Libertarian influence on Republican Party corrodes realism and compassion


Illustration: Diane Huang

Dogmatic libertarianism is a poor replacement for critical evaluation of government policies

Libertarianism has experienced a remarkable resurgence in recent years. A 2013 Washington Post survey finds that 22% of Americans now identify themselves as Libertarians, or lean toward libertarianism. During the 2012 presidential election, former New Mexico governor and Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson garnered more votes than any Libertarian presidential candidate in history.

While Johnson’s presidential ambitions were a long shot, to say the least, libertarian thought has also gained a great deal of influence within the Republican Party. This was illustrated in March 2013, when Kentucky senator and libertarian icon Rand Paul placed first in the Conservative Political Action Committee conference straw poll. While the CPAC poll has little real political impact, it may be an accurate barometer for the future; over half of the conference’s 11,000 attendees were college students. Libertarianism’s momentum with young conservatives and its growing niche within the Republican Party have made it an ideological force to be taken seriously.

Beyond the apparent preponderance of “don’t tread on me” banners, libertarian assumptions about government’s role in society have worked their way into conservative orthodoxy as well. While libertarian thought has certainly been most influential on fringe or alternative groups like the Tea Party, fiscally moderate conservative candidates have also been obliged to stretch themselves in order to win support from those elements of the party. As New York Times columnist David Brooks noted in October of 2012, “Personally, I think [Mitt Romney] is a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater.”

As Brooks’ observation indicates, the growing need for conservatives to establish their small-government credentials has taken a toll on Republicans’ political success. But, more troublingly, it seems to have corroded compassionate conservatism as well.  In his recent book Blue Collar Conservatives, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum observes this effect. “There are some in my party,” he writes, “who have taken the ideal of individualism to such an extreme that they have forgotten the obligation to look out for our fellow man.” Unilateral resistance to active governance limits the potential for abuse, but it also ignores national governments’ unparalleled ability to promote justice and prosperity.

Conservatives have traditionally favored a limited government, but only because excessive government regulation can undermine other values like fiscal restraint, private-sector growth, and freedom of conscience. But none of these are inevitable consequences of centralized power: simply potential risks. The real measure of a government’s success is not in how much it undertakes, but in what it accomplishes. Small-government conservatism for the sake of small-government conservatism is unreasonable.

When Republicans oppose the Affordable Care Act, for instance, it ought to be because they find analyses like Peter Schiff’s credible, and believe the program is financially unsustainable—not out of some contrived ideological opposition to public health care reform. A compassionate conservative who supports cuts to entitlements does not form his conclusions out of aversion to welfare, but in genuine concern about the programs’ sustainability and effectiveness. In short, conservatives should couch their critiques in realism, not cynicism.

It is possible that libertarianism thrives as a dissenting movement, and its appeal for Republicans will dissipate as their party rebounds. Limiting the powers of government at every turn may provide a convenient rationale for opposition, but it makes a poor blueprint for effective leadership. There is little room for excessive, Randian, individualism in the heart of American conservatism. The sooner it disappears from the Republican platform, the faster the party will recover, and the better it will lead.