LAS VEGAS -- Something's going on in America this election year: a renaissance of an ideal as old as the nation itself -- that live-and-let-live, get-out-of-my-business, individualism vs. paternalism dogma that is the hallmark of libertarianism.
Rep. Ron Paul of Lake Jackson, the Texas congressman and GOP presidential hopeful who champions small government and individual liberty, is one manifestation of it. We saw that with his rising popularity during the Republican presidential primary season and, now, the recent "takeovers" of political conventions in Nevada, Minnesota, Maine, Louisiana and elsewhere that will result in a sizable faction of Paul delegates at the GOP convention come August.
But what looms are far larger questions about whether an America fed up with government bans and bailouts -- with government, period -- is returning to its libertarian roots. And, if so, what that might mean in a potentially close presidential race and long after election 2012 is a mere memory.
"There's this kind of growing distrust of the institutions of government, and so it leads folks to step back and say, 'Well if they're not working, then we ought to have less of them in our lives,'" said Wayne Lesperance, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at New England College New Hampshire.
Paul's libertarian message joins people "who probably under any other circumstances would not see the world the same way and gets them politically involved," Lesperance said. "It is a challenge for the Republicans to wrap their arms around this and harness this in a way that gets them an electoral victory."
All this will be hotly debated this week as thousands gather at the Las Vegas Strip for a libertarian fete called FreedomFest. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. -- Ron Paul's son and the future hope of many limited-government enthusiasts -- will speak, along with a slew of libertarian-leaning politicians, scholars, economists and entrepreneurs, from Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and publisher Steve Forbes to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party presidential nominee.
When the festival began in 2002, some 850 people attended. Last year, 2,400 came. Festival founder and economist Mark Skousen will tell you that this is a sign, albeit a small one, that libertarianism -- or something an awful lot like it -- is surging.
"It is a rebirth," Skousen said, and a reaction to a feeling many share that America has moved too far from its founding principles. "This country was established for the very thing that we're fighting right now: excessive government control of our lives. In today's world everything is either prohibited or mandated. ... You have to have medical insurance. You have to wear a seat belt. ... They have to pat you down" at the airport.
Skousen has a simple analogy for all of this: "If you restrict a teenager, they rebel. I think that's what people are feeling."
"Libertarian" at its essence means an advocate of the doctrine of free will and individual liberty. Or, as the Libertarian Party states on the banner of its website: "Minimum Government, Maximum Freedom." Just how many Americans actually endorse the philosophy has never been easy to measure. The Libertarian Party claims some 250,000 registered voters among the more than 235 million voting-age Americans.
While there are few capital "L" Libertarians, many others clearly have libertarianlike views that favor a fiscally conservative, socially tolerant way of governing.
The philosophy -- religious freedom, self-governance, a representative democracy that responds to the will of the people instead of ruling over the people -- has been a part of the fabric of America since the 13 colonies waged a war for political independence from Britain.
"The American political culture from the beginning, and certainly at the time of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, was what would be called libertarian," said John Samples of the Center for Representative Government at the libertarian Cato Institute.