The Rise of the Unknowing Libertarian

Hopkins International Airport is a healthy drive from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the small Cleveland suburb where I grew up and returned last month for the holidays. The long car rides from and to the airport provided me with some rare one-on-one time with each of my parents, as there is no escape from conversation when moving 60 M.P.H. on a snowy highway.

Each chat began with the normal parent-kid stuff. We caught up on news of family friends and relatives, the Browns (with my dad) and our house’s new kitchen (with my mom). However, things inevitably turned towards politics. My father, who co-owns a small family run business, was scared of what the new health care law would mean for his company. My mother, a homemaker, was worried about how indebted her future grandchildren might be. Both parents and I spoke of unnecessary government involvement in a wide swath of affairs. My dad hated that the EPA goes after his suppliers (industrial parts manufacturers) with reckless abandon. My mom lamented that the government rarely exercises the same frugality with her tax dollars that she uses with my family’s income.

The conversation then shifted to social issues. Why, I asked, does the California government care if people smoke marijuana? Why does the federal government try to prevent citizens from marrying members of the same gender?

The ensuing moments in each conversation provided me with some of the biggest surprises in my adult life. My parents, both conservative Roman Catholics, agreed heartily. They felt that their own beliefs shouldn’t be forced upon other citizens by the government.

Similar moments have occurred with many of my friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Everyone differs on the exact details but expresses the same core theme: the government should leave my person and my possessions alone unless absolutely necessary. In the process, these individuals are showing themselves to be among the rising ranks of an intriguing political species: the unknowing libertarian.

A majority of Americans consider themselves socially liberal and economically conservative, yet libertarianism is taboo among the political and media worlds. This is largely because American government, both culturally and structurally, all but ensures a two party system that leaves no room for outsiders. The contemporary Republican-Democrat divide has come about mostly due to historical circumstance and coalition building. (Consider, for example, that the party of Abraham Lincoln and abolition, the GOP, now counts the rural south as its most dependable voting bloc.)

Lost in the process was the formation of a consistent ideology among either party. Big government Democrats ally with the ACLU; small government Republicans support nation-building neoconservatives. These are just a few examples of what should be diametrical groups making nice due to incoherent party-wide political philosophies. The political necessity of such unholy alliances is tempting motivation for representatives who are always one election away from unemployment. However, it leaves either nominal or actual libertarians (again, close to 60 percent of the population) without a logical locus in the Beltway.

If one wants to go anywhere in politics, they must pick a side, Republican or Democrat, and tow the party line no matter what. This means that socially liberal/economically conservative citizens have three choices: sacrifice some of their core beliefs in joining Republicans or Democrats, join a fringe movement with zero chance for advancement, or stay out of politics altogether. The vast majority of would-be libertarians seem to take the latter most route, hence the groundswell of socially liberal/economically conservative citizens who find no identity in modern politics.

That unknowing libertarians are underrepresented in the profession of politics may not seem like an issue; indeed, many self-identified libertarians would say it’s a good thing. Yet there is an undeniable danger in ostracizing a huge chunk of the population from the determination of their own affairs. Politics is, after all, the struggle of who gets what, when and how. As the federal government continues to increase its footprint in our daily lives, we lurch closer and closer to oligarchy, or, rule of the many by the few. This in an era when more information is available more freely and quickly to more people than in any time in human history. (Indeed, future anthropologists will undoubtedly look at the decentralization of information as one of the foremost trends in our epoch.) In denying unknowing libertarians a home, we are fostering a political environment that works against the most obvious and unavoidable trend of our time.

Yet there is still hope for the unknowing libertarians. Today’s senior citizens make up by far the most active voting bloc in America and are the most opposed to the expansion of social liberties. The Baby Boomers will soon take their place, and today’s youth will soon be of voting age. With the increasing acceptance of gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and other liberties, social conservatism will lose its luster in all but a few regional enclaves. This would give the Republican Party a convincing reason to abandon the culture war, and in the process would create a welcome home for both aware and unknowing libertarians.

It will take time, to be certain. But hopefully, within our lifetimes, the unknowing libertarian will become extinct.

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