Libertarians Rising?

Michael Kinsley argues that the intellectual positions of the two major parties are incoherent and concludes that libertarians “are going to be an increasingly powerful force in politics.”

Many people feel that neither party offers a coherent set of principles that they can agree with. For them, the choice is whether you believe in Big Government or you don’t. And if you don’t, you call yourself a libertarian. Libertarians are against government in all its manifestations. Domestically, they are against social-welfare programs. They favor self-reliance (as they see it) over Big Government spending. Internationally, they are isolationists. Like George Washington, they loathe “foreign entanglements,” and they think the rest of the world can go to hell without America’s help. They don’t care–or at least they don’t think the government should care–about what people are reading, thinking, drinking, smoking or doing in bed.


Republicans are far more likely to identify themselves as libertarians and to vilify the government in the abstract. And yet Republicans have a clearer vision of what constitutes a good society and a well-run planet and are quicker to try to impose this vision on the rest of us. Now that the Republican Party is in trouble, critics are advising it to free itself of the religious right on issues like abortion and gay rights. That is, the party should become less communitarian and more libertarian. With Democrats, it’s the other way around.

Very few Democrats self-identify as libertarians, but they are in fact much more likely to have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the lesbian couple next door or the Islamofascist dictator halfway around the world. And every time the Democrats lose an election, critics scold that they must put less emphasis on the sterile rights of individuals and more emphasis on responsibilities to society. That is, they should become less libertarian and more communitarian. Usually this boils down to advocating mandatory so-called voluntary national service by people younger than whoever is doing the advocating.


The chance of the two political parties realigning so conveniently is slim. But the party that does well in the future will be the one that makes the better guess about where to place its bets. My money’s on the libertarians. People were shocked a couple of weeks ago when Ron Paul–one of those mysterious Republicans who seem to be running for President because everyone needs a hobby–raised $5 million from July through September, mostly on the Internet. Paul is a libertarian. In fact, he was the Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988. The computer revolution has bred a generation of smart loners, many of them rich and some of them complacently Darwinian, convinced that they don’t need society–nor should anyone else. They are going to be an increasingly powerful force in politics.

The problem with this thesis is that most indications point to a more communitarian government rather than a more libertarian one. Socialized medicine is happening incrementally but its rise is inexorable. Social Security isn’t going away and now that the Baby Boomers are starting to collect it’ll become an even bigger program.

Yes, we’ll likely become more free in some ways, with society becoming more friendly to gays, sexual license, and perhaps even recreational drug use. But we’ll be less free in all manner of other ways as the nanny state regulates all manner of formerly private activities and as the information age makes privacy a much less widespread commodity.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jpe says:

    I doubt that all freedoms are experienced equally as such. For instance, my freedom to, say, do drug X or marry someone of the same gender is experienced as much more of a freedom than slightly greater cash flow at the end of the year. I’d expect that would hold for most people.

  2. Anderson says:

    Uh, I think the *real* problem with Kinsley’s article is that it assumes that “intellectual coherence” is relevant to political success.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    The problem is that both democrats and republicans can applaud libertarian ideals in the abstract, but get squemish in the details.

    Want government to “get out of your personal life”? Sure says the left about abortion, recreational drugs or gay marriage, but what about requiring health insurance, lowering taxes or forcing contributions to SSI. And of course just the reverse for republicans.

    I think that is why the republicans have tended to attract the libertarians to a greater degree. Reduce the size of the non-military federal government works for most republicans and libertarians. And then they compromise on the ‘social issues’ by citing federalism and lets move this issue down to a more local level. Of course there are exceptions to this (and laws such as the perscription drug bill certainly don’t enhance the republican brand for smaller government) but in general both groups can fit under the same tent.

    For the democrats, it is pretty hard to make room for the libertarians under their tent with the shrines to affirmative action, teacher unions and nationalizing health care.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Uh, I think the *real* problem with Kinsley’s article is that it assumes that “intellectual coherence” is relevant to political success.

    There is that, yes.

  5. Wayne says:

    I think one issue is the difference between what someone thinks is right and wrong and what someone thinks the government should do to impose right and wrong. I may think that some of the things my neighbors do are wrong and believe people should say so but I don’t necessary believe there should be a law against it. Unfortunately many believe there should be laws to enforce what they think are right.

    Yes that is what laws do but I believe we have gotten way to carry away with them and are suppressing the people. Humans must be allowed to be human. Otherwise they will blow up and do crazy things.

    There are many on both sides that want to tell others what to do even when it has little or no impact on someone else.

  6. Alex Knapp says:

    I’ll believe it when I see it. These “libertarian uprising” columns come out like clockwork about once every three years.

    To date, the libertarian political movement remains pretty steadily anemic.

  7. jmklein says:

    It’s hard to believe it’s inexorable because the countries with socialized medicine are reforming to market solutions, having experienced the frequent deaths and injuries from rationing. In a socialized system you are not guaranteed care, unlike in the United States where even if you go bankrupt for it you will have access. It’s a fascist tradeoff, the lives of a few victims of rationing for a broad reduction of costs, I find it strange how progressives don’t mind having this blood on their hands.

    As for me, I want to be in a health care system where between going bankrupt and dying, the government would allow me the grace of going bankrupt.

  8. Tano says:

    “Uh, I think the *real* problem with Kinsley’s article is that it assumes that “intellectual coherence” is relevant to political success”

    Yes, and there is a deep reason for that. Fact is, the political world is an incredibly complex space. Ideologies are incredibly simplisitic models of what one percieves to be the driving factors that make societies work. Human beings have never been able to come up with a model that even roughly approximates the dynamics of political life, and so we have never had an ideology that can effectivly predict the best way to deal with any contemporary reality.

    Pure ideologues, including libertarians, are almost always comic-book figures precisely because it usually takes no more than five minutes of thought to discover situations where the ideology points toward clearly ridiculous outcomes.

    Having a lack of strong principles is not a problem that we ever really encounter. The most frequent problem we face is that there are too many strong principles. All principles are simplistic theories, and it is simply a fact of life that to approximate known reality we need to devise many different principles. How those principles interact, and what we do when they point towards different outcomes is what political discourse always ends up dealing with.

    To effectivly govern a society it is necessary to deal with reality (just as with trying to simply live a normal life). No ideology or “coherent” set of principles offers satisfactory answers to all of the challanges life throws at you. In the end, principles can only function as tools – to be applied when appropriate to hopefully drive a particular situation towards a desired end.

    After 2300 years, we are still struggling to get out from under the absurd expectations that Plato gave us regarding the world of ideas.

  9. ken says:


    Since the advent of Medicare I have never heard of single solitary conservative who was willing to refrain from gaining the advantage of its socialized medical care. Unless you tell us otherwise I will assume you will swallow your principals and happily enroll in the best socialized medical plan in the world as well.

    If it is good enough for you when you are in most need of it why isn’t it good enough for you now?

  10. James Joyner says:

    Since the advent of Medicare I have never heard of single solitary conservative who was willing to refrain from gaining the advantage of its socialized medical care.

    So…you’d expect people who have money taken from them their entire lives to refrain from collecting the benefits? Especially when the law essentially forces them to do so, since their private insurance conveniently expires once they’re “eligible” for Medicare?

    Believe me, most conservatives would happily have a refund of their money and the ability to keep their own insurance.

  11. ken says:

    But James, you haven’t anwered the most important question:

    Not only do you conservatives voluntarily enroll in Medicare the minute you are eligible but once enrolled you never campaign to have it taken away from you or to have your benefits cut.

    If socialized medicine is good enough for you when you are in most need of medical care why isn’t it good enough for you now?

  12. James Joyner says:

    But James, you haven’t anwered the most important question

    Yes, I have.

  13. ken says:

    James, I am trying to understand how you think you’ve answered my question but if you were trying to make a point it is hidden behind false bravado.

    You think when you are 65 years old you would be willing to trade Medicare, the absolute best medical care in the world that can never be taken away from you no matter how sick you are, for the uncertainty of buying insurance from a profit making company whose interests are diametrically opposed to your own and can cancel your coverage and deny care without recourse?

    You haven’t thought it through.