Libertarian Legal Theorist Randy Barnett on "The Mistake That is The Libertarian Party"

Libertarian intellectual and Georgetown professor of law Randy Barnett - one of the architects of the legal challenges to Obamacare - writes in today's Wall Street Journal that if you care about liberty, you should vote for the Republicans.


Libertarian intellectual and Georgetown professor of law Randy Barnett—one of the architects of the legal challenges to Obamacare—writes in today's Wall Street Journal that if you care about liberty, you should vote for the Republicans.


The Libertarian Party's effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty….

Libertarians need to adjust their tactics to the current context. This year, their highest priority should be saving the country from fiscal ruin, arresting and reversing the enormous growth in federal power—beginning with repealing ObamaCare—and pursuing a judiciary who will actually enforce the Constitution. Which party is most likely to do these things in 2013?

So, argues Barnett, that means voting for Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates this time at least. Elsewhere he suggests that this doesn't mean just joining the Republicans, though it always means killing the LP:

Libertarian activists need to set aside their decades-old knee-jerk reactions to the two major parties, roll up their sleeves, and make the Republican and Democratic parties more libertarian. When it comes to voting, libertarians need to get serious about liberty and give up on the Libertarian Party. Nov. 6 would be a good day to start.

Read the whole thing here. (And read/watch Barnett's recent interview with Reason.)

There's a lot to respond to in this piece, especially for politically unaffiliated libertarians (note the small l) such as myself.

First is that, in siding not just with a major party but with the Republicans, Barnett is following in the footsteps of Milton Friedman, almost certainly the most influential and politically effective libertarian theorist in the post-World War II era. As he told Brian Doherty in a great 1995 interview, "I have a party membership as a Republican, not because they have any principles, but because that's the way I am the most useful and have most influence." And as Barnett himself points out, characters such as Ron Paul have made peace with the GOP in a way that even the hardest-core libertarian should try to understand. Paul pere (et fils) are as important as they are precisely because they represent one of the duopolistic firms managing electoral politics.

At the same time, to be honest, Barnett's case that the Democrats in the current moment (or, as important, over the next four years) are truly worse than the GOP will be on a wide variety of economic and social issues is not particularly strong. There's no question that President Obama has been as big or bigger a disaster than George W. Bush was. Historically, however, there's every reason to fear Republican presidents more than Democratic ones. As the chart (prepared by libertarian economist and Reason columnist Veroniqe de Rugy) above shows, real per capita spending cranks up under Republicans and then gets hardened into reality by Democrats. Regardless of how you vote or identify politically, we all need to face up to the fact that outlays go up under GOP presidents more than under Dems. When it comes to foreign policy and especially military interventionism, I think Barnett, who took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal in 2007 to support the Iraq War, would be hard-pressed to claim that the GOP has any claim to superiority.

One thing Barnett gets right is a point that Matt Welch and I make in The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (out in paperback with a new intro for around $10 on Kindle!) is that libertarian is best understood as a pre-political impulse. That is, being in favor of a limited government that maximizes individual autonomy and freedom, informs your partisan affiliation, but it doesn't necessarily dictate it. There are libertarian Democrats (two of them are Reason regulars: Terry Michael and Mike Godwin) and there are libertarian Republicans and there are libertarian Libertarians too. There are many libertarians who refuse to vote, too. 

But that realization leads to questions of effecting social change and here is where I find Barnett's argument utterly unconvincing. Whatever his rhetorical flourishes, the message of his piece is aptly summarized in its sub-headline: "Voting the LP line could swing the election to the Democrats. That's not an outcome libertarians should hope for" (yeah, yeah, I know writers don't pen their headlines, but this one is truly accurate).

His argument boils down to a variation of the open letter that the left-wing magazine The Nation pens to Ralph Nader whenever his presidential bids might have the ungodly effect of changing the outcome and electing a Republican. As the mag opined in 2004:

When devotion to principle collides with electoral politics, hard truths must be faced. Ralph, this is the wrong year for you to run: 2004 is not 2000. 

Of course, in 2000, when Nader was running (and did influence the outcome), The Nation had editorialized that its readers—who presumably agreed 100 percent with Citizen Ralph's platform—should only cast a ballot for him if it wasn't going to matter:

Vote with your heart where you can, and vote with your head where you must. In states where either Gore or Bush has a commanding lead, vote Nader. In the states too close to call, vote Gore. In either case, the imperative is to end Republican control in Congress by electing Democrats, also vital to the prospects for progressive change.

For more in that vein, repair to "Dear Ralph, Go Fuck Yourself. Love, The Nation."

This is essentially the same argument that Barnett is making: This election (read: every election) is too important to waste votes on minor parties that will never steer the ship of state but might cause the second-best choice to lose. The best way to influence politics and hence policy is to go with one of the two big boys, or, realistically, the Republicans for the foreseeable future.

Is that true? For starters, it's wrong to presume that Gary Johnson—the immensely appealing and accomplished LP candidate for president—is taking more votes from Romney than Obama. In the Reason-Rupe Poll conducted in late September, for instance, Johnson pulled about 3 percentage points from each. In the swing state of Colorado, it's Obama, not Romney, who is sweating Johnson's total. Beyond that, there's something fundamentally weird with pre-counting votes as belonging to one or other of the major parties.

But more important in my estimation is understanding how change comes to political parties. Yes, someone like Rand Paul— the most interesting man in the Senate, we've called him—is huge. He's pulling (pushing?) the GOP in a more libertarian direction and he's being joined by younger characters (such as Rep. Justin Amash and Sen. Mike Lee) and older ones (Sens. Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn) who get the reality that the future of the Party of Lincoln requires getting more libertarian.

But the Tea Party—which is widely hated among the GOP establishment—has been the real engine of change precisely by refusing to go along with the status quo to eke out another near-term election win. The Tea Party is the reason that Rand Paul is in the Senate (they are the reason he won against the handpicked candidate of the Senate Majority, fer chrissakes). And it's the Tea Party's single-minded insistence on fiscal restraint uber alles that gives it power. This is a group of folks willing to nominate a nut like Christine O'Donnell over a sure thing, to primary eminent non-entities such as Orrin Hatch and Dick Lugar. That sort of focus has scared the GOP plenty and is the only reason the GOP is talking at all about reducing future spending. And still, the Tea Party has miles to go before it sleeps. The minute that the Tea Party—and Rand Paul, who takes regular abuse from Republicans for refusing to fall in line—eases off, the GOP will drift back to its worst tendencies.

But change doesn't come to parties simply from within, and here's where a strong showing by Gary Johnson and libertarian voters can absolutely send exactly the sort of message that both parties need to understand. The libertarian vote comprises somewhere between 10 percent and 15 percent of votes. It's remarkably reliable and consistent in that it supports candidates who believe the state should not enforce a single set of moral values and should stop doing things that individuals and businesses can handle better. That vote can swing any election and it will cozy up to whatever party takes it seriously. If the Republicans want to win the libertarian vote, all they have to do is…change a little bit. Ironically, all the party has to do is start pushing what it says it believes in: Individual rights and limited government. For the Dems, it might be more of a stretch, but they too can win some libertarian votes by changing their stances on various things.

GOP politicos and analysts have known this for well over a decade-plus, but they have been painfully slow (or maybe just stupid) to acknowledge libertarian sentiments in their party's policies or priorities. Instead, we get endlessly recycled thumb-sucking pieces about "The Libertarian Temptation" or accusations that by voting in what they believe, libertarians are "serving, in effect, as Democratic Party operatives." Republicans endlessly shout out, like Freud with the ladies, "What do libertarians want?!?!" Easy fellas, it's not a secret. Just take your heads out of your ass and listen once in a while.

Voting LP thus may serve as the spur to change in a GOP that should be looking not just at this election (which like every election is the most important election EVER!) but down the road a bit, to a country in which nobody cares about sexual orientation and an always-more-globalized economy means we're all immigrants and mongrels and that businessess of all sizes and shapes benefit not from politically connected tax breaks and subsidies but from honest-to-god free markets and drugs aren't a big deal and spending 4 percent of GDP on military contracts is self-evidently idiotic and on and on. Which is to say: The GOP should wake up to what America is like today if it wants to win the future. What part of "Majority of Americans Want Government to Do Less, Promote Fewer 'Traditional' Values" don't politicians understand?

In the meantime, far from fretting that the LP will cost Mitt Romney the election (arguable on every level), the GOP might "man up" a bit and take some personal responsibility for its failure to perform as promised. And how that—not third parties—depresses its vote count.