How Should Libertarians Decide?

I’m not convinced the Republicans have dominated political discourse the way Kos says they have–yes, they’ve got super-slim majorities in Congress, and they’ve eked out a couple of narrow presidential wins the last two times around. But that’s not really dominance. Certainly nothing like the vast majorities Dems commanded not so long ago. So if the Dems are really a-feared of saying what they really believe–geez, that’s really sad. At this point, they’ve got very little to lose. I took Bill Clinton (and Hillary too) at face value when he not only signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law but yammered on and on about always opposing governmental recognition of same-sex marriages.

But let me segue into something else, something that pulls off a point made in passing by Harold Meyerson: What is the calculus that libertarians use to figure out if they should vote Republican or Democrat? That is, how do individual libertarians rank the importance of various issues before politicians. Let’s say you’re faced with a reliably good budget cutter like Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) who is also exceptionally anti-gay (according to a story in The New Republic, Coburn has said that homosexuality is “immoral … based on perversion … based on lust”). If you’re a libertarian, you believe in smaller government and social tolerance and pluralism (indeed, you likely believe in smaller government because you believe in pluralism; a smaller state can boss around fewer people). But I’m curious among libertarians how they make decisions in particular cases. Do tax rates trump everything else? Drug policy (what do you do with a budget-cutting stalwart like Rep. Mike Pence [R-Ind.], who is terrible on the drug war)? Immigration? Education? Who are the Democrats who offer something to libertarians (maybe Rep. Barney Frank [D-Mass.], who is very good on medical marijuana and prohibition generally) and what is it about them that puts off libertarian voters?

I realize individual issues will vary, but I think it would be interesting to hear from libertarians on the calculations they perform when it comes to evaluating the various stances a candidate presents.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Kicking off this month’s discussion, “Should Libertarians Vote Democrat?”, Markos “Kos” Moulitsas, proprietor of, argues that the libertarian Democrat’s time has come. Moulitsas says that GOP dominance has been a disaster for limited government and civil liberties, and that growing corporate power poses a grave threat to individual liberty and necessitates government action. “[W]e’ve seen that [the Republican Party] is now committed to subverting individual freedoms,” writes Moulitsas, “while the [Democratic Party] is growing increasingly comfortable with moving in a new direction, one in which restrained government, fiscal responsibility and–most important of all–individual freedoms are paramount.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply to Moulitsas, Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council, does not try to claim the libertarian mantle: “[I]f you’re looking for government to close up shop, don’t vote Democratic,” Reed recommends. But, Reed argues, there are reasons for more moderate libertarians to support Democrats. “Which party can provide smaller, more efficient government?” Reed asks. “Which party takes the responsibilities of government and limited government seriously enough to actually deliver it? Which party believes in competition enough to wean the country from its dangerous addiction to corporate welfare and make free enterprise work?” Reed’s answer: The Democratic Party.

  • Washington Post columnist and The American Prospect editor-at-large Harold Meyerson argues that Democratic overlap with libertarianism in matters of civil liberties cannot extend to the economic domain. “The central insight of 20th century liberalism,” Meyerson writes, “was that freedoms conflict, that a company’s freedom to dominate the marketplace was often in conflict with a consumer’s freedom to find a product at a fair price, or a workers’ freedom to find a decent job or form a union, or a citizen’s freedom to have an equal voice in the legislative process.” Today, Meyerson argues an increase in economic insecurity demands an increased role for the state. “Ultimately, the Democrats aren’t going to proceed very far down the libertarian road, for one simple reason that’s far more pragmatic than philosophic: It doesn’t lead anywhere.”

  • Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason, likes the idea of libertarian Democrats, and notes that there are a few, but “when it comes to their own party, they feel sort of like Trotsky during his Mexico City days.” Commenting on the previous essays, Gillespie writes that “even as Moulitsas is ostensibly trying to woo libertarians to vote for Democrats, he spends a good chunk of his essay lecturing his audience like a Hyde Park autodidact about the need for publicly financed roads and education, and railing against that great abstraction of ‘unaccountable corporations’ that lead us into war, make us breathe dirty air, and steal our retirement savings.” Gillespie finds Reed “even less engaging,” while Meyerson’s “uncomplicated nostalgia for the New Deal suggests he thinks he’s living in 1936 rather than 2006.”