For many years, those who consider themselves to be libertarians have been fairly reliable members of the Republican coalition. Although no libertarian would consider himself or herself to be entirely in agreement with either major party, they have historically sided with the GOP. But the relationship today seems more deeply strained than any time in the last 30 years, and a divorce may be forthcoming.
Basically, libertarians are allied with the right on economic issues and the left on everything else. They believe in the free market and freedom of choice in areas such as drugs, and favor a noninterventionist foreign policy. Consequently, someone who is a libertarian could prefer to ally with the right or the left, depending on what set of issues is most important to him or her.
I first became aware of the libertarian philosophy in 1969, when there was a big split in a college-based group called Young Americans for Freedom, which was supposed to be the right-wing alternative to the left's Students for a Democratic Society. The libertarians broke with those who considered themselves traditionalists -- conservatives in the mold of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.
The problem for the libertarians was that they didn't want to conserve anything. Whereas the conservatives prized order and continuity, the libertarians were radicals favoring change. The traditionalists in YAF viewed the libertarians with horror, like the Jacobins of the French Revolution, who destroyed the existing order without putting anything in its place, leading to a reign of terror.
The libertarians countered by associating themselves with the American revolutionary tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and others. The true conservative, they argued, must defend both the bad and the good in the existing order. But what if there are deep problems in government and society that require change? The conservative traditionalist has little to offer.
In 1969, the key issue was obviously the Vietnam War. The traditionalists supported it, the libertarians opposed it. But drugs were also an important issue dividing the groups. Libertarians believe people have the right to do what they want with their own bodies, even if they end up hurting themselves in the process. Traditionalists take a more Puritanical approach, believing that people must be protected against their own folly.
Consequently, when I first became acquainted with libertarianism, most libertarians tended to associate with those on the left, where they had more in common. But with the end of the Vietnam War and the huge rise of inflation and other economic problems in the 1970s, libertarians mostly tended to drift rightward.
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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