I have been a Libertarian for years, a member of the Cato Institute, and a follower of Libertarian thought. I, like many Americans, am completely dissatisfied with both Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative, and have sought a middle ground – not a waffly place of compromise and vacillation, but one in which reasonable positions are espoused regardless of their political tilt. Libertarianism appeals because it is very conservative on economic and fiscal policy; very liberal on international and social issues.
Big government is a threat to individual liberty, say Libertarians, and there is nothing more amoeba-like than its creep and assimilative qualities. No matter who the President – Ronald Reagan, George Bush, or Lyndon Johnson, government has continued to grow, with more and more invasive policies whether NSA surveillance, profligate subsidies, unrealistic and idealistic regulations, or wasteful social programs.
Libertarians have stood steadfastly for freedom of speech, and have defended Manning and Snowden. They are for a liberal immigration policy, driven primarily by a belief in free trade and open markets. Immigrants have always added to the nation’s economy and provided waves of new energy and entrepreneurial spirit. They are adamantly pro-choice, understanding that abortion is not a matter for government, but the individual. At the same time they rightly question Roe vs. Wade for its judicial activism and overreaching, understanding that such a religious, philosophical, and moral issue rightly belongs in the public domain and out of insular institutions.
Libertarians have always been suspicious of foreign interventionism and have sharply criticized the adventurism of George Bush and Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their hero is Dwight D. Eisenhower who loudly warned of the military-industrial complex and how it threatened American democracy. Libertarians have said only that Ike should have added Congress to military-industrial, for this unholy triad is truly a dangerous alliance.
Libertarians have been harshly critical of government social action from affirmative action to the social engineering programs of ‘inclusivity’,diversity’ and theories of ‘multiple intelligences’. Special programs have been long skewed against the talented, intelligent, and entrepreneurial students; and ‘progressive’ programs simply ignore the truth – America is a land of equal opportunity, not equal ability.
Libertarians have been conservative on fiscal and financial issues. Tax rates should be kept low to encourage private savings and individual decision-making; Fed intervention is not necessarily bad (some Libertarians do call for the abolition of the Fed and Ron Paul raised the debunked issue of the Gold Standard), but risks the same arrogance and overreaching as the Supreme Court.
Libertarians are often characterized as the party that wants to abolish all government. This is a gross distortion. Libertarian principle is based on the bedrock American principle of “Show Me”. Rather than start with the assumption that government is always right, they demand that for each proposed intervention, government must prove that a) its investment is sound, based on solid quantitative evidence; and b) that only it – not the private or voluntary sectors – can do the job. This is a very reasonable approach, for Congress is a sinkhole of venal interests, and laws, regulations, and policies are churned out more because of parochial electoral interests than sound reasoning. Show us that government intervention works and this the only or best way, and we will support it.
The problem with Libertarianism is not its philosophy or principles, but the distortion of them that is inevitable in electoral politics. Ron Paul adhered to most Libertarian principles but for some reason caved on abortion rights and immigration. He got greedy, and like most politicians, when he saw a whiff of success at the polls, moved away from his base. Nevertheless his relatively pure brand of Libertarianism was successful at the polls, with as high as 40 percent primary votes in the Mid-Atlantic Region in 2012 (RonPaulForums.com). Other regions clustered around 25 percent.
His son, Rand, more politically ambitious than his father, openly disavows most of Libertarianism, but as a sop to the millions who voted with his father, still includes the term in his resume.
As Rachel Alexander writes in The Guardian (7.30.13):
Rand Paul is not as libertarian as his father Ron. In May, he told an evangelical gathering in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:
I'm not advocating everyone go out and run around with no clothes on and smoke pot. I'm not a libertarian. I'm a libertarian Republican. I'm a constitutional conservative.
That is, he is a rock-ribbed Conservative. The red-meat Rush Limbaugh crazies are his constituents, not the well-heeled Washington intellectuals who go to seminars at Cato in Washington.
To get elected, Rand Paul has to choose one side or the other; and he has chosen the Far Right. This is sensible electoral politics, for there are simply not enough true Libertarians who espouse both abortion rights and fiscal conservatism. More importantly, an anti-military stance will lose politicians votes every time; and although Americans are now sick of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most will be solidly for maintaining a strong military. Although Eisenhower was right in his warning, enough Conservative politicians have been manifestly militarist that his words have been lost.
The battle between two prime Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential election – Rand Paul and Chris Christie is already heating up. Christie, still worried about Paul’s libertarian followers and seeing ‘creeping libertarianism’ everywhere, has gone on the attack.
New Jersey Republican Mayor Chris Christie took a harsh swipe at Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky last week, declaring Paul's criticism of the National Security Administration as "dangerous". Appearing on a panel with other Republican governors, Christie said:
This strain of libertarianism that's going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought.
Asked if he was referring to Rand Paul, Christie responded, "You can name any number of people and he's one of them."
Christie's remarks were part of a strategy for his possible presidential run in 2016. He is trying to write off fears about NSA snooping as "libertarian", and drive a wedge between neoconservatives, who are hawkish on foreign policy, and Paul. Christie wants to portray himself as further to the right on foreign policy than Paul, since many of Christie's other positions are relatively liberal.
This is good news and bad news. On the one hand, Christie is acknowledging that Libertarianism is rapidly moving out of the intellectual corners of Washington into the mainstream. Many Americans are unhappy with both traditional parties and wish that there were someone who spoke for them – complex, multi-dimensional, very objective and rational voters. On the other hand, Libertarianism is now in Conservative cross-hairs; and they are very vulnerable on the issues of NSA, the military, and social rights; and there could be a lot of disparagement not only of Paul – who deserves a harsh spotlight – but Libertarianism itself.
Nevertheless, Libertarians have a friend in the Supreme Court whose recent decisions, although confusing to both liberals and conservatives, are quite understandable:
In other words, the Supreme Court is increasingly embracing the Constitution’s structural and rights-based protections for individual freedom and self-governance. Not in every case, not always with one voice, and not without fits and starts, but as a whole the justices are moving in a libertarian direction.
It’s therefore no coincidence that the Cato Institute is the only organization to have filed briefs supporting the winning side in each of the three big cases (or that we went 15-3 on the year). Even beyond racial preferences and gay rights, this Court is coming to be defined by what Justice Kennedy has called “equal liberty.” (www.cato.org)
The next election will be very important, for Libertarianism will finally be given a national stage. Unfortunately Rand Paul is its current spokesman, and as mentioned above, he is a very waffly and predictably venal politicians and unlikely to hold the flame high.
Libertarians are caught between principle and electoral politics, and given the worst kind of prevarication and distortion shown by Mitt Romney and most of his predecessors Left and Right, principle will certainly lose out. I am very happy for the national debate, but I don’t think that Libertarians are yet up to the electoral fight.