Libertarian: What’s in a Label?

John Stossel (who’s leaving ABC to join the Fox Business Network) gave a well-received talk at my university yesterday titled “Freedom and Its Enemies.”  Several times during the talk he referred to himself as a libertarian.

Sometimes the libertarian label seems like a liability for people who are both (1) serious about substantially reducing the scope of government, and (2) actually are in a position to have enough influence to do so.

At times there is little distinction, as far as public perception goes, between libertarians and libertines, who just want the government to quit harassing people who want to live non-traditional lifestyles.  So self-proclaimed libertarians get lumped in with the dope smokers and gay rights groups.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but it can be a distraction from the broader goal of limiting the scope of government.

Sometimes libertarianism is associated with anarchism.  One question asked to Mr. Stossel after his talk addressed exactly that point.  This is another distraction.  Government is not going to be eliminated in my lifetime, or in my childrens’ lifetimes, so arguing why government should be abolished isn’t going to do anything to make today’s government smaller.  (It may make limited government advocates look more moderate, though!)  Mr. Stossel answered that he’s not an anarchist, but again, dealing with the issue is a distraction from the libertarian message he was trying to present.

And then, libertarians are often associated with Libertarians; that is, members of the Libertarian Party.  All Libertarians would claim to be libertarians, but the reverse definitely is not true.  Many libertarians refuse to participate in politics on principle, and argue that Libertarians can’t be libertarians and participate in the political process as they are.  At the other end of the spectrum is the Republican Liberty Caucus (RLC) whose members claim to be libertarian Republicans.  A few RLC members I know who are converts from the Libertarian Party say they’ve given up hope that the Libertarian Party can have any influence, and believe their best hope to actually implement a more limited government is to make the Republican Party more libertarian.

Lots of people have libertarian views.  They want lower taxes, less government spending, reduced regulation of commercial activity, and less government interference in their personal lives.  But the libertarian label seems to carry with it a lot of baggage.

If asked directly, I will tell people I am a libertarian, but (with the obvious exception of this blog post) I will never volunteer the information.  Why?  My answer is in the paragraphs above.

With the Democrats now in charge of the White House and Congress, we are seeing a considerable backlash against their policies, including health care reform, energy policy and cap and trade, and the continuing addition of spending proposals to a budget that, even with their advocated tax increases, they forecast to be running trillion dollar deficits as far out as the forecasts go.

For those alarmed at what the Democrats are implementing, the alternative is offered by the Republicans.  In the court of public opinion, this alternative falls short because of the eight failed Bush-McCain years.  Whether that’s a proper assessment of Bush’s presidency can be debated (though I think there is a strong argument to be made), but my point is, that’s what President Obama campaigned on, and won.  So, in the court of popular opinion, the alternative is to replace the undesirable policies of the Democrats with the failed policies of the Republicans who controlled our government prior to the Democrats.  No wonder the Republican opposition can get so little traction.

There is another alternative lurking in the shadows.  There is a mass of people who do not support the obscene expansion of government proposed by the Democrats, but who didn’t support the earlier Republican agenda either.  There is a mass of people who want substantially smaller government in all areas of their lives.  They want lower taxes, they want government programs curtailed or eliminated, they want substantial spending reductions and a balanced budget, they want freer movement of people and goods across our borders, and they want the government to allow them the freedom to make personal choices for themselves, even if many of their fellow citizens judge that they are making poor choices.

Rather than opposing these government initiatives one at a time — health care, tax increases, energy policy, etc. — it might be more effective to put them all under the umbrella of a single term that describes the political inclinations of those who want smaller government.  One label that might work is “libertarian.”

I began by noting the baggage carried by the libertarian label, but one reason it carries this baggage is because it’s not mainstream, and many people don’t have a clear idea what the term means.  So, they associate it with anarchists, or libertines, or a fringe political party.  I like the fact that John Stossel describes his own political philosophy as libertarian, and when he becomes a regular on Fox Business Channel, he will be reaching tens of millions of viewers, many of whom think of themselves as Republicans because, well, they are against the Democrats, so that must make them Republicans.

Stossel is an excellent representative for libertarian ideas because he is thoughtful, sensible, and persuasive.  If he keeps using the term to describe his views, many of his viewers will discover that they, too, are libertarians.  Maybe that will push them toward the RLC, or maybe to the Libertarian Party.  But I hope more people will see that the alternative to Democrat isn’t just Republican, and that the libertarian alternative fits many people better.

I have a tendency to want to avoid simplistic labels, and I began by giving some reasons for avoiding the libertarian label.  But in political debate, sometimes a simple label that describes an underlying principle  can help win the debate.

If the libertarian label becomes more recognized in mainstream politics, it can become a powerful tool.  It has become more recognized over the decades, and if people like John Stossel use it regularly, it will become more mainstream.  I would love to see the label become mainstream enough that a winning argument in a political debate could be, “That violates the libertarian principles on which this country is founded.”

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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