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Is There a Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders? Not That I've Seen

The Vermont socialist and ice-cream flavor is too far left on economic freedoms & not libertarian enough elsewhwere.

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Over at The Daily Beast (disclosure: I'm a columnist there), Andrew Kirell struggles valiantly to make "the libertarian case for Bernie Sanders," going so far as to enlist some of the greatest minds of this and every other era and still coming up with bupkis.

The logic goes: With a Republican-controlled Congress—or one remotely close to its current makeup—President Sanders would have a tough time getting his most radical economic policies passed, leaving him to fight for the civil liberties causes that matter to liberals and libertarians alike: e.g., reforms to the criminal justice system, the ongoing drug war, and the government's surveillance efforts.

In other words, backing a Sanders presidency would mean wagering that Sanders' most left-wing economic policies wouldn't come to fruition. And that he'd pull a conservative Congress to the left on civil liberties issues, with the help of cross-partisan allies like Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee.

The Cato Institute's David Boaz notes that we've already got a Democratic president and a Republican Congress and this stuff isn't happening. True, true, but come on, Barack Obama is a barely contained drug warrior who insists against evidence that he can't reschedule marijuana, dragged his feet on criminal justice until recently, is quite hawkish (tripled troop strength in Afghanistan, bombed Libya, etc.), and ginned up a secret kill list while expanding Bush-era surveillance programs. Sanders is at least arguably not as equally bad on all those same issues.

Kirell then quotes me (accurately!) thus:

"You could do worse than having Bernie Sanders in the White House," [Gillespie] admitted. "The things that he would be able to direct in the White House would accord with libertarian values. Being a commander-in-chief, he would minister our foreign policy much differently than Obama or Bush; he would be much more likely change the scheduling for marijuana, which the president can do; and he'd be in a much better position to push criminal justice reform."

I stand by every jot and tittle! And for those of you who disagree (including the foul-mouthed bravehearts who have already contacted me via email, carrier pigeon, and pneumatic tubes), let me simply ask: Hillary Clinton would be worse, wouldn't she? Suffice it to say that noting you could do worse than Sanders is not an endorsement or an affirmation of the eminent flavored-deodorant critic from Vermont. By the end of his piece, in fact, Kirell even gives up on the idea that libertarians—that is, believers in limited government, economic freedom, and civil liberties—are going to feel the bern anytime soon unless they have the clap.

Which is all too true. As is this quote from Terry Michael, a former press secretary of the Democratic National Committee turned "libertarian Democrat" (and occasional Reason contributor):

"All we've got left are neoconservatives, social conservatives, and crony capitalists… I'd love to hear anyone tell me that any of the current crop of Republicans are actually libertarian on foreign policy or social issues or even many economic issues."

Read the full article here.

So does this mean that libertarians are stuck twiddling their thumbs or voting Libertarian when it comes to the 2016 election? No (though there's certainly nothing wrong with going LP, as I've done for virtually my entire voting life).

In a recent Reason piece about Ted Cruz trying to gather up Rand Paul's supporters, Boaz notes

David Kirby and I found that 13 to 15 percent of American voters hold libertarian values on a range of questions. In three separate analyses Kirby found that libertarian strength among Republican voters had risen to between 34 and 41 percent by 2012. Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul, garnered 21 percent in the Iowa caucuses and 23 percent in New Hampshire, not far off that mark. 

Gallup

How do we mass these votes, which are truly up for grabs in this and virtually every national election, and force major-party presidential candidates to pay attention to the top concerns of the libertarian electorate? The country is moving libertarian in terms of commercial life, cultural life, and personal life, where not only massive choice already exists but is growing stronger every day. As important, Americans are more comfortable with the idea of people having different choices and leading different lifestyles. Matt Welch and I document all these trends in The Declaration of Independents, which flowed from the observation that people are evacuating partisan politics as an identity and place of meaning in their lives.

In the near term—certainly in terms of major-party candidates still running for president this time around—the libertarian pickings are between slim and none. Which isn't to say that libertarian concerns aren't. At the state level, pot legalization, school choice, and public-pension reform proceed apace. At the national level, the wheels are coming off major entitlement programs and even with high levels of defense spending, the nation is in no mood to keep soldiering on in wars we've already lost. Once the Democratic and Republican nominees are selected and have locked in their party's faithful, that 15 percent (or more) of Americans who believe in social tolerance and fiscal responsibility will be the ones who decide November's election. And there's little doubt that the libertarian vote will force the Republicans to moderate their culture-war whoops and the Democrats to ease up on their redistrubitionist fantasies.