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

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


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.