In yesterday’s post, I asked whether libertarian Republicans support the work of the American Civil Liberties Union and decided that they generally don’t. That’s because libertarian Republicans are generally “economic” libertarians, not “civil” libertarians.
One way to understand the difference is to consider controversies like the recent one in Arizona. Should business people be allowed to refuse service because of a customer’s sexual orientation? A strict economic libertarian would say yes, arguing that the government shouldn’t compel one group of people to associate with any other group, while a civil libertarian would argue that everyone has an equal right to purchase goods and services regardless of their sexual orientation.
To better understand what economic libertarianism amounts to in practice, I visited the official website of Senator RP, today’s most famous Republican libertarian and a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Some of RP’s positions are simple platitudes. For example, he thinks we should only go to war if it’s necessary and the tax system should be simplified. The Senator may have interesting libertarian views on these subjects, but doesn’t mention them.
Some of his other positions are clearly consistent with libertarian principles, although any economic libertarianism is muted. As expected, he thinks the federal government is too big (he also claims the federal government has doubled in size in the past decade — a statement that is ridiculously untrue; the real numbers are provided in a note at the bottom of this post).
In addition, he thinks the government has become too powerful and intrusive (apparently since 9/11). This opinion is the only one included under the category “Civil Liberties”. Lastly, he says the Affordable Care Act is bad because it expands the role of government. He doesn’t mention an alternative, although an economic libertarian would presumably prefer a completely private system in which healthcare is just another product, either freely donated or sold to people who could afford it.
I’m obviously no expert on economic libertarianism, but his other positions seem questionable from that perspective:
Life begins at conception, so abortion is unconstitutional – Even if we grant for the sake of argument that a fertilized egg is a person with constitutional rights, this would still be a case in which one individual’s single right take precedence over another individual’s various rights (without, of course, the latter’s consent). It’s certainly arguable that in this case, RP wants to impose his religious views on pregnant women, regardless of their own beliefs.
Our schools are suffering from too much government spending and interference – Some economic libertarians think mandatory public education is wrong. RP merely favors spending less money and exerting more local control. It isn’t clear in this context whether RP thinks school-age children have any rights at all, for example, the equal right to an education that will allow them to properly compete in the free market.
We should increase domestic energy production even more than we already have – Encouraging energy efficiency (that would be government interference in the marketplace) and discouraging pollution (which affects us all, not just polluters) aren’t mentioned.
Illegal immigration is a threat to our national security – It isn’t explained why it’s dangerous for foreigners to participate in our free market. Some economic libertarians favor immigrant rights, apparently holding that people should be able to live and work where they want without government interference.
There should be no restrictions on gun ownership, except by irresponsible people and criminals – In practice, this means there should be very few restrictions and conflicts with other people’s right to be protected from violence (the main reason we have a government, according to economic libertarians).
Social Security covers more people than in the past and they’re living longer – No policy position is stated, although it’s implied that something is wrong. In particular, there is no mention of reducing benefits or cutting Social Security taxes, which would seem to be the obvious economic libertarian position.
Nobody should be allowed to serve in the Senate or the House for more than 12 years – This is despite the obvious fact that term limits infringe upon an individual’s fundamental right to engage in a law-abiding career of his or her choice for as long as he or she chooses.
Veterans should be given special assistance – It isn’t clear whether this means veterans should receive benefits beyond what was promised when they freely chose to enlist.
Based on the above, Senator RP’s libertarianism seems rather limited, perhaps because taking stronger libertarian positions would scare away voters. Cutting Social Security benefits and allowing more foreigners into the country aren’t popular positions. Legalizing drugs, which isn’t mentioned, is controversial, especially among Republicans. On the other hand, most Republicans favor forcing pregnant women to give birth, term limits and special benefits for veterans, none of which are clear libertarian positions.
So, the impression I get from RP’s website is that he has some libertarian tendencies, but is just another right-wing politician. He’s found a home in the Republican Party even though Republicans tend to favor things like prayer and creationism in public schools, a worldwide military presence, government surveillance, harsh drug laws, farm subsidies and vote suppression, despite the fact that those positions seem to conflict with libertarianism of any kind.
I was planning to include some general thoughts on economic libertarianism today, but for now I’ll end with a related observation (author unknown) and that promised footnote):
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
That promised (long) footnote: Has the federal government doubled in size in the past decade, as RP’s website claims?
The precise decade isn’t specified, but that’s not important, since the numbers are clear whichever recent 10-year period we choose. For example, starting in 2002 and ignoring inflation, total federal spending was 2.0 trillion dollars. In 2012, it was 3.5 trillion, a truly large increase of 75% (although less than 100%). However, corrected for inflation (using constant 2005 dollars), total spending went from 2.0 trillion to 3.0 trillion, an increase of 50% (well, it was a rough decade, what with the wars and the free-market financial crisis and the resulting unemployment).
Alternatively, as a percentage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (a measure commonly used by economists, because it reflects the nation’s increasing economic activity), federal spending rose from 19% of GDP in 2002 to 24% of GDP in 2012, an increase of 26%.
Finally, there were 4.15 million people working for the federal government in 2002. In 2012, there were 4.31 million, an increase of only 3%.
So much for the size of the federal government doubling in the last decade.
By the way, the other statistic cited to help us understand this supposed astonishing growth of more than 100% is an increase of roughly 40%. Quote: “To put this in perspective, the federal government spends more than $10,280 per person, over $3,000 more per individual than what we were spending in 2001”.