The libertarians are coming

Lee Edwards Heritage Foundation
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LAS VEGAS—They came from Arizona and Australia, Boston and the Bahamas, South Carolina and South Africa to raise high the elixir of liberty in this, the most laissez-faire city in America.

More than 2,100 strong, they crowded the corridors of Bally’s Casino and Resort to attend FreedomFest 2010, the largest-ever “non-political” gathering of libertarians.

They booed the leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties as cynical apostles of Big Government. They shared horror stories about the impact of federal spending and debt on their portfolios, while lingering at exhibits touting gold as a solid investment.

They listened intently as publisher Steve Forbes and Whole Foods founder John Mackey disclosed some secrets of their success.

“A great leader challenges the conventional,” said Forbes, who advocated a flat tax while running for president and insists it’s still a good idea.

Because he never took a business course in college, Mackey said, he didn’t know what “couldn’t be done.” Take, for example, making money while behaving in an ethical way and providing healthy food.

Economist and investment analyst Mark Skousen, the genial chairman and founder of FreedomFest, made sure attendees got their money’s worth July 8-11. The agenda was crowded with 164 speakers and more than 100 talks, debates and breakout sessions.

Heritage Foundation fellow Brian Walsh, co-author of the new book “One Nation Under Arrest,” raised many an eyebrow when he reported that Americans are subject to more than 4,400 federal criminal statutes. And that’s not accounting for “regulatory crimes,” so plentiful that the Congressional Research Service admits it can’t calculate the total.

At a reverential luncheon, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden waxed rhapsodic about Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and high priestess of Objectivism. Rand was, they agreed, generous, sensitive, an almost hypnotic speaker, infinitely patient with “eager, inquiring minds.”

The entranced faces of young female acolytes in the audience dimmed considerably, though, when the Brandens admitted that Rand taught that man is defined by his relationship to reality, woman by her relationship to man.

“None of us are perfect,” Barbara conceded.

Leon Louw, executive director of South Africa’s Free Market Foundation, stunned listeners when he asked them to name the world’s fastest-growing economy of the past 30 years, and then supplied the answer: Botswana.

Africa was an economic disaster, Louw said, but many of the continent’s nations have moved steadily toward economic freedom.

Memo to President Obama: The finance minister of South Africa, governed by the Marxist African National Congress, has called government bailouts “immoral.”

But FreedomFest wasn’t all talk all the time. The concluding banquet brought a few scenes from the musical drama “1776.” Skousen, a descendent of Benjamin Franklin, played the good doctor while Forbes, in wig and breeches, portrayed George Washington.

An ensemble called the Revolutionaries (aka the Pink Flamingos) offered music of a decidedly liberated variety, prompting young and old to do the Bubble Wrap Hop and toss a shark (representing the federal government) back and forth over a net.

Scheduled debates were usually rational, but not always. Among topics: whether Franklin D. Roosevelt “ended” the Great Depression; the Constitution v. the Articles of Confederation; the future of freedom in the land of the free.

To these ears, Lawrence Reed, president of the New York-based Foundation for Economic Education, won the Depression debate with this remark: “America finally recovered when FDR didn’t.”

Libertarians tend toward the utopian in politics. Some talked tough, especially the Randians, about bolting both established political parties and getting behind a third party in 2010 and beyond.

But conservative direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, never one to hesitate to criticize or even condemn the Republicans, brought the audience back to earth with a blunt warning.

“If you want your grandchildren to live under socialism,” Viguerie said, “go with a third party. The liberals will put themselves in power for generations if we [on the Right] divide ourselves into two parties.”

Heads nodded throughout the hall.

Yes, the libertarians are coming. And if it’s not always clear where they’re going — Bring Back the Gold Standard? Go Third Party? God Is the Problem? — they essentially agree with Ronald Reagan on one key point.

“In this present crisis,” Reagan famously said in his first inaugural address, “government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

Lee Edwards, Ph.D., a leading historian of American conservatism, is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation. In-house authority on the movement for the prominent Washington think tank, Edwards is the author of 20 books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and — his latest — William F. Buckley Jr.