The strange rise of libertarianism

With this essay on libertarianism, the reigning ideology of the Web, Salon and three other leading Web sites -- Electric Minds, Feed, and The Site -- launch the BrainWave project. The first such collaboration on the Web, the BrainWave project will explore some of the major issues confronting the Internet and its relationship to society.

Click here to visit the BrainWave home page.

Illustration by Mignon Khargie

if there is a default ideology in cyberspace, it is libertarianism. Click on just about any online discussion and sooner or later you run up against a libertarian buzzsaw -- hosts of unseen true believers, all of them seemingly armed with an inexhaustible supply of statistics and arguments, posting away with an intellectual rigor that is alternately awe-inspiring and a little scary. In its ironclad internal logic, its unswerving ideology and the fervor of its disciples, libertarianism, like Marxism, resembles a religion almost as much as it does a political philosophy.

Of course, libertarianism isn't confined to the online ghetto. Although few Republicans would call themselves libertarians, the GOP's decades-long attack on Big Government is based on libertarian precepts: Remember Ronald Reagan's "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem"? And while Reagan merely talked -- in fact, he presided over one of the greatest expansions of government in American history -- his far more cerebral successor, Newt Gingrich, threatens to actually dismantle much of the state. (Unless, of course, the state dismantles him first.)

Until recently, libertarians could reasonably have been dismissed as fringe characters, a few smart semi-cranks about as close to the American mainstream as the Juneau chapter of the Bakuninist Study Group. The number of card-carrying libertarians remains small: Harry Browne, the Libertarian presidential candidate, won about 485,000 votes in 1996. But libertarians wield a disproportionate influence, thanks to their positions in academia, high-tech companies and think tanks. With a confused and demoralized liberalism offering little intellectual resistance to the most ideologically aggressive conservatism since Barry Goldwater's, the movement can no longer be dismissed. And the publication of several high-profile new books, Charles Murray's "What it Means to be a Libertarian" and "Libertarianism: A Primer" and "The Libertarian Reader," respectively written and edited by David Boaz, executive vice-president of the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, is sure to raise the movement's profile. Especially since one of those books is by Murray, the Michael Crichton of social scientists, a man whose instinct for smashing America's hottest buttons with a sledgehammer is legendary.

What is libertarianism? My characterization is based largely on Murray's and Boaz's accounts, which on the major issues are fairly similar. It should be noted, however, that they both occupy a fairly moderate position on the libertarian spectrum, calling for a "limited" government rather than outright abolition and allowing for some notion of the "public good." Other variants of libertarianism are not as tender-hearted: The novelist Ayn Rand's "Objectivism," for example, denies God, exalts the gifted individual and denounces altruism. By comparison to this fire-breathing, Übermensch-gonna-get-yo-mama creed, Boaz and Murray come off (not by accident) as mere kindly Jeffersonian policy wonks. The genial appearance is deceptive, however. Libertarianism shares certain goals with the Gingrich-style conservatism with which it is currently fellow-traveling, but it is a much more radical ideology. That makes it intriguing -- how often does a genuinely theoretical political philosophy come along? It also makes it dangerous.

Next: Selfish geeks -- or Jeffersonian idealists?