Wealth of Nations October 2006

The Neglect of Libertarians

People who are conservative on economics and liberal on social issues have a hard time identifying with either major political party.
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Boaz and Kirby use three questions to screen data from recent Gallup polls, and classify respondents according to basic ideology.

  • Some people think the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses. Others think that government should do more to solve our country's problems. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Some people think the government should promote traditional values in our society. Others think the government should not favor any particular set of values. Which comes closer to your own view?
  • Do you think the federal government today has too much power, has about the right amount of power, or has too little power?
  • Boaz and Kirby deem respondents who said "government is trying to do too many things," "government should not favor any particular set of values," and "federal government has too much power" as libertarian. The percentages were 9 percent in 2002, 11 percent in 2003, 9 percent in 2004, and 13 percent in 2005. The authors next point out that the libertarian vote shifted a lot between 2000 and 2004: Libertarians voted 72 percent to 20 percent for Bush over Al Gore, but only 59 percent to 38 percent for Bush over John Kerry. Congressional voting showed a similar pattern, they say. In other words, libertarians are (a) ideologically consistent, and (b) swing voters. "At some 13 percent of the electorate, [the libertarian vote] is sizable enough to swing elections. Pollsters, political strategists, candidates, and the media should take note of it."

    My own answers to the three questions put me in the libertarian camp, by the way, so I would love Boaz and Kirby to be correct. But you have to wonder. The polling analysis that so pleases them leaves me feeling a bit lonely. Can it be right that barely 10 percent of respondents give what I would have regarded as characteristically American answers to the three questions? (I say that as a Brit. I also find myself wondering whether there are more libertarians in Britain—or in France, for heaven's sake—than America's paltry one in 10.)

    And how much effort are these voters worth? Although it is true that the libertarian vote is up for grabs, in other ways it is a tactically unappealing target, because it will always be up for grabs. With a social conservative, or an anti-market statist, you know where you are. It is worth investing in those kinds of voters—not in changing their minds, of course, because you cannot do that, but in persuading them that you have moved to their side. But you will never turn a libertarian into a loyalist of any party.

    That is not all. Because they are skeptical not just about government but also about politics and the people who devote their lives to it, libertarians may be disinclined to get out and vote. The commentators who have recently been arguing for divided government, saying that it is better to have a weak, do-little government than a government, whether Left or Right, with the ambition and the capacity to do lots of big things, certainly have a point. But unfortunately that temperament is close to the one that wearily says, "I cannot be bothered and want nothing to do with this process." Disenchanted and few in number: Why spend limited resources on reaching them? Libertarians are disenfranchised for a reason.

    The American idea—expressed in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution—is quintessentially a classical liberal idea. It is all there: Limited government; checks and balances; civil liberty and economic liberty. Libertarians won those arguments, but they have been on the losing side for about the last 70 years.

    Today's main political battle is between those who want to run the economy from Washington and those who want to dictate the country's morals from Washington. (George Bush's Republican Party apparently wants to do both.) And we libertarians should not delude ourselves: If this is true, it is not because politics is letting people down but because most Americans feel comfortable in one or the other of those camps. As long as only one in 10 people reject both of those ideas, the choices facing the electorate will continue to be about as inspiring as the choice that presents itself on November 7.

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    Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

    Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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