Show Summary Details
Page of

date: 08 December 2021

9 Politics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrowfree

9 Politics: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrowfree

  • Jason Brennan
  • Top of page

94. How popular is libertarianism in the United States?

p. 172Somewhere between one-tenth and one-third of Americans are libertarians.

Many libertarians do not self-identify as libertarian. They call themselves liberals, moderates, or conservatives. Many of them vote Democrat or Republican.

Thus, to know what percentage of Americans are libertarian, we can’t just ask people if they are libertarians.

When researchers want to know how to label a person’s political views, they do not ask how that person labels herself. Instead, they ask her a battery of substantive ideological questions. They assign her the label that best fits her substantive political beliefs.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and elsewhere conduct the American National Election Studies, a study of voter opinion. The surveys ask voters to answer various ideological questions, such as whether we should have more or less government control of the economy or whether we should be more or less tolerant of others with different lifestyles and moral beliefs. Using this data, analysts at the CATO Institute (a libertarian think-tank p. 173in Washington, DC) claim that approximately 15% of voters qualify as libertarian.

However, other polls and surveys find a larger percentage of voters who are libertarian or libertarian leaning. Gallup polls generally identify that 20% to 23% of voters are libertarian. A 2007 Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that roughly 26% of Americans are libertarian. Libertarians are sometimes described as economic conservatives and social liberals. The CATO Institute recently commissioned Zogby International to survey over 1,000 voters from the 2006 midterm election. The survey asked, among other questions, whether voters regarded themselves as socially liberal and fiscally/economically conservative. Almost 59% of voters labeled themselves as such.

Many libertarian positions are on the rise. In 1988, only about 10% of Americans supported same-sex marriage; now about half do. In 1970, only about 12% of Americans favored legalizing marijuana; now about half do.

Thus, about one-tenth to one-third of American voters are libertarian and libertarian leaning. If these voters were organized around their common beliefs, they could form a powerful voting bloc. However, given the mechanics of the American electoral system, these voters tend to vote, with unease, for anti-libertarian Republicans and Democrats.

  • Top of page

95. Is the Tea Party libertarian?

Overall, the Tea Party movement is not libertarian, though it has many libertarian elements, and many libertarians are Tea Partiers.

The Tea Partiers are united by their distrust of Washington politics. They share the libertarian view that DC tends to be corrupt, and that Washington often promotes special interests at the expense of the common good.

However, Tea Party members are predominantly populist, nationalist, social conservatives rather than libertarians. Polls p. 174indicate that most Tea Partiers believe government should have an active role in promoting traditional “family values” or conservative Judeo-Christian values. Many of them oppose free trade and open immigration. They tend to favor less government intervention in the domestic economy but more government intervention in international trade. Many Tea Party supporters favor interventionist foreign policy.

Based on survey data, the libertarian magazine Reason judges that at most 40% of self-identified Tea Partiers are broadly libertarian. The majority of Tea Partiers are traditional social and economic conservatives.

In an article in Discover magazine, Chris Mooney points out that many surveys indicate that Tea Partiers desire to see religion play a strong role in politics. Tea Partiers tend to oppose feminism, abortion rights, immigrant rights, and other libertarian issues in civil liberties. They tend to support stiffer penalties for crime, rather than wanting criminal punishment reform, as libertarians do.

The Tea Party is not a homogenous group. It claims to advocate small government. However, overall, the Tea Party is best seen as a conservative movement. A significant percentage of Tea Partiers may be libertarian leaning, though only a small percentage of libertarians have any affiliation with the Tea Party.

  • Top of page

96. Is Occupy Wall Street libertarian?

The Occupy Wall Street movement is not libertarian overall, though libertarians and occupiers do share some common grounds.

Occupiers, like libertarians, oppose the government–big business alliance. However, most occupiers want to reduce corporatism and crony capitalism by increasing government power over the economy. Libertarians believe that increasing government power over the economy will increase corporatism and crony capitalism. (See question 71.)

p. 175Occupiers generally are radical participatory democrats who oppose market economies, private property, and free trade. In these respects, occupiers are anti-libertarian.

However, occupiers tend to oppose the Patriot Act, the Bush–Obama wars, militarism, the War on Drugs, and government curtailment of civil liberties. In these respects, libertarians and occupiers overlap.

  • Top of page

97. Are most libertarians members of the Libertarian Party?

No. Many libertarians are apolitical. They do not vote or join political causes. Most politically active libertarians vote either for Republicans or Democrats rather than for third parties. The CATO Institute claims, using polling data from Zogby International, that less than 20% of libertarians voted for a third party in either the 2004 or 2006 elections. Libertarians are more likely to vote Republican than Democrat, though in recent years, this trend has been reversing. (In particular, many libertarians voted for Obama in 2008. They hoped a Democrat would be less militaristic and more respectful of civil liberties than a Republican.)

  • Top of page

98. Is the United States the most libertarian country?

No. Even though the United States has the highest number (in both absolute and percentage terms) of self-identified libertarians, and even though libertarian ideas get more play in mainstream US politics, the United States is not the most libertarian country overall. It does not have the strongest commitment to economic or to civil liberties. Many of the countries that Americans and others are inclined to describe as “social democracies” or “socialist” actually are more libertarian than the United States.

Libertarian rhetoric is more prevalent in the United States than elsewhere. Americans talk about liberty more than others do. Americans often claim that liberty, not equality, community, or social justice, is America’s foundational value.

p. 176None of this shows that the United States is the most libertarian country. Talking the libertarian talk is not walking the libertarian walk. We need to see which countries have the most libertarian policies. We need to see how well countries protect economic and civil liberties.

The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation produce an annual Index of Economic Freedom. They rate countries for their respect for property rights, freedom from corruption, business freedom, labor freedom, monetary freedom, trade freedom, investment freedom, financial freedom, fiscal freedom, and government spending. Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Canada, Chile, Mauritius, and Ireland have higher scores than the United States. The United States ranks only 10th overall.

Note that this index may understate how anti-libertarian the United States is. After all, the index tends to rank countries lower if governments spend large amounts on social insurance. Yet many classical liberals and neoclassical liberals are not in principle opposed to government social insurance. (See question 5.) Thus, suppose we separate the idea of the administrative state, which tries to control, regulate, manipulate, and manage the economy, from the social insurance state, which provides tax-financed education, health care, or unemployment insurance. On the Index of Economic Freedom, many countries that rank lower than the United States have far less extensive administrative states than the United States. For instance, Denmark ranks much higher than the United States on property rights, freedom from corruption, business freedom, monetary freedom, trade freedom, investment freedom, and financial freedom. Luxembourg, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and many other countries beat the United States on these measures as well. Thus, many other European countries might reasonably be considered more economically libertarian than the United States.

The Fraser Institute publishes an annual Economic Freedom of the World Report, which also ranks countries by p. 177their commitment to economic freedom. Their results are similar to the Wall Street Journal results. The United States ranks 10th overall. Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Switzerland have higher levels of economic freedom. Many of the Scandinavian countries—which Americans often call “socialist”—beat the United States on many central aspects of economic freedom.

Thus, the United States is not the most economically libertarian country.

It is most likely not the most civil libertarian country either. In this case, there are no comparably detailed rankings. For instance, Freedom House ranks countries by their commitment to political and civil liberties, but its rankings are too coarse to differentiate among the Western countries.

However, we can look at a list of issues to make an overall judgment. Australia, Switzerland, Canada, and the United Kingdom probably are more economically libertarian overall than the United States. How do these five countries compare on civil liberties?

Same-sex marriage is legal throughout all of Canada. Same-sex civil unions are legal throughout all of the United Kingdom and Switzerland. In the United States, some states allow same-sex marriage, others allow same-sex civil unions, and others forbid either. The United States has more restrictive drug laws and more militaristic and violent enforcement of these laws than Canada and most European countries.

Two major trends undermine the United States’ commitment to civil liberties. First, the United States jails more people than any other country in the world. About 1 out of 100 American adults is behind bars right now. The United States has more prisoners than China, even though China is a communist regime with four times the American population. Second, since 9/11, the United States has become increasingly oppressive toward its own people. Obama asserts that he has the right to assassinate American citizens without due process. The United States has effectively suspended habeas corpus p. 178and allows US citizens to be detained indefinitely without a trial, provided they are labeled “enemy combatants.”

Worse, the United States routinely harms innocent civilians in other countries. To fight the War on Drugs, it induces South American governments to dump herbicide on peasants’ farmland. The United States routinely bullies countries around the world to advance its perceived national interests. So far, the War on Terror has killed over 100,000 (maybe even over 200,000) innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

Thus, overall, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and Canada are more libertarian than the United States. Hong Kong, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and a few other European countries are arguably more libertarian as well.

  • Top of page

99. Which states are the most and least libertarian?

The Mercatus Center, a policy institute at George Mason University, publishes a biennial report called “Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom.” A state gets a low ranking by having paternalistic policies, interfering with citizens’ civic and personal liberties, imposing heavy regulations or licensing requirements, and making it difficult to do business.

According to this report, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Indiana are the freest, most libertarian states. New York, New Jersey, and California are the least free, most authoritarian, least libertarian states. New Hampshire ranks first overall, first in economic freedom, and 11th in personal freedom. New York is 50th overall, 50th in economic freedom, and 48th in personal freedom. Oregon, Vermont, and Nevada have the highest ratings for personal freedom. Maryland, Illinois, and New York have the lowest ratings for personal freedom.

Of course, these rankings need to be taken with a grain of salt. Most people would probably feel freer living in a bohemian neighborhood in Brooklyn than in a small town in Mississippi.

p. 179Some critics of libertarianism note that many of the least libertarian states, by Mercatus’s rankings, are also some of the richest. The Mercatus Institute may hold that economic and personal freedom lead to prosperity, but relatively unfree New York, California, and New Jersey are among the richest US states.

  • Top of page

100. Was the United States ever a libertarian country?

Many American revolutionary leaders were classical liberals. However, the United States was never a libertarian country.

Until 1865, slavery was legal in the United States. (In contrast, England abolished slavery in 1833.) Jim Crow laws required discrimination until the late 1960s.

Women had second-class legal status for most of American history. They were denied control of their reproductive rights—and even denied the right to refuse sex from their husbands—for much of US history. Obscenity laws were often used to limit their access to birth control. For instance, the Comstock Law of 1873 criminalized sending “lewd” materials through the mail. The US government wanted to prevent women from mailing contraceptive devices or information about contraception. (However, the law was only weakly enforced. In fact, the contraceptive industry flourished during this time.)

The US government regulated the economy less in the past than it does now. However, the United States has always had a system of tariffs and subsidies. It has always intervened to sponsor well-connected corporations. This was one source of conflict between the North and South. (Abraham Lincoln, for one, hated free trade. He imposed high tariffs right after taking office.) The industrialist North imposed tariffs. This forced the cash-poor South to buy expensive domestic goods rather than cheaper goods from England.

  • Top of page

101. Is the United States becoming more or less libertarian?

Women, Jews, African Americans, and most minorities experience more freedom in the United States now than in the past. p. 180Forty-five years ago, blacks were second-class citizens almost everywhere; 160 years ago, they were property.

Women now have access to birth control. They no longer lose the right to say “no” to sex just by saying “I do” to marriage. When women get married, their legal rights are no longer subsumed under their husband’s rights. They can keep their children after divorce.

Americans are more tolerant now than in the past. Most Americans find it easier now than ever before to lead lives they regard as their own.

With all that in mind, libertarians worry about recent trends. The United States seems less committed to economic freedom now than in past years. For the past decade, the United States’ scores on the Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom and on the Frazer Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Report have dropped. The economy is becoming ever more regulated. Business owners face more red tape each year. In 2011, the federal government added over 100,000 pages of new laws and regulations.

Libertarians believe the United States is becoming more and more of a crony capitalist economy. Businesses often make profits not by offering better products than their competitors, but by pressuring governments to intervene on their behalf. Well-connected businesses use subsidies, tariffs, or predatory regulations to push competitors out of the market. The productive and innovative—those who make wealth—are taxed or regulated out of business in order to support those who do not make wealth.

The War on Terror has increased government disregard and abuse of citizens’ civil liberties. We now have warrantless surveillance, Guantanamo Bay, and a president who asserts the right to assassinate American citizens. Despite his promises to the contrary, Obama expanded rather than retracted executive power.

However, from a libertarian view, there are some positive trends. More states are decriminalizing marijuana. More p. 181states have legalized gay marriage or civil unions than have in the recent past.

  • Top of page

102. What could a libertarian president actually do?

Imagine a libertarian were elected president. What would he or she be able to do? This depends on whether the president has congressional support.

If the libertarian president also had a libertarian Congress, she could quickly turn the United States into a libertarian country. Libertarians do not agree on everything. (See question 5.) However, there is more agreement among self-identified libertarians than among committed Democrats or Republicans.

Imagine instead that a libertarian was elected president, but imagine that Congress remained controlled by the Democratic Party. In this case, the libertarian could do much less. A libertarian president could and probably would stop all American wars and foreign intervention almost immediately. He could shut down American military bases oversees and bring troops home. He could end the War on Terror by withdrawing all troops from the Middle East, withdrawing military and financial support of Israel, and apologizing for past US abuses and atrocities.

Congress has delegated much of its rule-making power to federal agencies. These agencies report to the president. The president could issue executive orders to these agencies and demand that they change their policies in a more libertarian direction. He could order the DEA to stop fighting the War on Drugs. (Even if a libertarian president could not just end the drug war, at the very least, he could offer a rubber stamp pardon for anyone convicted of drug offenses or for any other victimless crimes.) He could order the FDA to lessen drug regulations. The president could direct federal agencies to allow in more immigrants with fewer restrictions. However, it is possible that many of the career bureaucrats in these agencies would just ignore the orders. So, it is unclear how much a libertarian president could do.

p. 182The president might be able to cut spending by vetoing Congress’s proposed budgets. The president could probably reduce the growth of government power by vetoing interventionist or pork barrel legislation. Of course, Congress could override the president’s veto. However, Congress can override a veto only with a two-thirds supermajority. They would find it easier to compromise with a libertarian president than to override his veto.

  • Top of page

103. Might the United States become libertarian soon?

Overall, libertarians constitute between one-tenth and one-third of American voters. (See question 94.) Most voters flock to the Democratic or Republican parties. If they formed a united coalition, they could exert much more control. Still, unless the median American voter becomes libertarian, the United States is unlikely to become a libertarian country. In recent years, overall, US economic and social policies have been moving away from rather than toward libertarianism. (See question 101.)

However, in many respects, the American public speaks with an increasingly libertarian voice. In recent Gallup polls, a record 82% of Americans believe the country is badly governed. Sixty-nine percent say they have little or no confidence in Congress. Half of Americans view the government as an immediate threat to citizens’ rights and freedoms. Even with soaring gas prices and the recent financial crisis, Americans view the gas, banking, and real estate industries more positively than they view their own government.

Recent Gallup polls find that Americans believe the federal government wastes half of every dollar spent. However, this is probably uninformed opinion. Most Americans do not know how the government spends its money. For instance, the typical American thinks that 8% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, but the real number is about 1%. Thus, Americans might believe the money is wasted only because they do not know how it is spent.

p. 183Explicit support for libertarian ideas is on the rise. In a recent CNN poll, a record high of 63% of Americans agreed that the government is doing too much and that more issues should be left to individuals and businesses. Fifty percent said that government should not try to promote traditional values. American citizens increasingly seem to favor less extensive government regulation of the economy and of social issues.

  • Top of page

104. What influence does libertarianism have outside the United States?

Many democracies have libertarian or liberal parties, though these parties are often small. There are also free-market or libertarian think tanks and policy institutes throughout the globe, such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute in the United Kingdom; the Fraser Institute in Canada; the Copenhagen Institute in Denmark; Avenir Suisse, Liberales Institut, and the Institut Constant de Rebecque in Switzerland; Bruno Leoni Institute in Italy; Eudoxa and Timbro in Sweden; the Association for Liberal Thinking in Turkey; the Center for Free Enterprise in South Korea; Libertad y Desarrollo in Chile; Instituto Liberdade in Brazil; and the European Independent Institute in the Netherlands.

Many prominent twentieth-century and contemporary libertarian academics, scholars, and writers come from outside the United States. Novelist Ayn Rand and legal theorists Eugene Volokh and Ilya Somin come from the former USSR. Many free-market-orientated economists were inspired by Austrians, such as Ludwig von Mises or F. A. Hayek. Jagdish Bagwhati and Deepak Lal are from India.

As discussed in question 98, many countries have more libertarian policies, if not more libertarian rhetoric, than the United States. One way to measure the influence of libertarian ideas is simply to measure the extent to which countries tend toward libertarian outcomes.

  • Top of page

105. Is the world becoming more or less libertarian?

p. 184Overall, the world is moving toward libertarianism, though it is unlikely any country will actually end up being fully libertarian. In general, across the world, economic barriers are coming down. Tolerance for diversity is increasing. Traditionally unfree countries are becoming freer and freer. Even nominally communist countries, such as China, are liberalizing their economies and allowing greater personal liberty. Compare the situation now to 1960. In 1960, more people lived in totalitarian communist regimes or oppressive dictatorships than in liberal democracies.

That said, there are some negative trends. The NGO Freedom House publishes an annual report rating countries by their commitment to political and civil liberties. In their most recent report, they describe 87 countries as free, 60 as partly free, and 48 as not free. In their rankings, things have been getting worse rather than better over the past five years.

As I write, we are in the midst of the “Arab Spring.” Protestors have pushed rules out of power in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia. Throughout the Middle East, citizens protest and demand reform. The Arab Spring might result in greater freedom. It might instead lead to greater sectarian violence and civil war. It might lead to oppressive, theocratic democracies. It might just replace the old dictators with new ones. Revolutions usually end badly rather than well. We cannot predict the results.