Libertarians are the odd ducks in American politics. They have no natural home. Conservatives agree with them on economics. Liberals agree with them on social issues. But where do they belong long term? They have a long standing alliance with conservatives. But after the Bush years, many libertarians wonder if they should continue that partnership. With anti-Washington hysteria sweeping through the country, where do libertarians go from here?
The Right still offers the best chance to see a libertarian ideal realized. That ideal, which values individual freedom and seeks to constrain the government’s role in human life, has strong appeal in the age of Obama. Libertarians have an opportunity to set the national agenda. To do so, they must continue their long term alliance with conservatives and help elect a Republican majority of Congress. Then they can help form a national platform.
The last two years have been unsettling for Americans. Economic uncertainty has dominated this period. Democrats pursued a Keynesian economic approach to jump start the economy. Washington spent $862 billion in stimulus to create demand and help launch a recovery. That approach did little to create jobs. Unemployment has remained at 9% over the last two years. Democrats appear incapable of fixing the problem. Polling suggests that the electorate has turned its back on this government and will support a conservative alternative.
A message of small government and fiscal responsibility has resonated with Americans. Libertarians have championed that creed for decades. Come November, Republicans will have a chance to govern that way. But many fear that Republicans will abandon the libertarian creed once they control Capitol Hill.
These fears are warranted. Republicans controlled the presidency and Congress from 2000-2006. They went on a spending binge and became champions of earmarks during this period, exploding the deficit and making Democrats look like the party of fiscal sanity. They also expanded federal influence in K-12 education with No Child Left Behind. They cracked down on civil liberties after 9/11 when Congress passed the Patriot Act and created the Department of Homeland Security. Republicans encouraged the use of torture to obtain information needed to win the war on terror. Enemy combatants were held at Guantanamo Bay and denied habeas corpus rights.
On social issues, Republicans wanted to use government to impose their values on all Americans. They bashed gay marriage and supported a constitutional amendment which defined marriage as a heterosexual union. The GOP continued limiting a woman’s right to choose. The party opposed stem cell research. They opposed comprehensive reform and championed a nativist, anti-immigrant platform. In short, Republicans became big government, anti-freedom bashers. This record left libertarians aghast.
Conservatives overwhelmingly supported the Bush agenda. This loyalty became more pronounced as liberals bashed the Iraqi War. A tribal mentality sprung up in response to liberal attacks. Many on the Right lashed out at all opposition to the president. This herd like instinct stifled internal opposition and blamed critics as RINO (Republicans in Name Only) and wanted to banish them from the conservative movement.
Libertarians felt like a scorned lover throughout the Bush years. They felt their alliance with conservatives, which dated back to the 1964 Goldwater Revolution, was over. Many believed conservatives no longer practiced what they preached. Republicans were more interested in maintaining a congressional majority than advancing a limited government agenda. In addition, conservative Republicans wanted to use Washington to support a social agenda that was anathema to many libertarians.
This caused libertarians to throw up their hands. They felt alienated and betrayed. Conservatives were just like liberals: big spenders who used Washington to impose their agenda on individuals.
And so, they sat on the sidelines in 2008. Many believed John McCain would serve as Bush’s successor and continue his big government policies. Many could not tell a difference between Republicans and Democrats.
Democratic rule magnified the party differences in 2009. The government used Washington to fix all problems. There was a federal solution to health care, to jump-start the floundering automotive industry, to clean up Wall Street, and to save the environment. After two years of liberal rule, most Americans acknowledge Washington has spent a lot of money but hasn’t fixed anything. Most Americans oppose the Democrats’ overreach.
Republicans will benefit from this in November. The libertarian creed will usher them into office. Now the libertarians have an opportunity to shape a national agenda.
Their ideas have gained traction. Many in the Tea Party want to roll back federal control. This movement has become a grass-roots revolt against politics as usual. They want to drain the swamp in Washington of high spending appropriators. Libertarian rhetoric has caught on. Polling throughout 2010 has shown that Americans oppose he big government solutions that both George Bush and Barack Obama offered.
Americans recognize that Washington cannot solve all the problems facing the country. Many now believe the 18th century maxim: “the government is best which governs least.”
Reducing government is not a liberal idea today. The last two years has shown that liberal want to expand the role of government at every turn. Most notably, the Democrats want to expand government’s role in the economy. Government can create jobs. It can boost employment. It can jump start America and get the country back on track. Liberals claim this is a temporary fix brought about by the financial meltdown of September 2008.
This message is intolerable to libertarians. They understand that this will lead on the road to serfdom. They value economic freedom. They point to the late economist, Milton Friedman’s claim that economic freedom and political freedom go hand in hand. If you negate one, you negate the other. They also fear liberals’ promise because they understand another warning from Friedman: “nothing is [as] temporary as a government” solution.
Libertarians also remain skeptical of government promises during a time of crisis. They point to the warning of Austrian economist, Friedrich Hayek. ‘Emergencies’ Hayek said “have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”
And so, libertarians should remain in a coalition with conservatives to form a Republican majority. A libertarian message, not a conservative one, has resonated with the people. Once in power, the libertarians must hold Republicans accountable for these campaign promises.
Libertarians have a unique opportunity. They can set the debate. Their ideas will shape the national agenda.