Only libertarianism can save the GOP

The Republican Party is in danger of returning to its roots — back to the time when its two main constituencies did not belong to a single party. Before the Civil War brought them together, the nationalist, money-driven Whigs and the regional, moralist Abolitionists held little in common. Now, the debt debacle has carried Republicans back to the deep divide present at their party’s creation.

One faction declares that without prosperity, all is lost. The other insists only repentance can save us. Both Prosperity Republicans and Repentance Republicans believe they are in a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

The Reagan-era fusionism that once held them together has hit the ash heap of history — hastened to its grave by the political and economic reckoning that Reagan could defer but we can’t.

Now, Repentance Republicans view Prosperity Republicans as inescapably corrupted by an unsustainable form of crony capitalist governance. Prosperity Republicans view Repentance Republicans as unmanageably captivated with an unstable form of politically principled purity.

With neither faction able to triumph or surrender, both must change. The only fusionism that can succeed today must defeat the claims to dominance of both big GOP factions.

Fortunately for Republicans, the new path to unity isn’t as harrowing as the fight for the Union. Some fear that libertarianism is too theoretically brittle and politically uncompromising to form the foundation of a new Republican consensus. But whatever your judgment of libertarianism in its ideologically pure form, the triumph of practical libertarianism over the Republican Party is as necessary as it is inevitable.

The two factions each already claim a variety of libertarianism. From the perspective of Repentance Republicans, social and cultural libertarianism derive from the basic tenet of Prosperity morality that economic growth produces public and private happiness. For Prosperity Republicans, economic and political libertarianism stem from the fundamental opposition of Repentance morality to progress, efficiency, equality and uniformity.

Both views are mistaken, but ideological libertarians err in thinking the problem with both the Repentance and Prosperity agenda is primarily philosophical. Actually, dogmatic libertarianism shares the same difficulty: No political program in a free country can transform the character of a people.

Repentance Republicans cannot push America in a cultural direction it is not already going. Prosperity Republicans cannot wring massive growth from a country that first needs massive repair.

Politics fails whenever the aim is great moral or economic change. The great insight of practical libertarianism is that political life can never bear the burden of our biggest dreams and worst nightmares.

A Republican Party that puts politics ahead of moral and economic engineering will push for a renaissance of regional, state and especially local politics. It will devolve power from Washington, not just to push elites apart but to draw citizens together.

And it will make clear that putting politics at the center of politics actually reveals the limits of what politics can and should do. Ideological libertarians wrongly dream of the day that politics will wither away, replaced by a sovereign economy of free individuals. What can wither away under Republican leadership is the mania for putting politics in the service of projects and agendas that will forever be frustrated by the limits and failings of mortal men.

  • Anonymous

    You might get a thing called libertarian fundamentalist Protestants; but the GOP will have a very tough time attracting Catholics if the parties coheres around a libertarian perspective, and that will have negative electoral consequences. There are Catholics who attempt to square libertarianism with their faith, but it’s a very awkward fit because Catholicism has, even with due nods towards the teachings re subsidiarity, always had a general comfort level with activist government, just so long as it does not try to actually own and run everything directly (just to be clear, the welfare state is something Catholicism prefers more than it decries).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Hihn/1273552345 Mike Hihn

    You had it in a single sentence.  The “practical” libertarian ethic is tolerance.  Live and let live.  According to Zogby Poll, 59% of Americans define themselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

    The dividing line is between those who seek a government that imposes their own values on everyone, which includes elements of the religious right and the economic left, but much smaller elements than generally acknowledged. 

    The right has what I call the Christian Jihadists, best seen lately in the mindless attack on Planned Parenthood by people who have no clue what they’re talking about.  They won’t stop a single abortion, and it’s not even PP who will be the most damaged,

    The fiscal left suffers all the myths of Keynesian economics, as falsely preached in this country.  Though not the opposite of Birthers, the Keynesians practice equal denial — denying for example that the Depression was over when FDR took office, without a penny being spent on demand-side stimulus.  Or believing we had a postwar boom — which was actually 5 recession in only 15 years.

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  • Anonymous

    Poulos doesn’t do a very good job of defining what he means by Repentance and Prosperity Republicans. I agree with much of his conclusion, but my agreement is rooted in the fact that a more libertarian slant for the party has the potential to rid the party of the religious impulse inherent in Progressivism. By this I do not mean that there is some theocratic conspiracy (I actually despise Damon Linker for what he did to First Things). By religious impulse I mean that impulse by which individuals and groups decide that a particular policy prescription over-rides considerations of letting other people alone and that something not prescribed in the Declaration or the Constitution simply MUST be enacted to save the moral soul of the nation. Most of this lately (almost all, actually) has been done by the left. Regardless of any secular origin of an idea, these are forced on the nation with a religious fervor unseen since the days of the Spanish Inquisition, and with just as deadly effect.

    If getting rid of the impulse to try and save the nation through political therapy and simply letting the machine of freedom run us back to prosperity means that we have to say that the Republican Party has become more libertarian or more classically conservative, so be it.

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  • grivetti

    As a former republican officeholder, I cannot agree more with the premise of this article. Only libertarianism is the authentic form of real republicanism.. And that does not mean free love, free drugs, and abortion. You can be an authentic libertarian republican and be pro life – how can anyone argue that it is acceptable to destroy a human life with distinctive DNA for convenience or any other reason. Libertarianism acknowledges that you must ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY for you actions – and that includes the acceptance of the results of sex, or adult drug use, or profligate spending.

    • M Simon

      All those things you decry are hard to police. Except profligate spending.

      A government powerful enough to put an end to abortion will be powerful enough to make it mandatory. I don’t think you want to go there.

      As to adult drug users –  most of what happens when you leave them alone is they cut back on drug use and stop stealing. See the work of Dr. John Marks in England/Wales.

      Nice to have you mostly on our side. However, your ignorance about drugs is not unusual. You can do your own research but let me give you the short form:

      People in chronic pain chronically take pain relievers.

      PTSD mostly.

  • apetra

    You’re confused.

    You’re mistaking Republican economics concessions during the 2000’s to the Democrats — who for the entire two-term Bush Administration held filibuster power in the Senate — for a renewal of the “establishment” republicanism of the pre-Reagan period.

    Republicans were serious about the War on Terror. They wrote big check after big check to programs championed (and demagogued) by the Democrats.

    Truth be told, Republicans have been the party of small government and low taxes since Ronald Reagan. They’ve just never had the power.

    That’s all about to change, in 2012, when the Democrats go “super minority” in the Senate.

    • Rich Matarese

      “Republicans were serious about the War on Terror. They wrote big check after big check to programs championed (and demagogued) by the Democrats.

      “Truth be told, Republicans have been the party of small government and low taxes since Ronald Reagan. They’ve just never had the power.”

      Ouch. Horrible historical illiteracy there.

      In truth, the Republican Party has been from its inception the party of ENORMOUS intrusive, economically destructive government. Up until its takeover by the “progressives” (today’s modern “Liberal” fascists), it was the Democratic Party which stood for free trade (low tariffs so that American manufacturers couldn’t screw American customers), a stable gold-based currency, and minimal government interference in the moral and economic lives of the population.

      Ever heard of H.L. Mencken, the man who called himself “an extreme libertarian” in the last radio interview he gave before his crippling stroke in 1948? One of my favorite quotes of his runs like so:

      “In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.”

      I strongly recommend that the reader search the Web for an essay by Professor Clyde Wilson, titled “The Republican Charade: Lincoln and His Party” (2006).

      It’s not that the Republican Party has ever gotten better. It’s still the party of currency inflation (the Federal Reserve System was THEIR invention!), massive political pork spending, and corporate welfare.

      It’s just that the Democratic Party since about 1904 has gotten so very much worse.

  • Don L

    The problem with libertarians is that they insist on government leaving them alone. All well and good, except, by so doing they must call upon some higher source for their authority to demand such. The constitution speaks of rights beyond that which can be altered or granted by mere man -rights gifted to us by our Creator. It is that special character of man -being made in the image of his creator that is the source of all our “rights” -libertarians too.”
    Libertarians, like progressives, wish to have their “rights” while denying the very social and personal resonsibilities that are irrevocably bound to those same rights. Thy want to have a one sided coin. They view our rights as a Swiss cheese whereupon they can look at the holes and call that cheese if they wish.
    A society without God as it’s center (not a formal religion -but one whose laws and regulations are founded in natural law and Judeo-Christian morality) cannot survive with free men.It is that which they wish to deny.
    Who are libertarians to engineer the rules they wish? What special authority do they pretend to have to allow them to determine what, or what not, a government may do?
    What they want is license to decide for themselves what is right or wrong without the government (or their neighbor) disagreeing. That sounds very much like a classic adolecent arguement. Personal moral decisions spell over into the larger society and destroy it-in case libertarians haven’t noticed. Just look at our inner-cities, our drug culture and our STD social destruction. This is the business of government.

    • Carl Spackler

      Nonsense! Your argument reminds me of the Tories lamenting that the rabble couldn’t govern themselves without nobility. Don’t you dare blame inner-city blight on Libertarians! That is absurd. Big government is led by religous hyperbole. Clinton, Gore, Carter, Obama, all claim Christianity.

      (I recently espied a huge cross in an Italian court room. Ask Amanda Knox how that church and state thing worked out for her.)

    • leninsbarber

      Did you read the article or just the Headline? The author goes out of his way to explain how dogmatic libertarianism can fail as well. Here is the quote:

      “Actually, dogmatic libertarianism shares the same difficulty: No political program in a free country can transform the character of a people.”

      The author is not arguing for a libertarian takeover of the party, but rather for the acceptance of some libertarian principles and a focus on politics rather than engineering that could serve to strengthen both sides of the Republican party, by allowing more regional and individual control over issues rather than federal ones. Once again from the article:

      “Republican Party that puts politics ahead of moral and economic engineering will push for a renaissance of regional, state and especially local politics. It will devolve power from Washington, not just to push elites apart but to draw citizens together.

      • Rich Matarese

        Any prioritization of “moral and economic engineering” must necessarily come a-cropper because it enlists the engine of civil government to effect changes which government, as an agency in our society, simply cannot manage.

        Oh, the officers of government can make a lot of noise, spend a lot of other people’s money, incarcerate and kill a lot of human beings, but to make people better somehow – to change the real standards of morality or repeal the laws of economics?


        The position long held by “minarchist” libertarians (those of us who admit that government has ANY legitimate role to play in civil society) is that what we suffer today is government as cancer, spreading into areas of human action where it is not only unnecessary but dangerously destructive.

        The plain fact of the matter is that government should be run – and can be run – as a very limited service provider, managing under delegation the right of the individual human being to use lethal force in retaliation against violent aggression.

        As such, it has no legitimate role in “moral and economic engineering,” and cannot be permitted to act therein.

        • Anonymous

          “As such, it has no legitimate role in “moral and economic engineering,” and cannot be permitted to act therein.”

          But the government can, and does, take actions that do change the standards of morality.

          Witness the devastating effect on the black nuclear family of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. It became morally acceptable to a black father to leave his family so that his wife and children could collect welfare payments that they would not otherwise be eligible for. That morphed into desertion, and, finally, into complete abdication of paternal responsibility on the part of a large segment of the black male population.

          That was not the intent, but that was the effect.

          Then there was the Community Reinvestment Act, which eventually morphed into a con game to provide housing to people who could not afford it  That led to irresponsible behavior on the part of people who bought houses with no hope of servicing the mortgage in hopes of “flipping” the property for a profit quickly enough so that they never had to meet the first payment. This practice is also called “gambling”. 

          Then there were the mortgage practitioners whose greed was exacerbated by the knowledge that they really could “flip” their mortgages by selling them to Fannie Mae, or Freddie Mac, allowing them to pocket all the up front fees without having to assume the risk of holding bad paper, which they could pawn off to either of the GSEs.

          That was not the intent of the Community Reinvestment Act, as revised and distorted by a series of ill-advised refinements and modifications, but that was the effect.

          People are people, but the government seems to find ways to bring out the worst in many of them. That’s the truth, like it or not..

    • Bill Dalasio

      What they want is license to decide for themselves what is right or wrong without the government (or their neighbor) disagreeing.

       No, what they want is the right to decide for themselves what is right or wrong when their actions don’t impinge on anyone else’s rights without the government pulling out a .45 and enforcing their disagreement at the point of a barrel.  Jesus by government diktat isn’t the Jesus I was taught to worship.

    • Sandy E

      Excellent comment Don L-  We already have one regime in Washington telling the citizens how they are to live, and what the government will or will not do.  The libertarians want the same ability to also dictate to the citizens how government will be run.  There is nothing favorable about any system of government that the majority of the people reject.  The libertarians have been rejected since the inception of a formal libertarian party in the 70’s.  The liberal form of government we are currently being subjected to, will also find it’s demise in 2012.  According to a recent Gallup poll, we are still a center right country by a wide margin. No one wants extreme left, and no one wants extreme right either, which is where the libertarians ideology lies.

      The majority of libertarians today are Ron Paul type libertarians, which the real libertarians even reject. That majority is made up of those 25 and younger. When you say that their arguments sound like classic adolecents, you are correct.  Many in that age bracket have not accumulated many of life’s experiences, and still see the world with rose colored glasses.  They think that there really aren’t millions out there that could care less what is in their hearts or minds, they are the American infidels, the big satans, and must be killed to  please  Allah.  They simply refuse to believe that good and evil are prevalent in every society.

  • 24AheadDotCom

    After O was elected I was hoping for a popular, sane, mainstream, pro-American opposition to O and the far-left.

    Boy was I far off!

    Instead, the PowersThatBe pushed an unpopular, insane, fringe, truth-challenged, red-baiting, brainless, frequently anti-American opposition in the form of the TP loonies. Their ideas – to the extent that they have any at all – are LibertarianLite.

    Now, Poulos wants to make things *even worse* for the GOP and – since we’re stuck with two parties and it’d be nice if both were sane – the U.S. in general.

    P.S. Here’s a test of libertarian/LibertarianLite “thinking” I’ve been conducting for a few days. Hundreds of views later, I haven’t been able to find one of them presenting a valid argument in support of cuts to literacy programs:


    • Rich Matarese

      Okay. Here’s “a valid argument in support of cuts to literacy programs” run by civil government.

      They’re cost-ineffective.

      The same can be said for government-funded (and compulsory in government schools) programs like D.A.R.E., purposed to reduce the susceptibility of children and adolescents to psychoactive drug abuse.

      The funny thing is that some decades ago, D.A.R.E. program graduates were demonstrated to have shown HIGHER levels of substance abuse in their teenage years than were kids from similar demographic cadres who didn’t participate in such activities.

      Boy, were the results of that study ever hustled away and buried doublequick.

      But beyond their ineffectiveness, such programs as “Reading is Fundamental” are invidious in another and much more significant way. Because they’re administered by the officers of government (with funding wrenched at gunpoint from the private citizenry), they foreclose other options to secure improvement in childhood and adolescent literacy.

      Indeed, such relatively ineffective – and very costly – “Adolf’s Ice Cream” government-pushed solutions tend so reliably to displace and even obliterate alternatives that might secure better results in both particular cases and generally that it might be reasonable to assume that government “literacy programs” have been structured and implemented with the express purpose of ensuring that the victims thereof never become literate to any real extent at all.

      Why the hell do you think that so many Americans – not just the religious whackjobs but also people who’ve simply come to the conclusion that government schools are meatgrinders operated to destroy our children’s ability to think for themselves – are homeschooling their kids?