Libertarianism rings deep and true

The strong presence of Ron Paul, the Republican congressman from Texas, in the GOP campaign — and his respectable third-place finish in Iowa — is bringing attention to the often-ignored libertarian strain in American politics. It is an outlook that challenges the dogmas of both left and right, and taps into an essential part of the national psyche.

Paul, who ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 1988, espouses views that often put him at odds with fellow Republicans as well as Democrats. While he strongly opposes the welfare state and government intervention in the economy, he’s an equally vocal critic of government infringements on individual rights in the name of national security or traditional morality. He has assailed the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. While not endorsing same-sex marriage, he has argued that all voluntary associations should be legally protected and that, ideally, the state should get out of the marriage business and leave it to religious congregations.

The fortunes of Paul’s candidacy are complicated by his deeply troubling personal baggage of bigoted newsletters to which he lent his name two decades ago. Even without that, it’s unlikely that he could win the Republican nomination — let alone the White House. Yet the level of his support — he raised $13 million in the last quarter of 2011 and placed first in several polls — points to the enduring appeal of pro-liberty ideas. It is one of many such signs.

The Tea Party movement, which has changed America’s political landscape in the last three years, coalesced around opposition to big government. Despite its linkage to political conservatism, it has focused on small government and constitutional freedoms, not traditionally conservative social issues.

Meanwhile, sales of “Atlas Shrugged,” Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel in which entrepreneurs in a quasi-socialist future rebel against a parasitic state — the closest there is to a libertarian classic — have skyrocketed.

Libertarian sympathies have deep roots in America’s individualist culture. In a recent poll in the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Americans tended to agree — by an almost 2-to-1 ratio — that freedom to pursue one’s goals without state interference was more important than having the state guarantee that no one is in need.

Does that mean we have a libertarian majority? Not quite. People who believe freedom is more important than a safety net may still favor a far more extensive safety net than true libertarians consider appropriate.

Even Tea Party supporters, polls show, are more likely to support higher taxes on the rich than cuts to Social Security and Medicare; they’re also more likely to be conservative than libertarian on social issues and civil liberties, often opposing equal rights for same-sex couples and supporting state powers of surveillance over terror suspects. Americans in general are deeply conflicted on issues of liberty versus active government — whether it comes to economic intervention, social programs or national security. Various polls estimate that people with broadly libertarian views (socially liberal and fiscally conservative) make up 15 percent to 25 percent of the public.

In its pure form, libertarianism — like other purist ideologies — has an element of utopianism that ignores the messy complexities of real life. Such problems as race discrimination, environmental protection, health care access or decent living standards for the elderly and the disabled may have no free-market solutions, requiring collective action and investment. A radical reduction of the United States’ foreign commitments, advocated by Paul and many other libertarians, may be impossible in today’s globalized world.

Nonetheless, the libertarian challenge to the authoritarian tendencies of both the left and the right is an important addition to our political discourse. Libertarians are the only group that consistently defends individual choice — a voice we neglect at our peril.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine and a columnist at The Boston Globe. She is the author of “Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.”