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Libertarians aren’t a winning political coalition in the making

June 17, 2024

By Geoff Kabaservice

The mansion of libertarianism contains many rooms—or so I am told. I’ve read the major works of the principal libertarian thinkers, as I think all students of contemporary politics should, but I never had any connection with the libertarian movement as such. The current divisions within the movement strike me as analogous to those between the Lovestoneites and the Schactmanites within the Communist Party USA in the 1930s, or between RYM II and the Worker-Student Alliance in what was left of Students for a Democratic Society in the late 1960s: interesting but irrelevant to the mainstream of American politics.

  Daniel Klein and Zachary Yost, for all I know, may adhere to what passes for an establishment branch of the libertarian movement these days. Certainly, that’s the implication of their admonition to libertarian brethren to “get real about politics.” And I’m sympathetic, to a point, with their advice that others of their cohort recognize that there are profound differences between the Republican and Democratic parties today, that both-sides-ism is a form of willful blindness, that abstaining from political involvement can have negative consequences, and that in voting (as in much else in life) the best can be the enemy of the good.

  When one’s political perspective finds little traction in contemporary politics—and as a moderate Republican, I know exactly how that feels—one must indeed resist the impulse to, as Klein and Yost put it, “take one’s ball and go home in order to write blogs and books about how awful politics is and how no one will listen to our great ideas.” To live is to maneuver, as Whittaker Chambers once wrote to William F. Buckley Jr., and the job of realists in politics is to try to make “better Democrats and better Republicans” through persuasion, as unrewarding as that endeavor may seem at times.

  But an exhortation to political engagement ought to show some understanding of what actual politics involves. And a counsel of realism ought to have some grounding in reality.

  The political reality is that a maximalist libertarian agenda is, as a whole, deeply unpopular with the voting public, and many libertarian policies are highly unlikely to be passed into law by either party within our lifetimes. A realistic program to incrementally advance the libertarian cause within our two-party system ought then to ask: What elements of such a program can be (and have been) supported by Republicans or Democrats? And what elements can be advanced within either party—or both—now or in the future?

  Such an approach would recognize that many aspects of libertarianism were embraced by both parties in the past, but abandoned by both parties in recent years. I take issue with some of David Leonhardt’s much-discussed argument that Republicans and Democrats have converged on a new form of “neopopulist” centrism. Nonetheless, Leonhardt is correct that both parties have broken with the post-Cold War Washington Consensus and, to varying degrees, are rejecting market economics, limited government, free trade and immigration.

  One wouldn’t know it from the Klein and Yost analysis, but the Republican Party under Donald Trump led the way in populism’s triumph over libertarianism. If Trump hadn’t seized the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 and made free trade and globalism into curse words, it’s plausible that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have repudiated her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and that the cause of free trade would still be alive in both parties, albeit under increasing stress. Instead, Joe Biden has imitated Trump by levying tariffs on China and belatedly imposing limits on immigration, even as Trump imitated Democrats with his appetite for industrial policy and his resistance to entitlement reform. And Trump has done more than anyone else to eliminate fiscal responsibility as even a possibility for either party.

  In decades past, the rationale conservatives used to purge the GOP of moderates was that moderate Republicans, by competing with Democrats to offer more effective and efficient government, conferred bipartisan legitimacy upon the social welfare state. Moderate republicans thus represented a greater threat to conservative ideals than the Democrats did. Ought not libertarians apply a similar logic to Trump and his populists?

  It seems almost too obvious to point out that Trump also has no use for basic democratic traditions, the Constitution, or the rule of law—the whole concept of liberty, in short, that ought to be at the core of libertarianism. The bland assertion that Trump’s Republican Party is unequivocally better than the Democrats on every issue pertaining to freedom—including election integrity, lawless government, and the weaponization of government institutions—is frankly absurd.

  Biden is a run-of-the-mill big government liberal who has acceded to his progressive wing’s preferences on too many issues. Trump is a would-be strongman who has amply demonstrated his contempt for the constitutional order and openly expresses his intention to unleash unlimited government power and political violence upon his enemies. To prefer the latter to the former on libertarian grounds is bizarre and self-contradictory at best.

  Trump is not a paragon of libertarianism but its antithesis. And just as evangelicals’ devotion to a man who rejects every Christian principle has spurred an exodus from religion, so too a widespread capitulation of libertarians to Trump could discredit their cause for a generation or more. The Libertarian Party delegates who greeted Trump with boos and raspberries at the National Convention in May showed greater political discernment than those who would urge their movement to get behind Trump’s illiberal and authoritarian crusade.

  Libertarianism has been most effective when its advocates have attempted to work with adherents of more conventional political ideologies. One thinks of the modern conservative movement’s fusionism that found political expression in the Reagan presidency, or the subterranean alliances between libertarians and Democratic Leadership Council operatives that came to fruition in the Clinton presidency. The conception of State Capacity Libertarianism articulated by Tyler Cowen and others may find common ground with supply-side progressivism to usher in a new era of deregulation and abundance.

  But effectiveness requires a willingness to solve problems—or even to admit that they exist. Klein and Yost’s essay has little or nothing to say about what libertarianism yoked to Trump’s GOP might do to address stagnation in U.S. incomes and wealth (which has occurred under both parties), the decline in mass flourishing that has left Americans with a lower life expectancy than in any other high-income country, the growing threat that the autocratic alliance of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea poses to the U.S.-led post-World War II global order, or the existential risk of climate change.

  Effectiveness also requires a capacity to negotiate and compromise through the political process. But where is the political faction that Klein and Yost see as the vanguard of their preferred agenda? Their preferred Republican politicians include some of the most compromise-resistant and least productive members of the House, several of the most politically isolated senators, two former governors, and three serving governors who, between them, represent less than 6 million people. Whatever else this group may be, it isn’t any kind of winning political coalition in the making.

  I see little reason, based on the Klein and Yost essay, to reevaluate my view that the libertarian movement would rather marinate in its own irrelevance than undertake the hard work of persuasion and governing. Let me know if the movement’s self-professed realists ever decide to get real.


Geoff Kabaservice is vice president for political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books including Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party.


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