What libertarians believe (8 things you might not know)

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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While Matt is on holiday, he has selected a few of his “greatest hits” to re-run until he returns next week. This originally ran on December 22, 2011

With Rep. Ron Paul surging in Iowa, and Gary Johnson about to launch a bid for the Libertarian nomination, it’s probably time for the media to begin taking libertarianism seriously.

I don’t posture myself as a libertarian (though I do share some of their positions) or as an expert on the topic. As such, I thought I would reach out to some real libertarians, in order to better understand them. Later today, I am speaking with Brian Doherty of Reason (podcast to come later). Yesterday, I spent much time on the phone and on email talking with libertarian friends and sources.

Note: Obviously, libertarians aren’t monolithic. For example, Ron Paul is pro-life while Gary Johnson is pro-choice. But this is a serious attempt to accurately portray the views of most mainstream libertarians.

What follows is a quick guide to some things I’ve learned about libertarians. My guess is that much of this is not widely understood:

1. On paper, Gary Johnson is probably the better libertarian. Many mainstream libertarians find Paul to be a bit too much of a populist on on immigration and too conservative on social issues. Some of his rhetoric is off key, as well. For example, libertarians bristle at the term “states rights” — only individuals have rights …

2. Most libertarians view themselves as “citizens of the world.” Conservatives probably don’t fully appreciate this different and more cosmopolitan worldview espoused by libertarians. Conservatives — especially those who reject a Wilsonian or “neoconservative” foreign policy — tend to believe that American citizens deserve special rights — but that those rights are not necessarily universal (or, if they are, it’s not something we spend a lot of time worrying about).

Libertarians are less nationalistic, and this paradigm manifests itself in regards to the libertarian position on war.

Thanks to the writings of conservatives like Jonah Goldberg, many conservatives already understand that libertarians have a good reason to oppose wars: Big wars necessarily mean big government. While that is true, there are other reasons less widely understood. “Libertarians oppose unjust foreign wars for the same reason they oppose big government; that it involves the unjust use of force against innocent persons,” says Matt Zwolinski, a libertarian who is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego.

(It is worth noting that there are differing opinions among conservatives on this. Ayn Rand’s followers, for example, tend to be more hawkish — based on Rand’s strong opposition to Communism.)

3. Libertarians have a good reason to argue they are not “isolationists” — and it’s not just because they know it’s a pejorative term. Libertarians would argue that true isolationists — like paleoconservatives — aren’t just anti-war, they are also anti-trade.

But unlike paleoconservatives, who tend to be protectionists, most libertarians support lowering trade barriers and oppose tariffs, etc. As such, they make a good argument that the term “isolationist” is misleading when simply applied to people who oppose foreign intervention. It is worth noting, however, that Ron Paul is in some cases more of a Pat Buchanan-esque paleocon than a doctrinaire libertarian, as it pertains to issues such as immigration and trade, etc.

Libertarians argue that peaceful trade doesn’t just increase prosperity, it also helps develop social bonds that cannot exist when we’re actually isolationists. What is more, they argue that wars are incredibly destructive — not just in human lives, but in material wealth. (They consume huge amounts of resources that could be better spent on other pursuits.)

4. Ron Paul caught the zeitgeist. Much of Paul’s success comes the support he has garnered from a strong connection to a specific element of libertarianism, which is becoming increasingly popular: Those interested in monetary policy.

Some of this is a product of the recession — and is a rejection of the bailouts. People like Peter Schiff, who advised Ron Paul’s campaign in 2008 on economics, predicted the housing bubble and the recession (here’s a video showing Shiff basically nailing it during a variety of 2006-2007 interviews).

Being right, however, isn’t enough in politics. The Ludwig von Mises Institute has done a tremendous job of promoting the Austrian school of economics to young people. They have a “very, very significant web presence,” says Matt Zwolinski, a libertarin who is a philosophy professor in San Diego.

On the negative side, all this attention on monetary policy has also led to a lot of conspiracy theorists jumping on board — and conspiracy theorists are pervasive on the internet.

5. Don’t expect libertarians to compromise on principle for strategic reasons. They tend to believe that individual votes don’t make a difference in the outcome of national elections or even statewide primaries. “I’ve never joined or registered for a political party. Don’t ever plan to. I hardly ever vote, actually. I think I’ve got a lot more effect by trying to advance ideas,” says one libertarian friend.

As such, the notion that Gary Johnson’s candidacy could help re-elect Barack Obama isn’t a persuasive argument. “Suppose by chance, [Johnson] draws enough of the vote … thus giving Obama enough of an edge to win,” says Zwolinski, “I imagine libertarians would be delighted by that result, because that’s the only way you’re going to have an impact as a third party.”

Ultimately, the goal is to scare the two big parties enough that they have to co-opt some of your views. This has already happened a bit in the GOP, where you now have mainstream Republicans talking about auditing the Fed.

6. Most libertarians believe that libertarians are significant, but that the Libertarian Party is mostly irrelevant. “Most people who are libertarians don’t really have anything to do with the Libertarian Party,” says Zwolinski.

7. Libertarians are not boosters of big business. People often misconstrue the free market position as a “pro-big business” position, but that’s actually not true. In fact, libertarians tend to believe that big business favors big government (big businesses have the resources to comply with bureaucratic barriers and regulations, while their competitors — start ups, for example — cannot compete.) Thanks to the writings of conservatives like Tim Carney and Jonah Goldberg, this fallacy has lately been corrected.

8. Regarding the racist newsletters, it seems ludicrous to suggest that Paul — who says stuff like this — wrote them. He might be blamed for being an incompetent manager, but not a racist. There is some suggestion by some Paul supporters that the newsletter scandal was caused by Lew Rockwell, the President of the Mises Institute (whom many of Paul’s supporters believe wrote them — or, at least, knows who ghostwrote them).

Matt K. Lewis