Here in California, one big safe space from swing state politics, I woke up before the presidential election determined not to slip into despair and cast my vote for Gary Johnson.
I did so for one big reason—almost for one reason alone. Freed by single-party rule in the Golden State to vote artistically, it struck me that libertarians carry a special importance today, one that ought to be stressed and encouraged wherever helpful to do so. Because without it, our prospects for political life in America seem poised to sour even more.
The key is this: more than anyone else, libertarians most admire humanist visionaries outside politics. And as a matter of habit, they often take that admiration, and the patterns of thinking it fosters, into the practice of politics. What they attain is important, of course, but not as important, I think, as what they avoid: namely, the kinds of distorted visions that now wield too great an influence over Republican and Democratic politics alike.
Let’s look at those distortions first so the value of the libertarian alternative can sail beautifully into view later on.
Democrats are much too captive today to the idea that justice is the highest vision—not just because they think justice is good (it is), but because they increasingly see every other vision of the highest as inexcusably riddled with injustice. Surely there is much to be gained from critically interrogating power structures and systemic problems; surely there is even more to be lost from embracing the delusion that only politics will save us because only justice holds up a lamp of perfection to guide us.
Republicans, meanwhile, often do look past justice for their vision of the highest—to a religious view of divine justice, for instance, or to cultural traditions that, while radically imperfect, provide us devious bungling beings with our best context for durable flourishing. To Republicans’ misfortune, however, these visions have failed thunderously to connect with Americans on a truly humanistic level.
Why? Religion in America has largely splintered into a robust but parochial conservative camp on the one hand and, on the other, an ecumenical liberal camp where either a very thick vision of justice or a very thin vision of comfort subs in for what the conservatives would want. Civic-minded traditions have not fared much better. The simple fact is that many Americans today just lack the cultural lineage and the education necessary to fully participate in the tradition inhabited by, say, Robert F. Kennedy, when he broke the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination by quoting Aeschylus from memory.
I think these deep disappointments have helped foster the view that only a great business leader can return visionary thinking to politics. We are all now about to find out whether the art of the deal can make America great again. But even if it somehow does, the greatness of business is a much different serum to inject into politics than the grandeur of humankind. And it is on the all-important issue of human grandeur—our beauty, our promise, our imagination, and our capacity for good judgment in the testing of some limits but not others—that libertarians currently have both major parties beat.
Consider a quick list of humanist visionaries likely to attract admiration from one kind of libertarian or another. Yes, there’s a healthy variety of libertarians, folks. You yourself would probably tick off names like Peter Thiel, a dedicated Trump supporter, Elon Musk, a cagey Clinton supporter, and John McAfee, who ran his own damn campaign for president. (McAfee’s running mate, Judd Weiss, helped brilliantly brand the campaign with one of the millennium’s most thoughtful bumper sticker slogans: Let life live.) It’s little surprise these sorts of individuals not only come at politics from a place firmly outside its ambit, but that they do so from different precincts in the same basic place: technology.
Libertarians tend to recognize, in an instinctive way that points toward a crucial piece of wisdom, that tech is a natural site to rediscover our human grandeur in today’s otherwise shadowy and uncertain times. At a moment when Christians have real work to do recover a deep and broad humanism, and the arts have slipped into a frustrating pattern of narrow-casting, niche identity, and low horizons, it’s technology where independent visionaries are making the most of a concrete difference in capturing human imaginations with powerful—and powerfully specific—visions of our shared destiny.
You don’t have to share all of those visions, or any of them, in order to notice their significance: lifting our gaze to something higher and more enduring than politics allows, and offering a more concrete—yet more capacious and forgiving—take on the future than the one we get by lusting after some shimmering abstract idea of perfect justice. (Plus, of course, they all interface freely with the healthy variety of humanistic visions that will in time emerge with the same energy from culture’s other wellsprings in religion and art.)
For all their general optimism, libertarians are today’s best keepers of our most important warning. If we can’t come to politics animated and limited by a best-future vision that reaches beyond politics, our destiny is very likely to recede ever further from view, leaving us to stagger endlessly between fruitless battle and equally fruitless boredom. Trust California’s libertarian visionaries before it’s too late: there’s a better way.