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The Libertarian Presidency

January 4, 2018

Libertarian Trump

For a lot of people–especially the young–voting Libertarian has become the hip alternative to the two mainstream parties. Saying you’re Libertarian often seems to convey a condescending sense of being more “evolved”. But I wonder how many self-described Libertarians really know what they are endorsing. There is actually surprisingly little difference between the agenda of Donald Trump’s Republican Party and the Libertarian Party platform. If one were to draw a Venn diagram, the overlap would be somewhere around 70 or 80 percent.

In fact, there has been a kind of stealth coup by which the party of Eisenhower has become the party of Ayn Rand, whose veneration of the sanctity of private wealth and  hatred of government regulation of any kind is now the guiding philosophy of the GOP.

Much of that takeover has been thanks to the ceaseless and semi-clandestine activism of billionaire donors like the Koch brothers, who for four decades have been constructing the financial, organizational, and intellectual structure which now dominates the Republican party. (Charles Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice-president in 1980.) These are the people who financed and largely created the Tea Party movement, which enabled the rise of GOP senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul and governors like Scott Walker, Sam Brownback, Rick Scott, and (before he became vice-president) Mike Pence. Their influence so dominates the party that relative moderates like John Kasich and Jeb Bush are now marginal figures, and John Boehner quit as Speaker of the House in frustration. Mitch McConnell, who lacks any actual convictions, has adapted well, however.

To see just how congruent today’s GOP is with Libertarian principles, take a look at the 2016 Libertarian Party platform. It is divided into three broad areas: “personal liberty”, “economic liberty”, and “securing liberty”, but clearly the greatest of these is economic liberty.

Let’s start with issues where there is disagreement, which are mostly in the “personal liberty” category.

–Abortion. The platform states that “people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.” Can’t get much more pro-choice than that.
–Gay rights. “Government does not have the authority to define, license or restrict personal relationships. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships.” Again, pretty unambiguously pro-LGBT. Except for that little escape clause… (see below).
–Drug laws. Libertarians oppose “victimless” crimes, “such as the use of drugs for medicinal or recreational purposes.” Jeff Sessions wouldn’t like that, and besides those drug arrests make a great voter suppression tool.
–Death penalty. Libertarians oppose it. Most Republicans, especially in the South, think it’s great.

These are the “shiny objects” that attract younger, educated voters to the Libertarian label. Indeed, Donald Trump seemed to hold similar views on most of these issues before he ran for president.

Another area of dissonance involves trade and immigration. The Libertarian platform states: “Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders.” In other words, no border walls. Wall Street Republicans should like this, however.

There is also a hint of disagreement about defense spending. The Libertarians “support the maintenance of a sufficient military to defend the United States against aggression.” This is a much more limited role than the US military now has and implies a correspondingly limited budget. Republicans usually can’t wait to give the Pentagon a blank check.

Okay, so much for the differences. When we look at the core of the platform, “economic freedom”, their programs are in almost perfect harmony:

This section of the Libertarian platform begins with a unequivocal endorsement of pure laissez-faire capitalism straight out of Ayn Rand: “The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.”

In other words, if the top 10 percent of the population own more than three-fourths of the entire wealth in the US (which they do), that’s just fine because that’s the way the markets work. No difference from the Republicans there.

Libertarians would begin by eliminating the income tax. “We call for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution.” Even Paul Ryan wouldn’t dare go this far…yet. But this is clearly the direction in which Republicans aspire to go, as articulated by Grover Norquist’s declaration: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” The Libertarian platform is silent about where revenues to run whatever remained of the federal government would come from.

On health care: “We favor a free-market health care system. We recognize the freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want (if any), the level of health care they want, the care providers they want, the medicines and treatments they will use and all other aspects of their medical care, including end-of-life decisions.” This would mean eliminating Obamacare and Medicaid and privatizing Medicare–all of which are Republican goals.

On retirement and Social Security“Retirement planning is the responsibility of the individual, not the government. Libertarians would phase out the current government-sponsored Social Security system and transition to a private voluntary system. The proper and most effective source of help for the poor is the voluntary efforts of private groups and individuals.” Again, exactly the goal of the Republican party. If the poor need help, it should come from private charity, not government programs.

On the environment: “Competitive free markets and property rights stimulate the technological innovations and behavioral changes required to protect our environment and ecosystems. Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources…Protecting the environment requires a clear definition and enforcement of individual rights and responsibilities regarding resources like land, water, air, and wildlife. Where damages can be proven and quantified in a court of law, restitution to the injured parties must be required.” This is essentially the rationale for dismantling the EPA and rescinding regulations designed to protect the environment and public health. It is also contrary to historical experience, and acknowledges no such thing as a public good such as clean air or water.

On energy policy“Government should not be subsidizing any particular form of energy. We oppose all government control of energy pricing, allocation, and production.” In other words, there should be no government investment in alternative forms of renewable energy such as solar, wind, tidal, etc. No recognition whatever of the impact of fossil fuel on climate change.

On education: “Education is best provided by the free market, achieving greater quality, accountability and efficiency with more diversity of choice. Recognizing that the education of children is a parental responsibility, we would restore authority to parents to determine the education of their children, without interference from government. Parents should have control of and responsibility for all funds expended for their children’s education.” This is in a nutshell a manifesto against public education at the primary, secondary, and university level. Betsy DeVos couldn’t have said it better.

On banking: “We favor free-market banking, with unrestricted competition among banks and depository institutions of all types.” So no Dodd-Frank, no consumer protection regulations, maybe no FDIC? Wall Street’s wet dream!

On employment and wages: “Employment and compensation agreements between private employers and employees are outside the scope of government, and these contracts should not be encumbered by government-mandated benefits or social engineering.” That means no minimum wage or requirements regarding working conditions or non-discrimination. The platform also restricts government involvement in labor disputes and is essentially anti-union. Again, pretty much the Republican platform as well.

But wait, there’s more!

On gun control“We oppose all laws at any level of government restricting, registering, or monitoring the ownership, manufacture, or transfer of firearms or ammunition.”  No control of firearms whatever! That actually goes beyond the NRA’s position.

And then there’s this: “For voluntary dealings among private entities, parties should be free to choose with whom they trade and set whatever trade terms are mutually agreeable.”   That sounds a lot like the old “we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”, and everyone knows exactly what that meant in real terms. It would also cover religious-based refusals to serve LGBT customers. Mike Pence would be just fine with this.

The Libertarian platform has little more than platitudes to say on foreign relations, but it is essentially isolationist, stating: “The United States should both avoid entangling alliances and abandon its attempts to act as policeman for the world. We oppose any form of compulsory national service.” 

This certainly is in line with Trump’s reckless attacks on allied leaders and the doubts he has sown regarding US commitment to the system of alliances we have constructed since World War II. And Trump would certainly endorse the part about avoiding the draft.

Taken as a whole, the Libertarian platform might seem at once idealistic and historically uninformed–a sophomoric manifesto cobbled together by privileged naifs untouched by how the world really works. But there is nothing naive about the way Trump and the Republican donor class are turning its elements into a rationale for policies enabling corruption and inequality on a scale we have not seen in more than a century.






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