19 July 2011

Libertarian factionalism and the future of the GOP

The same issue of The American Conservative that prints a pan of the latest libertarian manifesto includes an interesting article by W. James Antle III about the simmering conflict within the Republican party between supporters of two "libertarian-leaning" candidates for the 2012 presidential nomination, Rep. Ron Paul and former governor Gary Johnson. Antle's article is a timely reminder that the electoral potential of libertarianism is complicated by an almost inevitable lack of consensus about what libertarianism actually means.

In broadest terms, the rivalry between Paul and Johnson pits "paleolibertarians" against "cosmotarians." The distinction is based on cultural issues, the paleos who support Paul tending toward traditionalist cultural conservatism, the cosmos (for "cosmopolitan") being culturally liberal. As Antle explains, "Johnson's supporters tend to be those attracted to libertarianism because they think freedom advances human happiness rather than those primarily concerned about the depredations of the state....For them, sexual self-expression is as integral to individual freedom as matters of war and peace." By comparison, Paul disapproves of abortion, gay marriage, etc., though he is less willing than most Republicans to use state power to enforce his preferences. To Johnson's supporters, Paul's cultural conservatism compromises his libertarian purity. On other issues, however, Paul's people find Johnson wanting. His opposition to foreign intervention is not as unwavering as Paul's; Antle cites an interview in which Johnson "[left] the door open to unspecified humanitarian interventions." The New Mexican is also more tolerant of the Federal Reserve; he has no known intent to abolish it, as Paul does. Intellectually, Paul is influenced by the early-20th century Austrian economists like Ludwig von Mises, and by the anti-statist, anti-militarist Murray Rothbard (whom Antle calls an "anarchist"). Johnson favors the Chicago School of economists and is a "consequentialist" rather than an absolutist. That is, he tends to oppose government initiatives on the ground that they can't work or are unaffordable, not on the ground that they are wrong in principle. But Antle warns that this particular distinction can be misleading, since "most libertarians make both consequentialist and morally absolute arguments."

Paul, of course, remains popular in pre-primary polls, though turnout in his behalf is no more likely to be in proportion to his online support as it was in 2008. Nevertheless, he is well ahead of Johnson in nearly every measurement of progress toward the nomination. Antle explains that Paul's "more radical and more conservative" philosophy is simply more attractive to Republican primary voters, despite his off-putting anti-interventionism. For that reason, Antle concludes that Paul has a better chance of pushing the GOP in a more libertarian direction, but he adds that Johnson's participation in the primaries will be a good thing as well.

The careers of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson make a good case for libertarian participation in the Republican Party. Both men could have run on identical platforms as Libertarian Party candidates and would have received an infinitesimal number of votes. As Republicans, they won elections and were able to govern....In fact, it is a sign of progress for the libertarian wing of the GOP that there are now two prominent candidates offering an alternative to the Republican establishment's prescriptions of war, deficit spending, and a liberty-constricting national-security state.

A good case for whom? From the editorial perspective of The American Conservative, libertarians are helpful in the struggle against neocons for dominance of the Republican party. In theory, libertarians benefit from seizing control of one of the major parties, but Antle's analysis begs a lot of questions. The obvious question becomes: which libertarians benefit? The obvious next question should be: on whose terms? If libertarians opt for the short cut to power through the Republican party, the option comes at the cost of allowing Republican primary voters to determine which type of libertarianism they prefer -- in effect, to define libertarianism itself unless the losers make a stand on independent ground. Opting for the Republican short cut arguably puts the future of libertarianism in the hands of people whom neither Paul's people nor Johnson's supporters would consider libertarians at all. That's the American Bipolarchy at work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the major problems with Libertarianism is that, from the perspective of the left, it cannot differentiate itself from mainstream republican-ism. It uses the same buzzwords and rhetoric, defends the wealthy, for the most part, seems to support the religious right. The drug issue being about the only issue that Libertarians really differentiate themselves from the right, libertarians seeing drug use as a "freedom of choice" issue, rather than a "crutch of the poor and weak" stance the right tends to take.

So the chance of Libertarians to ever get swing voters or disillusioned lefties to join their ranks is slim-to-none.