NICK GILLESPIE: George McGovern, Libertarian Hero.

When you take a longer view of his career — especially after he got bounced from the Senate in 1980 during the Republican landslide he helped create — what emerges is a rare public figure whose policy positions shifted to an increasingly libertarian stance in response to a world that’s far more complicated than most politicians can ever allow.

Born in 1922 and raised during the Depression, McGovern eventually earned a doctorate in American history before becoming a politician. But it was as a private citizen he became an expert in the law of unintended consequences, which elected officials ignore routinely. He came to recognize that attempts to control the economic and lifestyle choices of Americans aren’t only destructive to cherished national ideals, but ineffective as well. That legacy is more relevant now than ever. . . .

He scandalized liberals in a 1992 letter to the Wall Street Journal, detailing his travails as the proprietor of a Connecticut hotel. Having sunk most of his savings into the venture, it went belly up, he said, partly because of a bad economy but also due to “federal, state and local rules that were all passed with the objective of helping employees, protecting the environment, raising tax dollars for schools, protecting our customers from fire hazards, etc.”

Lamenting his lack of business experience while he was a legislator and presidential contender, McGovern concluded that “ ‘one-size-fits-all’ rules for business ignored the reality of the marketplace.”

As he explained, “setting thresholds for regulatory guidelines at artificial levels — for example, 50 employees or more, $500,000 in sales — takes no account of other realities, such as profit margins, labor intensive vs. capital intensive businesses, and local market economics.”

In 2008, also in the Wall Street Journal, he attacked what he called “economic paternalism” from right-wing and left-wing politicians who were seeking to ban subprime loans and the pay- day lending business. Such laws don’t actually help people of limited means, he stressed, even as they reduce everyone’s ability to deal with their finances. He also took aim at “health-care paternalism” that made it impossible for consumers to shop across state lines for insurance and stuck them with unwanted or unaffordable gold-plated plans. “I’ve come to realize,” he wrote, “that protecting freedom of choice in our everyday lives is essential to maintaining a healthy civil society.”

If only he’d run on this platform in 1972.