Recently the New York Times Magazine asked, “Has the Libertarian Moment Finally Arrived?” The article set off a debate about whether libertarianism — which upholds liberty as its principle objective — is emerging as a political force to be reckoned with.
It is easy to see the appeal of libertarianism in an age of growing government power. I certainly have my libertarian moments. But the GOP shouldn’t embrace libertarianism if it means abandoning Reagan conservatism, which is still the party’s only path to a governing majority.
The first problem libertarianism faces is that few people actually know what it means.
An August Pew Research Center survey found that “self-described libertarians tend to be modestly more supportive of some libertarian positions, but few of them hold consistent libertarian opinions on the role of government, foreign policy and social issues.” For instance, Pew noted that 41 percent of self-described libertarians believe “government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest.”
An even bigger problem is that once people find out what libertarianism means, most reject it. Pew found that just 11 percent of Americans both know what libertarianism means — defined by Pew as “someone whose political views emphasize individual freedom by limiting the role of government” — and embrace the label.
Pondering how libertarian ideas would translate into public policy raises more questions than it answers. Libertarians support legalizing marijuana. But what about cocaine and heroin? And what sort of regulation — if any — would they apply?
Strict libertarians favor “abortion rights,” but why do the most prominent libertarians in politics today claim the pro-life mantle? Would libertarians abolish Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, an idea that many libertarians endorse but which is unlikely to win over middle America?
There is a contradiction inherent in libertarianism. Libertarians want smaller government, but pure libertarians advocate an “anything goes” view of life — the legalization of prostitution and all drugs, for example — and reject the idea that virtue should be encouraged and rewarded.
But society’s obsession with personal license and embrace of the “anything goes” mentality is at the root of many of the problems — the breakdown of the family; the decline of virtue — that are driving the growth of big government. That is why the founders believed that only a virtuous people could remain free.
In the Times piece, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, currently the most prominent libertarian politician, acknowledged the problem libertarian conservatives face on social issues. He said:
“The party can’t become the opposite of what it is. If you tell people from Alabama, Mississippi, or Georgia, ‘You know what, guys, we’ve been wrong, and we’re gonna be the pro-gay marriage party,’ they’re gonna stay home or – I mean, many of these people joined the Republican Party because of these social issues. So I don’t think we can completely flip.”
But in the next sentence Paul seemed to endorse the view that the party must “evolve” on social issues to win.
“But can we become, to use the overused term, a bigger tent? I think we can and can agree to disagree on a lot of these issues. I think the party will evolve. It’ll either continue to lose, or it’ll become a bigger place where there’s a mixture of opinions.”
Paul echoed the prevailing elite wisdom that the Republican Party must reject, or at least soften, its social conservatism in order to attract libertarians. But why should the party accommodate a group that makes up at most 11 percent of the electorate? Polls show that there are nearly twice as many single-issue pro-life voters as there are libertarians. Does the GOP really want to alienate social conservatives?
One of the main tenets of libertarianism is a less active foreign policy. But at the moment most Americans want exactly the opposite. A late August Pew Research poll concluded “As new dangers loom, more think the U.S. does ‘too little’ to solve world problems.”
Most Americans – 65 percent, according to Pew — believe the world is a more dangerous place than it was several years ago. That’s no surprise given the rise of Islamic terrorist groups like Islamic State, Hamas, and Boko Haram, Russia’s increasing belligerence, and the looming threat of Iran’s nuclear program. A majority of Americans — 54 percent — also believe Obama’s approach to foreign policy is “not tough enough.”
Strikingly, GOP sentiment has reversed since a year ago, when most Republicans felt the U.S. did too much to solve the world’s problems, and less than one in five felt it did too little. Today just 37 percent believe the U.S. does too much, while 46 percent believe we are doing too little.
Perhaps this widespread support for a strong American presence in the world is why Rand Paul surprised many people recently by invoking Reagan and claiming that if he were president he would “seek congressional authorization to destroy ISIS militarily.”
There’s one more curious aspect of the supposed rise of libertarianism. We are coming off a presidential election in which exit polls showed that President Obama won in part because he seemed to care more for, and was more in touch with, ordinary people. In short, Obama came off as more empathetic.
I’m not a big government conservative, by any means, and libertarian conservatives certainly have a role to play in the future of the Republican Party. But Republicans won’t be able to close the “empathy gap” by embracing a political philosophy based on extreme self-interest and a cranky “leave-us-alone” mentality.
Former Presidential Candidate Gary Bauer is president of American Values and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families. Follow him @GaryLBauer