For many libertarians, it's a recurring frustration: Why do candidates who seem attractive before the race begins suddenly sound so much squishier once they hit the campaign trail?
Take Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator with high hopes of becoming the Republican presidential nominee in 2016. He's far more libertarian on foreign policy and the surveillance state than most members of his party. But in recent weeks, he has taken a harder-line stance on using military force, even calling for an increase in overall military spending. Likewise, Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wis.), 2012's closest thing to a Republican champion of entitlement reform, suddenly reversed course and delivered a passionate speech in defense of Medicare spending at the Republican National Convention once the vice presidency was on the line.
A concept from economics called the median voter theorem provides one explanation for this wobbliness. In a video for Learn Liberty, the Creighton University economist Diana Thomas explains that our majority-rule system means candidates are forced to position themselves strategically to try to win more than 50 percent of the vote. Since a Democrat in a two-party race knows she can more or less count on the support of everyone to her left, for example, it behooves her to put as many people as possible to the left of her.
"Even if a candidate starts out on an extreme end of the political spectrum, he ultimately will aim for the middle [because he needs] to convince the 'median voter' to vote for him," she says. That is why politicians try so hard to reflect the preferences of the "average" American.
The same-sex marriage issue provides a great case study of this phenomenon. Until recently, an overwhelming majority of voters thought marriage ought to be reserved for heterosexual couples only. As long as the public took that position, most politicians—on both sides of the aisle—were happy to follow suit. But the last decade saw that trend reverse. Support for marriage equality has remained above 50 percent in most polls since 2010.
As public opinion changed, so did the public stances taken by many politicians. President Barack Obama, who insisted in 2008 that marriage should be between one man and one woman, did an about-face in 2012. Hillary Clinton has also "evolved" on the issue since deciding to run for president again in 2016. Even some Republicans have come out in favor of gay marriage.
Libertarians' goal, then, should be to make the median voter more like them: that is, more inclined to vote for people who want to get government out of the way. The great news is that this is already happening. The fact that the "libertarian-ish" Rand Paul is considered a major contender for the GOP nomination proves that, as does the growth in what CNN calls "indicators of libertarianism."
Since 1993, the news network has been asking people whether they think the government does too much or too little and whether they think the government should or shouldn't promote traditional values in society. Libertarians generally believe that the government does too much and that it should refrain from promoting any particular set of values.
The latest data, from last December, show that between 1993 and 2014, the percentage of people who believe the government does too much increased from 45 percent to 58 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who believe it's government's job to promote traditional values decreased from 53 percent to 41 percent. On both questions, the shift has accelerated since 2010.
Numbers like these led the statistical-minded political commentator Nate Silver to write in The New York Times in 2011 that "there have been visible shifts in public opinion on a number of issues, ranging from increasing tolerance for same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization on the one hand, to the skepticism over stimulus packages and the health-care overhaul on the other hand, that can be interpreted as a move toward more libertarian views."
Silver doubled down on that claim recently at FiveThirtyEight in an article titled "There Are Few Libertarians. But Many Americans Have Libertarians Views." He wrote that "the rigidly partisan views of political elites should not be mistaken for the relatively malleable and diverse ones that American voters hold." In fact, Silver estimated that more than one-fifth of Americans hold the libertarian position on both gay marriage and income redistribution. And there's reason to think the number of people falling into that camp is on the rise.
That's especially true for issues like pot legalization. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 53 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana. That's a 29 percent increase just since 2010. But in this case, as with many issues where public opinion has been changing fast, the fault line isn't between the two parties. It's a generational split.
Millennials have overtaken baby boomers as the single largest bloc in the country today. Their views are helping to drive changes in public opinion across a range of topics. But young people aren't consistently libertarian. A Reason-Rupe poll from spring 2014 found that while they're libertarian on social issues and immigration, millennials are not great when it comes to economic matters. Though a majority agree that government is ineffective and incompetent, they also think it should do more to "help" people. As a result, they support a host of not-at-all-libertarian policies, such as the federal provision of health care.
The real question for the future is not whether Rand Paul wins the nomination but whether millennials will, over time, take up libertarian views on economic matters to complement their existing libertarian philosophy about people's lifestyle choices. Remember, the way to get politicians to become more libertarian is to get voters to become more libertarian. Every transformative policy change can be traced to ideological change that came first—to people embracing a new set of beliefs and giving politicians permission, or even a mandate, to do the same.
Turning millennials into a generation of libertarian median voters means winning the battle of ideas. In Friedrich Hayek's words, "We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure and a deed of courage." We also need to strive to present capitalism with a human face-extolling how it helps real people, particularly the poor. And we should continue making the case that while the market isn't perfect, it allows for more and better choices than government does, all while fostering tolerance and peace.
The battle may be easier than we think. In the Reason-Rupe poll, 55 percent of millennials say they want to start their own company one day. Sixty-four percent understand that profit "encourages businesses to provide valued products to attract customers." And two-thirds prefer a free-market economy to one managed by the government. In other words, millennials aren't free market ideologues, but they aren't stupid either.
More importantly, they grew up in a world where both Democrat- and Republican-led governments have failed to do much more than increase the national debt that today's young people will have to pay down. Meanwhile, private sector companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon have made great contributions to their quality of life, delivering incredible goods and services quickly, efficiently, cheaply, and at the touch of a button.
Young people claim to support many government services. But when push comes to shove, I doubt a generation raised on texting and Amazon Prime will actually tolerate a system that expects them to wait in long lines for postal service and subpar government health care.
As libertarian views continue to take hold among millennials and others, we can hope to see a more amenable median voter in the long run.