Trump’s Nomination Doesn’t Mean Libertarians’ Involvement in the GOP Has Been Misplaced

[Editor’s Note: This commentary by former Federal Election Commission Chairman, Center for Competitive Politics Chairman and Founder, and Capital University Josiah H. Blackmore/Shirley M. Nault Professor of Law Bradley A. Smith is reprinted here with his permission.]


A libertarian professor friend of mine took the opportunity of Trump’s nomination to write on Facebook:

The fact that the GOP appears to be nominating Trump, and the fact that libertarian-leaning conservative intellectuals in the GOP are (rightly) frothing at the mouth the most about it, only provides more evidence for my long-standing view that libertarian intellectuals who thought their (our?) home was in the GOP were making a very risky “pact with the devil.”

He went on a bit but that gets the mood and core message of the piece.

My response, which I’ll reprint here with light edits, was this:

As a libertarian intellectual who made a home in the GOP, I am extremely proud of what we accomplished and consider the world a much better place for it.  What are a few of the things we accomplished?

The GOP went from a protectionist to a free trade party for a generation.  It is about as indisputable as things get in politics that gains in free trade around the world would not have been possible without near-unanimous Republican support in Congress.  That is a direct result of the infusion of libertarian ideals into the GOP, and has in turn increased human freedom and helped to raise tens of millions out of poverty.

The GOP, for a generation or more, was the party welcoming to immigration.  It was generally on the backs of GOP presidents and members of Congress that refugees were admitted in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s.

The libertarian alliance with the GOP is responsible for an enormous shift in anti-trust law that has increased human freedom and prosperity.

Libertarian intellectuals played a huge role in moving the GOP from an anti-second amendment to a pro-second amendment party; and from an anti-free speech party to a pro-speech party.  Today, virtually all political support for a robust First Amendment comes from within the GOP.

I could go on (there are many more examples), but I consider these just a few of the triumphs for which libertarians (or “libertarian leaning conservatives”) can take a lion’s share of the credit.

I have no grudge against my colleagues who prefer not to engage in politics, for whatever reason.  I don’t consider them to have made a “risky pact with the devil” merely because they did not act in the same way I and others did to raise living standards through free trade agreements and rules enacted in the political arena, or protect dissent through opposition to campaign finance laws and “false speech” laws in the political arena.  There are many ways to advance freedom.  Perhaps I would have accomplished more had I focused all my talents on the classroom and academic research.

But if one believes that politics ultimately matters (perhaps because even if it doesn’t matter to you, it matters to others who will seize power), and if one chooses to play in the political arena, then one has to begin with the recognition that there are various and considerable dispositional, constitutional and statutory features of the U.S. system that lead it to naturally be dominated by two large, coalition parties.  It would be very difficult to change these features, and for many reasons I am not sure that such change would be a net benefit.  Such change would, in any case, likely take a generation or more to make happen, and that change would, itself, likely have to come through finding a home in one of the two major parties and advocating for change from there.  So if one believes it worthwhile to seriously engage in politics, one will almost be certainly allied with one of the two major parties, even if one studiously retains a formal independence.

Entering the political arena means recognizing that one will lose, lose often, and often lose badly.  There are no permanent victories.  That might be the single iron law of politics. But that doesn’t mean the effort is futile.

I know of few if any libertarians who feel permanently wedded to a party.  The challenge going forward will be the same as it was—to determine the best course for implementing libertarian ideas, or for preventing actions that decrease liberty.  But if most libertarian intellectuals engaging in politics over the last generation did so through the GOP, that suggests that the GOP was, perhaps, the party more friendly to libertarian ideals.

Frankly, it’s not very attractive to sit back and smugly say “I told you so” at the moment that your ideological colleagues who were willing to and chose to battle in the political arena have suffered major setbacks.  But the world is clearly a better, more free, more prosperous place for what libertarian intellectuals have done within the GOP, and there is no particularly plausible argument to suggest that more would have been accomplished over the last several decades had they (we) attempted to work through the Democratic Party, a minor party or parties, or remained politically homeless and hence, in the libertarian writer Albert Nock’s formulation, “superfluous.”

I don’t believe that libertarian intellectuals (or perhaps “libertarian-leaning conservatives”) like Madison, Jefferson, and James Wilson believed their efforts had been a “pact with the devil” simply because the Democratic Party always contained its slaveholders and statists and eventually nominated the feckless James Buchanan.  In politics, you fight the battles you can, win the ones you can, and recognize that many others, at many times, will be lost.

The world is a better place for my decision to work within the GOP.  I’m very proud of that.  I don’t begrudge those who eschew the grubby work of politics, and the invariable compromises it demands.  But I don’t think there is any serious argument to be made that the decision of so many libertarian intellectuals to make a home in the GOP has been a bad thing.

Moving forward, people will, as they always do and always have, be rethinking what are the best means and vehicles for promoting liberty.

I also added this thought as a little P.S. (also lightly edited):

Looking at the incredible support that the Marxist Bernie Sanders has among Millenials, the anti-liberal education that is going on at our universities, and the growing support for censorship among college students and young adults (amply demonstrated in polling and in action), I wonder if any of the many libertarian professors who hit “like” for [my friend’s] post would consider their decisions to make themselves an intellectual home within America’s colleges and universities to have been a “pacts with the devil”?  After all, it is hard to find a more anti-libertarian institution to which libertarian intellectuals could have contributed their talents.

I suspect, however, that they have considered it a good faith effort to advance libertarian ideals through the imperfect institutions available to them.  But if you hit “like” for [my friend’s] post about libertarians who worked within the GOP, then perhaps the “pact with the devil’” theory should at least be considered for those who work in universities generally, no?


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