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Getting Real about Libertarians

June 13, 2024 

By Peter Suderman 

In “Libertarians Need to Get Real About Politics,” Daniel Klein and Zachary Yost argue that libertarians and classical liberals should generally prefer Republicans to Democrats in electoral contests. 

The authors acknowledge that Republicans—including, presumably, Donald Trump, although he is named only once—may not live up to libertarian ideals or preferences. Republicans might even constitute a kind of evil. But since the American government is going to exist, and the presidency will be controlled by either a Republican or a Democrat, Klein and Yost insist that it is incumbent upon libertarians and fellow travelers to assess the parties and their candidates realistically, and then support the lesser of two evils. To do otherwise, by voting for a third party or declining to vote at all, is a form of “shirking.” Professional incentives, however, cause Beltway libertarians to engage in a high-minded but politically destructive both-sidesism. By engaging in “blandishing and flighty abstractions,” the authors write, libertarians tend to avoid making “themselves harmful to the left.” 

It’s an admirably practical argument, alive to the ugly reality of America’s two-party system. But it is reflects flawed interpretations of libertarian and electoral politics in the modern U.S.

Klein and Yost ground their argument in the wrongheaded notion that a libertarian’s primary responsibility is to particular electoral outcomes. Libertarians themselves, however, might suggest that their only responsibility is advancing a vision of government that is something more desirable than a lesser evil. The authors also overstate the importance of any individual vote, and thus substantially inflate both the moral and the practical stakes of either non-voting or third-party voting. Finally, they discount the possibility that a libertarian might genuinely believe that a Democratic presidency is the lesser evil—especially when the Republican candidate is Donald Trump. 

When Klein and Yost admonish libertarians for being unwilling or afraid to cause harm to the left, they reveal an enthusiasm for the same, in what amounts to a partisan project. In the process, they risk making themselves useful servants of an illiberal, anti-democratic right that is increasingly in thrall to an authoritarian demagogue who would trample the fundamental individual rights that libertarians seek to preserve and protect. 

The authors urge libertarians to get serious about politics; I would urge them to get serious about libertarianism. 

At the heart of their essay is the notion that in a two-party system, libertarians have an affirmative duty to support a second-best party or candidate, even if that party or candidate is—in their words—evil. “Civic virtue requires us to deal with the world as it is,” they write, “stinking muck and all. That means meeting with evil to mitigate evil.” Republican electoral victories might be quite evil. But a victory for Biden and Democrats, in their view, would be even more evil

The invocation of civic virtue, and the resulting implication of social obligation, suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the libertarian worldview. One of the core tenets of libertarianism is that individual choice and conscience are sacrosanct and not subordinate to perceived social obligations, especially those supposedly foisted upon people by politics as we know it. No individual has a duty, civic or moral, to support a political choice they find affirmatively evil. One cannot shirk a duty that does not exist. 

Similarly, for many who call themselves libertarians, the very point of identifying as a libertarian (or even a Libertarian) and not a Republican or a Democrat is to stand apart from binary political choices. Much of libertarian thought and philosophy focuses on finding ways to circumvent the two-party system and the simple choice between two evils that it offers. The libertarian project has always sought to expand the remit of individual choice and self-fulfillment, not expecting that people participate in a political binary they find actively repugnant out of a duty to the polity. In their reappraisal of libertarian politics, Klein and Yost eliminate this classically libertarian impulse to expand the range of political choice. 

So, when a libertarian votes for a third party, like the Libertarian Party (LP), or casts no vote at all, that person is enacting the libertarian worldview. The point is to expand the range of choices available to them, including at the ballot box. 

Klein and Yost argue that the LP “promotes a niche libertarianism characterized by aloofness and vanity,” and that voting for the LP harms Republican party fortunes and “helps get Democrats elected.” Again, this makes it seem as if the authors view libertarianism primarily as a vehicle for electing Republicans rather than a truly distinct political project whose central purpose is to be fully separate from both major parties. Some libertarians may be too unwilling to harm the left; Klein and Yost, in contrast, seem rather too eager. 

In response to both third-party voters and non-voters, Klein and Yost argue that “the consequences of libertarians forgoing practical political involvement is not inconsequential.” But the reality is that—at least insofar as actual electoral outcomes are concerned—most votes are entirely inconsequential, since most individual votes have an impact that is statistically indistinguishable from zero. For most people, but especially those in decisively red or blue states, voting is best understood as an expressive act. If you understand libertarianism as a philosophy that prioritizes individual choice and self-expression, then it cannot come with a duty to express support for a party or candidate that they find evil. 

Still, a libertarian might, for whatever reason, choose to cast a vote for a lesser evil. But it’s not obvious that all libertarians would see Republicans as the lesser of two evils, especially while so much of the party remains under the spell of Donald Trump. Yes, it is probable that a Biden presidency would result in a government that spends, taxes, and regulates more than a Trump presidency. But Biden is a conventional big-government Democrat of the sort that the American system has experienced and weathered, however unpleasantly, for generations. 

Trump is something else. Or at the very least, it is not unreasonable to believe that Trump is something else, which is to say something worse.

It’s not just that Trump isn’t a libertarian or a limited government ideologue. It’s that he’s a classic strongman, with a clear predisposition is toward an authoritarian form of politics in which he understands himself to be above the law and immune to checks on power. 

Like so many populist demagogues, he has encouraged ugly xenophobic passions and violent mob actions while running on slogans about locking up his political opponents. He has repeatedly expressed disdain for free speech and the free press, and as president threatened (and perhaps actively pursued) unconstitutional legal changes and retaliatory action against those who criticized him. Trump has demonstrated little concern for individual rights, except his own. 

More ominously, Trump has engaged in self-serving fantasies of stolen elections. Over the years he has refused to concede legitimate election results on multiple occasions, even, hilariously, when he won. With assistance from his henchmen and cronies, Trump took steps to subvert the results of a presidential vote. Trump may not bear legal responsibility for the Capitol riot on January 6th, but he bears some moral responsibility. The foundation of democratic governance is the peaceful transfer of political power. As president, Trump facilitated political violence intended to strike at that foundation.

Joe Biden is a big government liberal whose second term would further expand the size and scope of government. But in contrast with a bullying populist demagogue like Trump, a libertarian who values the American constitutional order might still reasonably view Biden as the lesser evil.

Personally, that’s not my view. I believe that Trump and Biden are both awful. I won’t be voting for either. 

But given the partisan valence of their outlook, Klein and Yost should consider the potential consequences of their idea that one has an affirmative commitment to vote for a less unpleasant party or candidate: If one were to subscribe to that view of a Biden/Trump contest while also buying into their argument about the necessity of voting for the lesser of two evils, then one would have a civic obligation to vote for Joe Biden. 

To do otherwise—well, that would be shirking.


Peter Suderman is Features Editor at Reason magazine, and a cohost of the Reason Roundtable podcast.


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