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Does the GOP Have a “Libertarian Problem”? Not Really

Jonathan Bernstein makes a good observation [1] in response to the claim [2] that the GOP has a “libertarian problem”:

But I think it’s unfair to libertarians to stick them with Ayn Rand. I agree with Chait that Rand is electoral poison, but it’s easy to be a very conservative libertarian without even a hint of Rand.

It isn’t entirely fair to Randians to stick them with Romney. Romney described people as entitled, irresponsible victims because they didn’t pay income tax. That didn’t mean that most of these Americans don’t pay taxes, but as far as Romney was concerned they might as well not bother with their other payments. Whatever it was, Romney’s view was not really a Randian or libertarian view. Romney ended up treating the payment of income tax as evidence of some sort of civic virtue that elevated the people who paid it above those who did not. At one point, he said [3], “I think people would like to be paying taxes.” I submit that this is not a view that libertarians share.

A Republican ticket that pursued an economically libertarian agenda might not be very popular, but it’s important to distinguish between what Romney and Ryan ran on from libertarian policies. It is extremely difficult to look at the campaign that Romney and Ryan ran and conclude that their failing was an excess of libertarianism. Some libertarian policies are unpopular, and others aren’t, but one thing that we can say with some certainty is that Romney and Ryan advocated for none of them during their campaign. Before the GOP can have a “libertarian problem,” it needs to have more than a handful of libertarians among Republican candidates on the national stage.

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22 Comments To "Does the GOP Have a “Libertarian Problem”? Not Really"

#1 Comment By Ken_L On November 17, 2012 @ 2:42 am

People who deplore big government and campaign for tax cuts, while simultaneously denigrating anyone who does not pay tax, are caught in a web of cognitive dissonance which they seem oblivious to, for some strange reason.

#2 Comment By mercurino On November 17, 2012 @ 8:30 am

I think you’re being too literal. While it’s true Romney and Ryan didn’t run on libertarian policies per se, their ideological approach definitely qualified as “Randian”. The segmenting of the population into valiant producers and unproductive “moochers” is pure Rand, and that’s what Romney was saying in his 47% comments and more recently in his statement about Obama voters getting “gifts” from the government. So too was Romney’s rhetoric about Obama as a threat to America’s “free enterprise system” because of his abiding love for all kinds government. It’s this general attitude, not any particular policy, that Chait is identifying as Randian and that he argues is so electorally toxic for the GOP.

#3 Comment By icarusr On November 17, 2012 @ 9:19 am

I agree with mercurino. I also have some difficulty understanding this line: “Romney ended up treating the payment of income tax as evidence of some sort of civic virtue that elevated the people who paid it above those who did not.” Of course, considering that he himself went to great lengths not to pay federal income tax, and in fact hid his tax returns so as to, one presumes, hide the extent of the lengths he went to, it can hardly be said that he thought of tax payment as any sort of a civic virtue.

Rather, the tax payment question comes back to moochers and takers and makers and those who have a “stake” in government. For him, those who have the money to avoid and evade taxes are virtuous; those who don’t should be forced to pay them. It is a question entirely of wealth versus poverty; patrician – in its true Roman sense – entitlement versus the plebs. It’s Randian to the core.

#4 Comment By icarusr On November 17, 2012 @ 10:10 am

Reading Waldman’s article in the American Prospect on the Scandal of the Century, and especially the comments, I should make one modification to my comment above.

I am not sure what Randians say about foreign interventions and suchlike; or if there is a Randian view on foreign policy. More to the point, I am not at all sure that libertarianism in itself means non-intervention – but that is a different matter. The caveat or modification is this: while in economic policy terms, the Republican Party’s rhetoric on taxes and government and the 47% and so on is, in my view, purely Randian, and although in social policy terms Republicans demonstrate deep bipolarity – pro-government on contraception but anti-government on race relations, and so on – in FP terms, the Republicans’ problem can only be described, for want a better term, in “shrivelled penis syndrome” terms.

As you noted in your article on Cruz, Republicans simply want combativeness for the sake of combativeness – insult Russia, declare trade war on China, holler “terror terror terrorism” when an Ambassador is killed – for what? To what end? Is this not simply the cries of a shrivelled man in the locker room, “Objects are bigger than they appear”?

How else to explain the obsessions of McCain and Robin’s on Benghazi? And this, not long after Romney was humiliated as a result of his stupid stunts. There is a treasure-trove of psychological case studies there waiting to be mined.

#5 Comment By Andre Kenji On November 17, 2012 @ 10:10 am

No, you are not getting the point. The point that Romney was defending was that the 47% was comfortable with large sized government because they pay no taxes to support it. It´s an asinine assumption: all the payroll taxes makes cutting Social Security and Medicare politically poisonous and people pay taxes in part because they expect some return from the government.

It´s not a libertarian assumption, but it´s a variation from the Randian Takers and moocher narrative.

#6 Comment By Sad Paul Ryan On November 17, 2012 @ 10:41 am

As Ken_L and mercurino suggest, the GOP does have a libertarian problem. More correctly, they have a LIBERTARIAN FALSE CONSCIOUSNESS PROBLEM. The Republican base feels that they are prospering in spite of the government that seeks to create dependency among “others”. That is to say, if the government would just get out of the way and leave them alone (economically), they would have even more money to spend as they please.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, if the most ardent base supporters are really the Tea Party old white people with an aversion to a black president who is confiscating their assets to pay for “Obama phones” and the like, then you can’t be a bold truth-teller and serious policy wonk who solves the deficit by ignoring the fact that most federal government spending goes to old people. It comes FROM the young and rich, Republican and Democrat alike, but it goes to maintain the standard of living of the elderly, who are disproportionately white, Republican, and possessed of crotchety policy views. Get your government hands off of my Medicare people.

This is a problem that Republicans will continue to have, even as the Tea Party rump slowly dies off. There will always be people pushing for a more authentic libertarianism, whether that be in Ron Paul’s memory or not. However, there’s a reason that libertarianism does not a governing coalition make. If you want to live the Randian life, go and build your mansion, private roads, and private wells amid the squalor in developing countries where the government is so small and weak that it couldn’t harm or tax you if it tried. In these United States, however, if the Republican Party becomes the libertarian party, it will never be heard from again.

#7 Comment By CharleyCarp On November 17, 2012 @ 11:35 am

My Lame duck Republican congressman could explain the true nature of the GOP’s libertarian problem: because enough people voted for the Libertarian on the ballot, he failed to unseat our junior senator, and now will have to make his living as a lobbyist. And mansion ranching, I guess, once that comes back.

#8 Comment By VikingLS On November 17, 2012 @ 11:35 am

The kind of libertarianism that Ron Paul and Gary Johnson were talking about has little to do with the agressive classism of Ayn Rand. All those 20 somethings weren’t rallying around Ron Paul because they all believed they were John Galt. They wanted an end to the destructive drug war, a secure currency and and end to our beserker foriegn policy.

The GOP could embrace those positions along with the economic nationalism of a Pat Buchanan and a skeptical but not hysterical view of left-wing social engineering without jetisoning medicare and soc security.

#9 Comment By IanH On November 17, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

“The GOP could embrace those positions along with the economic nationalism of a Pat Buchanan and a skeptical but not hysterical view of left-wing social engineering without jetisoning medicare and soc security.”

Even though I’m very much opposed to those entitlements, I agree with this. Sadly I think foreign policy is still absolutely non-negotiable to most of them. Even Bobby Jindal was compelled to include a throwaway line about maintaining American’s role in the world.

#10 Comment By Karen On November 17, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

And of course no one wants to go near the topic of how we can sustain a welfare-warfare state in a multicultural society that enable various groups to keep distinct identities that are obligated not to embrace anything remotely “American” – why would these various groups, often at odds with each other – care about other groups’ needs? Who will foot the bill? One group that will become smaller and smaller and more despised. The welfare state, if you want one, really works best in smaller, more homogenous groups that are unified by common values and shared aspirations.

#11 Comment By libertarian jerry On November 17, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

When will people realize that if the Federal Income Tax was abolished tomorrow, they would still be working 6 out of 12 months to pay all the other taxes,directly or indirectly,that the average citizen pays even without that Tax. In addition,the Income Tax is not used to pay the expenditures of the Federal Government but is instead a device for collecting the Interest on the National Debt owed to the bankers. In essence,the IRS is a collection agency for the Federal Reserve Banking Cartel.

#12 Comment By Clint On November 18, 2012 @ 9:05 am

Dr. Ron Paul,
“One thing is clear: The Founding Fathers never intended a nation where citizens would pay nearly half of everything they earn to the government.”

#13 Comment By collin On November 19, 2012 @ 8:47 am

While agree the Rs have a libertarian ‘problem’, the diagnois is completely off base here. Simply put I believe most younger people who are Ls are mostly focusing on the policies of foreign wars and involvements with lessing the of the drug ‘police’ state. (I think older Ls are more focused on gold and monetary policy.) I knew the Rs had a problem with Romney when emotionally the party was spliting between Santorum (A borderline theology) and Paul (Libertarian). Whomever runs in 2016 is going to have win both wings and that might be a tough battle if Gary Johnson can gather steam.

#14 Comment By Rob in CT On November 19, 2012 @ 10:10 am

The emotional argument the GOP makes is sort of Randian (maker/taker). Policies, not so much. But that’s standard GOP these days: make emotional arguments and fudge the policy.

So in that sense, the GOP does have a bit of a Randian problem.

While I’m not a libertarian, I agree that it’s a bit unfair to put them all in the Randian box. Not all of them are that extreme about “moochers & looters.” The smarter ones remember that the “moochers and looters” were not the average joe getting his bennies, but rather the politicians and bureacrats that set up the systems and moved the money around (I still disagree w/Rand, but that’s a much better argument).

#15 Comment By R.C. On November 19, 2012 @ 10:49 am

Yes, yes: Why can’t anyone remember that in Rand’s novel, it was Wesley Mouch who was the moocher, with Jim Taggart his enabler?

Translation from the novel to modern America would not put some member of the 47% in the role of moocher. It would put Nancy Pelosi or Barney Frank as the moocher, and Jon Corzine or Sam Rawlings Walton as the enabler.

#16 Comment By James M. Ray On November 19, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

“Before the GOP can have a ‘libertarian problem,’ it needs to have more than a handful of libertarians among Republican candidates on the national stage.”

Amen. It might help if there were no more “Gary Johnson Rule,” so there could have been two instead of just 1. (BTW, I think this would have actually HELPED Dr. Paul, believe it or not, and as a fan of BOTH men I was involved in many debates over that very point, but it was not to be.)

#17 Comment By Rob in CT On November 19, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

Rand was pretty extreme, so I actually don’t doubt she’d cast a fairly big chunk of the population as moochers. The “looters” would be a fairly small group of connected folks (the Corzines, Pelosis… the Bushes, the Clintons… Paul Ryan…). I think, based on my read of Atlas Shrugged ~20 years ago.

But if you allow yourself to move beyond Rand’s polemics, you can stick to a “rent seeking” narrative focusing on connected insiders “making”/looting tons of money and insulating themselves from downside. The Left calls this “capitalizing profits and socializing losses.” And there is truth in it.

#18 Comment By SallyLinda On November 19, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

This article begs the question: What the hell is the difference between conservative libertarians and the right wing of the current republican party?

#19 Comment By Justin McNeely On November 19, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

First off, I think republicans would actually know what a libertarian is if they would listen and close their mouths for a few minutes. We are NOT tea partiers, at all. We are not in the old “left wing-right wing” political spectrum, and we think that the important issues in America aren’t being discussed at all. Libertarianism: You have the right to live your life and pursue your interests as you see fit, as long as you do no harm to person or property. That sums it up. Apply that to social issues as well as fiscal and things start to make sense.

That being said, totally dismissing Ayn Rand is silly, whether for religious reasons, or to appear morally superior by claiming you don’t approve of selfishness. This is modern liberal thinking. Is it so wrong to want to keep what you’ve earned through hard work? What makes theft by government, the spoils to be spent on bureaucracy and welfare schemes more moral and upright?

#20 Comment By IanH On November 19, 2012 @ 1:28 pm

“What the hell is the difference between conservative libertarians and the right wing of the current republican party?”

Please tell me you’re joking.

The GOP may have problems, but their ideology is nowhere near as destructive and braindead as libertarianism.

#21 Comment By Geoff Guth On November 19, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

I feel obliged to point out that Rand would have derided corporate welfare just as much as welfare for individuals. Yet Republicans are at least as complicit in the fusion between large businesses and government as the Democrats are. Certainly, the Wall Street banks didn’t invest so heavily in the Romney campaign so that they could boldly forge their own independent path as rugged individualists.

And, of course, lately we’ve been treated to the spectacle of the House GOP arguing that government spending doesn’t produce jobs and must be reduced — unless it’s spending by the Pentagon.

On the contrary, both parties have corporate interests they wish to serve through government largesse and favorable regulation. President Obama is quite open about using government to reward certain companies and punish others, but Republicans do exactly the same thing, just with more duplicitous free market rhetoric.

#22 Comment By beejeez On November 20, 2012 @ 9:26 am

Well, one way of looking at the Founding Fathers is to say they would have been aghast at the high taxes we pay today. Another would be to say that if they had any idea an entire society’s material and health needs could be met through a tax system that has never prevented the wealthy from continuing to get wealthier, they would think us insanely un-Christian not to implement it.