Libertarians Should Stand Against Authoritarianism

Legal experts sounded the alarm last week after the White House declared it was refusing to cooperate with House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Some saw a constitutional crisis—or at least the makings of one. Cato vice president Gene Healy concluded, “The categorical stonewall Trump just announced is clearly an impeachable offense.”

But none of this was surprising from a president whose contempt for the Constitution and democratic norms is exceeded only by his ignorance of them. This is a man with a visceral hatred for freedom of speech and the press, who sees dissenters as un-American and journalists as “the enemy of the people.” He’s an authoritarian by instinct who swoons over dictators and lashes out at the independent judiciary, rejects Congress as a co-equal branch of government, and fancies himself above the law. Trump’s daily assaults on core American values are genuinely too numerous to name.

Right-thinking libertarians understand this intuitively. Authoritarianism is the antithesis of a free society, and anyone championing a principle-based politics should resent a leader whose only principle is advancing his own self-interest. Trump’s policy agenda also stands against libertarianism on a range of issues, including immigration and multiculturalism, trade, and foreign policy. “No president has talked so much about ending endless wars in the Middle East while doing so little to bring home our troops,” Rep. Justin Amash (I-MI) recently tweeted.

But how should libertarians respond to this presidency at the ballot box? They sustain fundamental disagreements with Democrats on guns, healthcare, education, and the economy. They don’t agree with progressives on how to fight climate change or whether income inequality is a problem. And admittedly, these divides have only widened as Democratic politics has shifted to the left. But at this perilous moment for American democracy, as Trump retains the full backing of the Republican Party and some in the conservative movement flirt openly with “post-liberalism,” classical liberals’ first priority should be uniting with left-liberals to defend liberalism broadly defined—by voting Democratic in 2020.

The appeal of voting for the Libertarian Party is self-evident. It’s the path to ideological purity and a community of kindred spirits. Classical liberals aren’t ever going to feel entirely at home in either of the two major parties. But the Libertarian candidate isn’t going to be elected president next year. The simple truth is that either the Democratic nominee will win the White House or Trump will secure a second term. And if he is re-elected, the institutional GOP will be further emboldened to do what they’ve done for three years—support him every step of the way.

With the notable exception of Amash, who left the GOP in July to become an independent, libertarian-leaning Republicans in Congress are sticking with this president. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has opposed Trump selectively, including on some foreign policy moves and the border-wall national emergency declaration, but nonetheless emerged as a key ally of the White House. (“He’s never let me down,” the president said last year.) Voting Democratic would send a clear message that rank-and-file libertarians don’t cosign this capitulation and that the GOP can’t take them for granted.

The future of the Republican Party also looks increasingly inhospitable to libertarianism. Consider 39-year-old freshman Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, a polished, whip-smart former state attorney general seen as a potential leader of the post-Trump right. Washington Free Beacon editor-in-chief Matthew Continetti calls him “a social conservative unafraid of government power.” Hawley takes “an explicitly censorious stance toward Silicon Valley,” as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observes. Yet Reason’s Robby Soave notes the senator’s sleight of hand—using libertarian language to advance an anti-libertarian agenda:

Hawley clearly knows enough about libertarianism to cynically distort the language of freedom in service of his authoritarian populist designs. As he is likely aware, the libertarian tradition is about standing up to the most dangerous concentration of power: the one that results from government intervention and is maintained by the threat of government force. Libertarianism is against the efforts of central planners in Washington, D.C., who think they know better than individuals what kind of products they should buy and what kind of media they should consume. In effect, libertarianism means opposing Josh Hawley.

Opposing Republicans and voting Democratic in 2020 wouldn’t foreclose future third-party organizing or even a new fusionism with a reformed GOP. No realignment must be permanent. But the moral and strategic imperative for libertarians next year is to embrace the kind of “liberaltarianism” that former Cato vice president Brink Lindsey has promoted.

“The first, immediate task is to forge a liberaltarian alliance that can defend American democracy from the depredations of Donald Trump,” Lindsey wrote for Vox in 2017. “This ad hoc project requires no rethinking or blurring of existing ideological boundaries. Rather, it asks only that committed small-d democrats from the left, right, and center put aside their usual differences to stand together for basic liberal norms and institutions.” The time to stand together is now.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Nicholas Sarwark says that now more than ever, the Libertarian Party is the best home for people with libertarian views. The two major parties are both thoroughly populist and win elections only by promising increasingly unlibertarian policies. Strategically, striking out on our own makes sense, he says, because it amounts to negotiating from a position of relative strength.

Response Essays

  • Matt Nye says that the Republican Party is the true home of libertarians, one where they will find an undeniable gift: electability. This the Libertarian Party has never provided, making it largely a wasted effort. Nye is candid about the GOP’s ideological shortcomings and its venality. But, he says, the Libertarian Party hasn’t exactly been pure itself.

  • Graham Vyse argues that libertarians need to focus on the immediate danger of a second Trump administration. Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have remade the Republican Party, he argues, and not for the better. The time has come for libertarians to unite with their former enemies on the left, at least temporarily, to defend a minimal form of liberalism against an extraordinary threat.