Sorry, Gary Johnson: The libertarian movement is fringe and it will remain fringe

Libertarians are far more interested in deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy than any liberal social issues

Published June 17, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Gary Johnson    (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Gary Johnson (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Last week, the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee Gary Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld made a cordial appearance on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" to pitch their libertarian message to America. With some recent surveys showing the Libertarian ticket nearing 15 percent in national polls, there is a slim chance that Johnson could end up participating in the presidential debates (third-party candidates need to reach 15 percent in five national surveys to be included). Thus, the more exposure the better.  

The two candidates mostly stuck to their “socially liberal” talking points, which are always a hit with the young viewers, and only briefly alluded to their “fiscally conservative” views. Reproductive rights, drug legalization, anti-militarism: what’s not to like? When Colbert asked whether they were “fringe” candidates, as GOP nominee Donald Trump had said, Johnson replied: “I think by fringe, I think what he is saying is the majority of Americans are fringe, and that's just not the case.”

Of course, libertarians can sound almost pathologically rational one minute and ridiculously dogmatic the next, and Trump is essentially correct in his claim: libertarians are on the fringe, and will always remain on the fringe in a Democracy (which is not say that all of their ideas are fringe, but their broad anti-government philosophy is certainly out there).

This fanaticism was on full display a couple of weeks back, when Johnson faced a tough crowd at the party’s convention in Orlando, where the most dedicated libertarians in America came together to salivate in their collective disdain for the government. The former Governor of New Mexico was booed by the libertarian crowd for, among other things, saying that he would have voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying that he supports drivers licenses, and claiming that the free market bankrupted the coal industry (which is, er, kind of true).

On the Late Show, Johnson was clearly trying to stick to the common sense side of libertarianism that would appeal to many of Colbert’s viewers, but the libertarian movement is ultimately more concerned about economics than social issues. Consider the Koch brothers, who are ideologically libertarian. Both brothers have admitted to being socially liberal, but these issues aren’t nearly as important to them as deregulating the market, slashing taxes for the wealthy, and so on; and these issues don’t dictate their political spending and activism (if they did, the Koch’s would support Democrats).  

When it comes to economics and anti-government dogma, libertarians are even worse than Republicans. One simply has to glance at the Libertarian Party’s 1980 presidential platform (for which David Koch was the party’s VP candidate) to get an idea at how extreme libertarianism is in its economic policies. The “abolition of Medicare and Medicaid”; the “repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system”; the “eventual repeal of all taxation”; the repeal of the minimum wage; the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency; the repeal of federal campaign finance laws, and the “immediate abolition of the despotic Federal Election Commission”; the “privatization of the inland waterways, and of the distribution system that brings water to industry, agriculture and households.”

Libertarians would privatize all of society if they had their way, as was amusingly imagined in Neal Stephenson’s classic science fiction novel “Snow Crash,” where everything from police forces to highways are privately owned and sovereign territories (“burbclaves,” for suburban enclaves) are run by corporate franchises.

It is this extreme economic dogma that makes the libertarian movement a fringe movement, not their social or foreign policies like drug legalization or ending military misadventures overseas (besides, if someone is considering supporting a libertarian for these reasons, they are probably better off voting for a left candidate like the Green Party's Jill Stein). Many libertarians have admitted in the past that their ideology is not compatible with democracy because of these extreme economic views. The libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, for example, who caused Gawker Media’s recent bankruptcy after funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit, wrote in 2009:  

“I no longer believe that freedom [i.e. Libertarianism] and democracy are compatible... Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.”

Certain prominent libertarian thinkers have even supported autocratic dictators over left-leaning democrats in the past, including Ludwig Von Mises (who was so extreme that he once called Milton Friedman a socialist), who praised early 20th century fascists, and F. A. Hayek, who commended the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet because he promoted privatization and economic liberalization by force (Thiel seems to have also made the step in supporting authoritarianism with his recent endorsement of Trump).

Even Tea Party-types who constantly denounce the government would never dream of supporting a truly libertarian political platform. To put it plainly, these Americans hate big government, until they don’t hate big government. Tea partiers despise the “Obama tyranny,” but they love their Medicare and Social Security (to be sure, ignorance plays a major role in this — some readers may recall when Tea Partiers protested socialized medicine while simultaneously telling the government to “keep its damn hands off” of their Medicare). Republicans bash public broadcasting — which received under $500 million in funding for 2012, or around .00014 of the budget (a 2011 poll found that some Americans think it is up to 50 percent of the budget) — yet they believe our defense spending — which was almost $600 billion, or 54 percent of the discretionary budget in 2015 — is too small. Even the most anti-government Tea Party patriots would scoff at libertarian policies like cutting defense.

And so the libertarian movement will remain on the fringe, arguing over drivers licenses, demanding the government stop bullying (read: regulating and holding accountable) corporations, shouting that all tax is theft and maintaining that someone who is critically injured and without health insurance should be refused treatment and allowed to die.

It’s unfortunate, because libertarians do bring much-needed sanity to the American right on issues like militarism, the drug war, and social issues; but their dogmatic insistence that the government can never do anything good and will always lead to tyranny (without considering corporate tyranny through widespread privatization) makes them as irrational as communists who believe the market can never do any good. It also ensures that the movement will always fail at democracy.


By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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