Libertarians and the GOP

Ryan Sager has an interesting piece arguing that libertarians should become more politically active so that they can gain influence within the Republican Party. I agree that apathy among libertarians hinders their ability to advance a limited government agenda, and that if all those who favored limited government on both economic and social issues banded together they could represent enough of a voting bloc to potentially swing close elections. The problem with the piece is that it uses many suspect ways of defining libertarianism and it doesn’t address the biggest barrier to a grand alliance of libertarians, namely, fundamental disagreements over the War on Terror.

Sager acknowledges it is difficult to track libertarian voters, but then offers this:

While George W. Bush gained 10 points between 2000 and 2004 among voters who thought government should “do more,” he stayed essentially even among voters who felt government should not do more or should “do less.”

In other words, despite No Child Left Behind, campaign-finance regulation, steel tariffs, the Medicare prescription-drug bill and exploding government spending generally, libertarians stood by their man. (I should know. I did, too.)

The problem with this analysis is that many (if not most) conservatives would also respond that government should “do less.” It is important to recognize that although the Republican Party has come to stand for big government in recent years, by no means are social conservatives leading the charge for more spending. In fact, the few Republican lawmakers who have actually tried to limit spending are also among the most socially conservative (Sen. Tom Coburn, for example). So looking at exit polling data on that one question doesn’t give us much insight into the voting patterns of libertarians in the past two presidential elections.

Later in the column, Sager points to two studies in an attempt to quantify how big of a voting bloc libertarians could potentially be. A Gallup Poll places them at 20 percent and a study by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press places them at 9 percent. The problem is that both studies only focus on social and economic issues, and ignore national security, which is in my view far more pressing and the source of a major schism among libertarians post-9/11. As somebody who supports spending cuts, low taxes, entitlement reform as well as the legalization of drugs and gay marriage, I can almost guarantee that I would come up as a libertarian in either one of those studies. (Although for some odd reason, in the Pew study, 80 percent of people defined as libertarians support raising the minimum wage). However, when I read popular libertarian Websites, blogs and publications such as Reason, I couldn’t find myself more at odds with libertarians. And I’m sure many if not most libertarians would find my writing just as objectionable.

When it comes to national security, there is severe disagreement among those who otherwise agree when it comes to favoring limited government in the realm of economic and social issues. It’s not worth re-fighting all of the battles of the last four and a half years. But suffice it to say, there is a split between those who believe in aggressively projecting military force in fighting terrorists, and those who find America’s post-9/11 foreign policy overly adventurous. Some of us aren’t spooked by the Patriot Act or the NSA surveillance program, while others find them to be horrific examples of life in a police state. The disagreements go beyond mere policy differences. There is a fundamental disagreement over the magnitude of the terrorist threat and where it ranks for people in the hierarchy of issues. I believe that the fight against radical Islam is not only the defining issue of our time, but a crucial battle in the history of Western Civilization. Many libertarians, I think, would find this view sensationalistic. I get the sense that for many libertarians, the drug war is an equally important if not more important issue than the war on terrorism. While I agree that drugs should be legalized, my concerns about the drug war pale in comparison to my concerns about, say, Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. I’d be much more willing to form a political alliance with somebody who disagreed with me on the drug issue, or on gay marriage, than somebody who disagreed with me with me on national security issues. Because national security will take centerstage for the forseeable future (at least during presidential elections), it’s really hard to imagine libertarian voters operating as an organized bloc anytime soon.