In Republican primary politics, the libertarian brand carries cachet, which explains why many of the GOP’s presidential candidates are battling to position themselves as the one true standard-bearer of small government conservatism. But a funny thing is happening on the way to the Republican primaries: The whole notion of small government libertarianism has been hijacked by politicians who often represent the opposite.
Take Lindsey Graham, whose political action committee is staffing up for the South Carolina Republican senator’s possible presidential run. In an interview with an Iowa newspaper earlier this month, Graham said: “Libertarians want smaller government. Count me in. Libertarians want oversight of government programs and making sure that your freedoms are not easily compromised. Count me in.”
Yet, despite that rhetoric, Graham has been one of the most outspoken proponents of mass surveillance. Indeed, in response to news that the National Security Agency has been vacuuming up millions of Americans’ telephone calls, there was no sign of Graham’s purported small government libertarianism. Instead, he said in 2013, “I’m glad that activity is going on” and declared, “I’m sure we should be doing this.”
Similarly, Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz has reportedly raised millions for his presidential bid, after launching his campaign on a promise of smaller government.
What Cruz doesn’t say in his speeches railing on “unelected bureaucrats” is that he has spent much of his professional life as an unelected government employee, first as an appointee in George W. Bush’s administration, then as an appointee in Texas’ state government. Also unmentioned in Cruz’s announcement speech at Liberty University was data showing that the conservative school has received one of the largest amounts of government Pell Grant funding of any nonprofit university in America, according to the Huffington Post. That fact can be described with a lot of words, but “libertarian” probably isn’t one of them.
Then there is Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, the candidate who most openly embraces the libertarian brand.
As a senator, he more than others has strayed from GOP orthodoxy and taken some genuinely strong libertarian positions - most notably against the ongoing drug war, surveillance and the militarization of America’s domestic police force. He has also tried to foment a discussion about the taboo topic of government subsidies to corporations. In January, he said that “we will not cut one penny from the safety net until we’ve cut every penny from corporate welfare” and last month he said that if elected president, he’d slash business subsidies “so I don't have to cut the Social Security of someone who lives on Social Security.”
However, Paul’s pledges about corporate welfare apparently do not extend to the Pentagon, which has often been a big repository of such welfare for defense contractors. As Time reported in March, “Just weeks before announcing his 2016 presidential bid ... Paul is completing an about-face on a longstanding pledge to curb the growth in defense spending.” The magazine noted that he introduced legislation “calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years - a roughly 16 percent increase.”
Additionally, Paul is anti-choice on the abortion issue. That’s right, for all of his anti-big-government rhetoric, he supports using the power of huge government to ban women from making their own choices about whether or not to terminate pregnancies.
While few believe across-the-board libertarianism is a pragmatic governing strategy, some of that ideology’s core tenets -- like respect for privacy and civil liberties -- are valuable, constructive ideals. But when the most famous libertarian icons so often contradict themselves, those ideals are undermined. They end up seeming less like the building blocks of a principled belief system and more like talking points propping up a cheap brand -- one designed to hide shopworn partisanship.