In the 1970s, the left was clueless about how to fix the economy. They had no idea what was causing inflation and insisted on dealing instead with its symptoms through wage and price controls. The left at that time was also highly sympathetic to socialism and often favor nationalization of businesses like the Penn Central Railroad when bankruptcy threatened.
The right at least understood that excessive money growth by the Federal Reserve caused inflation, and that socialism and nationalization were crazy. So most libertarians moved into the Republican Party, which then had leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who spoke their language and had libertarian sympathies.
With the passing of the older generation of Republican leaders who were at least sympathetic to the libertarian message, a new generation of Puritans have taken over the party. They seem to want nothing more than to impose Draconian new laws against drugs, gambling, pornography and other alleged vices. The new Republican Puritans don't trust people or believe that they have the right to do as they please as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. They want the government to impose itself on peoples' lives and deny them freedom of choice.
At the same time, the Iraq War has aroused the isolationist impulse among libertarians. Only a tiny number of them supported the war in the first place, and they have all now recanted. Moreover, Republicans have lost whatever credibility they once had on economics by indulging in an orgy spending and corruption, and by becoming very unreliable allies on issues such as free trade and government regulation of the economy.
Consequently, many libertarians are drifting back once again to the left, where they find more compatible allies on some of the key issues of the day. And a few on the left are reaching out to libertarians, or at least trying to open a dialogue where there really hasn't been one for a long time.
Libertarians probably don't represent more than 10 percent of the electorate at most and are easy for political consultants to ignore. But they are represented in much larger percentages among opinion leaders and thus have influence disproportionate to their numbers. Republicans will miss them if they leave the party en masse.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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