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Should Libertarians Abandon the Republican Party?

Logan Ferree argues that the Republican Party has failed in its promises to libertarians for so long that it’s time to stop voting for them. While I disagree with the tone and even some of the particulars of the piece, his analysis is likely right. The GOP is dominated by its religious conservative wing (although, I’d note, they’re pretty unhappy with the party’s record vice their rhetoric on most issues, too) and has largely given up on more than the pretense of being fiscally conservative. As Jim Henley (from whom I found the piece) observes, “the Republican Party doesn’t even engage in much libertarian rhetoric any more.”

The logical follow-on, however, is What then?

If one doesn’t vote Republican, one has three choices that I see:

    1. Vote Libertarian A very satisfying option and the only conceivable way the LP will ever have a chance of winning elections. The LP has the virtue of being ideologically pure, in contrast to the frustrating pandering of the two dominant catch-all parties. It comes with the minor problem, however, that true libertarians are a minor fringe of the American polity. There are few Congressional Districts and no states where libertarians have a plurality. Thus, for presidential and senatorial races, at least, this winds up being a “protest vote” or, in the more popular parlance a “wasted voted.”

    2. Vote Democrat There are several issues, notably abortion, gay rights, and drugs, where the Democrats are closer to the libertarian position than the Republicans. Then again, that’s been the case since at least the 1960s and, I suspect, most libertarians who are focused mostly on these social issues already vote Democrat or Libertarian, not Republican.

    As bad as the Republicans are on the fiscal issues, however, the Democrats are worse. Is the trade-off worth it? Again, if so, one would think the libertarians now voting Republican would have come to that conclusion long ago.

    3. Don’t Vote. Essentially, the lazy/apathetic man’s Choice 1, minus the satisfaction.

Unfortunately, as aggravating as the major parties are to True Believers, they’re the only choices we’ve got. One has to operate within the framework of available realities, not simply complain that one’s chosen team has let us down.

UPDATE: Commenter Jay below contends that, “Anyone who votes for the lesser of two evils well and truly deserves their Drug Plans, their No Child Left Behind and their Bridges to Nowhere that inevitably result.”

I’d paraphrase Don Rumsfeld and say one has to go to the ballot box with the candidates one has. To argue by analogy, I want a car that gets 500 mpg, looks and drives like a Ferarri, has the roominess of a Lincoln Navigator, and can both fly and float on demand. Sadly, that model is not yet available. I choose, nonetheless, to go ahead and have transportation in the meantime.

Picking among available options is not surrender. One can try to change things, by engaging in campaigns, editorializing, protesting, or whatever. That works, over time. In the interim, you chose between available options. Unfortunately, most of the public disagrees with us and actually wants bigger government. That, not the sleaziness of politicians, is the reason we have the government we have.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Blogniscient says:

    The Jawa Report | 7/26/2006 19:49:9 About That UN Observation Post Incident We received emails from him a few days ago, and he was describing the fact that he was taking fire within, in o… 17[IMG Right] Should Libertarians Abandon the Republican Party?

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  2. BlueWaveNJ says:

    There’s no doubt that the Libertarian wing of the GOP has lost significant power in recent years, but will this be the year that the Libertarian Party and the Democratic Party finally begin to benefit from it? Outside the Beltway suggests that the Republican Party is still the best choice for Libertarians. The author suggests that as bad as Republicans are on fiscal policy, Democrats will be worse. Although that is the traditional belief, the largest deficits in the last couple decades have all been due to massive military spending on the part of

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  3. Vote Democrat There are several issues, notably abortion, gay rights, and drugs, where the Democrats are closer to the libertarian position than the Republicans. Then again, that’s been the case since at least the 1960s and, I suspect, … Leave A Comment »

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  4. I question whether or not the GOP are, in fact, better on fiscal issues of late. At best, they might be more gradualist on expanding the welfare state (see e.g. Medicare Part D).

    There is a fourth choice: vote for gridlock (divided government). The GOP were far more fiscally responsible when they were up against Bill Clinton than they are today, even if tactically they were borderline idiotic at times.

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  5. Anderson says:

    As bad as the Republicans are on the fiscal issues, however, the Democrats are worse

    This seems more of an axiom than a conclusion. Were the Democrats so terrible on fiscal issues under Clinton, for example?

    If you agree they weren’t, but claim that it’s because the House was Republican, then that supports Mr. Lawrence’s “gridlock” option. Which increasingly seems like it should’ve been written into the Constitution …..

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  6. Gorni says:

    Dude, you forgot the option of recruiting and supporting candidates in the Republican Party who are neither religious ideologues, foreign policy nimrods, nor corrupt kleptocrats.

    Granted, this is a much more difficult and time-consuming prospect than the options you’ve offered. However, it is precisely the method that the religious fundamentalists have used to take over the party. Given the severe way in which the current group has run the country into the ground over the past 5 years and the fact that the Democrats are utterly clueless, this might be a reasonable approach.

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  7. lily says:

    I really don’t know how you can conclude that the Democrats are worse than Republicans on fiscal issues. I’m thinking in terms of keeping spending within one’s budget, not the TYPE of things one chooses to fund. The Republicans started budget busting back during the Viet Nam war because they didn’t want to raise taxes to pay for an unpopular war. Democrats reined in the excessive spending in the following years only to have Reagan and his coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats run up massive debt, something like quadrupling it during his first two years in office, because they went for the Laffer get-something-for -nothing budget policy. Cutting taxes while increasing spending is going to increase debt. Increasing debt was the goal of Republicans at that time. After the Reagan years Clinton once again applied some unideological common sense to the budget. That went out the window with this highly ideological and unhinged administration.
    So how does one conclude that the Democrats are worse?
    I think the basic problem isn’t that the Democrats are worse; it’s that they are more honest. Republicans, particularly red state Republicans, are complete hypocrits about money, always bitching about high taxes while promising pork barrel for their own constituencies or demanding expenditures for themselves. Democrats deliver the pork barrel but also acknowledge that something cannot be bought with nothing . They are willing to pay for what they spend.
    Which is worse ideological and hypocritical approach to spending or a pragmatic reality based approach?

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  8. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: I think we had relative “fiscal discipline” during the Clinton era because 1) we were not at war and 2) the dot.com boom was bringing in so much money we couldn’t spend it fast enough.

    lily: Your history is a bit off.

    The Republicans started budget busting back during the Viet Nam war because they didn�t want to raise taxes to pay for an unpopular war.

    The Democrats controlled the presidency, House, and Senate during almost all of the Vietnam War. Nixon came to power in 1969 but with a Democratic Congress.

    Democrats reined in the excessive spending in the following years

    No, they didn’t.

    only to have Reagan and his coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats run up massive debt, something like quadrupling it during his first two years in office, because they went for the Laffer get-something-for -nothing budget policy.

    Largely true, although I would say we did get something pretty sweet out of that: The collapse of the Soviet Union. While I agree Reagan was weak on spending restraint, it was mostly because he was profligate in his defense spending.

    After the Reagan years Clinton once again applied some unideological common sense to the budget.

    See reply to Anderson.

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  9. just me says:

    Were the Democrats so terrible on fiscal issues under Clinton, for example?

    Keeping in mind that the GOP controlled congress during that period, it is difficult to make the argument that Clinton was fiscally responsible.

    I do think you can look to various proposed bills-and invariably the democratic plan costs more than the GOP one-the medicaid drug bill and NCLB are two of these, had democrats been in control the spending on these would have been even higher.

    That said I think the congress is terrible on spending at the moment-they are acting like kids in a candy store without any limits on what they can buy.

    And while I can say voting for a divided government is a good goal-I balk-because frankly I don’t want the democrats in charge of supreme court nominations-liberal leaning justices are no friends to libertarians either.

    But I also don’t want them in charge of congress-because frankly that is where the bulk of the spending occurs-divided government is probably a good goal, but frankly I don’t want the dems in charge of any portion of government.

    So I think that leaves us with the suggestion from Gorni which may be the best one yet-recruiting and supporting GOP candidates that are true fiscal conservatives-I don’t really care about the religious affiliation-I honestly don’t think religious conservatives are so much the problem as the squishes on the left end of the party (my congressman being a great example-he isn’t a religious righter, he is pro abortion, but he spends like a drunken sailor-about the only thing I can say in his favor is he supports veterans and he is good for responding to letters).

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  10. Steve Verdon says:

    If you agree they werenâ??t, but claim that itâ??s because the House was Republican, then that supports Mr. Lawrenceâ??s â??gridlockâ?? option. Which increasingly seems like it shouldâ??ve been written into the Constitution â?¦..

    This is a conclusion I’m quickly moving towards. Seems like meaningful fiscal restraint can only come from gridlock.

    While I agree Reagan was weak on spending restraint, it was mostly because he was profligate in his defense spending.

    Actually Reagan wasn’t bad on non-defense spending. Non-defense discretionary spending declined under Reagen.

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  11. Steven Plunk says:

    I would expect Libertarians to be corrupted by the culture in Washington and the pressures of being re-elected just like the other parties have been corrupted.

    I really have to agree with Gorni in that conservatives need to whip the Republican party into shape and recruit true conservatives not posers and pretenders.

    The place where we can see the real difference between the parties is at the state level. Dems spend and spend and spend while the Republicans have to behave since they are close to the people who elected them.

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  12. Ryan says:

    I’ll complain about them all the live long day! They are fools trapped in a wasteland of thinking and a moral desert of their own making. Both parties are full of lying apes whose sole ambition is to hang onto their power. As a taxpayer, I have been and do and will continue to complain about these thieving moneychangers! It’s the American way and my God-given right!

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  13. madmatt says:

    Bill Clinton managed to balance the budget and leave a surplus…how is that worse than republican malfeasance in financial matters?

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  14. What’s A Libertarian To Do ?…

    ……

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  15. Jay Jardine says:

    Re: Option 3

    That’s actually a lazy/apathetic way of describing those who choose Option 3. I’ve been a non-voter for several election cycles now, and believe me, if apathy had anything to do with it I wouldn’t bother commenting on this blog.

    Your closing comment on the other hand, sounds like a pretty lazy/apathetic apology for the status quo. Anyone who votes for the lesser of two evils well and truly deserves their Drug Plans, their No Child Left Behind and their Bridges to Nowhere that inevitably result.

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  16. Steve Verdon says:

    madmatt,

    Try reading the other comments before writing your own.

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  17. bains says:

    I’ve argued elsewhere that the similarities between Libertarian and Democrats, “notably abortion, gay rights, and drugs,” are rather superficial. When a ‘Libertarian’ sides with Democrats on these social issues that person likely has already eschewed economic liberty which is, in my mind, the core of Libertarianism.

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  18. Gorni says:

    I forgot to mention the other option: take over the Democrats. On some level, much progress has already been made given the fact that they have become more and more conservative over the years.

    Bloomberg did the reverse in New York. True conservatives could easily do this–especially in the backwoods SOuthern districts where you have most of the big government, religious pseudo-conservatives. If a decent republican can’t knock off a big spending, big government, crazy religious guy like, say Tom Feeney, in the primary, he just runs as Democrat in the general election. Then when you win the election, just caucus with the Repubs in Congress.

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  19. I think Gorni has it right. The best place for the libertarians to fight this war is in the primaries, not the general election. And in picking your ground to fight on, chose open seats. For the libertarians, they can compete on both sides of the aisle. How much they mute or amplify their stances on economic, personal responsibility or social issues would depend on the party they were in. Which party the libertarian would want to compete in should be driven by their agreeing or disagreeing with other party non-libertarian issues such as national defense (I am explicitly excluding the extreme libertarians who see no government role in the form of public protection at the local or national level).

    I don’t think that most of the republican base disagrees with a lot of the libertarian positions. Its just that they don’t view all candidates and issues only through the libertarian filter. And you would need to position the libertarian views. For example, saying you are pro-choice is not likely to be a winner for most republican primaries. Saying you are for the legality of abortion to be decided at a state level would likely be a position that the GOP base would be willing to hear what else you have to say on other issues. I think if Rudy runs in ’08, he is likely to go this right to diffuse the pro-life/pro-choice issue. For just about every issue, I think that a libertarian candidate could steer a course in a GOP primary that would not rule out their run (winning is as always going to depend on a lot of other factors).

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  20. >As bad as the Republicans are on the fiscal
    >issues, however, the Democrats are worse.

    This has been the argument for ten years now and what has it gotten us? The Republicans are now worse than the Dems were when we started.

    I’m not even sure if the premise that ‘Democrats would be worse’ is even true anymore: the primary problem with the GOP isn’t a lack of fiscal discipline–it’s that the party has become hostile to the concept of personal autonomy in and of itself.

    The reality is, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m willing to accept buying my freedom as the least worst choice: I’d rather vote for Democrats and accept that higher taxes and economic stagnation are the cost for less interference in my personal life.

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  21. LoganFerree says:

    James, you seem like a mind-reader. With the GOP out of the question, it falls to the three choices you’ve listed. I’ve been working on another essay as a follow up to my GOP work on this exact observation. I’d point out that some people hold strong principles and still opt for not voting, it’s not just for lazy people. I think a pragmatic libertarian would float between all three options depending on the specifics of the election and the candidates. As my website indicates I’m putting most of my energy into the Democratic Party, but I’m not opposed to supporting a Libertarian Party candidate when even the lesser of two evils is too much evil for me to handle.

    At the very least, I’d encourage libertarian activists to take part in Democratic Party primaries. With low turn out, it’s possible to have a much bigger impact on the direction of the party in primaries. Badnarik’s showing in the 2004 General Election was horrible, but imagine if he or someone like him ran in the Democratic presidential primary and got the same degree of media attention that the other candidates (including Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich) received. I’v blogged on this in the past (http://freedomdemocrats.org/node/563).

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  22. Barry says:

    “Were the Democrats so terrible on fiscal issues under Clinton, for example?”

    “Keeping in mind that the GOP controlled congress during that period, it is difficult to make the argument that Clinton was fiscally responsible.”

    Um, in my world they controlled Congress only after the 1994 election. For the first two years, it was a Democratic Congress. With better fiscal discipline than the GOP has demonstrated.

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  23. LoganFerree says:

    Just me, do you think that the Democratic proposals end up costing more because they are more honest? In the example you gave about the GOP plan for Medicare Prescription Drugs being less expensive than the Democratic plan, didn’t the Republicans lie over the true cost?

    One more note, working within the Democratic Party was the decision of one former Libertarian Party congressional candidate. Frank Gonzalez ran as a Libertarian in 2004 in the Florida 21st and this election is running as a Democrat. Check him out: http://www.electfrank.org/

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  24. Republicans and libertarians…

    James Joyner has some thoughts on what libertarian-leaning Republicans, like myself, can do about the GOP’s drift away from limited government. His answer: not much, really.

    I suppose the way to go is to continue to vote Republican. Voting Libertar…

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  25. Michael says:

    Gorni:

    you forgot the option of recruiting and supporting candidates in the Republican Party who are neither religious ideologues, foreign policy nimrods, nor corrupt kleptocrats.

    Seriously, are there any of those in existence anymore? I mean, can you even name a Republican who fits that description?

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  26. Gorni says:

    Seriously, are there any of those in existence anymore? I mean, can you even name a Republican who fits that description?

    Easy: Pete McCloskey, who ran for the 11th District primary in California. Unfortunately he got beat by the crook Richard Pombo, but he is a true Republican.

    http://www.petemccloskey.com/index.html

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  27. >Seriously, are there any of those in existence
    >anymore? I mean, can you even name a Republican
    >who fits that description?

    There’s only two Republicans still in government that I have any respect for: Ron Paul and Clarence Thomas.

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  28. Billy says:

    I’ve been a libertarian Democrat all my voting life, and it’s precisely because despite the “we’re for getting government out of the people’s lives” rhetoric, there has always been a disturbingly pervasive tendency within the Republican party to do the exact opposite. I’m all for less spending/fewer taxes, and a good place to start would be exactly the budget-busting disasters that six years of Republican governance has heaped upon us. Cutting taxes for the richest five percent of the population is NOT libertarian – it’s plutocratic; doing so while spending a billion dollars a day to dismantle a joke of a dictator while the criminals who are responsible for blowing up our buildings laugh from thousands of miles a way is criminally negligent.

    The fact that the hardcore Republican base (who are generally not present in libertarian circles) is far more concerned about making sure people don’t do things in their own bedrooms that offend their fundamentalist sensibilities than it is with actually living up to truly conservative ideals is the real issue. Jerry Falwell will never be content to live and let live any more than will Mahmoud Ahmandenijad, and the libertarian marriage of convenience with the fundamentalists sowed the seeds of failed policy that we are now reaping.

    Do I like the Democrats? As a party, absolutely not. There is far too much pandering to the culture of handouts, and far too little backbone in the party. But the reality is we have an establishment that forces us to choose between fecklessness on the one hand and self-interested fanaticism on the other. After the last six years of utterly predictible catastrophe from the latter, I’m ready for the former.

    Those who call for taking over a party in the primaries have the right idea. The real question is which party is ripe for the taking – the one which is thoroughly dominated by an entrenched hardcore base of fanatics that are diametrically opposed to libertarian ideals, or the one which is so ineffectual and disorganized it can’t even front a candidate to unseat the least popular president in modern history.

    It’s not exactly brain surgery…

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  29. Party Crashers…

    My thoughts on the Republican Party attracted the attention of several blogs, including Outside the Beltway. James is right; with the GOP out of the question, libertarian activists have three options: the Democratic Party, the Libertarian Party, and n…

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  30. John says:

    Billy,

    I submit a complete and utter DITTO. Very well said. I only differ in that I’m an Ind. and not a dem.

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