Editor’s Note: “Libertarianism and the alt-right” is a series consisting of three parts.
Part 1: Leading libertarians denounce Hans-Herman Hoppe, on Sunday.
Part 2: Ludwig von Mises vs. the Ludwig von Mises Institute, on Monday.
Part 3: Libertarian centrism vs. the alt-right, on Tuesday.
Can the center hold? Building a liberty movement without giving in to the alt-right
Libertarians have many ways to describe their political philosophy to those unfamiliar with the term. David F. Nolan, one of the primary co-founders of the Libertarian Party, used a method that has become a familiar sight at county fairs and local festivals across the nation. Nolan create simple 10 by 10 grid, which he oriented as a diamond.
On one axis, is a category labeled “economic freedom,” and on the other “personal freedom.” The familiar left-liberals and right-conservatives are shown in opposite corners. The libertarian quadrant occupies the top of the chart, at the center. Beneath it, falls the category variously labeled as populists or authoritarians, and in between fall centrists.
This concept is familiar to political scientists, and is used in a variety of similar forms. It reflects the broad idea that libertarians tend to agree with the right more on free markets and economic policy, and more with the left on personal freedoms, social issues, and civil liberties.
The commonality to both is that libertarians favor less government intervention across the board.
An imperfect visualization of more complex alignments
Critics are quick to point out that it’s an imperfect visualization of more complex alignments and disagreements among different political ideologies.
“Fiscally conservative and socially liberal” is an incomplete description at best. But it can also convey the broad strokes of how libertarians compare to typical Republicans and Democrats. And those two reference points are all most people are familiar with.
Even for those who push for a more radical branding, an important part of the message is that libertarianism is equidistant from both the left and right, or that it is distinct and apart from both. That’s why many choose to pursue electoral politics through the vehicle of a third party. They are unrepresented in the usual two-party system.
The traditional target for Libertarian campaigns aren’t the hardcore base of Republicans or Democrats, but instead among Libertarians, among independents, and among voters disaffected from either of the two major parties.
Libertarians are no longer ‘the craziest son of a bitch’ but rather the center
As discussed in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, there are some within the liberty movement – those who go by the paleolibertarian label – who would like to see libertarianism move in a more populist direction.
In a remarkable self-reflection, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, had this to say about himself, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, and his son Sen. Rand Paul, a fellow Kentuckian:
I went to Iowa twice and came back with [Ron Paul]. I was with him at every event for the last three days in Iowa. From what I observed, not just in Iowa but also in Kentucky, up close with individuals, was that the people that voted for me in Kentucky, and the people who had voted for Rand Paul in Iowa several years before, were now voting for Trump. In fact, the people that voted for Rand in a primary in Kentucky were preferring Trump.
All this time, I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas — they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.
Massie’s observation might lend support for the theory that those on the left side of the political divide are hopeless and unreachable. Instead, this argument might run, critics of big government should continue to focus on remaking the right side of the spectrum.
In this way, they might hope to become a part of and influence to movement conservatism, the GOP, and whatever the party will look like after Donald Trump comes out the other end.
Rand Paul has given in to Trumpism in exchange for influence
You can already see this tilt in Sen. Rand Paul. His strategy has always appeared to be one of working within the mainstream of the Republican Party. Recently, he has downplayed or even moving to the right on social issues such as immigration and gay marriage.
Last week Sen. Paul said that he couldn’t see himself supporting anyone besides Donald Trump for president in 2020. And he’s endorsed the Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore in Alabama.
But Sen. Paul isn’t alt-right, sticking instead to a more mainstream sort of conservative-libertarian fusionism. This contrasts with the more extreme strain of the paleolibertarian movement includes such figures as Hans Herman-Hoppe, Lew Rockwell, and others associated with the Mises Institute. (See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)
The paleolibertarian alignment isn’t just with the right or with mainstream conservatives. Instead, as outlined by its advocates, it is a strategy to influence and remake the populist far right.
That can include supporting so-called anti-establishment candidates, like Pat Buchanan, Klansman David Duke, and Roy Moore. It includes not just downplaying or watering down libertarian positions on social issues, but radically reversing them and embracing cultural and social conservatism.
In turn, this leads to backlash and disputes with more mainstreams libertarian institutions, including the Libertarian Party, the Cato Institute, Reason magazine, and others. In the party in particular, with its open structure and democratic governance, these disputes can often play out as internal faction divides.
The liberty movement is forking between the center and the extremes
In 2016, both Gov. Gary Johnson and his running mate Gov. Bill Weld described what they construed as “a six-lane highway right down the middle.”
In other words, the progressivism of the Democrats and the nationalism of the Republicans was appealing to fewer and fewer voters. This results in a huge and continuing opportunity to appeal to appeal to independents put off by the far right and far left.
Gov. Johnson was well-known as an advocate for marijuana legalization. He also ran on a message of civil liberties, letting market forces decide immigration levels, and rolling back overseas wars.
In 2016, that message appealed to many on the left and center-left. Similarly, Gov. Weld often recounted with pride how he appointed the state supreme court justice who went on to author the nation’s first decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Alongside that, however, was their clear philosophy and record of fiscal restraint. Indeed, their small government bona-fides were better than anything offered by Republicans in at least 30 years.
Johnson cut taxes while balancing the budget and leaving a substantial surplus in New Mexico. Weld cut the state government’s number of employees by 10 percent on his first day in office in Massachusetts. He passed the first year-over-year spending cuts in the state’s modern history.
Do voters want liberty-minded solutions, or just angry denunciations?
The Johnson-Weld strategy was not without controversy, of course. Many critics sneered at the Libertarian ticket as left-libertarians who weren’t tapping into the populist far-right rage as well as Donald Trump was.
Others saw moderation on some issues as a step too far in watering down a radically principled libertarian message.
But at a time when both major parties are clearly fleeing the center, and partisan bipolarization is at record highs, there is an opportunity in selling libertarianism as the governing strategy of the only grown-ups in the room.
The right is descending into illiberal authoritarian nationalism and anti-intellectual populism. The left has taken an extreme turn towards socialism (e.g., single-payer healthcare) and policies run by statist institutions controlled by expert-driven bureaucrats. Both have dragged their respective major parties away from the center.
So is it possible that a third-party candidate – or a third party, such as the Libertarian Party – could break through and win the plurality that is sick and tired of extremists for progressivism or nationalism?
The populist far right and the alt-right are a dead end for human liberty
For libertarians, who are often motivated by idealism, the populist far-right is a dead end. It ends in Charlottesville, with full-blown neo-Nazis chanting “blood and soil” and waving tiki torches. These are not standard-bearers for limited government, free markets, lower taxes and peaceful trade with foreign nations.
More importantly, the alt-right spirit is at odds with the core ethos of libertarianism, a universalist aspiration of equal freedoms for all.
A vision of libertarian centrism, by contrast, has a message with a broad appeal to the left, to the right, and to center. No, this isn’t a centrism of the mushy-middle split-the-difference sort that you see in groups like No Labels or the Bipartisan Policy Center.
We’re not talking about something that combines the worst of both worlds. But we are talking about a vision-driven politics that bows to the political realities and needs of gradualism.
It calls for the sober recognition that, at its core, America is already founded upon a classical liberal ideal: That all people are created equal and endowed by their creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through property, contract and the freedom of association.
To align not just with Reagan Republicans, but with the Trumpian alt-right, is to take this glorious political legacy and throw it away, only to get nothing in return. Fusion with the far-right is bad politics and bad principle. No movement for liberty can be built on such a noxious foundation. What remains after such alliance is scarcely recognizable from authoritarianism and political repression.
But the liberty movement can build an electoral coalition from the center outward. We can do this by leading and organizing the disaffected from both parties, as well as those who identify with neither. Tax cuts and marijuana legalization. School choice and bringing the troops home. There is something in it for everybody, and there’s a coherent guiding principle that ties it all together.
(Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, on the right, and running mate Bill Weld talks to a crowd of supporters at a rally on August 6, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Photo by George Frey/Getty Images.)