Libertarianism: Dynamite or Dud?

Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson gives acceptance speech during National Convention held at the Rosen Ce
Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson gives acceptance speech during National Convention held at the Rosen Centre in Orlando, Florida, May 29, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Kolczynski

Over at CBS, Will Rahn has a go at libertarians. He calls Libertarian Presidential candidate Gov. Gary Johnson a "bit of an oddball," but never actually explains why. The closest he comes is to say Johnson is open to reporters and honest. If that's what's odd, Mr. Rahn spends too much time in Washington.

Rahn says libertarianism is a philosophy with little appeal. He grants there is rising support social freedom but, like a good "liberal," he dismisses the idea there is any real support for economic freedom. He writes: "from an economic standpoint, there's not a lot to suggest that Americans are in the mood for small government and laissez faire capitalism."

That is bollocks, as the Brits might say. Mr. Rahn is either woefully uniformed or avoiding information contradicting his worldview.

There is a lot more support than he acknowledges.

For instance, we can look at the historical trends of Gallup polls when asking if government is doing too much, or too little. They asked that question 41 times since 1992. Over those decades the side wanting government to "do more" only hit 50% one time. As of 2015 they were at 40% and those saying government is doing too much were at 55%. Out of those 41 times the side favoring less government held a majority 33 times, and they had the plurality another 7 times. Only once did those favoring more government have a majority. That's a sold majority for smaller government.

Similarly Gallup asked if there is too much or too little regulation of business. The last poll shows 49% of the public said there is too much regulation and 21% said there is too little, with 27% preferring the status quo. That's a plurality for more economic freedom.

When asked if the federal government has too much power 60% of the public said it had too much, only 7% thought it had two little. That's a huge majority for a libertarian view. If Hillary got 60% of the vote the Left would call it a landslide.

When asked whether government posts "an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms" of people, 49% said it did, and 49% said it didn't. That's a very stark question yet half the public sees government as an immediate threat. In 2003 only 30% did. That's a huge swing against the regulatory state in favor of more freedom, both social and economic. Yet, Mr. Rahn sees no evidence of support for "small government."

When Gallup asked whether people wanted more services and higher taxes, or less government lower taxes, the largest group was those favoring less government, they consistently held a 2 to 1, or 3 to 1, margin over those favoring more government and more taxes. When the asked if people want government more involved in issues or less involved the last time that was asked 53% said less involved and 13% said less involved.

In other words, there is quite a bit of support for markets and less government regulation. Libertarians, however, aren't just advocates of economic freedom--that's what conservatives promise and don't deliver. Libertarians want more economic and social freedom. Still, when you combine both views there are a significant percentage of voters interested in those ideas.

Nate Silver tried to estimate how many Americans were libertarian. He looked to see what views people had on income redistribution in the economic realm and gay marriage in the social realm. On that basis 22% of the public was libertarian, 25% conservative and 34% liberal, with more authoritarian "hardhats" making up 20%.

Gallup tried to gauge this by asking two questions together. They asked the question on government being too big or too small in the economic realm, but in the social realm they also asked if government should promote "traditional values" or not favor any specific set of values. In both categories a majority of Americans favored the libertarian view, and the percentage of people who were consistently libertarian in both areas made up 27% of the population.

Ultimately Rahn's case seems to be that Clinton, Trump and Sanders all love big government and that means there is no sympathy for the other view. Yet, surely the widespread dissatisfaction with those choices is the major story of this election so far.

In grocery stores each customer ends up with a shopping cart of goods that are uniquely their own. They want vegan, they get vegan. They want junk food they get junk food. In the political market things have been rigged by the duopoly. If you want economic freedom you have to embrace conservatives candidates who are intolerant and socially authoritarian. If you don't like racist collectivism, immigrant bashing, and favor gay marriage then you have to take the regulatory state and the crony capitalism that comes with it. And, if you want a pro-peace, non-interventionist foreign policy, well--that's just not on the agenda with the big two.