Acton Institute Powerblog

Calhoun vs. Heinlein for the Soul of American Libertarianism

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calhoun-heinleinJohn C. Calhoun was a 19th century American vice president who supported slavery and championed state’s rights. Robert A. Heinlein was a 20th century American science-fiction writer who opposed racism and championed space policy. The pair aren’t often mentioned together, but Breitbart’s pseudonymous “Hamilton” claims they represent two kinds of libertarianism.

Today in America, we see two kinds of libertarianism, which we might call “Calhounian” and “Heinleinian.” Both kinds believe in freedom, but they are very different in their emphasis—and in their politics.

I have a soft spot for brash, big-picture claims (like this one) even when they are probably mostly wrong (like this one). One aspect of the essay that is spot on, however, is the assessment of the “elite libertarian synthesis” in mainstream political culture:

Today, probably 90 percent of the Republican intelligentsia in Washington DC and New York City counts itself as libertarian on economic and social issues—and that matters. Why? Because it’s these libertarian experts/nerds/wonks who who write the articles, talking points, TV scripts, speeches, and books that shape Republican policy and politics. If there’s a wonk in every office putting policy material in front of his or her boss, then it’s the wonkocracy, overall, that not only sets the agenda, but also enforces the orthodoxy of the agenda.

Indeed, the libertarian influence is so large today that quite a few Democratic intellectuals are also substantially libertarian. Really? Yeah, really.
On social issues, of course, it’s a slam dunk favor of the libertarians—in both parities. It’s hard, for example, to find a Democratic wonk who is not in favor of gay marriage, unrestricted abortion, and legalized marijuana. In other words, on the social-issue side of libertarianism, the libertarian ascendancy in both parties is complete, save for a few conservative Republican holdouts.

And even on economic issues, many Democrats accept the basic idea of market forces, from free trade to spectrum auctions to the ill-fated Obamacare exchanges.
Indeed, it’s possible to see a great deal of overlap between Republican and Democratic intellectuals: They tend to have gone to the same schools, read much of the same policy literature, and share typically the same secular outlook. So yes, the respective parties, and bitter partisanship, still divide the wonk class, but there’s plenty still that unites them. If you’ve ever wondered why abortion, for example, is always legal, or why gay marriage and free trade are always advancing, the answer is the quiet bipartisan libertarian consensus among the elites.

Be sure to read the rest of the essay. The identification of “Calhounian” libertarians seems to miss the mark, though I think the “Heinleinian” classification is mostly accurate. Is this break-down really the future of libertarianism in America, though? And where do Christian libertarians fit into the picture?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

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