Should Libertarians Leave The GOP ?

Writing today in the Washington Post, Sebastian Mallaby. relying largely on a non-linkable essay in The New Republic by Cato’s Brin Lindsay, asks whether libertarians should give up on the Republican Party to form alliances with liberals.

There has always been a tension between Republican libertarians, who believe that individual choices should be unconstrained by received wisdom, and Republican traditionalists, who believe pretty much the opposite. In their history of the conservative movement, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge recall that Barry Goldwater believed Jerry Falwell deserved “a swift kick in the ass;” and Goldwater’s wife, Peggy, helped to found Planned Parenthood in Arizona. But for a long time the two wings of the party could paper over these differences. Christian conservatives and libertarians agreed that misconceived government programs were harming traditional values. Schools forced sex education on children. The tax system and the welfare system penalized marriage.

Conservatives have grown less able to bridge these divisions because of their success. Welfare has been reformed, and the tax system now supports families with the expanded child tax credit. Having ticked off the first things on their to-do list, Christian conservatives now press for affirmative state action on behalf of traditional values: amendments to the constitution to bar gay marriage, government efforts to teach abstinence, federal payments to faith-based groups. All these policies appall libertarians.

The tensions between conservative and libertarian Republicans has been discussed here before, as have the numerous problems with the way the GOP has governed over the past twelve years, so I won’t go into that issue again. The question really is, would liberty benefit at all from an alliance with the left ? Mallaby says yes:

Would libertarians be more comfortable in the company of Democrats? On moral questions — abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research — clearly they would. But on economic issues, the answer is less obvious. For just as Republicans want government to restore traditional values, so Democrats want government to bring back the economic order that existed before globalization. As Lindsey puts it in his New Republic essay, Republicans want to go home to the United States of the 1950s while Democrats want to work there.

If Democrats can get over this nostalgia, there’s a chance that liberaltarianism could work. For the time has passed when libertarians could seriously hope to cut government: Much of what could be deregulated has been, and the combination of demographics, defense costs and medical inflation leaves no scope for tax cuts. As Lindsey himself says, the ambition of realistic libertarians is not to shrink government but to contain it: to cut senseless spending such as the farm program and oil subsidies to make room for the inevitable expansion in areas such as health.

In other words, Mallaby argues, libertarians need to grow up, realize that they’re never really going to win and just join up with the Democrats already to fight the evil social conservatives.

While I’m as realistic as the next person in admitting that reducing the size of government is a difficult job, I’m not willing to give up on it the way Mallaby suggests Lindsay is (since I haven’t read the article Mallaby references, I won’t criticize it directly). It’s true that there are some issues where libertarians and liberals can find common ground, there is far more that they disagree on. More importantly, though, allying with liberals seems to me to be the making the mistake as blindly aligning with the right was — in doing so, libertarians allow themselves to be co-opted and concede the basic point that government must, inevitably, grow.

Speaking just for myself, I’m not ready to give up just yet.

  • Eric Dondero

    The boys at Cato need to first explain this dichotomy. The Republican Liberty Caucus is better organized, has more membership, and has backed more winning candidates for public office than ever before in its 15 year history.

    How is it that the lone libertarian organizing in the GOP can be far better off than ever before at the very same time, some libertarians are saying that “there’s no hope for libertarians in the GOP.”

    Four libertarian-leaning Governors were just elected as Republicans; Palin, Crist, Sanford and Otter. Ron Paul easily won reelection to Congress, as did all 5 other libertarian Republican Congressmen like Flake, Feeney, Rohrabacher. Hell, we even picked up one with Vern Buchanan in Florida. There were some losses, but overall it was a good year for libertarian Republicans.

    So why would we abandon the GOP at the very point that we are succeeding?


    And what are we going to do go with the Democrats? That’s doubly insane.

    The only other option is the Libertarian Party. Yet they had a down year only elected 6 out of 600 on their slate. Perhaps they could have a kick-ass Presidential candidate in 2008. But that remains to be seen.

  • Eric Dondero

    For those interested in a listing of libertarian Republicans elected to public office this year please visit:

  • Andy P

    Here is the article Liberaltarians . Its fair to support individuals who support our ideas, but if you’re counting on the Republican party as a hole to move in a Libertarian direction any time soon, you’re smoking some of the good stuff. Lindsay’s argument is that at least Liberals and Libertarians can agree on some of the “ends” and little by little they begin to agree with the “means”. Republicans offer agreement on neither means nor ends. They just prefer public debt to taxes.

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  • Exhume Goldwater

    Libertarians should leave the party in ’08, and they should vote for the only candidate they’ll ever need. Exhume Goldwater ’08.

  • Adam Selene

    How about a Reagan-Goldwater team????

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