libertarianism as right wing chic

Radical chic” is an old term from the 70s indicating that a politically liberal person is trying to look cool by promoting radical causes. I think  we are now seeing a similar phenomenon among conservatives. Many call themselves libertarian to sound cool, but they don’t actually endorse many libertarian positions except for free trade.

Case in point: The person who defeated Eric Cantor is David Brat, a professor of economics who uses the term libertarian to describe himself. But on a range of issues beside economic deregulation, he appears to be a standard issue social conservative. Immigration? Against it. Abortion? Against it. Foreign policy? Vague. Cutting the military? Nope. Gay rights? Silent. And like many conservatives, cutting government means just cutting the programs that conservatives are upset about, like Obamacare, rather than across the board cuts. If you think that libertarians are socially liberal but economic conservatives, he seems to be very close to a social conservative.

My theory? Social conservatives don’t have a very positive image outside of their movement. Social conservatives have been tarnished by anti-immigration hysteria, anti-Black attitudes, and a strong emphasis on abortion. In contrast, libertarianism is a small movement but has some high status adherents (e.g., many well known economists are libertarians, a number of Silicon Valley billionaires, even a Harvard philosopher). It might also be a political term that is less familiar, so there is less risk in using it.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 26, 2014 at 12:07 am

Posted in current events, fabio

3 Responses

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  1. Since you use the present tense in that parenthetical aside, I can’t think who the Harvard philosopher might be.


    Jacob Levy

    June 26, 2014 at 12:46 pm

  2. I’ve noticed this in my own life and I think its worthy of some study. At my univ a colleague did a survey in a large undergrad intro to stats course to serve as data for the course. Several students identified themselves as “libertarian” even though they did not support gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and were anti-immigration. On the flip side, I had a few friends in my undergrad days who called themselves “libertarian” because of drug legalization but were basically left leaning on every other issue.
    My take is that the “libertarian” discourse becomes more popular among right-leaning media and politicians whenever the Democrats have a large share of political power. If a republican is elected in 2016 and Congress has the same balance of power I expect the anti-government, quasi-libertarian discourse to fade.
    Also, as you are likely aware there is a long history of leading libertarians attempting to make libertarianism more palatable to social conservatives which, in the long run, probably made libertarianism less libertarian and made the term even more vague.


    Silly Wabbit

    June 26, 2014 at 2:19 pm

  3. I think the Bush years made Republicans looks very bad, so folks want to distinguish themselves. “Tea Party” is one way, but libertarianism has been around longer and you can claim you have principled distinctions (no need to be specific regarding what those are).



    June 26, 2014 at 6:27 pm

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