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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The vaunted ability of the Republican Party to get out the vote where it really matters is about to be tested. If the party can survive the midterm elections without heavy losses (especially if it retains control of the House) despite the current abysmal poll ratings for the Bush administration and the congressional leadership, then its strategy of attending to its loyalist base will be vindicated. If the party gets the drubbing that Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, assorted congressional scandals, and those awful poll numbers all point to, then the message for 2008 will be different: Republicans must look beyond that loyalist base and care more, as they used to, about support from uncommitted voters.

In the view of a lot of loosely attached conservatives, that would be a very good thing. The party needs a salutary shock, they say—and, aside from that, divided government is probably a good thing in its own right. But suppose this wish is about to come true. Suppose the uncommitted voters are about to assert themselves. What will they actually be saying? What kind of policies, what kind of Republican Party, would appeal to these drifting, side-switching types? Is there any kind of ideological coherence or consistency in that neglected political zone—or is it just a matter of "We're sick of this lot, so let's have a change."

One answer, so I read, is that an important part of the uncommitted vote has "liberal" values in the traditional English sense of that term. In the United States such people have to be called "libertarians" or "classical liberals"—words uncommon in current political discourse, which is revealing in itself. These are citizens who favor limited government in economic affairs (unlike the Democratic base) but also in social and cultural matters (unlike the Republican base). They are instinctively pro-market, wary of big government, and no more than moderately egalitarian, which inclines them to vote Republican—or it used to, anyway, when Republicans cared about curbing public spending. But at the same time, they are offended by what happens when politics meets evangelical religion. They take a generally permissive view of private morality, are not much devoted to tradition, and are broadly welcoming of technological and cultural innovation, rather than anxious about it. These views incline them to vote Democratic.

Two new books on what has gone wrong with the Republican Party in the past six years emphasize this neglect of the libertarians. In The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, Ryan Sager, a New York Post columnist, argues that the modern party, at its most successful, was an alliance of social conservatives from the South and libertarians from the West. During the presidency of George W. Bush, social conservatives and evangelical Christians gained control; their classical liberal partners were pushed aside, and then out. To the extent that this was a deliberate strategy, it was, in Sager's view, wrong. It is better for the party to nurture a broad base rather than a narrow base, he argues, even allowing for the fact that the narrower base is more energized. Also, it just so happens, the policies favored by a libertarian Republican government would be more to his liking than the policies supported by a socially conservative one.

Andrew Sullivan, a leading commentator and blogger, and a Catholic conservative as well, makes a related argument in The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back. More concerned about the merits of the issues than with political strategy, he laments the capture of the Republican Party by religiously inspired social conservatives because it led the administration to support, in his view, bad policies—and often, as he argues, to execute good policies incompetently. Sullivan's kind of conservatives are in favor of fiscal restraint, for instance, because they support limited government. The president's kind of Republicans disagree. And, not coincidentally, Sullivan's kind of conservatives are anti-fundamentalist, as well—skeptics by temperament, therefore less inclined to undertake hubristic visionary enterprises, and more attentive to the humdrum details of execution.

The question is, how much of the moving middle (if it is a "middle") does this libertarian tendency really occupy? Are there as many libertarians as muddle-headed vacillators? Do they outnumber switchers who vote for personalities, not policies? A new study by David Boaz and David Kirby for the Cato Institute (a think tank dedicated to the classical liberal cause) says that the libertarian vote is big enough to be worth capturing. Indeed, the authors say, it is capable of swinging elections.

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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