Libertarians Mislead GOP on War

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Two articles by Libertarians attempt to appeal to the Republican Party in the aftermath of its recent electoral defeat and, in the process, show how that party's intellectual leadership continues to pose a danger to the cause of individual rights due to its abdication of the principles that underly freedom. In particular, the Libertarians threaten to teach the Republicans the wrong lesson about the war.

The articles differ on their respective estimates of the size of the "libertarian" fraction of the electorate. David Kirby and David Boaz initially claim that 15% of those who actually voted this year hold "libertarian views", but later classify 44% of all voters (in the fashion of a poll they cite) as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal ... also known as libertarian". Presumably, they think such voters are fundamentally similar to actual Libertarians. (More on this later.) Bruce Bartlett, writing at RealClear Politics, sees Libertarians as representing at most 10% of the electorate.

Nevertheless, both articles agree that the Republicans have, over the past few years, alienated the Libertarians and hurt themselves among similar voters. Kirby and Boaz document this and then explain what Libertarians saw as wrong with the Republicans:

In 2006, libertarians voted 59-36 for Republican congressional candidates -- a 24-point swing from the 2002 mid-term election. To put this in perspective, front-page stories since the election have reported the dramatic 7-point shift of white conservative evangelicals away from the Republicans. The libertarian vote is about the same size as the religious right vote measured in exit polls, and it is subject to swings more than three times as large.

Based on the turnout in 2004, Bush's margin over Kerry dropped by 4.8 million votes among libertarians. Had he held his libertarian supporters, he would have won a smashing reelection rather than squeaking by in Ohio.

President Bush and the congressional Republicans left no libertarian button unpushed in the past six years: soaring spending, expansion of entitlements, federalization of education, cracking down on state medical marijuana initiatives, Sarbanes-Oxley, gay marriage bans, stem cell research restrictions, wiretapping, incarcerating U.S. citizens without a lawyer, unprecedented executive powers, and of course an unnecessary and apparently futile war. The striking thing may be that after all that, Democrats still looked worse to a majority of libertarians.
This is consistent with Bartlett's quick and dirty (but accurate) summary of what Libertarians believe. (And by "Libertarians", I mean actual, capital-L party members and ideologues as opposed to people who use "libertarian" as an approximate description of their views -- like the above-cited 44%. Also, for those not familiar with this blog who might happen by, I am not a Libertarian. Unlike them, I happen to realize that one cannot have freedom at home without fighting wars abroad. And I mean actually fighting them.)
Basically, libertarians are allied with the right on economic issues and the left on everything else. They believe in the free market and freedom of choice in areas such as drugs, and favor a noninterventionist foreign policy. Consequently, someone who is a libertarian could prefer to ally with the right or the left, depending on what set of issues is most important to him or her. [bold added]
Notice that both articles slip in mention of the pacifistic tendencies that pervade the Libertarians, party and intelligentsia. Bartlett starts off discussing Vietnam, and then notes that:
[T]he Iraq War has aroused the isolationist impulse among libertarians. Only a tiny number of them supported the war in the first place, and they have all now recanted.


Libertarians probably don't represent more than 10 percent of the electorate at most and are easy for political consultants to ignore. But they are represented in much larger percentages among opinion leaders and thus have influence disproportionate to their numbers. Republicans will miss them if they leave the party en masse. [bold added]
Kirby and Boaz take a different tack, admonishing the Republicans that they risk becoming a regional (Southern) party unless they take positions more in line with the Libertarians. To support their position, they discuss election results in which voters clearly rejected the welfare state and the injection of religion into politics. (This is not the same thing as supporting the whole Libertarian platform, as we shall see.) They then cite a Zogby poll:
We asked voters if they considered themselves "fiscally conservative and socially liberal." A whopping 59 percent said they did. When we added to the question "also known as libertarian," 44 percent still claimed that description. That's too many voters for any party to ignore. [bold added]
Presumably, not fighting the war would help this cause, since, by the way, Libertarians are "non-interventionists" and the war is "unnecessary".

Unfortunately, Kirby and Boaz's claim of a 44% libertarian electorate depends upon the same type of equivocation the Libertarian Party has been using for decades in the form of political quizzes like this one. (I am as "Libertarian" as you can get on that quiz.) These quizzes ask a series of questions many "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" Americans would find uncontroversial and score the answers they would give as "Libertarian". Nevertheless, most Americans would be appalled to learn just how far to the left Libertarians -- the ones trying to dupe them with these tests -- really are on foreign policy and war.

The reason for this strange pacifism lies with a serious lack of intellectual discipline among Libertarian intellectuals, who often expropriate (with or without credit) and misapply a principle Ayn Rand identified as the purpose of government: to protect individuals from the initiation of force. Many Libertarians forget that government is the agent of its citizens' right to self-defense (i.e., to use force in retaliation for violations of their rights). This often leads them to sloppily condemn some perfectly legitimate government action (most frequently, military) as unwarranted "coercion" or "intervention". It is the government's job to intervene through coercion in certain situations. This often includes fighting wars. I dare say that most of that 44% of the electorate understand this, at least on a gut level: There is no freedom if we do not defend ourselves from foreign threats.

So while many capital-L Libertarians would argue against fighting at all, the many so-called "libertarians" (and this would include even many from the rank-and-file of the LP) would actually favor a more vigorous prosecution of the war against the Islamofascists, as John Lewis points out in his superb "Open Letter to the Republicans". (I highly recommend reading all of it.)
It remains telling that the American people were solidly on the president's side when he promised a reduction in government coercion at home, and a victory in the war overseas (over 80% supported the invasion of Iraq) -- and that they withdrew their support only after he failed to follow through on his promises.


You have accepted that moral goodness means sacrificing for the (alleged) good of others, and you have worked to shape America in this image. This ideal has defined President Bush's policies overseas, which purport to wage war by bringing benefits to enemy nations. It has defined a domestic policy that sees moral goodness in expanding programs of redistribution. Whereas the Democrats do this in the name of socialism (a discredited doctrine that has wreaked havoc wherever it has been tried), Conservatives do it in the name of "compassion." Democrats base their vision on class warfare and revolution; Conservatives base it on charity. But the practical results are the same: Socialism, now anchored not in Marx, but in civic religion.


Support for the war in Iraq has collapsed because there are no goals being pursued except the sacrifice of our youth for strangers, and no accomplishments except a demonstration of America's weakness. Republicans need to become advocates of a foreign policy of self-interest, by which we fight to defend the freedom of Americans, and only the freedom of Americans, with the goal of a fast and decisive victory when we do fight, as a matter of principle. [bold added]
80% of all Americans supported the war. Even if the 20% who did not were all among Kirby and Boaz's purported 44% of "libertarian" voters, this would leave well over half of them supporting the war. Considering that, as Bartlett says, "Only a tiny number of [Libertarians] supported the war in the first place", this puts to the lie any implication on the part of the Libertarians that the Republicans lost because they were fighting the war and fiscally conservative social liberals would have preferred surrender.

In fact, the Republicans were not waging a war and many voters would have preferred that they do what they were elected to do in contradistinction to the appeasement the pacifist Democrats ran on. The electoral data contradict what Bartlett, Kirby, and Boaz imply the Republicans should take home from this election about the war, and the blogger Zombie notes polling data as further proof:
To the extent that the "war" is "unpopular," it's not for the reasons that the media is portraying. There is an anti-war movement, to be sure, but that's only half the equation. There's another huge segment of the population that is unhappy with the way the war is conducted because it is being waged too lightly. They want to see the overwhelming use of force, not the PC pussyfooting around that is the current modus operandi. Most polls ask the misleading question, "Do you approve of the way Bush is conducting the war?" and they get a 60% to 65% "Yes, I disapprove" response. But those polls are purposely designed to NOT ask the follow-up question, "Do you think the war is being waged to forcefully or too lightly?" I've seen just a handful of polls that did ask follow-up questions of that sort, and they all revealed that half of the disgruntled respondents were to the right of Bush. [bold added]
If there is one thing the Republicans should not do after this election, it is to continue to fail to stand up for our nation abroad. Not only does America's freedom depend upon the proper use of its military, Americans will firmly support the Republicans if they do so. The Republicans, if they ignore the Libertarians and listen instead to John Lewis, stand to do well by doing good.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%. As you say you cannot have freedom without fighting against Islamo-Fascism and other forces of tyranny abroad.

I invite you to view my blog at

Seems like we're almost longlost twins, albeit perhaps from a different Mother?

Gus Van Horn said...


Although I am flattered to have been visited by such a prominent figure, I have to disagree. We certainly look alike on the surface, but we are not twins. One of us thinks political change can happen in a vacuum (i.e., without a broad cultural change within the electorate) and the other doesn't.

Given that I am accusing the majority of Libertarians of misleading (vice merely being mistaken) on the issue of the war, I wonder why you still regard yourself as a Libertarian.

Also, given that you invite me to your site, you seem to appreciate on some level the need for intellectual debate. But still, I must ask, "What need is there to belong to any political party in order to hold political debate?"

I am quite familiar with Libertarianism and reject it on principle for the same reason that Peter Schwartz once put so well: "Libertarianism deserves only one fundamental criticism: it does not value liberty." How can he say this and I agree? Because Libertarians cannot agree among themselves what constitutes "liberty" in the first place. The anti-war stance of Libertarians and the fact that anarchists feel comfortable in that party are symptoms of this problem. To call oneself a Libertarian is at best to fail to be clear about what one values and at worst to give credit where none is due (e.g., to anarchists) for standing up for freedom. In either case, the public debate is muddied when clarity is in urgent need.

And on that subject, might I invite you to peruse, "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty", by Peter Schwartz?

The revolution not only will not be televised, it will be philosophical. Only then will politics improve.