Commentary: Our Libertarian Moment (September, 2013)

by Shayne Spence



2013 has been a landmark year for those involved in the fight for limited government.  Dubbed by many as the “Summer of Paul”, after Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), this year has been full of tales of government foibles.  Media commentator Matt Drudge, of, recently tweeted “It’s now Authoritarian vs. Libertarian.”  And while Drudge was the first mainstream media source to note this shift in the political paradigm, it is what the American people have been sensing for many years.  Issues have come and gone, coalitions have risen and fallen, but the encroachment on our liberties has been constant.  Whether it is the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, the Ron Paul Revolution or the ACLU, people across the nation are starting to come together around one common idea; our government no longer represents We the People as it should.

Recent revelations about NSA cyber-snooping, IRS political targeting, and the threat of a Syrian intervention have many questioning whether government truly has the American people’s best interests at heart.  People are concerned to hear about programs intended for national security purposes targeting American citizens domestically.  After 12 years of conflict in the Middle East, even the most hawkish conservatives are taking a second look before advocating for another intervention in the region.  Yet it seems as though the NSA programs will continue, with an amendment which would have ended the programs failing in the House of Representatives 217-205.  And the President, while allowing Congress the chance to vote on military action in Syria, has already claimed the power to do what he wants regardless of the vote.  These events combined with long-standing debates about our healthcare policy, criminal justice system, and environmental policy have created a perfect storm of sorts.  This has allowed libertarian-minded conservatives like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Justin Amash to come to the forefront, and change the makeup of the political discussion altogether.

The first event to significantly shift the discussion in this new direction was Rand Paul’s March filibuster of the Obama Administration’s drone policy.  Citing the recent drone assassination of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, and the LAPD’s use of drones domestically during the Christopher Dorner manhunt, Paul drew attention to a secretive “kill-list”, hidden deep within the depths of the executive branch.  Over the 13 hour filibuster, during which he was joined by Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rob Wyden (D-OR), he made the case that the use of drones constitutes an act of war, and that American citizens should not need to live in fear of their own government.  The bipartisan support enjoyed was made even more impressive when compared to the reactions of some of Paul’s own party, with Sen. John McCain calling Paul, Cruz, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) “wacko-birds”.  This shift away from traditional partisan rivalries towards issue-oriented coalitions has allowed Paul and other libertarian-minded conservatives to reach across the aisle to enlist help in shrinking government.

The next huge paradigm shift occurred with Edward Snowden’s release of classified information concerning the NSA phone- and email-monitoring programs.  In early June, Snowden, a contractor working for the NSA, released documents detailing an expansive surveillance program and proof that it had been used on U.S. citizens.  The public was outraged to know that their privacy had been violated in such a way, and immediately calls to end the program began from across the spectrum.  The Amash-Conyers Amendment, put forth by Michigan Reps. Justin Amash (R) and John Conyers (D) would have brought this program back within the original legislative intent, by adding standards with which the programs must comply.  This amendment, authored by members of both parties, enjoyed bipartisan support.  In this Congressional vote, it truly was “authoritarian vs. libertarian”. And while it was close, the supporters of Big Government won.  But they did so ignoring the shouts of the public, and the public is not likely to forget something as invasive as this.

Most recently, the Obama administration’s talk of intervention in Syria has outraged the American people.  After public calls for a Congressional vote on the issue, President Obama said that he would allow such a vote, but reserved the “right and responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security”.  Ignoring the obvious questions, (like how a civil war in Syria has anything to do with America’s national security, or how becoming Al-Qaeda’s air force would be helpful to our national security) his snatching of Congress’ power to declare war is troubling at best.  And as soon as it was in Congress’ hands, the American people began to speak, in an overwhelmingly unified voice.  Our own Senator Bernie Sanders (I) reported that 98.5% of the calls he received were opposed to intervention in Syria.  Reports from other Senators and Congressmen ranged from 100 to 1 to 500 to 1 opposed.  With that high of a ratio, it is quite clear that these were people from all across the spectrum, unified in their belief that there needs to be a clear national interest for us to send our sons and daughters to war.  Early vote counts show a majority of the House voting no on the resolution authorizing war, proving that this loud opposition works in changing the way our elected officials vote.

The public discussion moving in this direction has brought new issues to the forefront, and made previously untouchable issues suddenly vulnerable.  Young people especially are becoming increasingly incensed with Big Government domestic surveillance and foreign policy.  We don’t like the idea of drones circling over our heads, tracking our every move, or an NSA agent reading our texts, or getting involved in a conflict that could lead to World War III.  But people of every age are becoming increasingly doubtful of government’s ability to solve problems.  A recent Gallup poll showed 60% of Americans saying government is too powerful, breaking the previous record from September 2010, right before the midterm that brought 87 freshman Congressmen into the House.  Given this paradigm shift, it is likely that the 2014 elections will be fought along authoritarian/libertarian lines.  We have the chance to be the intellectual revolution of this generation, and counter the progressive movement that has come to a head here in Vermont.  We must ask the question that has been completely ignored through all of this – if you do not like the way government has dealt with national security, or the way government has gone to war, why would you support a complete government takeover of your healthcare?  What makes you think they could do this right?


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Hunter Melville September 27, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Great piece, Shayne. Glad to see the libertarian perspective get an airing on EAI, keep up the good work!


Alex Darr October 21, 2013 at 4:56 pm

“More often than not, the government solution is worse than the problem.”
-Milton Friedman

The government’s solution to terrorism = monitor all calls, even those of the completely unrelated and innocent.
The government’s solution to poverty = create a perverse incentive to stay poor with welfare programs that continue to grow.

Just getting my spiel out there, like what you had to say too, Shayne.


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