The Libertarian Brand
While U.S. presidential elections are held every four years, U.S. senators serve a six-year term, and members of the U.S. House of Representatives are elected every two years. A midterm election is an election where the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for election, but the president is not. These elections always occur two years after a presidential election. As they gear up for the midterm elections in November, Democrats have three problems: a historical problem, a retirement problem, and an image problem.
The Democratic brand
Historically, the political party of the president does poorly in the midterm elections. Since 1946, the average midterm loss for the president’s party is 25 seats. Democratic presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton both began their first term with Democratic majorities in both Houses of Congress, only to see Republicans take control after the midterm elections. Republican president Dwight Eisenhower likewise began his first term with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, only to see Democrats take control after the midterm elections. Democrat Barack Obama presided over a devastating loss of Democrats in the House in his first midterm election and in the Senate in his second midterm election. Republican president George W. Bush lost his Republican majority in both Houses of Congress during his second midterm election. Republican Donald Trump saw his Republican majority in Congress evaporate when Republicans suffered a crushing defeat in the House in the midterm elections of 2018. According to the American Presidency Project, only two presidents — Bill Clinton (1998) and George W. Bush (2002) — have seen their party gain House seats in a midterm election.
Democrats also have a retirement problem. As of the end of 2021, one Democratic senator and 19 Democratic House members have announced that they will not be seeking reelection. Democrats are currently tied with Republicans in the Senate and only have a nine-seat majority in the House. This is troubling for Democrats because congressional incumbents had a 96 percent win rate in the 2020 election. Thirty-eight states had a 100 percent win rate in congressional races.
Indeed, wide name recognition, usually coupled with coffers full of cash, means that few things in life are more predictable than the chances of an incumbent member of Congress winning reelection. Even though Democratic voters now outnumber Republicans by nine percentage points — the largest Gallup has measured since the fourth quarter of 2012 — some Democratic strategists are already predicting a shellacking in the midterm elections. According to Gallup, “President Biden has lost more public support during his first several months in office than any U.S. president since World War II.”
But what Democrats really have right now is an image problem. The Democrats have always been the party of liberalism, progressivism, collectivism, socialism, paternalism, abortion on demand (at taxpayer expense for low-income women), organized labor, public education, universal health care, higher taxes on “the rich,” anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action, the welfare state, environmentalism, government-funded child care, increased government regulation of the economy and society, income-transfer programs, and alternative lifestyles. However, over the past few years, the Democratic Party has also embraced the social-justice movement, defunding the police, the transgender movement, critical race theory, cancel culture, wokeism, and, most recently, lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine mandates.
The Democrats last year were also embroiled in an intra-party feud over a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the size, scope, and cost of a massive legislative package of social spending priorities. Then they suffered humiliating losses in the “off-year” state elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In analyzing why they lost the Virginia governor’s race, Democratic Party strategists — as pointed out by David Siders, national political correspondent for Politico — discovered that “the Democratic Party’s entire brand was a wreck.” According to Douglas Schoen, a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton, “It’s clear that Americans are turning against a Democratic Party that they feel has become more attuned to the priorities of progressives and less focused on addressing the concerns and frustrations of the broader American electorate.”
The New York Times editorial board even opined: “A national Democratic Party that talks up progressive policies at the expense of bipartisan ideas, and that dwells on Donald Trump at the expense of forward-looking ideas, is at risk of becoming a marginal Democratic Party appealing only to the left.” New York Times columnist Ezra Klein has said that Democrats need to recognize that swing-state voters “are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do.” “I think what we have to do as a party is battle the damage to the Democratic brand,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Jamie Harrison.
Speaking on PBS NewsHour, longtime Democratic strategist James Carville blamed “stupid wokeness” for his party’s disaster in the off-year elections. He termed the “defund the police” idea “lunacy” and suggested that progressive Democrats “need to go to a woke detox center” and “get rid of this left-wing nonsense, this claptrap I hear.”
The Republican brand
Before examining the libertarian brand — which is far and away the best alternative to the Democratic brand — it might be a good idea to briefly look at the Republican brand. This is because most Americans believe that the Republican Party is the polar opposite of the Democratic Party, at least on most issues. Republicans have cultivated this image and maintained this façade by using libertarian rhetoric. The truth, however, is that Republicans are philosophically not much different from Democrats, regardless of how often and how loud they recite their conservative mantra about the Constitution, federalism, the free market, limited government, traditional values, free enterprise, a balanced budget, individual freedom, free trade, property rights, and a strong national defense.
Republicans believe that some Americans should be forced to pay for the health care of other Americans through Medicare and Medicaid. Republicans support refundable tax credits that give some Americans tax refunds of money paid in by other Americans. Republicans support the government taking money from those who work and giving it to those who don’t by means of unemployment benefits. Republicans support federal subsidies to certain occupations and sectors of society. Republicans believe that some Americans should be forced to pay for the education of the children of other Americans. Republicans support the government taking money out of the pockets of Americans who “have” and giving it to other Americans who “have not” via Social Security, WIC, TANF, SSI, food stamps, and Section 8 rent subsidies.
In a nutshell, although Republicans may disagree with Democrats on the amount, they believe that the government should take money from some Americans and redistribute it to other Americans. They have no philosophical objection to government income-transfer programs. No one should ever think that the objections of the Republican brand to the size, nature, scope, and efficiency of government programs is based on any real principles.
The libertarian brand
Contrary to the Democratic and Republican brands, the libertarian brand (not necessarily the Libertarian Party) is intellectually rigorous, moral but not moralist, philosophically consistent, simple without being simplistic, and a bulwark of liberty, property, and peace. “Libertarianism,” as concisely stated by Future of Freedom Foundation president Jacob Hornberger, “is a political philosophy that holds that a person should be free to do whatever he wants in life, as long as his conduct is peaceful.” This means that, in a libertarian society:
- people are free to engage in any economic enterprise or activity of their choosing without license, permission, restriction, interference, or regulation from government as long as they don’t commit violence against others, violate their property rights, or defraud them.
- people are free to accumulate as much wealth as they can as long as they do it peaceably and without committing fraud.
- buyers and sellers are free to exchange with each other for mutual gain any product of their choosing for any price, without any interference from the government.
- charity, relief, and philanthropy are entirely voluntary activities.
- people are free to pursue happiness in their own way, provided that they don’t threaten or initiate violence against the person or property of others.
- people are free to live their lives any way they choose as long as their conduct is peaceful.
- the voluntary, private, peaceful activity of consenting adults is none of the government’s business.
The libertarian brand is known for its simple, consistent, and principled perspective on the issues.
Welfare. All welfare programs should be abolished, from food stamps to job training to unemployment compensation. All charity should be private and voluntary.
Education. All public schools should be closed. Education should be completely separated from the state. All schools should be privately operated and privately funded.
Gun control. All gun control laws should be eliminated, the ATF should be abolished, and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) should be shut down. Every American has the natural right to possess any weapon on his own property or the property of anyone else that allows such weapons.
Free trade. All Americans should be able to freely engage in commerce with foreigners without being hindered by tariffs, quotas, barriers, regulations, restrictions, or dumping rules. Free trade needs no trade organizations, trade agreements, or trade treaties.
The free market. The free market is not truly free unless it is completely free of government regulation and interference. Laissez faire is natural, just, and moral.
The minimum wage. The minimum wage should be eliminated. All wages and benefits should be negotiated between employers and employees without any interference whatsoever from the government.
Medicaid and Medicare. Both programs should be abolished. The government should have nothing to do with health care and no American should be forced to pay for the health care of any other American.
Social Security. Not only should Social Security not be saved for future generations, it should be eliminated for current beneficiaries. It is immoral to take money from those who work and give it to those who don’t — even if the government does the taking.
Victimless crimes. Because every crime needs a tangible and identifiable victim who has suffered measurable harm to his person or measurable damages to his property, there should be no laws against prostitution, gambling, pornography, or drug possession, use, and distribution — unless such actions involve violations of the personal or property rights of others.
Foreign aid. No country should receive foreign aid from the U.S. government in any amount, at any time, or for any reason. Like domestic charity, foreign charity — including for disaster relief — should be entirely private and voluntary.
The income tax. The income tax doesn’t need to be reformed or made flatter, fairer, or simpler; it needs to be abolished. All Americans are entitled to keep the fruits of their labor and spend their money as they see fit.
Family leave. Government should not mandate that any company provide paid or unpaid family. All benefits should be negotiated between employers and employees without any interference whatsoever from the government.
Farm subsidies. Not only should the government not subsidize farmers (or any other sector of the economy), it should have nothing to do with agriculture. Farming should be treated as any other business.
Foreign policy. The United States should remain neutral and not intervene militarily or otherwise in any country. All U.S. bases on foreign soil should be closed, and all U.S. troops should be brought home. The military should only be used for defensive purposes and should never fight foreign wars.
Anti-discrimination laws. Since discrimination — against anyone, on any basis, and for any reason — is not aggression, force, coercion, threat, or violence, the government should never prohibit it, seek to prevent it, or punish anyone for doing it.
The Constitution. The federal government should strictly follow the Constitution. Although others may say this, only libertarians have the courage to point out that this would entail a 95 percent cut in the federal budget.
These libertarian principles and perspectives are unchangeable and nonnegotiable. They cannot be compromised without doing irreparable harm to libertarianism.
Harming the brand
Democratic and Republican smears of libertarians are common and to be expected. Libertarians are said to be naïve and utopian. They lack compassion for the poor. They are isolationists. They are libertines and hedonists. They don’t believe in moral absolutes. They disdain organized religion and reject traditional values. They are materialistic. They celebrate greed and selfishness. These are all misconceptions, fallacies, caricatures, or falsehoods.
Some individual libertarians might be, believe, or do some of these things — just like some Democrats and Republicans might also — but they have nothing to do with libertarianism qua libertarianism. Libertarianism has nothing to do with one’s lifestyle, tastes, vices, sexual practices, traditions, values, religion, social attitudes, or cultural norms. Libertarianism is not “rugged individualism,” “unrestrained freedom of speech,” “survival of the fittest,” “unfettered capitalism,” “every man for himself,” or “dog eat dog.” Libertarianism has nothing to do with anarchy, nihilism, relativism, antinomianism, or hedonism.
The libertarian brand should be associated with individual liberty, private property, peaceful activity, voluntary interaction, laissez faire, personal freedom, financial privacy, individual responsibility, free enterprise, free markets, free speech, free thought, free association, freedom of conscience, and a free society.
Unfortunately, it is often libertarians themselves who harm the libertarian brand. Some libertarians have simplistically defined libertarianism as socially liberal and economically conservative. Others have implied that libertarianism is a particular social attitude or lifestyle. Some insist that libertarians must be in favor of same-sex marriage and abortion. Others maintain that libertarianism is incompatible with religion. Some supported the draconian government response to the COVID-19 “pandemic” in the name of “public health.” Others have defended U.S. military actions overseas in the name of “national security.” Some are nostalgic for Ronald Reagan, even considering him to be “an honorary libertarian.” Others have called for a universal basic income.
There is one issue, though, that most libertarians who deviate from libertarianism have in common: support for “school choice”; i.e., government-funded vouchers for students to use to pay for education at a school of their parents’ choice. Vouchers are touted as a way to rescue children from dangerous and failing public schools and put them in private schools where they can be educated instead of indoctrinated. Although I am not the least bit interested in defending public education, there is nothing libertarian about government educational vouchers. There is nothing special about the business of education that necessitates that the government be involved in it. Parents have the choice right now where and how to educate their children. The fact that they may not have the money to pay for their choice does not mean that the taxpayers should pay for it. Giving one group of Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children is immoral and unjust. If vouchers were used for anything but education, they would be denounced as an income-transfer program and a subsidy to private industry. Once government vouchers for education are deemed to be acceptable, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s providing vouchers for other services. Education should be completely separated from the state.
Libertarianism need not and should not be fused with any personal preference, school of aesthetics, or extraneous ideology. It should not be complicated by imposing a slate of approved opinions on top of the core teaching of our philosophy. We simply need plain old libertarianism, with no labels, no caveats, and no apologies. Libertarians need to be consistent and present a united front against statism in all its forms.