Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, editors of the libertarian magazine Reason, have an op-ed in The Washington Post where they see having a candidate who polls at around five percent as being a sign of a revolution. The two are correct in pointing out trends, many of which I’ve discussed here in the past, of a desire for greater freedom. I’ve often noted the trend for “Starbucks Republicans” and “South Park Republicans” to break with the GOP over its support for the war and the social agenda of the religious right. Similarly I’ve commended Democrats for opposing the war and restrictions on civil liberties (even if more weakly than I would like) but have warned that if they return to “tax and spend” economic policies which have unfortunately become associated with liberalism they will become a minority party for yet another generation.
With these trends, why are libertarians in general and Ron Paul in particular only supported by a small minority? There are a number of reasons for this.
Libertarianism, especially as advocated by Ron Paul, is not the only pro-freedom philosophy and in some cases does not advocate freedom as seen by most Americans. Most see freedom in terms of how government impacts their lives, not whether the Federal Reserve is ended or American returns to the gold standard. Americans who reject the social policies of the religious right will find many of the same faults in Ron Paul, who denies that the founding fathers envisioned a secular society characterized by separation of church and state and who claims that the founding fathers envisioned the United States as a Christian nation. Paul’s support for federal legislation banning so-called partial birth abortions and legislation to eliminate the legal distinction between a zygote and a fully developed human contradict his claims of both supporting freedom and supporting state’s rights. Accepting such anti-scientific ideas is particularly disturbing considering his training in Obstetrics.
The stress for state’s rights is also not what most Americans are looking for when seeking freedom. What matters is the relationship between the individual and government, regardless of level of government. Turning duties performed by the federal government over to the states might sometimes be good, but this is not necessarily a matter of greater freedom. Often it is the reverse. Paul’s lack of acceptance of the 14th Amendment, which extended Constitutional liberties from the federal government to the states, could result in less freedom. It is often necessary to protect the rights of the minority from the majority. It is far easier to gain a majority to restrict liberties in a state or local area as opposed to nationally, which is why many white supremacists and neo-Nazis support Paul, realizing that his philosophy would inadvertently help them promote their goals.
Another reason most Americans do not support libertarians is that, while generally skeptical of government, most do believe that government is needed in some areas. Katrina demonstrated both where government is needed and why political leaders who always claim government is the problem and not the solution are incapable of meeting the legitimate needs for government. The free market provides for most goods and services more efficiently than government, but there are some areas where the market fails. For example, the free market does a poor job of providing health care to the individual market as insurance companies have a financial incentive to simply deny coverage to those likely to cost them money. While conservative politicians offer a number of ineffective solutions, most voters do realize that government is needed to reform the system. Government is also needed to encourage a transfer to new energy sources, both in response to global warming and to bring about energy independence.
Support for Ron Paul will also be limited by the belief by Paul and many of his supporters in a number of conspiracy theories involving the United Nations, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Trilateral Commission. People are not going to turn to those whose sanity they doubt regardless of whether they agree with Paul on issues such as opposing the war, opposing current drug laws, and in defending civil liberties.