A Cult of Oddballs and Misfits?


GMU economist Arnold Kling takes note of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson's appearance at Reason's DC HQ last night and riffs on the prospects for libertarian candidates and policy reforms:

The libertarian vote?

Keep in mind the Masonomic view that politics is not about policy. It is about the relative status of various groups. Johnson does not represent a coalition of groups. The Democrats represent a coalition of minorities and people who identify themselves as the educated elite (note that Obama gets to qualify on both counts). Republicans represent a coalition of non-urban whites and people who identify themselves as sticking up for traditional American values. Libertarians represent…what…a cult of oddballs and misfits?

The challenge for libertarians is that many of our ideas have not crossed the threshold of legitimacy. Legalizing marijuana or seriously cutting back on future entitlements are treated as fringe, kooky ideas. Our challenge is to move our ideas out from the fringe and into the mainstream. I can imagine a Presidential campaign serving as a vehicle for doing that. But the focus needs to be on persuading people who do not think of themselves as libertarians, not so much on exciting the libertarian faithful.

Kling's assertion that "legalizing marijuana or seriously cutting back on future entitlements are treated as fringe, kooky ideas" strikes me as slightly too strong. Yes, such reforms are rarely considered seriously by those with the means to change policy, but they are not necessarily fringe. For instance, in October 2009, a Gallup poll reported that 44 percent of Americans favor making marijuana legal. The consensus amongst elite policymakers may not match public opinion yet, but it hardly strikes me as a fringe idea. Entitlement reform is admittedly less popular, but polls show consistently high concern about the deficit, and concern about the deficit is really concern about the cost of entitlements (even if the public does not always view it this way). Still, I think Kling is basically right that libertarians have yet to capture a large and reliable political constituency, and that failure has hurt libertarianism's political prospects.