Why the Republican Party Should Embrace Libertarianism

Paleoconservatives, Alt-Right Hold Potential for Future Coalition

Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) speaks at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference. (Gage Skidmore)

Representative Justin Amash (R-MI) speaks at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference. (Gage Skidmore)

Speech prepared for the Wagner College Republicans of New York State, given on October 3, 2016.

What a privilege it is to speak with a group of young Americans, eager to better understand their country and realize her potential. As a native of New Zealand, I find myself in an odd position sometimes, commenting on US politics, so permit me to give you a touch of context.

I owe a great debt of gratitude to the United States and her people. I first came in 2002, on a recruiting visit to Boston University, and then arrived for my undergraduate studies in 2003. Those four years changed my life irreversibly, and in a substantive way. I didn’t just make new friends, study economics, and compete on the rowing team, I learnt a nation’s history and political system, which I have grown to admire.

Even though I returned to New Zealand upon graduation, inevitably I was soon back in the United States, where I found and grew my career. However, even if I say I am as American as Americans — at least in my way of thinking — I am not in the legal sense, and therefore I speak to you from Argentina. I opted not to take the illegal route, which seems to be the most popular one these days, and as an entrepreneur I no longer wish to be there on a temporary employee or student visa.

Beyond my own sentimental or personal concerns for the United States, my travels have brought to my attention the grave need for US leadership abroad — as an unapologetic advocate and home for capitalism and the supremacy of the individual: every man being his own king. The absence of this facilitates and excuses the horrifying realities of neighbors like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, as we have seen under the Obama administration.

There is no other nation like the United States, and there is nowhere to run to. All the alternatives people speak of — Australia, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, New Zealand — I’ve been to and explored. If you think you’re going to get away from overbearing and confiscatory government by going there, forget it. Even if a few nations beat out some US states in limited policy terms, there is no comparison to the rugged individualism found in the American heartland and the resistance to policies such as gun control and censorship.

So, in this nation of unique importance, why libertarianism for the GOP?

This is a complex question, and one can approach it from many angles. It is also timely, since the GOP is extremely divided and in a state of flux. You know the saying: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

As the neoconservatives and RINOs get the heave-ho, now is an opportune time to play a role in forging the future of the party and contributing to its new coalition. Donald Trump’s rogue campaign of populist nationalism, even if unsuccessful, has largely destroyed the influence of establishment figures such as the Bush family and Lindsey Graham, and this is opening the door for new leaders and thinkers.

The same goes, by the way, for establishment publications like National Review and the Weekly Standard. In my estimation they have made a terrible error in taking the holier-than-thou approach to Trump, after the backing the fiscally irresponsible George Bush and squishy Mitt Romney. The American Conservative, Breitbart, and Rare.us are gladly picking up the slack of the younger and anti-establishment markets.

I submit to you that Trump is, to a large degree, riding and tapping into a populist wave of discontent that already existed, as opposed to creating a movement from the ground up. People want to believe in American exceptionalism, and are sick of anti-Americans and professional agitators ruling over them.

As a foreigner, the difference between DC and middle America is enormous, and I often explain to people that DC might as well be another country relative to the South and the more rural states. This chasm of social values and policy priorities only worsens with the presence of condescension from crony government workers and protected industries towards the the blue-collar workers or working poor.

Before I posit how libertarianism can play a role in a future Republican Party, though, let me assure you that I am not a pollster or a political hack. Polls matter. You need supporters. However, we’re not going to jump off a bridge just because people some want to do that. You and I want a cause to believe in and work towards, one that is coherent and that will allow us to live out our aspirations.

Libertarianism fits the bill. We could spend all day debating what this political philosophy means, as we debatetarians so often do. Let me say that it is the application of the natural law of non-aggression to politics. In other words, just as we believe individuals should not coerce others — steal, rape, murder — nor should individuals under the banner of government, if there should be a government at all. Freedom from coercion is the highest goal of libertarianism, so the disagreements are over how to achieve or implement that.

libertarianism-today-1For those who want to explore the case for libertarianism and its history, I strongly recommend Libertarianism Today by Jacob Huebert. This is a contemporary work by a lawyer based in Chicago, and it is easy to read and understand while retaining rigor. Probably the two most cited canons of libertarianism are The Law by Frederic Bastiat and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt, and these are also great places to start. They distinguish themselves by being so timeless, illuminating, and succinct.

So much has changed in recent years, and there is no longer any excuse for remaining uninformed. However, beyond reading and online media, many classical-liberal or libertarian organizations have programs for students. My favorite is the Foundation for Economic Education or FEE, and the Mises Institute is also solid, although a bit more academic in orientation.

You should be aware that the libertarian idea or philosophy is distinct from the Libertarian Party and liberty movement. There is crossover, of course. However, a combination of political pragmatism and ad hoc coalitions tend to lead the two away from the philosophy. This is no secret to libertarians, but newcomers and observers, particularly in the media, tend to get confused and conflate the philosophy with the party.

In particular, the Libertarian Party has in recent years taken up issues that have nothing to do with libertarianism, and that has placed the party firmly in the progressive camp. Examples include abortion, gay marriage, and open borders. This has left many advocates disillusioned with both Gary “bake the cake” Johnson and the Libertarian Party, myself included.

I’ve met Gary, and he is a fine man. I have no animosity towards him. He’s just a poor spokesman for libertarianism, and seemingly not that interested in the philosophy.

Similarly, I do not have much confidence in the Libertarian Party to ever garner much traction or be more than a distraction. That’s just the nature of a winner-takes-all system, in which two parties dominate. Despite great ideas, they have failed to achieve any traction in their 40-year history — barely an elected representative at the state level, let alone at the federal level. The party’s best use, in my estimation, is educational, introducing the ideas via media appearances and third-party debates. In fact, that had an impact on me, back when I had the patience to watch presidential debates.

The question is then how and why to promote libertarianism within the Republican Party at the present time. The party is in turmoil, and seeing a resurgence of paleoconservativism and its modern manifestation, the alt-right, alongside the residual network of Tea Party organizations. The taken-for-granted dominance of neoconservatives has evaporated.

Within that mix, the party is already seeing the rise of libertarian-leaning candidates such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Justin Amash. There are also important advocacy groups and coalitions forming. One of my favorites is FreedomWorks, and then there is the Republican Liberty Caucus and the Congressional Freedom Caucus. Further, I appreciate that many successful entrepreneurs are speaking out against government overreach and joining the Republican tent. PayPal founder Peter Thiel is one such man who I hope rises in the party.

Now, you will notice that the candidates and organizations rarely use the word libertarian. As far as I’m concerned, that matters little; they have just opted for what they see as the best branding. What matters is the substance, the policies supported and enacted or protected.

Further, libertarianism really is just distilled classical liberalism, and that brings me to the heart of the argument.

Libertarianism is, in fact, the idea of the United States: natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Aside from Great Britain and the British colonies, to a limited degree, the United States is the home of individual liberty. Individual freedom is the soul of the American experiment and the American dream.

Those ideas, even if not in libertarian packaging, remain popular. That is why so many politicians refer to the market and individual choice, even if they go and vote otherwise in Congress. They pay lip service to it and then abandon their principles when voters are too busy to notice.

Not only are libertarian ideas popular in the United States, more than anywhere else on the planet, they possess a flexibility that enables coalitions and fits well within federalism. Consider, for example, when Ron Paul ran in the Republican primaries in 2008 and 2012 as the most libertarian candidate in history. Had he been able to secure the nomination, both the Libertarian and Constitution parties would have endorsed him in a moment and declined to field their own candidates. Further, Paul was able to demonstrate common ground with progressive idealists such as Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney of the Green Party.

Sadly, I fear there was a lot of dirty activity during the 2012 primary. If you’ve not watched what happened with Louisiana and Maine, do yourself a favor and see how ugly these races can get.

Regardless, libertarian ideas have incredible crossover and can easily form a coalition with the rising paleoconservatism and alt-right of the Republican Party. One good example is adherence to the 10th Amendment. All stripes of conservatives, apart from RINOs and neoconservatives, support a smaller federal government with greater delegation to the states. Libertarians agree entirely, and this basic principle of localism and competition between jurisdictions applies to countless policy issues, from education and medical care to social issues such as abortion and gambling.

In my own life I have been an ardent advocate for open borders, and this is a difficult topic for libertarians. Most libertarians do not support the way modern nations came into existence and support freedom of movement. Yet, we are stuck with this tyranny-of-the-majority paradigm and must somehow come to grips with and navigate it.

Unfortunately, I have come to believe that immigration is a grave threat to the United States, and has already done considerable damage by shifting the median voter towards socialism and identity politics. You can see that all around you, and this Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” silliness is the latest in the line of demeaning and pathetic attempts by race hustlers to drum up support among a target demographic, in this case Latin American women.

The sad fact is that the vast majority of people in this world haven’t a clue what individual freedom is, and just allowing them to come and participate in US democracy is long-term suicide. For example, the socialist disposition among voters from Latin America, even from basket cases and dictatorships such as Venezuela and Cuba, boggles the mind, but it is there for all to see.

If you import tens of millions of people from the Third World, you will have a Third World nation in short order. Libertarians need to face up to this fact, which is already well known among paleoconservatives and the alt-right, and make this another unifying concern: protecting the polity of the United States from foreign enemies.

The same goes for Islam. While many libertarians have taken the social-justice line that Muslims should be welcomed as victims of western interventionism, that is a grave error. People bring their foreign ideas and values with them, particularly when bankrolled directly as a government program, as opposed to moving naturally on account of family and commercial interests. Islam is simply incompatible with western liberalism, and is another ideology that we need to oppose outright.

The key point is that, while there may be disputes over details, libertarianism has common ground with paleoconservatives who seek to protect western civilization.

Of course, one must look beyond the Republican Party too. This is where technology is on the side of libertarianism. One of the major problems we have faced in decades gone by has been an inability to reach a wider audience. Back in the mid 2000s, when I was in college, few people had even heard of libertarianism. I hadn’t heard of it.

What changed? You know the answer. We are enjoying an incredible democratization of information, which is undermining the gatekeepers in media, education, and the policy world. CNN and National Review can rail against Trump all they want, and it doesn’t hurt him. He even declined to appear on Fox News and in one of their debates, and it just brought him more attention. It is hard to fathom that any candidate can get away with thumbing his nose at the most influential media network among conservatives, and yet he did it.

With Twitter, we are all de facto journalists. I’m not saying it is all valuable information. Most of it is mush, but it is an open, competitive market, as opposed to a top-down monopoly. Like never before, people can see the machinations of big government, lose confidence, and realize how it is a parasitic entity.

In the case of the federal government, it has strayed so far from limited powers and original intent that statists don’t even pretend otherwise. To justify the rampant illegality, they talk about some “living and breathing” document. That is mere gibberish for twisting meanings and making it up as you go along, as opposed to adhering to an easily readable and clear contract.

Not only has the information age made information more accessible and more difficult to control, it has loosened our loyalties to parties and people, to brands in general. Reason magazine editors wrote about this in a book, Declaration of Independents, which noted the rise of people registering as independents and made the case these voters where the real deciding factor.

I only see this as a good thing, since it means ideas can better compete with loyalist garbage. The fact that Gary Johnson and Bernie Sanders are most popular among millennials is also indicative that young people are willing to reject the status quo and opt for ideas that appeal to them, even if we admit that many are bad ideas.

Perhaps the most important reason for individual liberty or libertarianism, though, is the simplest: it works. If you want a prosperous country with a high standard of living and longer life expectancy, there is no alternative to the free market. There may be no libertarian paradise in the world — far from it — but the most libertarian nations, such as Singapore and New Zealand, are by far the most prosperous.

Even if people do not understand this consciously, they show through their actions that it is true. You don’t see any people getting on rafts and escaping to Cuba, even if I wish that Marxist academics would follow through on their pronouncements and go and live there. No, you only see Cubans arriving on the shores and borders of the United States.

That is why the American idea is something to proud of, to be fought for, to be defended. She is the greatest system and nation ever created, and liberty is her idea. The Republican Party can and should integrate and apply this simple idea as it rebuilds.

Fergus Hodgson About Fergus Hodgson

Fergus Hodgson is an economic consultant, financial editor, athlete, and traveler. He holds degrees in economics, finance, and political science from the United States and New Zealand, and he has lived in eight countries. Follow @FergHodgson.

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