For a fan of small government, the two-party system is endlessly frustrating. If, for example, you believe the government should step aside and let the free market do its thing, you might be drawn to the Republicans, but what if you also believe consenting adults should be free to use drugs or marry whomever they want? And if you support those social freedoms, you might be drawn to the Democrats, but what if you’re also uncomfortable with the concept of a big, centralized government?
The answer, of course, is the Libertarian Party, and here are 10 reasons that’s not as crazy as it sounds.
10. Libertarians Have Ideological Consistency
As far as I can tell, the Republicans and Democrats start with their specific beliefs, then construct an ideology accordingly, leading to countless sets of seemingly disparate ideas — same-sex marriage rights and social welfare programs, deregulation and drug prohibition, etc. — linked together for no apparent reason. You may like one, but guess what? You’re stuck with the other. Libertarians don’t have that problem. From lp.org: “Each individual has the right to control his or her own body, action, speech, and property. Government’s only role is to help individuals defend themselves from force and fraud.” Sure, if you squint hard enough you can find some gray areas around the edges, but I can’t conceive of a political question that’s not covered by those two sentences.
9. Your Vote Means More
If you voted in 2008, there’s a 98.58% chance your vote was for Barack Obama or John McCain. While it seems likely Americans would sooner vote for a hideous alien intent on enslaving humanity than throw their vote away on a third-party candidate, I’ve never quite understood why that is. For one thing, a decent showing in a presidential election is a major step toward legitimacy for a third party — and we’re only talking about a few million votes. Meanwhile, in the vast majority of recent presidential elections not involving George W. Bush, the winning candidate won the popular vote by a margin greater than 5%. In most states, the Electoral College makes major party votes even less important. Which is to say that, in all but a handful of closely contested states, third parties represent an individual’s only real chance to cast a meaningful vote.
8. The Libertarian Party Is Only as Crazy as its Members
You’ve probably heard the stereotype: Libertarians are just a bunch of potheads and gun nuts and paranoid silver-drinkers with blue skin. And, like most stereotypes, it’s not entirely unfounded — there are a lot of crazy libertarians, but it’s not like being libertarian is what makes them crazy. It’s a vicious cycle, because when would-be libertarians are reluctant to get on board for fear of being associated with crazy people, the crazy people are left to run the asylum … so to speak.
7. Also, the Ideas Really Aren’t That Crazy
Take privatized roads — one of the more popular examples of the absurdity at the extremes of libertarianism. Except that the prevalence of “free” roads is undoubtedly connected to the American concept of everyone driving everywhere in their own personal cars, which is why people have little interest in high-speed trains, bus lines, and other forms of efficient mass transit. Also, private competition is probably the best way to generate innovative methods of easing traffic congestion. And maybe we’d finally get those flying cars. The point is, public control of roads has its positives, but it also has plenty of negatives. And privatization would be a bit of a shock to the system (because sweeping changes in public policy tend to come about immediately and with no resistance, right?), but that doesn’t make it crazy. What’s crazy is being aware of all the problems associated with public roads and refusing to even consider the alternatives.
6. Libertarians Have Had No Scandals
In the last 100 years, 26 members of Congress have been officially reprimanded, censured, expelled, or forced to resign to avoid expulsion. This exclusive group includes 17 Democrats, 9 Republicans, and zero Libertarians. So there you go. Libertarians are infinity times more ethical than members of the major parties … All right, fine, you got me. There aren’t any Libertarians in Congress. Still, it’s a big advantage any time a political discussion devolves into ad hominem attacks. For every embarrassing Democrat like James Traficant or Charlie Rangel, there’s an embarrassing Republican like Bob Packwood or Larry Craig. But what can you say about Libertarians? That’s right, nothing. (Well, Ron Paul sent those racist newsletters, but he considers himself a Republican now, so I say they’re on the hook for that one.)
5. Libertarians Have No Special Interests
If there’s one thing people all over the ideological spectrum can agree on, it’s that lobbyists have way too much influence. But they wouldn’t be a problem if politicians weren’t constantly looking for something to do. Like in 2005, when the government began subsidizing ethanol production, a program pretty much everyone — liberals, conservatives, fictional Republican Arnold Vinick, and probably even a few of the corn farmers themselves — now agrees is a bad idea. But it’s still around, because it means a lot of money to a lot of people, and they’ve hired lobbyists to make sure the subsidies keep coming in. So it goes. It’s a problem, like so many others, that Libertarians would’ve solved pre-emptively — by not creating it in the first place. That’s not to say that Libertarians are magically immune to pressure from lobbyists, they just don’t have anything to offer. (Yeah, yeah, because they aren’t in office, but, more importantly, because…) Industries and other special interests don’t want to be left alone to compete on their own merits; they want favorable treatment. They want the government to make it difficult for competitors to enter the market, or guarantee a demand for their products, or shield them from liability. Republicans and Democrats are often happy to oblige, but Libertarians would not, because it would violate their principles, which is something a Libertarian would never do … right? Well, they haven’t yet, at least.
4. Big Government Tends to Backfire
Even if you disagree with my No. 1 complaint about government — that it usually fouls things up — there’s no disagreeing with my No. 2 complaint, which is that any increase in government power will, sooner or later, lead to somebody you don’t like having the authority to do something you don’t want them to do. Say, for example, you’re fed up with high drug prices and the shameless greed of insurance companies, and you’re convinced the only way to fix the healthcare system is government intervention. In that case, you’re probably pretty happy about the 2010 reform plan passing, because now Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi and other idealistic liberals who share your basic moral values will oversee the system. Except that conservatives in Washington now have a say in healthcare too, and they’re going to use that power to do everything they can to further their moral values, which are probably rather different from yours. Keep that in mind in 2018, when President Palin makes pre-marital abstinence a condition to being covered by health insurance.
3. Capitalism isn’t Always the Problem
When things go horribly wrong, the free market always seems to get the blame. Like the recent banking crisis, which led to a taxpayer bailout and widespread demands for new regulations to protect us from the dangers of capitalism — except that it wasn’t necessarily capitalism that caused the problem. The Federal Reserve set interest rates ridiculously low, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — both of which are government-sponsored enterprises — engaged in high-risk subprime lending, and on and on. It would be an insulting over-simplification to say that none of that would’ve happened had the government not been involved, but still, much of the crisis came about not because of flaws inherent to the capitalist system, but because of attempts by the government (or by banks exerting their influence on the government) to circumvent natural market forces. And then, in the ultimate circumvention of natural market forces, we used taxpayer money to save the banks from suffering any consequences. That’ll teach ’em! We’re like the proverbial farmer who brought in rats to eat the insects, then snakes to control the rats, then mongooses to fight off the snakes, and now we’ve got a bunch of damned mongooses all over the place.
2. Drugs, Hookers, Gambling, etc.
This is the obvious one, right? It’s also probably the most misunderstood. Skeptics imagine the hypothetical libertarian society as a dystopian hellscape, where drug-fueled maniacs have free reign to do whatever they want. But that’s not what would happen, nor is it what libertarians want to happen, because, even to the most extreme libertarian, protecting people from dangerous recklessness and unjustifiable violence remain very much within the limited role of government. Oh, and there’s also the common sense observation that many of the dangers associated with a prohibited activity — gang violence, disreputable sellers, high prison populations, etc. — exist because of the prohibition.
1. You Don’t Even Have to be Libertarian
No, really, let me finish. Both liberals and conservatives tend to approach problems from the standpoint of “my solution is right, therefore everyone has to go along with it,” which is how we wind up with things like the health insurance mandate and the Defense of Marriage Act. Libertarians, however, approach problems from the standpoint of “try whatever solution you want — just don’t force me to go along with it if I don’t agree.” It’s the ideal compromise. Liberals are more than welcome to pool their money on social welfare initiatives, conservatives can continue ignoring and/or denouncing things they find immoral, and neither side infringes on the other. That should appeal to everyone, shouldn’t it? Well, everyone except those who secretly like having the government around just to have something to gripe about. Which, come to think of it, is probably a lot of people.
James Sinclair is a former chairman of the Libertarian Party in Alachua County, Florida.
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