the next president of the United States, but I’m certain that the outcome of that contest will matter far less than the broad currents in American society that are clearly moving in the direction of greater social tolerance and fiscal responsibility. That’s one of the main trends that Reason picked up in its poll of Millennials—not some self-congratulatory discovery that the kids today are junior-varsity libertarians—and folks who don’t want to grapple with that and all its implications will have less and less relevant to say about politics, culture, and ideas. That won’t make a difference to the Krugmans of the world and the pols who are in truly safe districts, but it will to the rest of us who are keenly interested not just in seeing what the future holds but also in helping to create it in the first place.

***

But later, with an irritated edge to his voice, Paul added: “Some people are purists, and I get grief all the time — all these libertarian websites hating on me because I’m not as pure as my dad. And I’m putting restrictions on foreign aid instead of eliminating foreign aid altogether. And I’m like: ‘Look, guys, I’m having trouble putting these restrictions on, much less eliminating them! So give me a break!’”…

But, I wanted to know, would libertarians be willing to meet the G.O.P. somewhere in the middle?…

Gillespie acknowledged that the answer remained unclear. “I think that if a major-party candidate articulates 75 percent of the catechism,” he said, “both self-identified libertarians and people who don’t realize they’re libertarians would vote for him.” But then again, he said, it might take “a hundred years or something” for his movement to find its true expression in a political party. “We’ve gone from a movement that didn’t exist, then we all believe in this roughly similar thing, then we have a dalliance with the G.O.P., then we realize, no, we’re totally separate. And then we find out, no, we really need to activate politically in a conventional two-party system,” he said, his tone betraying little concern for the pace of this process. “And it may be we’re still some years away from that. I don’t know.”