When Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race after a dismal Iowa caucus, it marked the end of a libertarian moment in electoral politics. When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died Saturday, the judicial version of that same movement was also dealt a serious blow.
Belief in a federal government restricted from impinging on the people and states is passing. And even to someone who wore out copies of libertarian tomes like “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” in my youth, it’s becoming clear that much of the philosophy won’t work in the coming economy.
But Scalia didn’t argue against changing the Constitution to meet our needs. He argued we were ignoring it rather than changing it. On that he was correct. Hopefully, his judicial stand that we ought to amend the Constitution when we want to vastly alter our government will continue to find support, even as the libertarian belief that we should run the country as we actually did hundreds of years ago fades.
In 2008, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the father of Rand, sought the Republican presidential nod. The stock market was teetering. Housing prices were plummeting. About 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008, and almost 9 million by 2010. In that environment, Paul’s message that individual liberty trumped crony capitalism, corrupt institutions and government meddling picked up steam.
He was, not unlike Sen. Bernie Sanders, a likable and grandfatherly fellow who’d been preaching the same gospel for decades. So while many thought him wrong, no one accused him of being an opportunist.
And after Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009, his policies repelled many toward libertarian ideals. Federal programs such as the $800 billion spending stimulus, the bank bailout, Cash for Clunkers, the first-time home buyers rebate and the $33 billion bailout of General Motors convinced many Washington was running amok. Obamacare had passed. Tens of millions of people were receiving extended unemployment benefits and food stamps. And interest rates and inflation were so low that seniors couldn’t earn decent income on their money or get significant increases to their Social Security, even as their Medicare contributions jumped. Many people were furious, even when they weren’t sure who to be furious at.
The tea party took back the House for Republicans in 2010. In 2012, Ron Paul missed winning Iowa by three points and had numerous strong showings. And the Libertarian candidate, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, set a party record with 1.3 million votes.
It seemed the 2016 stage was set for Rand, a sitting senator with many of his father’s views, but he went nowhere for a bunch of reasons.
First, Obama’s programs sort of worked. TARP ended up making a $20 billion profit. General Motors is profitable. The rebound brought down annual deficits. The stock market, employment and housing prices bounced back.
But libertarianism also lost steam because technology is driving low- and medium- skilled wages down, while high-skilled work and capital investment reap huge rewards. People sense that, and know it means the “every man for himself” society of our founders won’t work going forward.
That’s fine. But we’ve added programs like Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare and a dozen federal agencies without amending a Constitution that bans such power grabs. That undermines the rule of law, even as it sometimes makes the lives of the people better.
That was Scalia’s real point, and it needs to be represented on the court, even if its proponents lose steam at the polls.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.