Rand Paul vs. the libertarian moment

So Rand Paul managed to qualify—barely–for the grownup’s table at tonight’s Republican presidential-candidate debate. That’s better than getting kicked down to the undercard, of course, like Mike Huckabee, but it still raises questions, not just for Kentucky senator but for the libertarian movement with which he’s associated.

As his campaign wheezes along, critics of libertarianism on both the right and the left are exulting in Paul’s weak (or as Donald Trump might say it: weak!) showing and proclaiming not just that he’s done, but so is libertarianism’s impact on contemporary America. “The False Rise and Fall of Rand Paul,” reads the headline of an October 20 Politico feature, “He was supposed to embody a new libertarian moment. But there never was one.”

I think it’s a monumental–and intentional–mistake to conflate Paul’s electoral fortunes with the persistence of what in 2008 Matt Welch and I dubbed “the Libertarian Moment,” or “comfort with and demand for increasingly individualized and personalized options and experiences in every aspect of our lives.” The Libertarian Moment already has had an effect on politics (think pot legalization, gay marriage, work-licensing reform), but it’s a profoundly pre-political dynamic that hardly hinges on whether a particular candidate (or party) goes big or goes home. Trying to pin the failure of a broad-based cultural and commercial shift by tying it to one person is best understood as a defense mechanism by folks deeply invested in perpetuating the played-out politics of left versus right, Democrat versus Republican, liberal versus conservative. Critics don’t want to have to deal with the tectonic shifts taking place in American culture any more than Hillary Clinton wants to have to deal with Uber or any GOP presidential candidate wants to deal with the overwhelming sentiment favoring some sort of pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.