Will the Real Libertarians Please Stand Up?

A guest post by James Curtis.

This article appeared the October issue of Virginia Liberty, the LPVA newsletter.  It has been reposted here with permission.

One of the results of the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election has been to demarcate a clear divide between libertarian Republicans and Libertarians. For this discussion, “libertarian Republicans” are defined as members or supporters of the Republican Party and/or its candidates who self-identify as “libertarian” in philosophy. (“Big L”) “Libertarians” are defined here as philosophical libertarians who are members or supporters of the Libertarian Party and/or its candidates.

While there has been talk of “litmus tests” and the measure of one’s “libertarianism,” these discussions have detracted from the real separation between the two groups. One division between the groups seems to be a tolerance, or even acceptance, of bigotry by libertarian Republicans. By any definition of the word, Ken Cuccinelli has demonstrated his belief that homosexuals do not have the same rights as heterosexuals. Examples of such can easily be found through any internet search. These are not just words on his part, either. Cuccinelli has a track record of letting his prejudice affect his performance in public office. Two glaring examples are his support for the Constitutional amendment prohibiting the Commonwealth from recognizing “same sex marriages” and his recent efforts to reinstitute anti-sodomy legislation.

Many libertarian Republicans dismiss or discount these and other efforts and comments. Some have suggested that Cuccinelli would be the “most libertarian” governor in recent Virginia history. They point to such efforts as the lawsuit filed against the federal government in regard to some aspects of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) and his general touting of using Amendment X (US Constitution) as a means to thwart other federal abuses of authority. While these efforts may be laudable, they do not adequately demonstrate that Cuccinelli is “libertarian,” especially given his record on social issues. And this is not to suggest that all social conservatives are bigots. While words such as “bigot” or “racist” sometimes get used too freely, there is no denial that such sentiment exists, and has adversely affected Republican policy positions.

Many Libertarians point out that the philosophy is not just an economic model, nor one that values “states’ rights” to the point where the States may tread on civil liberties in areas where the federal government is prohibited. Libertarianism encompasses economic, personal, and even moral aspects of personal liberty that cannot be separated from the others. In these regards, bigotry is simply unacceptable. Ron Paul, the definitive libertarian Republican, dismisses allegations of racism by pointing out it is a form of collectivism that ignores individuality. While this is true, and Paul calls for more liberty with a focus on individuality, he seems to stop short of calling out the immorality of such comments and actions. The true Libertarian challenges the moral failings of bigotry, and challenges those who defend, dismiss, or downplay such sentiments to reexamine their respect for libertarian philosophy. In short, Libertarians reject bigotry, whether involved in public policy or not.

Another division between the groups was the unawareness of, dismissal of, or even hostility towards the “libertarian left” by libertarian Republicans. Many downplayed, or even attacked, Robert Sarvis’ focus on “social issues” during his campaign. Others twisted his responses to economics questions to argue that he was not libertarian at all (or not as much as Cuccinelli). Those arguments on economic issues have been well analyzed elsewhere. The suggestions that Sarvis was a “social liberal,” or that his focus on such issues somehow demonstrated he was not really libertarian, pointed out the failings of many libertarian Republicans. As alluded to above, such arguments place too much emphasis on financial matters at the expense of personal civil liberties. And as some of the vitriol showed, many libertarian Republicans do not apply the libertarian philosophy consistently, by downplaying or dismissing the importance of social issues to many voters, Libertarian or other.

Many Libertarians came to libertarianism through a focus on civil liberties. Subsets of libertarianism such as left-libertarianism or libertarian socialism exist and attract many newcomers to the libertarian movement. Groups such as “LGBT Libertarians” and “Libertarian Democrats” also help spread the libertarian philosophy with a focus on social issues. And we have to acknowledge that just as there are libertarians who choose to work within the Republican Party, there are some who choose to work within the Democratic Party, often citing similar “pragmatic” arguments for doing so. Many Virginians who voted for Sarvis were independents who were at least equally attracted to his positions on social issues as on economic issues.

The most obvious division between libertarian Republicans and Libertarians is the division over which political party to support. Good faith arguments can be made for either approach as the best tactic for promoting libertarianism to Virginians. But, as these other divides may suggest, neither “side” should expect the other to abandon its chosen path.

But I challenge libertarian Republicans to consider these points. Are you really comfortable ignoring, or even defending, the prejudices of some of your Republican colleagues? If not, you either need to work harder to drive such intolerance out of the Party, or quit supporting such an un-libertarian organization. Do you believe enough Libertarians, including the libertarian left, can be persuaded to come and work within the Republican Party to reform it? Even if some voters can be convinced a reformed Republican Party is actually a libertarian party, the Republican “brand” may have been too damaged for many Libertarians to comfortably take up its mantle, or for many independent voters to support its candidates.

For these and other reasons, the Libertarian Party is the best vehicle through which to promote libertarianism and libertarian candidates for office. While there is much divergence of thought within libertarianism (a phenomenon that is dismissed or downplayed by our political opponents or others who wish to demonize our efforts), the philosophy does not allow for the social conservatism that Republicans accommodate nor the economic redistribution that many Democrats call for. The results in this election, coupled with polling data that shows growing numbers of Americans who agree with our positions on so many issues, suggests that the time is ripe for Libertarians to abandon their efforts in other political parties, and for others to get involved in partisan politics, so that we can become a more effective political force.

James Curtis serves as the Treasurer of the LPVA and has been part of their activities since 1996.  He is a Marine Corps veteran and holds two degrees from the University of Virginia.

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