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Could libertarians win elections?

Updated on December 10, 2011

I’ve said in some of my previous hubs that I’m a “moderate” libertarian, or perhaps what some people might call a small “l” libertarian. But as I‘ve found, finding an actual “moderate” libertarian seems to be a pretty difficult task, especially on the internet. Moderation in libertarianism seems foreign to a lot of people and for good reason: Libertarianism is typically defined by something called the non-aggression principle, which basically means that you should be allowed to do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody else. The Libertarian Party requires people to agree on condition of joining their party that you oppose the use of coercion to achieve social goals. Not only is this principle very black-and-white, but it leaves little room for moderation or nuance. Hardcore libertarians claim taxation is theft, that all “victimless” crimes, including prostitution, and drug use of any kind shouldn’t be against the law. They think all social programs should be abolished, public education should be privatized, and licensing requirements shouldn’t be required for doctors and lawyers among other radical positions. Basically, libertarians, of the hardcore variety anyway, believe the only true function of government is to protect people from acts of aggression by other people.

These views are very absolutist, and would never win the support of the majority of the electorate even if given the opportunity. Sometimes I’m reluctant to label myself a libertarian at all, and instead go with the label “independent.” In the past few months, on my facebook page profile, I’ve changed my political ideology label about four times, from “independent/libertarian” to “independent” to “moderate libertarian” and more recently, back to independent again. I’m probably being anal about labels, but I dislike the absolutist views of most hardcore libertarians and think it greatly damages the perception of libertarians everywhere; more importantly, it damages the prospects, however miniscule at this point, for libertarians to win votes. Could a libertarian, including a “moderate” one, every win an election in the United States if given a real opportunity? I think they could, but they would have to find a better recruiting tool than the non-aggression principle, they would have to distance themselves from the radicals, and they would have to moderate their positions. This can be done, and has already been done to an extent, but they need a different approach. I will explain my argument in more detail in the subsequent sections.

Do Moderate Libertarians exist?

A question that the typically cynical anarcho-capitalists and other radical libertarians never ask is whether their views could ever be accepted by the electorate in an election. Aside from dreaming of a libertarian utopia (or “libertopia” as some have said) since many libertarians are idealists, many say a better approach is to take moderate steps toward bringing the United States more towards freedom bit by bit. But that wouldn’t work in a presidential election if that candidate still believed, and was found out to believe, that, in the end, he (or she) would prefer if all social safety net programs were gone or all laws against victimless crimes were abolished. The electorate would know what your end goal was, and wouldn’t vote for you. Thus, moderate libertarians need to be elected if the philosophy will ever have the opportunity to see its day in the sun. Do these moderate libertarians actually exist? After all, self-identified libertarians are only about 1% of the electorate, if that.

I think they do exist, but label themselves independent instead, either because they’ve never heard the label libertarian nor know what it means, or that they’re turned off by the unsavory radical aspects of the philosophy that currently define the movement. According to the Pew research center’s 2011 typology survey, libertarians make up a significant number of self described independents. They make up about 10% of registered voters and 9% of the population (disappointing numbers, to be sure, but better than many people think). Pew describes them as “a predominantly male group” which “conforms to the classic profile of the libertarian in its combination of strong economic conservatism and relatively liberal views on social issues.” They are basically economic conservatives but have liberal views on issues like homosexuality and immigration. They also tend to be less religious than other GOP leaning groups. The CATO institute has also done research on the so-called “fiscal-conservative/social liberal” vote. According to Cato’s research, 59% of voters in the 2006 midterm elections described themselves when asked as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, which is a basic broad description of libertarians.

Let’s think for a minute: Do you really think these “libertarian” independents would adhere to the nonaggression axiom as a first principle? Would they support the legalization of prostitution or all drugs? Would they support an end to public education and social security? Of course not. These are moderate libertarians. They would be turned off by the ideological extremism of libertarian party activists and even perhaps some of the positions of libertarian republican favorite Ron Paul.

What should define libertarians?

I think a more appropriate first principle for libertarians, at least to win more recruits, would be less sweeping and absolutist than the nonaggression principle. In my view, if you believe in individual liberties over government control on the vast majority of issues, you should be able to label yourself as a libertarian without having to be criticized on the internet by purists that you’re not a real libertarian. But by issues, I don’t necessarily mean obscure ones that are already seen by most people as settled or non-issues. I don’t think you need to even have a position on obscure issues like anti-discrimination laws, prostitution, or organ donating, to be considered a libertarian. But, if you tend to believe in freedom of speech in the majority of cases, believe in the right to bear arms, support marijuana legalization and perhaps gay marriage, support ending the wars overseas, oppose campaign finance laws, support means testing and/or partially privatizing social security, oppose government health care and over-regulation of business, or support school vouchers or tax credits so children can leave the public education monopoly, you’re probably a libertarian. Of course, you may disagree on one or two of those issues I mentioned, which is hardly a representative sample of major issues, but if you agree with most of them, I think you can be considered a libertarian. I realize my definition may be fairly elastic by modern standards, but I think loosening the definition is important not just to win recruits, but to win elections. We don’t define liberals and conservatives by such strict standards, so why should we define libertarians that way?

Yet, to take a ‘pure’ libertarian stance on social security, for example, would be to advocate the complete end of social security. In other words, mandatory private accounts would be out of the question and people would simply have to rely on themselves only to provide for their retirement. If they save poorly, too bad. This is probably not a position that even the libertarian “independents” described earlier would support. In addition, the pure libertarian position on school vouchers is to not support them at all, because they involve cash given to people from the government. The ‘pure’ libertarians would believe all education should be private, and the only assistance given to families who can’t afford private school tuition payments is to give them tax credits (This may be a non-issue in a “true” libertarian society, where most, or even all taxes might not even exist). My point is that these views are too extreme to win over the independents who are moderately libertarian., or anybody else, really.

To be clear, I can sometimes be ‘radical’ in my views, and in other areas, not so radical, even rather non-libertarian. The point is that libertarianism defines itself too narrowly and turns off many people who may be much more receptive to the philosophy if it took a more moderate tone.

Purity contests for the actual libertarian candidates for president

As an example to illustrate this, let’s examine the two libertarians running as Republicans for president right now, Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. (For those who haven’t heard of Gary Johnson, since he’s been effectively shut out of most of the debates for dubious reasons, here’s his campaign website). Both take positions that may not meet a libertarian purity test by libertarian “activists.” It does seem though, like Ron Paul’s positions would meet more controversy among the electorate than Gary Johnson. For example, Ron Paul has spoken out in favor of legalized heroin, while Gary Johnson only thinks marijuana should be legalized (and taxed and regulated, which doesn’t sound good to most libertarian ears either). While marijuana legalization is still pretty controversial, with polls almost split completely down the middle about it, it would certainly be less controversial for a voter to accept than Ron Paul’s outright support for legalization of all drugs. In addition, Ron Paul takes more of a “pure’ libertarian stance than Gary Johnson on foreign intervention, even opposing the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. Gary Johnson is in favor of bringing the troops home from Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but says he is “open” to the idea of “humanitarian” wars to prevent genocide. Americans may have soured on our wars overseas significantly, according to polls, but they’re not ready to oppose all foreign intervention, much less the raid that killed Osama bin laden. Thus, despite Ron Paul’s popularity, I think Gary Johnson would have a better chance of getting elected than Ron Paul if he won the nomination (fat chance anyway).

But my point in this is that do you really think either Ron Paul or Gary Johnson (especially him) would win a purity contest with purist libertarians? Ron Paul tends to be supported by the more purist libertarians from Lew, while Gary Johnson tends to be supported more by Reason magazine, whose writers have stated that they view their libertarianism as more of an adjective or “impulse” more than a set of fixed principles. But I think Gary Johnson has a better chance of winning an election than Ron Paul. If libertarians care about electoral success and less about the purity of their principles, they should adopt a more open, flexible definition of libertarianism than is currently maintained by many activists, including the libertarian party. Having principles is great, but when those principles are out of step with the vast majority of people, you have to compromise with people who may agree with your basic philosophy, but take less extreme positions than you. That’s what the libertarian “independents” identified by Pew and CATO do. And that, to a degree, is what I do as well.

Some final words

Personally, I’ve taken the Nolan chart survey, which groups ideologies by libertarian, populist, liberal, conservative, and centrist. I always come out as a left-leaning libertarian. I’m not at the far end of the libertarian spectrum, but I’m not a centrist either, and I come out slightly on the left side of the libertarian divide. I realize that the Nolan chart may try to make test takers more libertarian than they seem, but I fit, and the Nolan chart is a sort of recruiting tool for libertarians. It makes no sense for people who don’t come out on the far end of the libertarian side of the chart to not be labeled as “true” libertarians. If that were the case, we might as well not label people liberal or conservative unless they are on the farthest point on the right or left of the Nolan chart. Very few people agree with a certain ideology on every subject. Yet that is the kind of tone that many internet libertarians take. It’s too bad, really. This turns off a lot of people. As for myself, I’m going to stick with calling myself an independent from now on, for the reasons I gave in this piece, but also for some personal reasons. Labels are just labels anyway, and many people aren’t even very accurate when characterizing their own views.



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