Why Libertarians Get No Play

An ongoing debate happening over at Tam’s on the two parties being relatively the same. A commenter noted:

If that were true, it would be nice. Unfortunately, in America, one party believes in governmental regulation and government solutions to problems, and the other believes in governmental regulation and government solutions to problems. The only difference between the parties is which problems they want government to solve.

This is pretty much true. I lean GOP not because they are the party of liberty, but because, on balance, the places they want to take government which I don’t approve of have more Constitutional protections than where the Democrats would like to take the country. For instance, there’s more protection for abortion rights in this country than gun rights, and I think all but the most conservative courts would be wary of upsetting that apple cart.

So why don’t small government, libertarian ideas get any real play in the GOP? I think there’s a few reasons for that. One of the biggest is the fact that people with libertarian inclinations are generally horrified by the idea of running for office. Most prefer to make an honest living. I don’t mean that to be a joke about politicians, but I really do think that’s   prime reasons a lot of libertarian leaning people don’t want to run. Politicians tend to come from political families, and tend to start in lower political offices before making a run for higher office. How many libertarianism people do you know who’d be interested in running for dog catcher? Or Mayor? Or State Representative? Let’s get more concrete. How many of them are going to be comfortable doing the meat and potatoes of politics? Sticking your hand out and getting people to donate to help elect you? Attending rallies with lots of people cheering your name? Generally speaking, you need a bit of a narcissistic streak, and few libertarian types have that. Even if you found a candidate that did, a lot of others would be turned off by it.

The second reason is, for any movement to be successful, you need people who are fanatical and passionate about it beyond all reason. You need people who are willing to go deep into the game. You also need a lot of people who are more moderate, and less engaged with the issue, but are nonetheless sympathetic, who are willing to go along with the fanatics. Gun owners have that. The religious right has that. Libertarians do not. Libertarians spend quite a lot of time arguing over what is and what isn’t a libertarian, and defining people out of the movement if they are insufficiently ideologically sound. Theya re not about building coalitions of mostly likeminded people. This is a big reason that libertarian ideology tops out in the single digits of voters. The vast majority of voters, even ones with libertarian ideological sympathies, are not going to have a philosophically coherent set of beliefs, and you have to carry those people if you want to be a player in coalition politics, and at least see some of your ideas adopted.

Neither party are monolithic entities. There aren’t smoked filled rooms where candidates are picked anymore. Candidates are voted on by the members of the party (in closed primary and caucus states) and by the people at large (in open primary states). They are made up of coalitions of interests, and the candidates who come out of the process are a result of struggles between the coalitions. Mitt Romney is currently the front runner, in my opinion, because he’s a good fundraiser and doesn’t generally scare anyone that much, even if no one’s really excited about him. The best libertarians have been able to push to the top is Ron Paul, who’s gotten to the top, not because he’s a good candidate, but because he’s the only libertarian that’s ever been elected to federal office. He’s not going to win because he can’t bring moderate libertarians, or anyone else in the coalition, along for the ride; he’s got one too many kooky, quirky things about him. If libertarians are going to get any play, they are going to have to start fronting candidates who can carry that ideology, and surrender the notion that if the person isn’t ideologically pure, he’s not worth getting behind. I’m not saying that has to be someone like Romney, because Romney is far from ideal, but I’ll get behind Romney if he’s the nominee, because I think he’ll take the country to hell in a handbasket slower than Obama will, and might even help with a few things here and there. But the idea is to slow things down enough to give politics time to change, hopefully in our favor. Will they? Probably not, but I don’t think libertarians will have too many factors to blame other than themselves. With some polls showing libertarian leaning individuals representing about 1/3rd of the voting population, a winning coalition that includes libertarians should be possible.

51 thoughts on “Why Libertarians Get No Play”

  1. That’s pretty much where I’m at. I fear gun grabbers more than anti abortionists. At least a woman can travel out of state to get an abortion and return to her home state should the worst happen with abortion laws. Can’t do that with guns. Well, legally at least.

    1. And when it’s gun-grabber Obama vs. gun-grabber Romney, what will you do?

      I can’t see any scenario where Obama isn’t re-elected. Not unless someone else enters the GOP arena. This is why it’s more important to take the Senate and keep the House and watch our backs for a few more years, and hopefully by then the GOP will have learned a lesson. Again.

      1. I’ll vote for Romney. If Obama is re-elected, I’ll cross my fingers. In both cases, I’ll cross my fingers. But the pool of candidates Romney has to choose from stands a much higher chance of voting the right way on the court… and considering Bitter’s experience in Massachusetts, he’s at least willing to listen to gun owners, which is more than you can say for Obama.

      2. @Mike: To be perfectly honest, I might not vote for either. But Sebastian is right- a Romney A.G. Would be better than Holder and his scotus picks would be better as well. On the flip side, Obama is less likely to start another full-scale war, which is something that I also think is important to consider. And he’s actually no mire “keynesian” than any Republican likely to be nominated, either.

  2. Gun-grabber Romney doesn’t have Eric Holder as AG, and I don’t know who he might sent to the Supreme Court, but probably not Elana Kagen or anyone from the MoveOn or the SEIU…

  3. I think you could sum up your post by saying a big part of Libertarian philosophy is “You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.” And yes, those folks are just not made to run for office. Government starts with people trying to come up with rules people will abide by in order to get peacefully along. It pretty much goes down hill from there.

  4. Libertarians have a lot of internal divisions as well. It’s easy to call yourself something and assume you have a lot in common with someone else using the same label, but labels obviously mask a lot. Abortion is one area where I know libertarians on both sides, both strongly believing their point of view is the “obvious” libertarian position. Same goes with the “war on drugs,” though more come down in favor of ending that disaster, and admittedly more Republicans and Democrats are realizing giving government the right to tell you what’s legal to put into your own body is the beginning of a steep and slippery slope.

    1. On the topic of abortion and drug usage, the issue isn’t whether or not I support the practice, it’s whether or not I think the federal government has any business making laws about either.

      Simply put, the issues aren’t about whether or not I should have the right to do certain things, but whether the federal government should have the right to restrict things outside the intended scope of the constitution.

  5. Sebastian said, “The best libertarians have been able to push to the top is Ron Paul, who’s gotten to the top, not because he’s a good candidate, but because he’s the only libertarian that’s ever been elected to federal office.”

    Psst…Sebastian you forgot about Bob Barr.

    Robert Laurence “Bob” Barr, Jr. is a former federal prosecutor, a former member of the United States House of Representatives. He represented Georgia’s 7th congressional district as a Republican from 1995 to 2003 and a former board member of the National Rifle Association. Barr joined the Libertarian Party in 2006, and served on its National Committee. He was the Libertarian Party nominee for President of the United States in the 2008 election

    1. And, let us remember, self appointed Witchfinder General for the Armed Forces. I’m still not convinced his conversion to Libetarianism is anything more than a flag of convenience.

  6. A big reason why Libertarians don’t make it in politics is that many will not be willing to infringe on another person’s rights to advance their own agenda.
    In American politics, you have to be able to compromise in order to get anywhere, and libertarians generally won’t do that.

    1. I kinda wonder if it’s even possible to reach a high office like Governor/Senator without seriously comprising your moral code and/or bending the law in some way. Whenever there is some sort of scandal that breaks, you have to know it wasn’t just *that* person who was involved. Anyone doing anything questionable is also going to surround themselves with like-minded people, honest people wouldn’t last.

  7. I love libertarianism [small L] but Ron Paul and his supporters basically took over the whole movement, at least in terms of loudness of volume.

    Like Sebastian said, LP seem to be busy arguing who’s a L and who isn’t, instead of combining the radicals and moderates like the left and the right had done. They can’t stand someone who might take LP a little bit differently.

    Support a GOP? Damn, you are just as evil as Democrats, in fact, you are worse. Do not support Ron? Damn you are a statist! You hate gold, too!

    And the fact that his supporters seem to Hate [capital H} conservatives and religions more then they hate communism.

    No thanks, Big LP. I’ll stick with small l, and no p.

  8. “. . .his supporters seem to Hate [capital H} conservatives and religions more then they hate communism. . .”

    I don’t know about his supporters, but I’ll bet all of the Stealth Christian Dominionists who are the prime operatives and tacticians just below the surface of his campaign(s) would laugh themselves silly that you said that.

    1. If I recall correctly, Ron Paul himself is a God-fearing Christian. Having said that, one thing that drives me nuts about L. Neil Smith is his very strong anti-Christian, indeed anti-religion, sentiments. Both he and his wife are very vocal against religion, and (El Neil’s fiction notwithstanding) he makes it very clear that he doesn’t consider religion and libertarianism to be compatible.

      Ayn Rand has similar issues, which drove a wedge between her and her friends Petterson and Rose Wilder Lane (the three are considered, at least by an essay at mises.org, to be the founding trio of modern Libertarianism).

      This makes it rather difficult to be a God-fearing religious person, and yet wanting to identify with the Libertarian movement!

      1. Yeah. I don’t think that the libertarian movement needs to care what religion you are, but there are a lot of libertarians who are vocally hostile to religion. That’s not a good way to build winning coalitions either.

        1. This.

          I lean as far libertarian as I can without falling over…from a
          “Government shall NOT interfere” standpoint.

          However, I am also a Christian, and part of that belief is read (by some folks more or less strongly) to mean a believer has a duty to teach others. Not Nag, not Exhort, not Bully, etc. But teach. Free will and self-determination/choice are paramount.

          Many folks who espouse libertarian ideals are also atheists. I have no problem with that. It is the fact that they have a problem with my Christianity that may (depending on stridency) cause a problem between us.

        2. Grrr. Google Reader showed me Sebastian’s answer to which I replied, before it showed me Alpheus’ point to which he was replying. My apologies if anyone reads these and thinks “A just said that, why is Jet blathering?”

          Should have scrolled up to pick up the thread before typing.

  9. I don’t intend to be too wise-ass sarcastic, but congratulations, Sebastian, on writing the same column I’ve seen written regularly for about thirty years now.

    I’ll throw out one important tactical item that I regard as necessary but not sufficient for capital-L Libertarian success. (Don’t ask me what would be sufficient; quite possibly nothing.) That is, for Libertarians to stop attempting to have a Big Tent, for the sake of the numbers game and appearances, and to actively discourage, purge, or at least sit upon everyone in their ranks who is batshit nutz.

    I managed to do that with reasonable success for the several years I was LP County Chairman, during which time we made slow but measurable progress. e.g., running a candidate who was endorsed by the Bucks County Courier-Times and who got more votes than any minor party candidate in modern history (until Ross Perot), and achieving county-level ballot status for the party. (Meaningless, but a nominal achievement.) Nonetheless, we were deposed by the state committee for (among other things) not trying to “fill the [LP] line on the ballot,” and instead concentrating on quality candidates. The following year the ballot line was indeed filled, with a variety of racists, anti-semites, mentally challenged, and garden variety loons, and in another year or two the county party no longer existed except in the imaginations of a very few. By then most of us old-timers had dropped out, never to return. As even the Republican Party appears about to learn, a small handful of loons can undo overnight all of the hard work of years, or even decades.

  10. Drugs.

    Sorry, but that’s the truth. The “passionate and committed” folks who are most often the public face of the libertarian movement are passionately committed to drug legalization. Regardless of the quality of their arguments, or the wisdom of the course of action they propose, they face a basically insurmountable problem with the electorate.

    Anybody who’s primary concern is getting high is going to be seen as too irresponsible to allow anywhere near the reins of government.

    The only way to combat this is first: actively work very, very hard to ruthlessly enforce pure personal responsibility where the consequences of drug use are concerned. Total elimination of any and all gov’t funded drug treatment programs, draconian laws for DUI crimes, zero tolerance for the notion that drug addiction is a “disease” rather than a personal failure, etc. Without totally, 110% owning the negative consequences of drug use, a society riddled with people who dodge responsibility isn’t going to believe that libertarian drug warriors are after anything more than a cheap high and let the rest of us pick up the pieces.

    What makes it even worse for libertarians is that virtually everybody in this country knows one or more people who have made the libertarian argument about drugs, and then proceeded to wreck their own lives, as well as frequently the lives of others around them. Usually the wrecking doesn’t involve any encounters with the law either.

    1. I love how “We need to end the War on Drugs” gets twisted to “You just want to get high.”

      I don’t care about the dope. Hell, you can leave the dope illegal as long you undo all the constitutional damage you’ve done to stamp it out in the last fifty years or so.

      I’d rather my neighbors smoked a bong than run the risk of a dyslexic SWAT team taking a battering ram to my front door at oh-dark-thirty.

      1. You need to spend more time talking to libertarian drug legalization advocates, and you will see where this confusion of “legalize drugs” to “I want to get high” comes from.

      2. Ahh, but you are in the minority of those who object to “The War on Drugs.” The majority want to legalize drugs, and have little concern for the deletrious Constitutional impacts beyond their usefulness in an argument.

        The sheer volume, passion, and yes, public foolishness of the “drug legalization warriors” overwhelms any nuance between your position, and theirs.

        So yes, the “We need to end the War on Drugs” gets twisted into “I just want to get high.”

        You can complain about the injustice of the twisting, or you can come up with a plan for getting around it. Because if you want to put an end to the War on Drugs, you’ll have to deal effectively with the “You just want to get high” meme.

        1. There’s no convincing someone who thinks that thermal imaging surveillance drones overflying their neighborhood are preferable to their neighbor’s kid sparking up.

          1. I think a lot of the support for this kind of thing comes from the way it goes through the heads of suburban parents. Thermal imaging surveillance drones overflying someone else’s neighborhood to keep their kid from toking up.

            I’d bet if the issue was polled, there’d be a big disparity between households with kids as opposed to without.

        2. if you want to put an end to the War on Drugs, you’ll have to deal effectively with the “You just want to get high” meme.

          Which sounds really simple, but it’s not so much in reality, because how exactly do you deal with something that exists primarily in the heads of authoritarian control freaks and their supporters?

      3. Meaning the dyslexic SWAT team comment. It posted under the wrong comment.

    2. So, do you lump alcohol in with all that, because that’s a drug that destroys lives just as completely, yet we seem to tolerate it rather nicely.

  11. The one thing I believe you forgot is that because we libertarians want to be left alone, we don’t organize well into groups or movements.

  12. Drug addiction *can* in some cases be a disease – as in, it starts with personality issues that *predate* the drug use, and you cannot heal those specific individuals without addressing these in a clinical setting. In others it’s just a personal failure.

    But drug use doesn’t equate drug addiction.

  13. I have to disagree with the statement that Ron Paul is the only libertarian ever elected to Federal office. I’m not even talking about his son Rand. The last batch of “libertarians” who made it into office were the ones writing our Constitution. ;)

    1. I have a tendency to consider our Founding Fathers to be Statists rather than Libertarians…partly, because the entire Libertarian ideal that we now have, didn’t exist at the time. Indeed, Jefferson was probably the most Libertarian of the bunch, but he still believed that the States had a right to limit free speech!

      But we also need to keep them in context: up to this point, all that existed, pretty much at least, was the State, and the idea that the State should be limited, and should protect our natural rights, was pretty radical at the time!

      1. You’d consider Madison to be a statist? Just curious. I’ll admit I used the term “libertarian” rather loosely when referring to the Framers, but most times if I tell people I’m sympathetic to the Anti Federalists I get a blank stare. Tell people you’re “libertarian” and you get “Oh, you mean you like Ron Paul and legalizing weed?”

  14. It’s much more likely that libertarians can bring some Republican politicians, as opposed to Democrats, to agree with their position. I’d like to see fewer rules and regulations. A little more leave me alone. Both Reps & Dems are parties of big government. It’s not necessary for a Rep to be that way. It’s a core belief on the Dem side.

  15. FYI, the link is to the wrong post. It should be this one.

    Now, please excuse me for a moment while I bask in the fact that a comment of mine prompted a post by Sebastian. Shiny! :D

    Okay, that’s done! Now:

    Candidates are voted on by the members of the party (in closed primary and caucus states) and by the people at large (in open primary states).

    While that statement is true in itself, the problem is that the candidates we are presented with for that voting are simply crap. Even if you ignore the idiocy of what happened in Virginia and look at the entire group of candidates, the choices are crap – which is what most people have really been complaining about. Whether this is a result of “smoked filled rooms where candidates are picked”, or simply that no one better was willing to run, if this is the best we can get out of the Republican Party then the Party’s death is all but inevitable.

    As an aside, I’d have to say that Gary Johnson’s exclusion from the early debates, despite meeting the listed criteria, is a strong indicator that there are still back room shenanigans going on. While it may or may not have involved higher ups in the Republican party, the lack of any real outcry by those same higher ups at what happened to him is rather telling.

    1. That’s the smoke-filled room I’d be looking at. You may also remember that’s how Ron Paul was treated in 2008 too.

  16. Another possible explanation: most Americans are not libertarian or even libertarian leaning. At most, about 1/4 to 1/3 of Americans are even moderately libertarian.

  17. “Stealth Christian Dominionists? In the Paul campaign? They must be VERY stealthy indeed!”

    I guess you’ve just demonstrated how good they are!

    Another interesting angle to this thread is, the way Ron Paul being misidentified (ever since 1988) as a “libertarian” has perverted the word to meaning — exactly what? Someone who believes in government oppression, as long as it’s being done under the banner of “states rights?”

    1. I have to agree with Artemus on this one. I’ve never liked Paul’s brand of “libertarianism” which is why I’m not jumping up and down he’s in the race. I like his son better.

    2. Another interesting angle to this thread is, the way Ron Paul being misidentified (ever since 1988) as a “libertarian” has perverted the word to meaning — exactly what? Someone who believes in government oppression, as long as it’s being done under the banner of “states rights?”

      And in support of that statement, I would point people towards this bill he introduced in 2009. Apparently, he believes that it’s perfectly all right for government to poke its nose into your bedroom, as long as it’s not the federal government doing it. And that the federal courts have no business telling the states they can’t violate the Constitution if it’s on a matter he thinks they shouldn’t.

      1. Yeah… the 14th Amendment is dead letter in Paul’s view. He’s happy to read things out of the constitution he doesn’t like… which I don’t see as being much different than other politicos.

        1. Yeah. That bill is why I didn’t vote in the primary yesterday. The only choices available to me were Mittens or Paul. No matter which one of those two wins, I’m voting for Gary Johnson.

        2. Sebastian,

          Weren’t you the one who said “because, on balance, the places they want to take government which I don’t approve of have more Constitutional protections than where the Democrats would like to take the country.” ;)

  18. I believe the focus on President is perhaps pre-mature. Even though many of us would like to see some rapid shift to protection of individual liberty, and personal responsibility. We’re fighting a machine that has learned to take the long view, to slowly chip away. I look for people who don’t seem to be in a hurry to smear mud on the Constitution, then worry about what else they’re going to screw up.

    For years I voted for Gridlock, If we had a (D) as President I wanted a (R) controlled congress, and vis-a-versa. Sadly, we’re now given a choice between TAX and SPEND or TAX LESS and SPEND. There isn’t a Spend less let alone a SAVE. Hell I’d be happy with a TAX and Reduce the Deficit party at this point – and I really don’t like Taxes, I just think the deficit will kill us faster at this point.

    1. “Hell I’d be happy with a TAX and Reduce the Deficit party at this point – and I really don’t like Taxes, I just think the deficit will kill us faster at this point.”

      That presupposes that increasing tax rates generates more revenue; on the whole it does not. In general, tax revenue as a share of GDP has stayed fairly constant over the past 75 years or so (high of ~20%, low of ~14%, average of ~18%) seemingly without regard for tax rates.

      Instead of governing revenue, at least as a share of the overall GDP, what tax rates really do is effect the overall rate of economic growth.

      So, up to a point, lowering tax rates increases tax revenue, because it encourages faster economic growth.

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