Libertarianism/ Libertarian Party

The modern libertarian movement arose from the demise of classical liberalism in the 20th century.  Most 19th century liberals in the U.S. took for granted that the role of government should be limited.  The U.S. Constitution had been designed to limit government power.  Until the 20th century, most Supreme Court decisions interpreted the Constitution in such a way that almost all economic regulation was regarded as unconstitutional.

This classical liberal perspective went into decline in the 20th century reaching a nadir with FDR in the 1930s.  By the 1950s, Richard Cornuelle, who had been hired by the Volker Fund to identify classical liberal scholars, quipped, “They would all fit in a phone booth.”  Since then, the revival of classical liberalism, and its more radical modern manifestation, libertarianism, has been remarkable.  Classical liberal or libertarian-leaning scholars who have won Nobel Prizes include Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase, James Buchanan, Gary Becker, and Oliver Williamson.

The Libertarian Party was founded in 1971.  It has often attracted the more extreme among libertarians, and has advocated the abolition of the IRS and the legalization of all drugs among other extreme positions.  More recently, in 2016 the Libertarian Party nominated former Governors Gary Johnson (NM) and Bill Weld (MA), both popular two-term former Republican governors of very Democratic states.  Johnson articulates the libertarian position as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.”  Thus libertarians tend to side with the left on most social issues and with the right on most economic issues.  Libertarians also tend to be strongly anti-war and anti-military, often putting them far to the left of most mainstream Democratic candidates.  On civil liberties, police brutality, and mass incarceration libertarians are also often to the left of most mainstream Democratic candidates.

The Libertarian Party is the only third part to be on the ballot in all 50 states.  Johnson has been polling in the low teens as of summer of 2016.  If he polls at 15% consistently he will be included in the presidential debates along with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Critics on the socialist left point out that, while it is true that the American constitution limits government power, marginalized and working class people have had little alternative but to use the power of government to overcome the power of capital and other powerful private interests.  The socialist left therefore tends to view the libertarian zeal for smaller government as somewhat naive in that it fails to provide any democratic check on concentrated economic power.  In response, libertarians often point to the tendency of government regulators to be corrupted by the very business interests they are supposed be regulating, and they suggest that the only way to avoid this kind of corrupt “crony capitalism” is to make sure there is less government to corrupt in the first place.  Furthermore, they argue, the more power the government has over the economy, the greater the danger of crony capitalist corruption.   Socialists, in turn, point out that powerful capitalist economic interests can exert great anti-democratic power over society with or without the aid of government, big or small.

One growing realization of the potential for common ground between the socialist left and libertarian right seems to be along the lines of more directly “democratizing the economy” (the socialist goal) by encouraging the growth of more “employee-owned-and-managed enterprises” (thus satisfying the libertarian focus on property rights and voluntary association).


“Big Government” and “Big Business”  are fighting words on the American political scene.  The socialist left often focus on the dangers of Big Business and the libertarian right often focus on the dangers of Big Government.   A growing number of people on both the right and left are focusing on the dangers of the collusion between Big Government and Big Business.  What aspects of Big Business and Big Government (or their collusion) most concern you?

How can democratic institutions (and the working class) be protected from powerful economic interests on the one hand, and, on the other, how can individuals and private economic interests be protected from the power of government?  



Michael Strong, Arthur M. Peña

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