Commentary

Libertarian Orphans

This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 31, 2006.
The Gallup Poll’s annual survey on government found that 27% of Americans are conservative; 24% are liberal, up sharply because the poll was taken after Katrina, which boosted support for the proposition that “government should do more to solve our country’s problems.” Gallup also found — this year as in others — that 20% are neither liberal nor conservative but libertarian, opposing the use of government either to “promote traditional values” or to “do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.” Another 20% are “populist” (supporting government action in both areas), with 10% undefined. Libertarian support, spread across demographic groups, is strongest among well-educated voters.

So where are the libertarians in politics and the media? Since the Clinton impeachment and the Florida recount, there’s been a polarization: Congressmen and TV pundits define themselves as red/blue, pro-/anti-Bush, partisan Democrat/Republican, and take rigid liberal/conservative positions on Iraq, tax cuts, Social Security reform, gay marriage, abortion. But polls tell us that Americans aren’t quite so partisan.

With big-government conservatives spending money like Imelda Marcos in a shoe store, and big-government liberals supporting the Patriot Act, even pro-government populists are represented in D.C. It’s the libertarian voters who are orphans. Democrats stand like a wall against tax cuts and Social Security privatization. Republicans want to ban abortion, gay marriage and “Happy Holidays.” It’s not just Congress — in Virginia’s recent elections, all the Democrats were tax-hikers and all the Republicans were religious rightists. What’s a libertarian to do?

The worst aspect of all this is the oracles who appear on TV. You’d think they’d be thoughtful, independent. Yet they’re as partisan as the pols. The typical cable show brings viewers two guests, a liberal and a conservative. You can count on conservative writers to defend everything President Bush does, and on liberal editors to denounce the GOP — no matter what.

Of course, it could be that most Americans are, in fact, liberals and conservatives. Maybe Gallup is wrong, every year. But the exit polls on election day 2004 offer some confirmation. According to those polls, 17 million voted for John Kerry but did not think the government should do more to solve the country’s problems. And 28 million Bush voters support either gay marriage or civil unions. That’s 45 million who don’t fit the polarized model. They seem to have broadly libertarian attitudes. In fact, it’s no secret that libertarian voters make up a chunk of America. But you’d never know it from watching TV — or listening to our elected politicians.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.