In recent years, many Americans increasingly frustrated with both political parties have begun to identify as libertarians. Although still a minority political group they have achieved some success as evidenced by the popularity of Gary Johnson and Rand Paul. Libertarians have also earned a reputation as uncompromising radicals whose strict adherence to their political principles prevents them from making the compromises necessary to be effective political actors. Libertarian icon Ron Paul was legendary for propensity to vote against almost every bill that came up for a vote, earning the nickname “Dr. No.”
This leads libertarians to be constantly dissatisfied with politicians who agree with them on most issues but also are willing to compromise for political purposes. Even Rand Paul has not been safe from the wrath of ideologically pure libertarians. In 2012, the Libertarian Party released a statement saying that Rand had “betrayed his father’s principles” by endorsing Mitt Romney.
Although this radicalism might not always helped libertarians in achieving their policy goals, it does have a very important cause. Alexis de Tocqueville said that, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, Americans were not nearly as radical in defending their freedoms, while “they felt at the bottom of their hearts a sincere and ardent love for…freedom; dared to speak of restricting it because they were sure that they did not want to destroy it.” According to Tocqueville, this caused the debates surrounding the Constitutional Convention to be much more productive. Even though the country was still extremely young and liberty was not at all secure at this point, Americans still had enough faith in their fellow citizens that they could negotiate in good faith with one another and create the Constitution, which has secured liberty in America for over two hundred years.
In modern American politics, this is no longer the case. Many, on both the right and left, worry that the wrong result in a few elections could be the tipping point that sends America into tyranny. In a recent essay on the 2016 presidential election, a Trump supporter said that the country must unite behind Trump because: “A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda, plus items few of us have yet imagined in our darkest moments…It will be coupled with a level of vindictive persecution against resistance and dissent hitherto seen in the supposedly liberal West only in the most “advanced” Scandinavian countries.”
This writer believes that America is in the midst of a crisis that it might not survive. This view is shared by people from all sides of the political spectrum but is most common in the libertarian movement. Libertarians, therefore, are forced to be radical because they do not trust their fellow citizens to act in good faith and suspect that the country is under assault by a conspiracy hostile to liberty.
This naturally begs the question, “Is that belief justified?” Although this is a natural question, it is not a helpful one. As unsatisfying as it is, there is no way to answer this question definitively. Our only option is to discard radicalism and work prudently towards our goals while assuming that our political opponents are acting in good faith. If we don’t make this assumption we lose our ability to make the compromises necessary to enact sound public policy.
Some strong conservatives might object to this plan and claim that they cannot assume good faith on the part of leftists and RINOs who have sold out the principles of our republic. The problem with this opinion is that, if it is true, the battle is already lost. America will only remain a free country if its people want it to be one. If the people chose tyranny, there is nothing a small group of libertarians, no matter how committed, can do to force them to have liberty. The only path forward is to abandon the radicalism that characterizes the current libertarian movement and, through prudent compromise, enact policies that show America why liberty is better than tyranny.