A Libertarian Ticket Hostile to Elements of Liberty

As a classical liberal, I regard libertarianism as I would a wilder, younger brother. Libertarianism is younger because it is largely a product of modernity, while classical liberalism is more rooted in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is wilder, because it posits that the public-good function of the state is more limited and the externalities less frequent than I and other classical liberals believe. Yet the philosophies are close kin: they both see that the state poses a perpetual danger to its citizens, only disagreeing at the margin on when it is necessary to relax the strictures on governmental action. And at least with the most sensible libertarians and classical liberals, these disagreements are largely empirical.

Thus, in a race where the Republican candidate for President is careering away from classical liberalism and the Democratic candidate is flirting with the socialist elements of her party, a classical liberal might find a natural home in the Libertarian Party. Sadly, however, the Libertarian ticket has taken some important positions hostile to liberty. Begin with religious freedom. Amazingly, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the party’s presidential candidate, seems to think it is alright to require people to provide services for religious ceremonies that go against the tenets of their faith, calling such rights of conscience a “black hole.” And he even thinks that it is the federal government’s duty to prevent discrimination more generally. This position is plainly contrary to the tenets of libertarianism and the presumption of classical liberalism that the government should intervene to protect citizens only from force and fraud. Given the history of Jim Crow, I think that presumption was overcome for discrimination against African Americans, but the idea that government has a roving commission to prevent discrimination against the groups it chooses to protect infringes on liberty generally, and infringes gravely when it interferes with the rights of religious conscience.

And his running mate, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld (with Johnson saying they would govern as a team and sitting by in implicit approval) provided Stephen Breyer as a template for justices they would appoint! Breyer is perhaps the most statist of all justices on the rights actually enumerated in the Constitution, like the First and Second Amendments. He pays little attention to the original meaning of the Constitution, which is a great guarantee of liberty, and when he does allude to it, his claims are often fabrications.

Weld also held up Susan Collins of Maine as the model Senator. But she is one of the worst Republicans in the Senate when it comes to cutting taxes and curbing the size of government—issues that true libertarians and indeed the Libertarian Party emphasize, but that this ticket seems unwilling to put front and center.

What is going on here? My best hypothesis is that this ticket is becoming the lifestyle lite-libertarian ticket. What most people know about Johnson is that he smokes marijuana regularly, thus flaunting his position of lifestyle autonomy. Lifestyle libertarians also are enthusiastic about sexual freedoms (Breyer does constitutionalize abortion rights and same-sex marriage) and are unlikely to be religious. They may be opposed to higher taxes but are not serious about cutting entitlements—the dynamo behind the growing size of government.

Lifestyle libertarianism is at most a third cousin twice removed of classical liberalism. It appeals little to those of us who believe the core of classical liberalism in the United States is limited government and adherence to the original meaning of our Constitution, itself now the greatest charter of liberty that the world has ever known.