Politics & Media
Jan 30, 2009, 09:29AM

Get a libertarian on the NYT's op-ed page

Preferably Nick Gillespie or Matt Welch.

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.

  • What gave you the idea that liberals are "hip"? More seriously, your suggestion is a very good one, either Gillespie or Welch would enliven the Times' op-ed pages in a way Kristol certainly didn't. But don't count on it: Gillespie and Welch are too dangerous for Times editors to consider in that their articles are very serious, well-researched and would challenge readers in a way that Kristol's tossed-columns didn't.

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  • I don't know much about Gillespie or Welch, but I'll take the chance to nominate my own choice for the open editorial position: Andrew Sullivan of 'The Atlantic.' He's a bit emotional and easily gets overheated, but he cares passionately about his subjects, has a wide range of interests, and is more than capable of stirring the pot.

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  • Oh, Jesus, what an awful thought. Not a bad call, though, for TimesThink, although I think they'd be afraid he'd go wacky too often. Now, a liberal who'd I'd read every time would be James Wolcott, who's 100 times better than Frank Rich.

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  • Sullivan would be a fine addition because he's pretty damn deft at pissing off conservatives while still being an actual conservative. Wolcott is decent, certainly not "100 times better than Frank Rich."

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  • Sullivan is not an actual conservative. Just look at his blog from the spring of '04 to today. He deserves credit for shaking up The New Republic in the 90s, but if you suggest Sullivan is an "actual conservative" to an actual conservative, he or she will laugh in your face. Oh, and my dog is better than Frank Rich.

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  • Please. When you say "actual conservatives" do you include the anti-gay bigots who continue to plague our politics and keep a strangle hold on equal rights? Sullivan might be "off the reservation" to one type of conservative, but for the discerning thinker, it's another story.

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  • No, I want nothing to do with anti-gay bigots, or bigots of any sort. Sullivan was a huge supporter of John Kerry in '04, before Bush imploded. I think that sums it up. But please enlighten me: what conservative causes does Sullivan champion?

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  • If the NYT editors are looking at the Reason stable (dream on!) they ought to at least consider Jesse Walker. Here's a link to his latest column: http://reason.com/news/show/131332.html

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  • Well, Sullivan is against the stimulus bill (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/01/would-i-have-vo.html) and entitlements (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/week5/index.html); but let's just cut to the chase, ok? "For the record, I support a flat tax and, as my liberal readers know, find progressive taxation unjust and counter-productive; I'm skeptical of universal healthcare on European lines and have long defended a free market in healthcare and pharmaceuticals; I have no queasiness in fighting a war against Jihadist terror - in fact I have long been one of the most passionate supporters of it I am skeptical of cap-and-trade and Kyoto-style approaches to climate change and favor a much higher tax on gas, balanced by a cut in payroll tax, to help innovate new energy sources. Not many liberals, I wager to say, endorsed Ron Paul for president for the GOP in the primaries. Not many liberals, I dare to say, have written books on conservatism which rest on a reading of key conservative thinkers such as Burke and Oakeshott and Montaigne and Hobbes." (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/01/forbes-definiti.html) Seems like that leaves homosexuality, John Kerry and anti-Sarah Palin leanings.

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  • Yes, let's cut to the chase. Sullivan, in his endorsement of Obama [http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/11/barack-obama-fo.html] puts aside all his free-market principles because he claims that Bush/Cheney tore apart the Constitution. As a liberal, Andrew, do you consider that Bush "shredded" the Constitution more than Nixon, FDR (with his internment of Japanese Americans) or Woodrow Wilson (with his suspension of the First Amendment during World War I, when he ordered the incarceration of those who spoke out against the US involvement in that war)?

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  • Note the date on that endorsement: Nov. 3. Long before that point, McCain made a mockery of conservatism, the electoral system and the American public by choosing Sarah Palin as his vice president (who, as governor, presided over one of the most socialist policies—the sharing of oil revenue—in this country). Free market ideals don't mean anything if someone that under-qualified, that ignorant and that divisive is next in the line of succession. I don't need to link to Sullivan's (and others) countless arguments as to why McCain lost any shred of credibility with that pick. A great many "real conservatives" argued exactly that. As for your tangent about "shredding the Constitution" (this point has nothing to do with the original argument over Sullivan being a "real conservative"), just come out and say it: Do you believe that torture is acceptable? If you say yes, then we must agree to disagree; if no, then what's your point? Personally, there is no excuse for torture. Ever. And FDR, Nixon and Wilson? Apples and oranges. All of the above shamed this country in their own wonderfully individual fashion.

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