Libertarian Views Will Never Be Mainstream In America, Unfortunately

Most popular politicians may not be libertarian, but that doesn’t mean that libertarians can’t find allies in them.

Governors Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) received high praise last week from blogger Alex Knepper at the Huffington Post. Knepper quickly offered his admiration for what he views as the two governors’ pragmatic libertarianism. He also expressed hope that the governors’ policies as well as their high approval rating are heralding in a new political consensus that favors libertarian principles. Knepper is not alone. This past year has seen a flurry of commentators arguing that America has become a center-libertarian nation.  

Unfortunately, their optimism is misplaced. While libertarians have seen some success on certain issues, the shifts in public opinion have not arisen from a swing in political ideology. Rather, elected officials have pursued libertarian-favored policies either by coincidence or because they recognize some utilitarian need for less government. They do not actually share the libertarian dedication to limited government and personal liberty; their political interests simply align with the libertarian movement on rare occasions.

This is exhibited by Knepper’s own gubernatorial harbingers. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo are not libertarians. A quick look at their records shows that their so-called libertarian appetites make up only a sliver of their legislative diet. Governor Cuomo, for example, recently imposed an overbearing round of gun regulations, ignored NYC’s despotic Stop-and-Frisk program, and used executive power to create health insurance exchanges under Obamacare when the Republican controlled New York State Senate balked at its implementation. Governor Christie, while certainly closer to the libertarian ideal, continuously drops hints (see here and here) regarding his conservative loyalties. Neither governor pursues a libertarian agenda.

More to the point, policies enacted by these so-called "libertarian" politicians that do align with libertarian values are rarely inspired by them. When Alex Knepper and other optimistic libertarians lay claim to popular reformers, they fail to question what principles inspired reform in the first place. Much of what Knepper calls libertarian success arises not from a conversion in ideology but from coincidence and utility. Thus, changes in marijuana laws were not driven by a belief that the state cannot control what you ingest into your own body, but rather by the need to increase the state’s sales tax revenue or via the simple observation that possession charges clogged up the courts. Similarly, changes in marriage laws came from a belief that the government had the obligation to affirm sexual lifestyles and not from a conviction that the government should remove itself from social institutions in their entirety.

Sometimes competing ideologies find common ground, even if they traveled along separate paths to get there.

Governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, therefore, can never become champions of the libertarian movement. They have too many tethers latched to their respective parties. But both governors can become (and already are) useful allies to the movement. They represent elected officials with whom libertarians can work to enact incremental reform — reform that, while far from a shock and awe transformation, will work to dispel the yoke of government intrusion one policy area at a time.

I recognize that many libertarians will be unhappy with this suggestion. There is a strong sentiment in the movement that libertarians need to remain pure and that entry into politics tempts reformers with the same type of bargaining that led to today’s wanton protectionism. Libertarians, however, need to confront some uncomfortable truths. Libertarians are a minority in the American political landscape and, despite their fancies to the contrary, are likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. If libertarians want to see the state recede, and if they want individuals have the freedom to live their rights, then they should partner with agents of change, no matter the ideology in which they dress. One does not need to be a pure believer in order to advance the cause of liberty.