August 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

America's libertarian moment?

President Ronald Reagan's election was thought to be a libertarian moment, but that never truly materialized. (Getty Images)

The New York Times wonders if the libertarian moment has arrived. Unfortunately, there’ve been false starts before.

Ronald Reagan’s election seemed the harbinger of a new freedom wave. His rhetoric was great, but actual accomplishments lagged far behind.

So, too, with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Admittedly, members of the GOP tend to toss around such phrases as individual liberty and limited government. However, their behavior in office looked little different from that of many Democrats.

Since then there’s been even less to celebrate in America, at least. George W. Bush was an avid proponent of “compassionate,” big government conservatism. Outlays rose faster than under his Democratic predecessor. No one did more to bail out business and enrich corporate America.

Barack Obama continued the tradition, promoting corporate welfare, pushing through a massive “stimulus” bill for the bank accounts of federal contractors, and seizing control of what remained private in the health care system. About the only good news is that incipient federal bankruptcy has discouraged Congress from adopting other massive new spending programs.

Over the last half century members of both parties took a welfare state that was of modest size despite the excesses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and put it on a fiscally unsustainable basis as part of the misnamed “Great Society.” Economist Laurence Kotlikoff figures government’s total unfunded liability at around $220 trillion.

America’s annual GDP is just $17 trillion. How Uncle Sam will ever make good on all its promises is impossible to imagine.

The national government has done no better with international issues. Trillions went for misnamed “foreign aid” that subsidized collectivism and autocracy. Trade liberalization faces determined resistance, and often is blocked by countries which gain the greatest benefits of global commerce.

Even worse has been foreign policy. The ecstasy felt by most people after the collapse of the Berlin Wall — a quarter century ago — has been forgotten. The defense budget has turned into a new form of foreign aid for America’s populous and prosperous allies. The U.S. has been constantly at war, repeatedly proving that the Pentagon is no better at social engineering than is any other government agency.

Americans across the political spectrum agree that something is wrong, that the status quo is no good. But they disagree on the remedy.

However, the answer shouldn’t be that hard to discern. The definition of insanity, runs the old adage, is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.

Today government attempts to solve problems by doing ever more of whatever it already is doing.

The economy is slowing, people are falling behind economically, freedoms are being lost, and security fears are rising? No problem. Roll out the usual failed nostrums.

It is this reality, not new personalities or generations that is creating a libertarian moment.

The obvious, and only, alternative to more government, which has failed so badly, is less government. Lower tax rates and rationalize complex tax systems. Cut the wasteful looting and pillaging that is a hallmark of today’s transfer society.

The libertarian moment will not “arrive.” It will have to be brought forward by those committed to a better and freer America.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.