For this to-the-hilt liberal, “Libertarianism in the Age of Obama” seemed like a shady name for the talk Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, the top brass over at Reason Magazine, were slated to give via The Modernist Society (think hipsters, alcohol and more hipsters). But as a now devout reader of the publication—and with a decent sense of the kind of dialogue Welch and Gillespie offer—I figured why not: The special was a four-dollar glass of decent bourbon and I was pretty strung out from the day before.
What seemed like a very tiny showing turned into a boisterous crowd by 10 or so. There were ties and jeans and argyle and rectangular frames and a terrible bartender; the mood seemed joyous, and I thought to myself, “Libertarians are hipper than liberals? I dare say.”
When the talk finally got started, Gillespie had the room gaffed on his style of wit: asked about Reason’s relationship with the Libertarian Party, Gillespie replied, “We bring the party”; they "hate black presidents for all the same reasons they hate white presidents"; “crony capitalism is better than crony socialism”; “The Price is Right is a libertarian TV show, because the price is always right”; etc.
As the questions started rolling in from the audience—though not a single one came from one of the bedecked scenesters—Gillespie and Welch switched off answering, and it became abundantly clear to me that both men understand the issues inside and out. They discussed 19th (or was it 18th?) century political theory, civil liberties, economics and everything else thrown their way.
While no expert on libertarian ideology, I left Bourbon that night slightly drunk and with a greater understanding of what it means to view government and policy through a lens other than politics—in other words, the line “free minds and free markets” isn’t just “stay off my lawn and let me do whatever drugs I want.” It’s reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s patented moral objectivism, where one’s morality corresponds with one’s politics. A free, unadulterated market needs to be protected as fiercely as the freedom of speech.
I in no way wish to draw any real comparison between Rand and libertarianism (indeed, when asked in a 1971 interview what she thought of the Libertarian Party, Rand responded, “I’d rather vote for Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, or Jerry Lewis.”). Look at this small example: A great many liberals believe this country’s drug laws aren’t working; now, there are myriad suggestions as to how to fix this, but in dozens of conversations I’ve had over the years, few of those in favor of decriminalizing marijuana are in favor of decriminalizing crystal meth. One reddens your eyes, the other kills you. I haven’t met many liberals in favor of getting rid of seatbelt or helmet laws, either.
Where’s the tipping point between civil liberties and, to put it glibly, the government looking out for you? This question was running through my head for the length of the discussion, and I saw in the libertarianism espoused by Welch and Gillespie an ideology at ease with itself. I haven’t turned in my liberal card, but conservatives and liberals alike could use a few voices as clear as Gillespie and Welch’s.
And it is with confidence that I nominate both men as possible candidates to replace Bill Kristol as The New York Times’ new op-ed columnist. Kristol, who could not find it in himself to utter anything of worth for an entire year, left a legacy of boilerplate drivel and a hard-to-conceal erection for Sarah Palin. Good riddance.
As for his open position, we see a parallel in the tough choices governors must make in the appointing of a senator to fill a vacant seat. There are a lot of factors to consider, and chief among the Times’ situation is the notion—gasp—of balance: “How do we present a diversity of opinion and thought that reflects the whole spectrum?” Surely we’re not all Dowds and Kristols.
And while most of us are not libertarians, Gillespie and Welch have the presence of mind to keep the debate fresh and lively. It’d be hard to pick one, but my gut is leaning toward Gillespie, mostly because he rocks a great leather jacket.
The New York Times needs a dynamic voice on its page; its columnists, with the occasional exceptions of Paul Krugman, Frank Rich and David Brooks, are stale and overplayed. A Gillespie or a Welch is exactly what that paper needs—and what public debate needs.