When a record 84 million people tuned in to watch the first presidential debate last month, they anticipated an event of Super Bowl proportions. But thirty miles away from the hubbub sat someone who only a few weeks earlier had hoped to share the stage: Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
While initial predictions had optimistically characterized Johnson as the strongest third-party challenger since Ross Perot in 1992, Johnson failed to reach the 15 percent threshold required to participate in the debate. In the weeks before and since, Johnson has done little to flatter himself: professing ignorance about the Syrian city of Aleppo; blanking when asked to pick his favorite foreign leader; and declining to name the dictator of North Korea.
Yet despite such mental lapses, Johnson has continued to attract more support than any other candidate in Libertarian Party history. According to one Quinnipiac poll, an estimated 29 percent of voters between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four say they would vote for the man National Review once applauded as a true “Reaganite anti-tax crusader.”
For some, Johnson’s allure stems from his idiosyncrasies. He sports spiked gray hair and Nike shoes. He’s scaled all Seven Summits, including Mt Everest; competed in over twenty triathlons; and skirted death on numerous gas ballooning and mountain biking excursions. In 1999, during his tenure as New Mexico governor, he became the highest-ranking official to back the full legalization of marijuana.
That anti-establishment air is especially beneficial for Johnson this election cycle. For many, his appeal boils down to the unpalatability of the two major party candidates — an appeal that Johnson has tried to amplify by touting himself as “A Credible Alternative to ClinTrump.”
The alternative on offer? Fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. In speeches and interviews, Johnson repeatedly posits this dual conception of libertarianism, a conception deeply rooted in the party’s obscure past.
In 1964, philosopher and National Review editor Frank S. Meyer sought to define conservatism by basing it on a “fusionist” synthesis of economic libertarianism and religious traditionalism. While libertarianism valorized individual freedom, natural rights, and self-cultivation, traditionalism revered social duty, moral virtue, and self-restraint. But for libertarians, Meyer’s synthesis merely highlighted the hypocrisy and shallowness of contemporary American politics.
In its place, libertarians presented their own fusion, a fusion that prided itself on its absolute consistency because it ostensibly celebrated freedom in all realms. Claiming to unite the best of both Left and Right, libertarians adopted the latter’s fondness for laissez-faire capitalism and the former’s openness to cultural experimentation.
This distinct variant of fusionism was more than just an intellectual boon. As they took steps to create their own party, libertarians saw themselves as young and hip, polar opposites of stodgy, clean-cut traditionalists. Only they could avoid the anti-freedom traps set by both the Right (legislators of morality) and the Left (champions of regulation and redistribution).
Gary Johnson, adventurer extraordinaire, dwells comfortably in this history. By portraying himself as cool yet sensible, socially liberal but fiscally conservative, Johnson has once again rebranded dauntless market advocacy in the trendy robes of cultural iconoclasm. And in the process, he’s masked the perniciousness of the libertarian fusion: that it rests on the fission of rights from duties.
Founding the Libertarian Party
As libertarians tell their story, the Libertarian Party (LP) arose in response to a single event. On August 15, 1971, Richard Nixon introduced wage and price controls and demonetized the dollar. For many former Goldwaterites, including David Nolan, this move was akin to treason, the coup de grace for an already disappointing Nixon presidency.
But even before Nixon’s announcement, Nolan and his wife Susan had invited three friends to their Westminster, Colorado home to broach the topic of forming a political party. Throughout the fall, they reached out to like-minded activists by mail and in person and began drafting a tentative platform.
Nolan had been hawking libertarian buttons and bumper stickers through mail order ads placed in anarchist magazines and various underground publications. Although circulation hovered in the dozens, he managed to cull together a mailing list of about one hundred individuals who had purchased his products, nearly half of whom now agreed to join the party. By December 1971 the party was officially formalized, and by the following summer, almost ninety delegates were slated to attend the first national convention.
But controversy quickly arose over the founding of the party. Murray Rothbard, the so-called “Karl Marx of libertarianism,” was one of the most vocal critics, blasting the party as a quixotic and hasty venture. Many others in the fledgling movement resisted unification with the party, too.
If politics, unlike the ineffable market, suffered from utter corruption, the LP seemed a destructive compromise with the very system that libertarians existentially opposed. In addition, the mere notion of compromise supplanted the painstaking process of intellectual permeation that libertarians viewed as prior to political engagement.
In response to widespread movement criticism, Nolan repeatedly insisted that the LP would merely serve as a tool for a useful end — not electoral victory, but intellectual acceptability: “It is our conviction that libertarians can achieve far wider dissemination of their ideas through the vehicle of a political party — especially in election years — than by any other means. Any effect we have on the electoral process . . . will be only secondary.” Suddenly, a movement that had largely cultivated itself in the marginalized spaces of student periodicals and exclusive salons had descended into the political fray.
One of the first challenges party insiders faced was who to select as their standard-bearer. When their top picks, Rothbard and Alan Greenspan, declined to run, Nolan began courting John Hospers, a philosophy professor at USC. Hospers, the author of Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow, seemed the ideal candidate for a new party intent on crafting its reputation as an intellectually worthy contender.
However, Hospers and his campaign staff could not ignore a deep embarrassment at the core of their enterprise. Ayn Rand — the primary source of inspiration for these early libertarians — had blasted the LP as “a rump, crank political party” and Hospers’ campaign as an insincere attempt to garner personal publicity. Betraying no affection for her former protégé, Rand grumbled, “If Hospers . . . gets ten votes away from Nixon, which I doubt, it is a moral crime.”
Party founders scrambled to respond to Rand’s rebuff. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles for his West Coast speaking tour, Hospers delivered a statement to the Libertarian Supper Club aimed directly at Rand: “Libertarianism as a political party takes no stand at all on the matter of ethical beliefs.”
Rand had built a comprehensive worldview depicting capitalism as the economic manifestation of man’s highest moral value: egoism. But Hospers, despite having written the book that many considered “the practical Atlas Shrugged,” tried to tame libertarianism’s solipsistic associations.
Under a libertarian government, he equivocated, capitalism did not dictate that one should behave selfishly. It merely created the opportunity for the individual to act egotistically if he so desired, and as long as he did not infringe on another person’s equal right to do the same. While an individual could choose to be an anti-social egoist, “living in isolation and refusing to engage in economic interchange with others,” he could also choose to be a philanthropist, “amassing a fortune on the free market and giving it all away.”
Therefore, the libertarian fusion relied on the ostensible separation of private moral choices from market calculations. The ethical decision about whether to give or to keep was one of many rights bestowed by capitalism’s generous hand.
When the Left spoke of rights, it meant guaranteeing basic material standards: a living wage, health care, safe working conditions. Furthermore, that these standards were even considered “basic” underscored the Left’s embrace of solidarity. A society could not begin to consider itself civilized, leftists argued, unless individual flourishing was informed by the sentiment of humanity, such that no person lacked the necessities of life.
But libertarians deployed this language to advocate a distinct set of private property rights, emptied of any solidaristic elements. This paradox — that the libertarian fusion divorced the economic from the ethical — was on full display as delegates converged on Denver for their first national convention.
Convening the Prometheans
Those who gathered in Denver saw themselves as modern-day Prometheans, persecuted in their time but deserving of ultimate redemption. They framed their mission using the Greek myth of Prometheus, updated with an Objectivist edge: “This is the age when the Fire Bringer must learn what the Chain Makers have always known; that they need his fire, but he does not need their chains.”
Yet such heady pronouncements could not hide the impasse that quickly developed over issues of power distribution and platform points, especially foreign policy, victimless crimes, and abortion.
Multiple delegates tried composing their own Statement of Principles, and hours were spent reading these lengthy proposals aloud. Each proposal demonstrated Rand’s undeniable influence, including one stretching to over a dozen pages, half of which was spent blasting altruism. With progress stalled, Nolan again turned to Hospers and pleaded with him to take a stab at drafting the Party’s platform, toning down Rand’s moralistic fervor.
Hospers’ draft, which eventually gained the majority vote, solidified libertarian philosophy like never before. Its two central precepts — the sanctity of individual rights and the non-initiation of force — enshrined the notion that a person had the right to choose his duties, regardless of the social consequences.
From these dual principles emerged a platform almost tedious in its simplistic logic. As national chairman Edward Crane admitted, libertarian positions on key political issues were not difficult to understand or predict: “Voters can always determine in advance exactly where the Party stands on any issue. All they need to do is ask whether present law, or the lack of it, results in the violation of any individual’s rights. If it does, we’re opposed.”
So libertarians rigidly demanded an end to all government regulation of voluntary economic exchanges; the repeal of all laws against victimless crimes (like drug use, gambling, and prostitution); the abolition of all government agencies they saw as curtailing civil liberties (such as the FCC and the IRS); the repudiation of all foreign entanglements and, relatedly, the draft; and a halt to all government initiatives attacking domestic ills (like pollution and poverty). Government was to protect private property rights and little else.
But more important than the details of the LP’s platform was the moral logic upon which it rested. By phrasing its positions in terms of rights rather than duties, the LP managed to detach two concepts that had long been deeply imbricated. What’s more, party architects assumed that rights derived not from the equality of individuals but from their differences. The best proof was the architects themselves: mavericks who exclusively possessed the Promethean virtues of rationality, self-esteem, and innovation.
Therefore, even as they insisted that their philosophy made no moral distinctions, early libertarians articulated an ethical code that allegedly elevated excellence and exposed inferiority. In their eyes, capitalism operated as a color-blind, gender-neutral, classless force. Those who lacked resources had no claim on those who possessed them. Indeed, questions of social responsibility were ultimately matters of individual sovereignty, victimless options equivalent to whether or not to smoke weed, consummate a same-sex union, or solicit a prostitute.
A Victory for Capitalism
The libertarian fusion weathered the difficulties of subsequent decades, which saw little improvement in the LP’s fortunes.
In 1980, with Edward Clark and David Koch as presidential and vice-presidential nominees, party insiders expected to surpass one million votes. But such hopes soon proved illusory (the pair netted just 921,000), and the LP struggled to understand why electoral success remained elusive. Throughout the rest of the decade and into the nineties, it stumbled forward with vote totals even lower than Clark’s. Alongside a seemingly thriving network of think tanks like Cato and publications like Reason — buttressed by endless funding from the Koch brothers — existed a seemingly defunct political vehicle.
Today, the LP finds itself in a resurgent position, but with dissension still roiling its ranks. Johnson has proved controversial as the party’s nominee. Ron Paul has criticized him for jettisoning the non-aggression principle and failing to communicate “a crisp libertarian message.” Others have argued that Johnson’s reassertion of the libertarian fusion reduces the movement to two simplistic concepts.
But such objections overlook an essential point. While the former New Mexico governor may be more electorally minded than others in the movement, focusing on the division between intellectual purists and political pragmatists distracts from what all libertarians share: the conviction that their ideology uniquely hybridizes left and right.
Libertarians may object to Johnson’s formulation of this fusion, but it is a fusion rooted in the LP’s search for political legitimacy since the early 1970s. Tapping the countercultural energy of the 1960s, libertarians historically posed as laissez-fairists in both morality and economy.
Johnson is at once the heir to this tradition and a symbol of its insidiousness. For all his youthful eccentricities, he espouses a fusion that would bolster the neoliberal order: deep slashes in social spending; tax cuts for the rich; an end to the minimum wage; privatization at the expense of protection.
When libertarians like Johnson glorify their own consistency, they gloss over the masterful way in which they have engineered the denigration of solidarity and social obligation. To view the libertarian fusion as a marriage of freedom ignores how it divides superiors from inferiors, excellence from mediocrity, and rights from duties. Most crucially, those who determine such designations are libertarians themselves.
Gary Johnson will not win this election. But even a relatively robust showing would grant the party a more subtle victory: the continued advancement of the fiction that in a truly free society, the unfettered rights of property owners should prevail over social duties. Accepting such a proposition would represent a grave victory for capitalism, solidifying the alienation of a right from its rightness.