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Don’t Write Off the Libertarian Republicans

Last Tuesday’s elections were a mixed bag for Tea Party legislators, or what we might call libertarian Republicans. The bad news was Corey Stewart’s defeat of Nick Freitas in the Virginia Senate primary and Katie Arrington’s defeat of Congressman Mark Sanford in South Carolina. However, the GOP’s libertarian wing picked up wins by Eric Brakey, who prevailed for the Senate nomination in Maine, and Lee Bright, who qualified for a U.S. House runoff in South Carolina.

Still, questions have been raised about whether or not libertarians are even welcome in a Republican Party controlled by President Donald Trump. After all Trump is not exactly a champion [1] of small or even limited government—and that’s putting it mildly. The Trump administration has championed policies that libertarians generally despise, such as increased tariffs, immigration restrictions, spending hikes, and preserving the current entitlements system. And the Trump movement’s embrace of nationalism certainly goes against the cosmopolitan ideals of many libertarians.

This has led some libertarians to conclude that Republicans just aren’t into them. Among those who think that way is Reason editor-at-large Matt Welch, who says the GOP is a lost cause [2]:

Libertarian policy goals will still sometimes be met under Trump, some of them intentionally, some not. He will continue deregulating and appointing some good judges, may yet contribute to genuine peace on the Korean peninsula, and has proven surprisingly malleable on marijuana enforcement and prison reform. But as an organizing body, particularly anywhere near the levers of federal power, the GOP is an increasingly unreliable ally to libertarians.


It’s hard to disagree with that. The GOP under Trump is certainly not a party that values limited government. Then again, the GOP has rarely ever seemed to value limited government [3], at least when it’s in power.

But is all lost for libertarians? A closer look at the both the Freitas and Sanford losses reveals the answer is not a simple one.

In Virginia, Stewart picked up 44.9 percent of the vote to Freitas’s 43.1 percent, or a little more than a 5,000-vote difference [4]. Stewart had run for statewide office two times previously and served as Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign manager until he was fired in October 2016. After losing the Republican primary for governor in 2017, he almost immediately began campaigning for the Senate. He had the highest name ID [5] in the race.

Freitas, on the other hand, only began campaigning for Senate at the beginning of this year. He was a relatively unknown state house member before the campaign, and he spent only $355,749 [6] compared to Stewart’s $680,505 [7], according to Federal Election Commission records. Freitas was able to close the money gap with help of the Rand Paul-aligned America’s Liberty PAC, which spent $225,000 on TV ads [8], and Americans For Prosperity, which spent $137,283 on phone banking and digital ads [9].

But the outside money backing Freitas was a drop in the bucket given how large Virginia is. For example, in last year’s governor’s race, AFP spent millions against Democrat Ralph Northam [10] and still lost. So given where both candidates started financially, this doesn’t seem like a catastrophic loss for libertarians. Indeed, Freitas nearly pulled it off despite his lower name recognition.

The margin of victory boiled down to the 10th Congressional District, which saw a primary battle between Congresswoman Barbara Comstock and Shak Hill. That race drove up numbers for Corey Stewart [11] because he organized and worked in the district.

As for South Carolina, at first blush it seems even more devastating to libertarian Republicans. There, Arrington made her support for President Trump a major focus of her campaign and contrasted it to Sanford’s criticisms of Trump.

But a deeper look at the race tells a different story. The fact is that Arrington worked hard on the campaign trail while Sanford took his reelection for granted. The result was predictable, regardless of any Trump factor.

Arrington raised $611,073 [12], including $408,300 of her own money, and spent $384,262. Sanford, on the other hand, spent $360,457 [13] and only $166,287 on media. Sanford also had no campaign staff and over $1.5 million cash on hand as of the latest FEC filing.

These races don’t seem to amount to the repudiation of libertarian Republicans that others see. Still, it’s worth asking what lessons libertarians can learn to survive and thrive in the Trump era. The biggest one comes from Daniel McCarthy, who notes that libertarianism was a success in the GOP when it was anti-establishment [14]:

These are lessons for libertarians to learn. They succeeded for seven years in Republican politics because they dared speak truths that others wished to ignore, truths about the futility of our foreign wars and the precariousness of our economy. But when another insurgent came along to speak those truths, and others, in even plainer and more urgent terms, the libertarian moment was past.

Those libertarians who have continued to “speak truth to power” are the ones who have thrived in the Trump era. Senator Rand Paul, Congressman Thomas Massie, Congressman Justin Amash, and libertarian leaners such as Senator Mike Lee and the House Freedom Caucus are flourishing because they’ve maintained their anti-establishment credentials. This is despite the fact that they have opposed and even criticized Trump at times.

Amash, who was targeted by Trump allies [15] for a primary challenge, wound up running unopposed. Although he faces a tough general election battle, he is still favored to be reelected. Massie is all but certain to return to Congress.

Contrast their fates with another libertarian leaner and Trump critic, Senator Jeff Flake. Flake was forced to retire after it became clear he would be defeated in the primary by populist Kelli Ward, who herself has libertarian leanings [16].

Flake was a strong proponent of free trade and railed against pork barrel spending in the House of Representatives. He was not afraid to challenge his own party on those issues. But since being elected to the Senate in 2012, Flake had also become a consistent ally of the Republican establishment.

“Flake could have been opposed to President Trump and even been outspoken about it,” wrote [17] conservative commentator Erick Erickson. “But he could not sell out his conservatism and then become an outspoken Trump critic. That is, however, what he chose to do.”

Libertarians can survive in the Trump era. After all, Trump’s destruction of the old GOP has given them space to operate. But libertarian Republicans must not forget their anti-establishment roots and they cannot take their election races for granted.

Kevin Boyd is a freelance writer. He has been published at The Federalist, IJ Review, the New York Observer, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter @TheKevinBoyd.

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Don’t Write Off the Libertarian Republicans"

#1 Comment By Corwin On June 19, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

I hate to break it to you, but libertarianism can be every bit as bad as authoritarian governments. While it is true that it would reduce the size and scope of big government, you don’t ever seem to look at what would replace that big government. If it’s just a bunch of big corporations that have been deregulated, then most of us are no better off, and in some ways worse. This is because with a federal government, at least we are represented, poorly as the case may be, considering what we have right now. With big corporate interests controlling things, we are not represented at all, unless we have a lot of money. And saying we have the legal right to not work there, or shop there, or even move away does not address the practical problems with all of that. Please look for a healthier middle ground.

#2 Comment By MarkedMan On June 19, 2018 @ 3:05 pm

Ah yes. Libertarianism. Like so many other of the perennially popular political “isms” it is a decades old idea that has never seen any success in any country in the world*, but that doesn’t stop college students from declaring it brilliantly obvious. Mr. Boyd takes the usual dodge and equates it with small government conservatism, but if that is the case, what’s wrong with just calling it by that name? And putting Rand Paul atop the column is especially rich. Rand Paul is the champion of playing the self professed libertarians for suckers. He occasionally makes some sturm und drang about this or that so called libertarian principle, and then completely caves once he has received adequate attention from the news media.

*Please, please don’t trot out the self-professed libertarian’s ideal: Singapore. I’ve spent a lot of time in Singapore and it is a socialist country with big contributions from every one of its citizens to cover extensive mandatory health care coverage, excellent and extensive public education and old age pensions, among other programs. It is also heavily in commercial industries it considers vital. The Libertarian myth concerns non-citizens. It is true that it doesn’t tax non citizens who earn income outside the country. (Sort of. How about $120K for a license plate for one car? Fees, not taxes.) But those resident ex-pats also cannot get any benefits from the country and if their wealth falls below a certain threshold they must leave.

#3 Comment By Richter rox On June 19, 2018 @ 4:16 pm

There’s not enough nails for that coffin , every so often it creaks open and a corpse appears.

Easily the most useless and refuted political doctrine ever created by a sober mind.

#4 Comment By Johann On June 19, 2018 @ 5:02 pm

Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried according to somebody named Church or Hill or something like that. Libertarianism is the the only thing that hasn’t been tried to make democracy better. When are we going to try?

#5 Comment By Johann On June 19, 2018 @ 5:05 pm

And please commenters, don’t drag out the usual claim that Somalia as an example of a libertarian country. Its an example of anarchy. No private property rights there.

#6 Comment By Liam On June 19, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

+1 to Corwin. Of course, for the Moldbuggians, they’d just like to evolve that to neo-cameralism. When dealing with such folks, only take them credibly when they agree to be the lowest level of proles in that system…instead of the lords.

#7 Comment By Matt in AK On June 19, 2018 @ 5:54 pm

“Conservatives have no intention of compromising with socialists; but even such an alliance, ridiculous though it would be, is more nearly conceivable than the coalition of conservatives and libertarians. The socialists at least declare the existence of some sort of moral order; the libertarians are quite bottomless.”
–Russell Kirk from “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries”

#8 Comment By sglover On June 19, 2018 @ 7:33 pm

Oh, you can generally buy off libertarians with the magic “tax cuts!” incantation. Works like a charm every time, so I wouldn’t worry about them leaving the fold. I mean hey, look at Rand Paul — the guy who I guess you’re implying is some kind of iron ramrod of principle?!?!?

#9 Comment By Tancred On June 19, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

I am not a big fan of libertarianism but I could see the GOP moving in a more libertarian direction in the future. If you are a well-educated, secular professional the old fusion of business conservatism and religious conservatism might not appeal to you. Trump-style right-wing populism probably doesn’t appeal to you either.

Some of these folks might be voting for the Democrats now due to social issues even if they don’t agree with the Democrats on some economic issues.

As the population becomes more secular I think we might see a resurgence of the libertarian right. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out within the Republican Party.

My guess is that there will be a three-way battle between the libertarian right, Trump-style populists and maybe some kind of “compassionate conservatism” that continues the old Fusionism of business conservatism and religious social conservatism.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 20, 2018 @ 12:04 am

i quess i will chime in with my own whines. i have spent a lot of time chatting with libertarians who have thought I was one of them. Which I assume is because they see my listening to their views as a a libertarian pose and philosophically there are a loot of meet points. The problem is always — always — always — reality.

When it come to practical applications libertarians are in fact dangerous. Because there is no way to really enforce the a polity. It’s more a free for all bargain, kumbaya existence of self actualization that lends to the self actualized being those with the most power, telling everyone else – it’s their own fault for not being powerful enough or self sufficient enough to defend their rights.

What;s Sen Ryan’s response to the rights of citizens, another amnesty proposal to set loose some 2 million illegal immigrants , who don’t give a lick about the US aside from its ability to allow them to take dollars out of the hands of us citizens —

A libertarian at his best using government to line the pockets of the already haves.

Laugh –

good grief. The Sen never misses an opportunity to fold like a cheap suit.

#11 Comment By Jeff S. On June 20, 2018 @ 12:21 am

I hate to break it to you, but authoritarian government is way, way, way worse than libertarianism and individual freedom. While it is true that under libertarianism, corporations would undergo less regulation from a centralized government, corporations would still have to answer to the public. Why? Because corporations in a libertarian world are entirely dependent upon the public to voluntarily patronize their businesses. Any bad behavior by corporations would be punished by the marketplace: loss of goodwill means loss of customers and loss of revenues. The worst case scenario for a business would be a nationwide boycott. Bad behavior begets bad results for corporations in a libertarian world. There is only one way corporations can bypass the need to satisfy customers: that is when they team up with big government and get special favors and special treament from government. That is called crony capitalism, and in a libertarian world, crony capitalism is eliminated.

Under libertarianism, businesses and corporations are highly regulated: not by government bureaucracies, but by the customers. Any harm done unfairly to customers creates a legal tort, which can be remedied if appropriate by an individual lawsuit, or in the case of harm to many, by a class action lawsuit. Remember, libertarians are not only all about individual freedom, they are also all about personal responsibility.

Oh, and with big government, you are not represented at all unless you have a lot of money. The amount of campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton in 2016 were close to a billion dollars. Do you really think that you as an average citizen have access to sit down to talk with and persuade someone like Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? Not unless you have a lot of money.

And saying that you have the right to vote as an individual does not address the practical problems with all of that. Please look for a healthier and more practical view of how little influence average citizens have over the federal government.

Without crony capitalism and special government favors, a corporation must serve your needs to exist. Governments throughout history could ignore the needs of the citizens and still grow and thrive. Just look at governments run by dictators like Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, and Fidel Castro to see that big government can ignore the will of the people and human rights. Corporations, without special government favors, could never exist if they tried to trample over people.

Liberty and personal responsibility work; big government does not work.

#12 Comment By Jeff S. On June 20, 2018 @ 12:22 am

Big government does not work. Liberty and personal responsibility do work.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 20, 2018 @ 1:10 am


“What’s Sen Ryan’s response to the rights of citizens, another amnesty proposal to set loose some 2 million illegal immigrants , who don’t give a lick about the US aside from its ability to allow them to take dollars out of the hands of US citizens”

a position that Sen Paul supports — again

A libertarian at his best using government to line the pockets of the already haves.

Laugh –

good grief. The Sen never misses an opportunity to fold like a cheap suit.

#14 Comment By grumpy realist On June 20, 2018 @ 5:24 am

I find it amusing that this has been posted in the same issue that is running Gulliver’s article on how the FDA got started. ( [18])

We’ve seen what happens when you just leave self-policing “up to the market.” Formaldehyde in your milk, plaster in your flour, and antifreeze in your toothpaste.

But go ahead. I’m sure that being able to bring a lawsuit against the purveyors of such delicacies will make up for the fact that your toddler died. After all, being able to bring a tort is an automatic solution to all problems, isn’t it?

#15 Comment By Jimbo On June 20, 2018 @ 7:42 am

I would disagree with this piece – the libertarian Republicans can, in fact, be quite safely written off. And I use as evidence this: when was the last time, in these United States, that a group of Libertarian GOP members held any real power in the House or Senate? The last time I think a libertarian came close to setting policy there was a fellow named “Goldwater” running for President, and he lost.

Libertarianism is an electoral loser – it hasn’t ever been in the drivers seat of GOP policy. The origins of the desire for small government in the modern GOP have far more to do with the backlash to the Civil Rights Act than the excesses of the Waters of the United States Act. Lower taxes and less regulation are pushed for by all kinds of GOP donors and interest groups, resulting in a kind of pseudo-libertarianism if you squint hard enough, but it’s not a coherent intellectual policy; it’s an amalgamation of strands of pursued actions.

It’s hugely unlikely that a highly abstract philosophy rooted in the relationship between government and business is going to gain traction in this era of feelings. And right now we are in the era of “Grandpa is speaking his feelings about the colored folk again (cringe *away* from the old man)”.

#16 Comment By balconesfault On June 20, 2018 @ 11:32 am

I’ll take libertarianism seriously when I can find a libertarian who will give a serious answer to the question – from where does the right for an individual/corporation to own real estate come?

Now, I personally support private ownership of property. I think that it benefits society in a multitude of ways.

But unlike, say a car that you purchase, or a house that you build – nobody “created” the real estate that we own (with some exceptions, like manmade islands, or coastal land reclaimed via dikes).

People “own” real estate thanks to deeds that tend to flow back either to some Royal land grant, or to grants from the Federal Government. And people’s ability to own real estate without hiring their own personal army to protect it is completely dependent on a legal system which records and upholds property boundaries.

So it seems to me wholly reasonable for government to maintain some level of regulatory control on the use and maintenance of private property for the common good. In fact, if you go back and look at many of those Royal land grants, for example, they specifically make reference to the responsibility of the grantee to use the lands in ways that benefit the nation as a whole, and not simply the landowner.

#17 Comment By Jon On June 20, 2018 @ 12:18 pm

To add to the chorus of those not so well disposed towards right wing libertarians, is the observation that some of us make. Although a lot of objections are anticipated over this seemingly simplistic notion since we are here looking at what is purported to be an entire spectrum of thought and policy, right wing libertarianism predominantly stems from Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.

Her argument while on the surface lends itself to that of Classical or Nineteenth Century Liberalism is based on the notion that there are two types of human beings: There are the slaves who willingly follow their taskmaster for a few crumbs. But then there are those mavericks who think and act outside of the box and are thus bound to lead. According to Ayn Rand, the independent minded who behave outside of the box should be the task masters, but society replaces them for less competent types who are mere cogs within the wheels of an extensive and elaborate but byzantine bureaucracy.

A dystopian world based on Ayn Rand’s outlook would be a volatile one fretted with tooth and claw Social Darwinism. The masses on the brink of destitution work feverishly for their entrepreneurial task masters under the Damoclean sword of unemployment.

Supposedly the bounty produced by the affluent, those successful entrepreneurs who constantly introduce new technologies into the mix, raising the productivity of labor, would eventually trickle down to the masses improving their lives such that market capitalism becomes a cornucopia, a veritable paradise and hence her “Unknown Ideal”.

Such is this magical thinking that governs not only right wing libertarians but also the whole gamut — classical liberals and constitutionalists. The GOP certainly has room for these libertarians and others on the far right. But gives us back our Taft Republicans and return this party back to the center!

#18 Comment By Philly guy On June 21, 2018 @ 3:58 am

Anecdotally, have usually found most libertarians to be on the Asperger’s syndrome scale.

#19 Comment By MSimon On June 21, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

MarkedMan says:
June 19, 2018 at 3:05 pm

No success? Thomas Jefferson is these days considered quite the libertarian.

And Trump?

Addiction is a medical problem – Trump

And on cannabis would you believe that Sen “Indian” Warren and Sen Gardner (R-CO) have introduced a bill? With Trump’s approval.

#20 Comment By MSimon On June 21, 2018 @ 6:26 pm

balconesfault says:
June 20, 2018 at 11:32 am

The idea of land as property keeps coming up in government for 5,000 years.

We also know animals that protect territory.

The “idea” of property is thus natural.

#21 Comment By Sheila On June 21, 2018 @ 7:01 pm

Years ago TAC published an article called “Libertarianism Is The Marxism Of The Right” which effectively demolished libertarianism and its most cherished talking points. The author ought to dig it up.

#22 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 22, 2018 @ 9:25 am

“The last time I think a libertarian came close to setting policy there was a fellow named “Goldwater” running for President, and he lost.”

In Sen goldwaters defense, he was not so much a libertarian as a constitutionalist. In his view policies such as the civil rights legislation required a constitutional amendment. In my view, it needed neither, just a willingness to enforce the constitution as written and unequal process against blacks qualified. And that would have been a better objection to government intrusion based on the merits of the evvidence — it was never what was wrong — but what to do about it.

A libertarian would have contended binding arbitration and that by mutual consent of the disputing parties —

One pof the previous executives tactics, “Chiuef Bull Conner meets with blacks leadership over a beer at the WH sort of thing.


#23 Comment By Tom Beebe On June 22, 2018 @ 3:12 pm

On one issue, the most prominent one today, this Libertarian finds common ground to a point with Trump.

I support this plank from the Libertarian platform:

“3.4 Free Trade and Migration

We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. However, we support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a credible threat to security, health or property.”

Now is the above inconsistent with a wall to prevent entry except through checkpoints, where “extreme vetting” can assure us that those entering are NOT ” foreign nationals who pose a credible threat to security, health or property” ?

#24 Comment By sglover On June 22, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

@MSimon — Maybe you should read balconesfault’s original comment, and take the time to *understand* it, before you toss off this week’s spoon-fed sophistry.

#25 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 23, 2018 @ 4:34 pm

“We support the removal of governmental impediments to free trade. Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders. However, we support control over the entry into our country of foreign nationals who pose a credible threat to security, health or property.”

Hot on philosophy, sounds sane and ever so fredom aspiroing. But then there’s reality . . .

In order for a system to work, there must be rules, and organized control — hence your support of the border and means of “restricting the freedom of movement”

And such support would be spot on correct. I appreciate the acknowledgement of vision to implementation.

#26 Comment By Kochtopussy On June 24, 2018 @ 6:44 pm

I get Corwin’s point about how libertarianism isn’t a panacea and libertarians can be blinded to the downsides of capitalism, but it seems naive when all the big corporarions support big government SJWism right now in lockstep….

#27 Comment By Kochtopussy On June 24, 2018 @ 6:55 pm

Jimbo and EliteCommInc.: My God… How blind do you people have to be to still support the Civil Rights Act, or think the only reasons to be against it was “racism”? Go read about what happened to James Damore and how his memo should have been protected under California’s anti-discrimination laws covering political views, not to mention Google’s demonstrable anti-white and anti-male biases, but was ignored by the NLRB which ruled that his workplace behavior somehow constituted a “hostile work place” AKA discrimination was mandated!

The Civil Rights Act has become like Barry Goldwater’s worst nightmare!

Even Benjamin Shapiro, who is like the most visible face of the Ziocon establishment ever, has said in the context of gay wedding cakes that ALL freedom of association should be LEGAL for ANY reason EVER. How can any conservative still not see through the “Civil Rights” Deception? I’m a Millenial and even I hate it!