Eric Cantor

Can a 'Libertarian Moment' in Politics Be Very Libertarian?

David Brat, Rand Paul, and the limits of electoral libertarianism in a two-party world

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Yesterday's primary defeat of crony capitalist House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) by an unknown economics professor, David Brat, with a professed admiration for free markets, a yen for Ayn Rand, and a campaign manager who identifies himself as an "Austrian Economics geek" raises anew a constant dilemma: How libertarian can a libertarian be in electoral politics, and is the Republican Party where a "serious" libertarian must go if he wants to be involved in such politics?

Brat seems really solid on some things, like surveillance (against it), the Second Amendment (for it), spending (for balancing budget), and Obamacare (against). He's bad on immigration and ambiguous, which generally means bad, on a sane foreign policy. And if Virginians want an actual capital-L Libertarian Party candidate to vote for in Cantor's old House seat, they have James Carr, part of the team assembled in that state where Robert Sarvis did amazingly well in his governor's race last year and is trying to repeat history in his federal Senate race this year.

Brat is not across-the-board libertarian in any way a typical Reason reader would recognize. And, as Salon made fun of him for, when a reporter tried to press him to say radically libertarian things about killing the minimum wage, he wouldn't play, though the implications of what he did say as a free-market leaning economics professor are that he ought to be against a legal minimum wage.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has also complained to me about the press playing the "say something crazily libertarian!" game with him. It certainly pleases a libertarian to see a politician who is willing to stand up hardcore for the principles of liberty, all the way. Likewise, it makes most libertarians a little peeved or disappointed when a politician won't do so. But it isn't always going to win you enough votes to win an election.

It is every libertarian's—nay, every American's—God-given right to avoid supporting, financing, or even voting for any candidate, ever. One can do so with the good conscience knowledge that one's personal choice to vote or not will not change the outcome.

Some libertarians do want to play that game, or at least the possibly more effective game of advocating how thousands of others should vote. Many of libertarian leanings do believe—based in both the belief that radical libertarianism cannot yet work in mass popular elections in America (given too few radical libertarians), and an apparent valorization of (at least lip service toward) the low-tax, low-spending end of the liberty message over other concerns like peace, civil liberties, the drug war, and the like—that a libertarian must when it comes to voting be a Republican.

For example, Randy Barnett is a true blue, Lysander Spooner-loving anarchist, the product of the libertarian movement machine of the Center for Libertarian Studies and the Institute for Humane Studies in the 1970s and '80s. He has also, unusually for such a radical libertarian, become an important public intellectual—recognized by The New York Times as one of the most influential legal thinkers and activists of his time due to his work fighting in the Supreme Court for getting the feds out of state-level medical marijuana and for undercutting the legal argument for Obamacare. Barnett managed to both write the best modern defense of an anarchist legal order and be the darling of the conservative legal group the Federalist Society for his explication of the libertarian roots of the Constitution.

Barnett also thinks, and recently tweeted, that when it comes to politics, "a 'libertarian moment' does not entail across-the-board libertarianism." Barnett has long insisted that libertarians really ought to vote for Republicans over Libertarians (even as polled public support for the idea of a third major party opposed to Democrats and Republicans reached a record high 60 percent last year). As Barnett told me this week, "to move in a libertarian direction doesn't require a politician to agree with" the entire consistent body of libertarian thought. Besides, by definition, he points out, a Libertarian Party makes the other two major parties less libertarian than they would otherwise be by siphoning libertarians toward that third party. (He doesn't put a lot of credence in the "making a major party lose will make that party embrace libertarianism" idea.)

Because of our two-party political reality, it is almost certainly the case, Barnett says, that the politician who does the most to advance libertarian causes in Washington will not be a hardcore libertarian. Major parties are by necessity coalitions. Any politician who can hope to advance libertarian ideas in office must also win the support of many, many non-libertarians. Thus, in a nation where we don't all read Murray Rothbard at the beach, this likely means that more hardcore the libertarian, for now, the less likelihood of success. Paradoxically, a politician who isn't really very libertarian at all might do more to advance libertarian causes than the most hardcore non-aggressive activist or educator.

Many libertarians have an understandable revulsion for reasons of cultural signaling to have any of the stink of the Republican Party on them, because of how bad that party is on issues like peace, civil liberties, and applying old religious prejudices to policy. Inchoate but very real questions of culture and identity are at play—many libertarians just feel icky being seen as "that kind of person" no matter how much their views on economics, say, vibe with those held by many Republicans.

That's understandable. But the less on-the-surface "nice" aspects of libertarianism (letting people live their lives free of officious or violent intervention) also need defenders in politics and media. Someone needs to be nationally advocating limited spending, lower tax rates, lighter and more sensible regulation in industry, finance, and medicine, the possibility of reining in the entitlement state, and the like. The Republican Party seems to be the only national home for that right now with the chance of winning elections.

The right strategy to get the "right" politicians elected, or how to shift the acceptable range of ideas within the larger coalition of any party that can actually win, is subject to endless testing and certainly no libertarian can be sure they know the can't-fail path to actuating libertarian policies in government. In political science we must make conjectures and prepare to have them refuted by empirical experience.

But as an Austrian economics geek might understand, perhaps something axiomatic underlies this whole political change game.

We might call it the Leonard Read principle, after the founder of the first modern libertarian education institution, the Foundation for Economic Education. Namely, it's the principle that sincere and skilled education about economics and ethics can help people understand the richness and rightness of human liberty. One thing the libertarian movement's experiences since the 1940s has proved is that such education can work, mind to mind, individual by individual. (The very effective Randy Barnett is an example, both as a teacher and someone taught.)

How that plays out in the bigger world of culture and government is still uncertain. But such education in libertarian principles is a solid base to build on. Sometimes that educational process intersects with electoral politics. Ron Paul's two presidential runs were great examples of ideological education via candidate. Rand Paul shows some promise to do the same—even if, paradoxically, he might do more good for libertarianism by being less libertarian, as Randy Barnett thinks.

Those who saw something in Rand Paul they loved and who will doubtless get heartburn at many steps along his path striving for the GOP presidential nomination might want to remember this—or, as is their right, they might want to damn him as a useless sellout non-libertarian. One of the things that I think made Ron Paul such a force for good was he was willing to be a spokesman for the rawer, wilder end of libertarian attitudes toward the state without giving a damn about political reality. This made him a great public influence on the many people attracted to consistency and radicalism and a fresh approach. But it didn't make him president.

Supporting a politician or a political party is a blunt instrument. They likely will never advocate or work for everything you want. They can't be relied on to even mean what they say, much less act on what they say. But it will always pay off—even if slowly—to work to convince your fellow Americans in every marketplace of ideas, from media to academia to the arts, that it is both just and on the whole enriching to allow the free play of markets, ideas, and life choices. If that works, the rest will follow.

NEXT: Free Market Brat Beats on Cantor, V.A. Gets FBI Investigation, Iraqi Cities Fall: P.M. Links

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  1. I realized in late 2011, God help us if Rand isn’t President in 2016. I could already see Ron losing the nomination, Romney winning it, and Obama trouncing him in the general election.

    I’m not sure how much more the dollar, economy, and red-blooded American gun owner can take without some move toward Liberty. I hope that history shows I’m just a “scare-monger” who underestimated how strong the economy and American individualist was… But I don’t think I am.

    1. I don’t think, unfortunately, that you are guilty of being a “scare-monger”- The petrodollar is in free fall, in the process of being replaced by the renminbi as the reserve currency,
      Scary times indeed…..

      1. US Oil output is now greater than Saudi. Your fears (hopes?) are unlikely to be realized any time soon.

    2. Seriously, are you kidding?

      Or did you just return from the Bundy Ranch and have conversations with those nutcases?

    3. Things were far, far worse under Wilson and FDR when the classical liberals nearly died out and men who openly admired fascism occupied the oval office.

      We may have to keep our heads down and suffer through Europe-style stagnant economies and a continued soft police state for the next generation, but that’s far better than what our ancestors endured in every era. The ethical ideology of libertarianism is what’s important, and as long as political speech is protected, we’ll continue to grow on the strength of our moral arguments.

      1. “Things were far, far worse under Wilson and FDR when the classical liberals nearly died out and men who openly admired fascism occupied the oval office.”

        No so different for our socialist friends these days. They certainly don’t like your false equivalents. Who cares if you call it free speech?

        1. FDR literally sent hundreds of thousands of Japs to concentration camps. His modern successors couldn’t even stop the building of a mosque near the WTC ruins. So yeah, the fascists are not anywhere near as strong now as the were 70 years abo.

      2. Is one of the moral arguments the right to pollute the commons and extract as many resources as lie under our feet as we can?

        If so, yes, you are right. Greed is timeless and certainly appeals to many.

    4. I don’t know about scare-monger, but Jeebus freak/gun nutter fits the bill.

    5. Im more concerned about the mass domestic surveillance, drug war, police militarization, assassinations and torture. Wealth is meaningless (and perhaps counter-productive) when it comes from rent-seeking and not from a system of free exchange.
      More and more often I find myself wondering: has it always been this bad? Ours is the country whose Constitution of liberty allowed slavery. Perhaps it was that original hypocritical sin that damns us still.
      What needs to happen to build a society where one can be free from violence; can be left alone? Is a life without chains and boots on faces such an unbelievable fantasy?
      What is it about us that is so hopelessly polluted that we crave to own another person, either as chattel, suspect, combatant or tenant?

  2. Another important piece to the puzzle is the media. It’s hard for the typical voter to take even a very likeable and charismatic libertarian-leaning politician seriously when there are so many popular voices on both sides lining up to attack and misrepresent.

    A libertarian version of John Stewart and Rush Limbaugh would do a lot of good.

    1. Penn Jillette is your man.

  3. So when Randy Barnett talks about a libertarian “moment”, he’s talking in terms of force, not time. A moment of force is synonymous with torque, having a force and a distance. To complete the analogy, the greater the force we use and the further we get from the pivot point of American politics, the greater the moment of force. But too far from the pivot and we risk snapping the instrument of effectuation, and we go nowhere. So we need to find the ideal distance from the political fulcrum.

  4. Supporting a politician or a political party is a blunt instrument. They likely will never advocate or work for everything you want. They can’t be relied on to even mean what they say, much less act on what they say.

    This may hold true for the Democrats or Republicans, but it is not the case for the Libertarian Party. As a party and as candidates, actual Libertarians support all of your freedoms, all of the time. Republicans and Democrats pay lip service to some stuff around the edges, but how they govern is not and has not been libertarian.

    1. Republicans and Democrats pay lip service to some stuff around the edges, but how they govern is not and has not been libertarian.

      Nor have their actions actually differed.

  5. What is the libertarian position for immigration? Open border chaos like that which is going on now? Measles outbreaks, housing the kids in army barracks, passing out condoms to the kids because they are apparently all copulating,…is this helpful?

    1. WTF are even talking about?

    2. Check out the immigration section in Myth of the Rational Voter and then revisit your admittedly exciting vision of a post-apocalyptic America in which people who want to work on a particular side of an imaginary political line are permitted to work to their benefit and their employers’.

      1. open borders is the area where I disagree with the party line. Its great in theory, but as long as one side of the border is an over-regulated 2nd world shit-hole… oh wait, as long as both sides of the border are over-regulated 2nd world shit-holes… I mean… Oh hell, supply and demand and shit!

    3. I think you broke the record in strawmans in one post.

  6. Ahahahahahaha… That’s a a good one, Brian. Vote for the party of abortion restrictions, the Iraq war, the patriot act, the drug war, gay bigotry, and neocons. You got me. Know any good dirty jokes? Maybe you should strive to write the captions for the Friday Funnies. Those are always clever– in a cultish sort of way.

    1. Wait are you talking about anti-choice Dems? Too ambiguous.

    2. Go away dickweed.

  7. Here’s is the perfect example of this new breed of “God Fearing” Libertarians, who make the Frankenstein monster look good (actually, he was somewhat good).

    This dude says he’s “mostly libertarian”, but just like the guy who whipped Cantor, he’s into the God thing….

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new…..-1.1826308

    “”I think we would be totally in the right to do it. That goes against some parts of libertarianism, I realize, and I’m largely libertarian, but ignoring as a nation things that are worthy of death is very remiss,” Esk reportedly wrote”

    We are really going to be fu*cked if these bible thumpers ever get more power. Just look back to GW for a slight taste – although that will look good compared to some of these asses.

    1. Can’t get any more fucked than with the socialist currently in the office.

      Just remember, you didn’t build that.

      1. Ah, so you think pols that want to Stone The Gays are better than the current situation?

        Fantastic. Gimme some more wisdom!

        I think I finally figured out Libertarianism 4.0
        It’s like “the sound of one hand clapping”
        or
        “If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear it?”..

        Basically, in other words, it only exists in thought and the second it gets on the stage and utters more than a talking point, it turns into the same old Republican in disguise.

  8. This thread sure did bring the derp.

  9. The biggest obstacle to libertarianism is that so many people calling themselves libertarians are intellectually unserious, and childish. As a starting point, “socially liberal, economically conservative” is not libertarianism. Yet many who latch onto the label seem to think that’s what it means.

    So let’s run down the list of areas where conservatives supposedly clash with libertarians:

    1. Abortion. Libertarians should all be “pro choice”, right? Wrong. The issue depends entirely upon whether or not an unborn child is a human being with rights, or an appendage of the mother which she can do with as she pleases. How you answer that question determines the “correct” libertarian position on the issue. Since libertarians supposedly err on the side of human rights and human liberty, and life (scientifically speaking) begins at conception, I would argue that being “pro choice” is the tougher sell as libertarianism.

    2. Gay marriage. Not in any way, shape or form a libertarian issue. Doing away with sodomy laws? Libertarian. Having the government license, regulate and subsidize homosexual relationships? Not remotely libertarian. The argument for gay marriage is pure egalitarianism, and radical egalitarianism at that. Not libertarianism. And in fact this movement has now shown clearly that it is a threat to freedom of speech and religious liberty, which are things that legitimate, intellectually consistent libertarians strongly support.

    1. 3. Immigration. I would argue that people who believe in open borders are not libertarians, but rather anarchists. If government should exist at all, one of its first responsibilities should be to protect the nation’s territorial boundaries. Being for open borders is the equivalent of being for the complete abolition of the military and police forces. To call it radical is an understatement. It should not be a mainstream libertarian position.

      4. War. This is a legitimate issue with the Republican Party. But there is a long history of conservative non-interventionism (what militarists and internationalists always call “isolationism”). This is an area where libertarians can make (and are making) major inroads in pulling conservatives in their direction.

      5. Drugs. This is probably the most legitimately libertarian objection to conservative views. But it’s a ridiculously immature hill to die on when there are so many larger things to worry about. Conservatives are not likely to embrace legalization. But reform of drug laws is entirely doable. That’s a realistic goal.

      It used to be that libertarians were written off for being in favor of legalizing drugs, gambling and prostitution. At least those were legitimate libertarian positions. If someone calls themselves a libertarian and then starts spouting left wing positions on abortion and gay marriage, that person has no understanding whatsoever of the intellectual foundations of libertarianism.

      1. 3. Immigration. I would argue that people who believe in open borders are not libertarians, but rather anarchists. If government should exist at all, one of its first responsibilities should be to protect the nation’s territorial boundaries. Being for open borders is the equivalent of being for the complete abolition of the military and police forces. To call it radical is an understatement. It should not be a mainstream libertarian position.

        So private property owners don’t get to choose whom they admit to their lands if they happen to be along arbitrary boundaries that states call borders, and anarchism isn’t real libertarianism because it’s scary and “radical.” Got it.

        For someone who wants to lecture us on who is and isn’t a libertarian you certainly do fail to understand an awful lot of Libertarianism 101 material, in which absolute property rights are foundational to ethical social conduct.

        1. As it happens, private property owners don’t get to choose whom they admit to their lands, because they’re likely to be prosecuted if they use force to prevent it. And when they organize privately to secure their lands (i.e. the Minutemen), they’re condemned and legally harassed.

          As for anarchism, surely you know that anarchists (generally speaking) don’t believe in private property. They’re Utopian communists who believe said Utopia will spontaneously emerge after they violently overthrow the government, and loot and pillage privately held wealth.

          1. “As it happens, private property owners don’t get to choose whom they admit to their lands, because they’re likely to be prosecuted if they use force to prevent it.”

            Which is not libertarian at all.

            “surely you know that anarchists (generally speaking) don’t believe in private property.”

            um sure, you have no idea of what is anarchism.

            Anarchism means self rule. Because the commies call themselves anarchist does not mean they are not anarchist.

            1. *mean they are anarchist

            2. Sorry, but there has to be some limit on property holders’ authority to exclude persons, because you have to allow for freedom of movement. It’s not a profound limitation, but if all property is owned and nobody has to allow anyone else to cross their property, then you see the problem. In some cases the crossing may require a structure, as for utility lines or roads.

              1. There is no problem; having the right to prohibit others to cross one’s property does not mean that one will not grant others permission to cross one’s property.

          2. LOL. You are ridiculous. Are you a block captain in the GOP trying to get libertarians to come to your next meeting?

            Yes, libertarians should be for mandating that a women who does not want to have a child to go through the grueling and dangerous process (ever seen or been involved with a women giving birth) to satisfy your delicate sensibilities about how they should act when they get pregnant. I get it, mr. GOP.

            1. Your post makes my point for me quite well when it comes to where the “pro choice” position falls on the political spectrum. You being a socialist and all. Which raises the question of why you’re here, other than to troll those with views diametrically opposed to yours.

            2. Giving birth is one of the most biological and natural process of, well, nature. Women have been doing that for millenia.

              If giving birth is dangerous and grueling, why doesn’t the government just ban the practice? Mountain climbing and hang gliding is dangerous too. So is boxing and wresting. Grueling and dangerous!

              Your argument is beyond stupid.

    2. As long as the government is going to keep itself involved in marriage, then gay marriage is a libertarian issue.

      1. If you don’t understand the difference between “libertarianism” and “egalitarianism”, maybe I can simplify it for you. One is a philosophy that has liberty as the primary goal, and the other is a philosophy that has equality as its primary goal.

        Libertarians are primarily concerned with reducing government involvement in private affairs. Pushing for government involvement in same sex relationships is therefore not merely non-libertarian, it is anti-libertarian.

      2. In the sense that the state shouldn’t be involved in licensing, forbidding, or privileging private contracts, marriage is a libertarian issue. But as usual when the mainstream right butts heads with the mainstream left, participants in the debate over marriage equality spend all of their time asking the wrong questions.

        The libertarian split on the issue of marriage equality recalls the old Friedman/Rothbard divide–one takes the world as it is and then tries to fiddle with the margins to effect a slightly better outcome, while the other focuses on foundational ethics rather than a political process that’s pathetic, dumb, and disappointing.

        1. A libertarian advocating government-sanctioned same sex marriage is the equivalent of a libertarian saying they don’t like welfare programs, but since they exist they should be open to everyone, regardless of income.

          1. Actually, since people who pay taxes are the ones paying for these programs why SHOULDN’T they be eligible to “benefit” from them as well? They are PAYING for them aren’t they?

            1. That’s a fine mentality if your goal is socialism. If your goal is liberty, it leads in the opposite direction.

      3. Since marriage is a legal matter, and law resides in gov’t, how could gov’t not be involved in marriage? One could have marriage without the state, but not without gov’t.

  10. Maybe the perfect is the enemy of the good!

    “Many libertarians have an understandable revulsion for reasons of cultural signaling to have any of the stink of the Republican Party on them, because…”

    …Many liberatarians are dyed-in-the-wool Culture Warriors who will throw everything else under the bus to be on the progressive side of social issues.

    1. Culture warriors? War implies the use of violence. I would never use violence to force to men to get married or force someone to smoke marijuana.

  11. This is the most derptastic thread I have seen here at H&R, since the pre-registration days. Is the Salon site down, or is crayon back with 6 different posting names?

  12. “But it isn’t always going to win you enough votes to win an election.”

    This is one of the strongest reasons to support run-off elections (coupled with a mandatory NOTA option in every race).

  13. Besides, by definition, he points out, a Libertarian Party makes the other two major parties less libertarian than they would otherwise be by siphoning libertarians toward that third party.

    I didn’t realize Barnett was that stupid.

    The way to put pressure on a big party is to leave it and start voting for someone else. That creates pressure. If you just keep voting for the big party, that’s what is called “enabling.”

    1. Run-off elections would eliminate that argument altogether. If the two major parties see a Gary Johnson or Ron Paul get 11% of the vote and force them into a run-off they would work like hell to appeal to them. Ignoring them would not be an option in any case.

      1. Why? If the run-off is going to be between other candidates, that’s the only one they need to win. Why should they particularly appeal to the voters of a candidate who’s going to be eliminated? Or, in the run-off, already been eliminated?

        1. There would be more people WILLING to vote for Third Party Candidates or Independent candidates because it would be obvious that the “Throwing One’s Vote Away” argument would not hold water. You would still get a chance to vote for the “lesser of two evils” if third party / indy votes cause a plurality rather than majority outcome.

    2. The votes for “someone else” are the easiest to ignore. If there’s a bloc of voters who don’t affect who gets elected, why should politicians pay any att’n to them, any more than they do to non-voters?

  14. If we keep listening to people like this, we will keep getting raped in the ass by Republicans.

    1. I take it you prefer the job be done by Democrats? No accounting for personal taste.

      Me? I prefer it to be consensual and I’m no fan of Republicans, Democrats, or buggery (forced or otherwise).

  15. Vote for me, your favorite Livejournal Libertarian troll.

    All birthers, truthers, and young-earth creationists are cast out of my party.

    My Libertarian party is not for the Jerome Corsis.

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