The political climate being what it is in 2016, many Americans are casting about for alternatives to what the major two political parties offer. The media seems eager to investigate any alternative whatsoever to Donald Trump. As a result, the Libertarian Party is getting more attention than it has in a long time. The Party’s standard-bearer this year is once again Gary Johnson, a successful two-term governor of New Mexico with a history of shrinking government humanely, and a bee in his bonnet about legalizing marijuana. His running mate Bill Weld was a Republican governor of Massachusetts and his record is checkered from a libertarian point of view, but Gary seems to believe in him.
Johnson’s positions tack with the Libertarian Party platform more than they don’t, but I disagree with his approach to the message. From life experiences as an entrepreneur, adventurer and governor, he seems to have worked out some rules of thumb about leadership that he calls “principles of good government.” That’s fine, and it makes the Johnson/Weld ticket a rather respectable one according to traditional political wisdom, but I don’t think he’s going to make it terribly clear where the motivating ideas of his party come from.
For that reason, I am going to use this moment in which America’s ears are slightly more open, and discuss just what intellectual and moral background the Libertarian Party comes from by dispelling some popular stereotypes about libertarians. This post will be the first in a series.
Libertarianism is not “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.”
The Johnson campaign is probably going to keep using a line like this. One I’ve heard recently is “the best of both parties.” Maybe that line will get votes. Maybe it mostly describes the platform according to the tidy little boxes Americans already have for thinking about politics. But it’s technically wrong. We are not the “pot Republicans.” Thinking about libertarianism as if it were borrowing a little from column R and a little from column D misses the fact that libertarianism is cut from completely different cloth from either D or R. The major truth the LP was created to administer is the simple fact that the political spectrum is not one dimensional. The range of possible thought on these issues does not begin with Elizabeth Warren and end with Ted Cruz.
So if libertarianism isn’t a wishy-washy hodgepodge of beliefs some wonkish nerds threw together from their favorite bits of Democrats and Republicans, what is it?
In America we use the word “libertarian” because the word “liberal” has been associated with the Left, and a different term was needed in order to avoid confusion. As a result, it is not obvious what the pedigree of libertarianism is. To follow the ideas farther back you need to look for the “liberals.” Ideas from thinkers such as David Hume, John Locke, and Adam Smith all inform liberalism. There are many others. The American libertarian platform grows out of this heritage.
For example, a libertarian would advocate unfettered international trade and a heavily scaled-back military stance. One might be tempted to think such a platform is just borrowing from the anti-war left and the pro-business right because both of those elements seem fashionable to those respective constituencies. In reality you are hearing ideas drawn directly from the likes of Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, Montesquieu and Richard Cobden. These men postulated that as the intensity of trade goes up, the likelihood of war goes down. This view is often expressed in the witticism: “Either goods will cross borders, or soldiers will.” Some of the classical liberals even went so far as to predict world peace brought about by free exchange among nations.
This pattern can be seen across the libertarian platform. Libertarians are in favor of lowering taxes on businesses of all size, yet also against subsidies to those very businesses. These ideas that sound on the surface like a commingling of left (end corporate welfare!) and right (low taxes!) flow naturally from the classical liberal view that government is at best a necessary evil which should exist only to protect life, liberty, and property.
Another example: What should be done about “gay rights?” The libertarian answer to this question — government should not be defining marriage in the first place — leaves the social conservatives unsatisfied because it takes the guardianship of traditional marriage out of their hands, and infuriates the social liberals because it deprives them of the weapon they need to universally impose new norms. There is a crucial difference here. Both our social liberals and social conservatives view the state as an appropriate tool for reshaping society, and the libertarians do not.
The libertarians are not the ones borrowing platform planks. Classical liberalism has a coherent argument to make about the role of government, the nature of rights, of property, and how to think about both. Rather, the Democrats and Republicans routinely pirate Liberal (libertarian) language and arguments in order to buttress their own.