After Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, Libertarians Need to Make a Choice: Join the GOP or Reject it


It's a generally accepted piece of conventional wisdom that libertarianism is on the up-and-up. The signs of this "libertarian moment" in which we supposedly find ourselves are generally thought to be the socially tolerant, anti-authoritarian views of the younger electorate (though polling suggests they support bigger government), the budding crop of libertarian-leaning Republican congressmen, and the Libertarian Party managing to field the most high-profile and respectable candidate in its history in November's presidential election in Gary Johnson.

The latter two are both signs of progress and the outline of the long-standing tension on the question of whether libertarians ought to work within the major parties to advance their agenda, or to eschew both wings of the War Party and focus on getting out their message. To a large degree, this latter goal is what the LP is all about, rather than electoral success; if only there were enough support to get a candidate in the debate and provide a crucial dissent to the bipartisan consensus on bigger budgets, civil liberties abuses, and more war, not unlike Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani's famous exchange in the 2008 Republican primary. This hoped-for moment of people flocking to a cause after one bold and unexpected act resembles, to me anyway, The Hunger Games more than anything. Which is to say it's probably fictional.

So where to go from here? Issuing advice to libertarians is asking for trouble, but I'm going to do it anyway, and come down against outsiderism and on the side of the first option.

Between the two parties, the libertarian momentum is with the GOP. While there are Democratic legislators that advocate for civil liberties and defense policies that libertarians might favor (someone like Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden comes to mind), there are far more on the other side, especially after November. Besides that, Randy Barnett has made the case that Republicans far more reliably appoint justices that respect the idea that the Constitution limits government power. On a broader philosophical level, it seems clear to me that conservatism has more room for an unchurched libertine than liberalism has for an anarchist, even if neither's a good fit.

As the Republican Party reassembles itself, it's likely that they will adopt (slightly) more libertarian positions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has announced his intention to reform minimum criminal penalties for marijuana users, Rep. Darrell Issa (RCalif.) appears to be positioning himself as a defender of internet freedom, and it's an article of (somewhat misplaced) faith that the GOP must moderate its immigration position or be buried by a demographic tide. The party is far from perfect, and many of its leaders work to marginalize and discredit the libertarian faction, but on the whole, it's more friendly to libertarian ideas than at any time since the beginning of the Cold War.

I also wish libertarians would get over their customary disdain for politics in general and engage more at the local level, where with a lot less effort one can make a meaningful impact. That's where some of the most persistent obstacles to economic freedom are; things like zoning and occupancy ordinances. And since nobody cares about it, the power vacuum leaves the door open for rent-seeking and cockamamie schemes like the $72 million pool the residents of my county — mostly wealthy Democrats employed in the public sector — just voted themselves. To simply engage might provide that vital dose of sanity. Nobody's asking for purity. Except in New Hampshire.