Libertarians in the Age of Obama: The Best Has Yet to Come?

About the author

Matthew Lakin is researching a DPhil in Politics at the University of Oxford. The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.

Ron Paul

‘Libertarian — or fiscally conservative, socially liberal — voters are often torn between their aversions to the Republicans’ social conservatism and the Democrats’ fiscal irresponsibility.’ (CATO Institute 2010)

What is libertarianism?

Libertarianism straddles more than one ideological family. In Europe, libertarianism is associated with socialism and liberationist ideologies of the Left: the 1920s ‘council communism’ of Germany and the Netherlands; the anarcho-syndicalism of pre-Franco Spain; Italian autonomism in the 1960s, and the mutualist, guild traditions of G. D. H. Cole and William Morris in the UK. Libertarian socialism is an ideology promoting a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic society devoid of private property in the means of production. This European tradition of libertarianism has its supporters in the United States, most notably with Noam Chomsky. Whereas libertarian socialism conjures up the idealism of the collective, the commune, municipalities, cooperatives and syndicates, there is another strain of libertarianism that emphasised the individualism, freedom, choice and liberty in a free market economy. Contemporary popular libertarianism in the United States however is distinctly non-socialist. Its formulation of libertarianism has a highly particular and idiosyncratic conception of liberty at its core: liberty defined as economic choice enacted through market relationships. The state is scaled back to the function of ‘nightwatchman’, in which the only legitimate role of the state is the protection of individuals from harm, and the security of the institutions — the military, courts and the police — that prevent, judge and punish harm. The primary role of the state is the superintendence of free economic transactions between private individuals. Society is merely the sum of individuals composing it.

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The expression for this libertarianism — the intersection of individualism and economic theory — is deposited in the Libertarian Party. The Party attracts both disaffected Democrats and Republicans, and political newcomers. The U.S. is ostensibly ripe for a third political party. During the government shutdown in October 2013, the Republicans dipped to a record low of an approval rating of 28%. Only a month later, mired in the disastrous launch of the website, President Obama’s approval rating stood at 41%. This article seeks to look at the ideas, policies and individuals associated with the Libertarian Party and to assess whether there is an electorally attractive future for them in the midst of the growing disaffection with two establishment parties. Is the ‘best yet to come’, or is the Libertarian Party destined to be forever squeezed by two-party dominance? This article argues that the Libertarian Party — in the name of freedom, liberty and individualism — marries social libertarianism (not to be confused with social liberalism) with fiscal conservatism; the former resonates with the Democrats (with exceptions) and the latter with the Republicans. Fiscal conservatism, however, overshadows its commitment to social libertarianism. Social libertarianism, in other words, is the poor relation of fiscal conservatism, and this narrow association with fiscal conservatism, the article further argues, undermines its credibility of appearing to look like a national party able to build a coalition with a loose voter base distinctive to both Democrats and Republicans.

The Development of the Libertarian Party

Ron Paul
Former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul.


The Libertarian Party has grown in importance since its creation at the hands of David Nolan in 1971. Nolan was the inventor of the Nolan Chart in which he attempted to vacate the political space for libertarianism by altering the Left-Right political spectrum by dividing issues of economic and social freedom. In 1988, the torchbearer of the libertarian movement in America — Congressman Ron Paul — finished third in the Presidential Election behind President George H. W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis. In the 1990s the Party — in cahoots with Congressional Republicans — helped derail President Clinton’s ‘takeover of the nation’s health care system’; and it balked at President George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ and neoconservative foreign policy in the 2000s. In 2012, Paul won more than two million presidential primary votes. Libertarians have voted against — as well as for — Democrats and Republicans in part because few voters who hold libertarian values identify themselves as such. But that number is growing.
Libertarians don’t necessarily vote for the Libertarian Party. Libertarians are all too aware of the two-party system of American politics, with an electoral system and campaign-finance structure which reinforces this model. Hence, their vote is not exclusively given to the Libertarian Party. The Cato Institute has produced some research relating to the transitory voting of libertarians. It states that in 2004 libertarians swung away from Bush and voted against Obama in 2008, 2010 and move further away from Obama in 2012. Libertarians militated against Bush in 2004 because of his multiple transgressions of ‘liberty’: the big government policies like No Child Left Behind or Medicare part D; the muzzling of the First Amendment with the passing of the Patriot Act; the excessive social conservatism with policies such as the the constitutional ban on gay marriage and the emphasis on ‘guns, gays and God’, and the war in Iraq. In 2008, libertarians voted McCain over Obama 71% to 27% as they were sceptical of Obama’s big government liberalism and the proposed bailouts, takeovers, federal spending commitments and extensions of federal control. They disliked in particular the Obama administration’s proposed health care law, or its attempt to regulate Wall Street.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."The Libertarian Party is split and fractious. It is to the Left of the Democrats on some social policies, and to the Right of the Republicans on many economic policies. Under Obama, however, the Libertarians have become more associated with their economic critique of government, thus losing ground to the Democrats on their socially libertarian credentials. The figureheads of libertarianism — Ron Paul, his son Rand Paul, the Republican junior Senator for Kentucky, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee for the 2012 election — take part in this promotion of economic libertarianism, and thus they risk becoming a mere faction of a declining Republican Party. A Libertarian Party dual critique of the Democrats and the Republicans would open up the political space in which the Libertarians could begin building a bigger and more populous coalition of supporters.

Libertarian Critique of Democrats

Ron Paul
US President Obama.

The Democrats under Obama have won two presidential victories with impressive margins over the Republicans (52.9% to 45.6% in 2008 and 51% to 47.2% in 2012). The administration’s legislative programme, back in 2009, was impressive but has been repeatedly obstructed by a recalcitrant and hostile Republican-controlled House of Representatives since 2011. Obama’s Affordable Care Act and increases in federal debt have provoked opposition from Republicans and libertarians alike. The difference, however, is that the libertarians are more consistent critics of Obama’s ‘big government progressivism’. They are critical of the administration’s attempt to ‘rebalance the tax code’ from the poor to the rich as they see tax, much like the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick saw it, amounting to ‘forced labour’. They are opposed to ‘Obamacare’ as they believe in ‘a free market health care system’, in which it is the individual alone who should ‘determine the level of health insurance they want’. Libertarian Party’s critique of American politics goes further. They critique Democrat — and Republican — attitudes to foreign policy. The non-aggressive foreign policy is a core element of the libertarian appeal to younger voters. Senator Rand Paul, like his libertarian father before him, is critical of Obama’s foreign interventionism and led the fight against Obama’s proposed authorisation of U.S. military action in Syria. Furthermore, where the Republicans look hypocritical on issues of civil liberties, libertarians like Paul argued that the leaked wikileaks of the National Security Agency’s mass data collection of millions of American’s emails and phone calls is ‘unconstitutional’ as it breaches the Fourth Amendment. The libertarian assault on the Democrats therefore is that they are too sanguine about the power of government to change social norms at home through tax-and-spend measures and abroad through foreign interventions.
On social issues, the libertarians believe in absolute non-interference. They see the criminalisation of drugs as a ‘created crime’ and the ‘use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes’ is favoured. Nevertheless, their conception of liberty as non-interference and absence of constraint leads libertarians to different conclusion. For example, take the issue of abortion. Some elements of the libertarian movement are critical of the Democrat’s pro-choice positions on abortion. Many assume that libertarians are pro-choice. Seers of American libertarianism like Ayn Rand — and the Libertarian Party itself — take firmly pro-choice stands. Pro-life is a position many libertarians hold on abortion. Pro-choice libertarianism conceptualises liberty in the case of abortion as a woman’s right to control her own body, whereas pro-life conceptions of liberty argue that it is the government’s responsibility to protect ‘life, liberty and property.’

Libertarian Critique of Republicans

Image shows a pro-choice rally by Libertarians. The focus of the image is a large banner reading, 'Pro-Choice on Everything - Libertarian Party.'
The Libertarian Party believes, regarding abortion rights, that “government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.”

The Libertarian Party in the age of Obama has become more interested in economic issues. Given the dominance of economic issues since the financial crisis, it is not surprising that evidence shows libertarians have tended to vote for the Republicans. Nevertheless, the Libertarian Party challenges the Republican Party’s hold over the mantle of fiscal conservatism. There are potentially existential risks for both parties. For the Libertarian Party, they risk being subsumed into the Republican Party, ending up as a mere extreme fiscally conservative faction. For the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party — more appealing to younger voters because of their less strident language on sexuality, drugs and abortion — risks splitting the fiscal conservative vote, thus allowing Democrats through the back door at the presidential and congressional level. The Republicans, since President Ronald Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980, have become a Party ideologically hostile to federal government. This has largely been more pronounced in rhetoric than in practice. Thus, libertarians have been much more consistent in their retrenchments of federal government. They’ve never suffered the same supposed paradox that exists in the ideologies of conservatism between the desire for social control (i.e. against gay marriage or pro-life positions on abortion) and market freedom (i.e. privatisation of social security or disproportionate tax cuts for the rich). They are liberty-lovers both socially and economically. But in order to address the economic crisis under the Bush-Obama, libertarians have restated their argument for the passage of a ‘balanced budget amendment’ to the U.S. Constitution, something which many (Tea Party) Republicans favour. Deficits must be slashed through ‘exclusive’ expenditure-cutting, and taxes like income tax would be abolished. Following Milton Friedman, both the Pauls have consistently argued for the abolition of the Federal Reserve in order that the U.S. returns to the ‘gold standard’. These are economically libertarian or fiscally conservative economic policies well to the Right of Republicans, but they are slowly being embraced by Tea Party Republicans.


Image shows the deep blue interior of the National Security Operations Center.
Spying by the NSA has come under huge criticism.

Privacy is being assaulted continuously under Obama, according to the libertarians. From NSA spying, to Internal Revenue Service targeting of the administration’s political opponents, to the amassing of health care information as part of Obamacare, the libertarian dream of a ‘nightwatchman state’ is withering — if not withered — away. There are glimpses of optimism for the libertarians. The Republicans are in the midst of a soul-searching mission in which the moderate visions compete with hard-Right Tea Party visions. Obama’s health care plan is faltering, which doesn’t just risk this particular plan but Obama’s whole vision of a liberal accommodation to bigger, provision-based government, which is premised and embodied in health care reform. Young libertarians are on the rise. They are more motivated. Ron Paul’s libertarian-inspired campaigns in 2008 and 2012 — wedded Obama’s big-government agenda — suggests that small-government voters may be easier to motivate and organise than they had been before since 1971. Further evidence suggests that even if the Libertarian Party falters, self-identified libertarians are a key swing voting demographic, comprising as much as 10 to 20% of the electorate. Nevertheless, there remains one key challenge for the Libertarian Party: the need for ideological rebalancing. Scepticism for government — in the name of consistency and widening appeal — needs to be matched by scepticism of concentrated corporate power, and along with it an appeal to its socially libertarian, as well as economically libertarian, ideological roots.

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Image credits: banner; Paul; Obama; sign; NSA.