And I thought they were sorta special and maybe even unique. But now it seems that forty-odd years after President Richard Nixon said “we are all Keynesians now,” we are all becoming paranoid libertarians. Cass Sunstein’s column last week in Bloomberg View (glossing on a piece by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic) tells us “How to Spot a Paranoid Libertarian.” Sunstein used to be a well-respected U. of Chicago professor researching nudges, that is, behavioral economics and law . Then he became President Obama’s chief regulatory officer during the first term–so from the paranoid libertarian (henceforth PL, whenever I feel like abbreviating) point of view you could call him the principal deputy antichrist (especially if you were Thomas Perkins in San Francisco and were trying to follow up on your tantrum about a “progressive Kristallnacht”). Sunstein’s top tips on PL-spotting: look for presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials, a love of slippery-slope arguments, a sense of victimization, and indifference to trade-offs between liberty and any other values.
Sunstein seems dismissive of anyone more paranoid about government intrusions than he is (which in 2014 is most people, I think), and says Wilentz has performed a “valuable public service by pointing to the libertarian manifestation of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style in American politics.” Sunstein does not specifically endorse Wilentz’s insinuation that the views of Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange are unsavory. But frankly, it is not and never has been all about Snowden. I could care less whether he was freaked out by how many Muslims there are in London (or whether Greenwald could be kinder and gentler). The issue is about 300 million Americans and even more people worldwide whose lives are likely to be affected by out-of-control surveillance regimes–not the personal weaknesses of the leakers.
Libertarianism, both economic and social, is in a waxing phase, to the point where we might even get a quasi-libertarian president next time–by “quasi” I mean legal pot yes, legal heroin no. PL seems to many to be the last refuge of political sincerity in an era of self-conscious frivolousness. And “keep your government hands off my Medicare,” often derided as know-nothingism, could be seen as just a reflection of the sea in which we swim–a turbulent mixture of (at least half-hearted) Keynesian policy and dog-whistle-enabled paranoid libertarianism.
As I said, some of my best friends are, or were, paranoid libertarians. I kind of like them better when they stick with their flamboyant “out” (so to speak) selves, and don’t try too hard for respectability. It is a little dismaying, for example, to see a column by ultimate libertarian Richard Epstein of NYU Law School (not actually someone I have met, though I knew some of his U. Chicago colleagues) on “My Rand Paul Problem,” distancing himself from “hard-line libertarianism.” Epstein always seemed to me a pretty extreme exemplar of anti-government theory, and why he would claim to have stopped drooling and foaming at the mouth against statism now, at his advanced age, is beyond me. Speaking of staying true to one’s flamboyant self, watch out for Joe Biden trying out paranoid libertarianism on Democratic primary voters next time! He might take PL out for a spin in New Hampshire and Iowa–watch out Hillary!