This unconventional election year underscores the merit of the third-party option.
With the advent of two unpopular front-runners and the rise of third-party candidate Gary Johnson, libertarianism has factored more prominently in this presidential election than in any other cycle in recent memory. Given the nature of voters’ pronounced concerns over the economy and the credibility and efficiency of the federal government, this is not surprising. Libertarianism is not just an alternative to two unpalatable mainstream parties. Instead of tinkering with details, libertarianism squarely addresses the shortcomings of politics as usual, while also offering an opportunity to reflect on first principles and the proper role of government.
Indeed, libertarianism is not (just) about being left alone, and in the context of the 2016 election cycle it is not (just) an alternative to a tired insider or an erratic outsider.
Indeed, libertarianism is not (just) about being left alone, and in the context of the 2016 election cycle it is not (just) an alternative to a tired insider or an erratic outsider. Rather, libertarianism offers a principled approach to political life. At its core lies the “non-aggression principle,” which rejects the initiation of force against others. Based on this principle, government is limited to the protection of individual rights, and leaves the rest to markets and civil society. If the government attempts to do anything beyond protecting rights, it will—by definition—violate the rights of some to benefit others.
Beyond these philosophical precepts, libertarianism makes a compelling case on economic grounds, the first pillar of which is rooted in public choice theory. It is often assumed that market participants are motivated by selfishness, while political actors are driven by a desire to advance the common good. Public choice theory rejects this distinction, observing instead that the same people operate in markets and government—and both respond to incentives. As such, we cannot simply assume benevolence from government actors, but we must build institutional safeguards accordingly. Not surprisingly, public choice theory was described by one of its founders as “politics without romance.”
Libertarianism makes a compelling case on economic grounds, the first pillar of which is rooted in public choice theory.
Public choice theory points out that politicians and bureaucrats will tend to favor policies with concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. This is the so-called “special-interest effect”—and here’s an example of how it works: Every American today pays about $15 a year to subsidize an inefficient domestic sugar industry. While it is not in any individual’s interest to fight for a $15 refund, the sugar industry will fight hard for the estimated $3 billion it takes, through government, from American consumers. Because the costs (shouldered by the taxpayers) are so diffuse, there’s little will to resist; meanwhile the payout to the special interest group (in this case, the sugar industry) is so hefty it creates a powerful motive to continue to lobby for the benefit. Five-sixths of US wealth transfers work in this way—namely they do not flow from wealthier to poorer Americans, but from the disorganized many to the organized few. Government thus becomes a medium to advance private preferences through public means, under a veneer of advancing the public good. In such an environment, which increasingly rewards political connections over economic activity, it is no wonder that income inequality has been increasing.
The second pillar of libertarianism is the Austrian school of economics, which explains that policymakers lack the knowledge to understand—let alone fix—a complex economy. Many everyday consumer products are actually quite complex. Tampering with any part of the market cycle through government intervention can have unforeseen and unintended consequences down the line. This is the Austrian school’s point: There are consequences to state interventions in the market, even in cases where the goods and markets in question seem relatively simple and straightforward. Even in the age of computers and advanced mathematical modeling, policymakers simply lack the requisite knowledge to "fix" markets, and usually end up breaking them.
Policymakers lack the knowledge to understand—let alone fix—a complex economy.
Take the example of a secretary of agriculture, trying to help poor children get access to milk (assume that the dairy lobby doesn’t figure in this picture!). The government puts a price cap on milk, at $2 per gallon. Dairy farmers face the same input costs and a limited sales price, so many will go out of business—leading to a shortage of milk, rather than the intended abundance of cheap milk. So perhaps the government attempts to fix the problem by putting a price cap on cattle feed… but this puts a crunch on cattle feed suppliers … and the cycle continues—as it has for healthcare, the War on Drugs, banking regulation, and so many others.
Government at all levels in the US today controls about half the economy. That's half the economy that is taken out of the hands of individuals, families, and small businesses—and controlled by politicians and bureaucrats who lack the knowledge to run an economy, and often the proper incentives to act in anybody's interest but their own.
Alas, the story of government overreach—and libertarian opposition to it—doesn't end with economics. For example, the average American unwittingly commits three felonies a day. And about half of the prison population in the US is locked up for non-violent drug offenses that did not involve violating the property rights of others. There are many reasons for the increasing distrust between police and communities; increasing criminalization is an important factor. There are also consequences for race relations, as racial minorities and low-income Americans (often the same) disproportionately suffer from the growth of the police state.
The bad news is that both presidential candidates want to continue expanding the reach of government into our lives—an expansion that has been advanced by both liberals and conservatives, who claim to know more than we do about our lives, and will gladly use public means to advance private preferences. These expansions and incursions hurt ordinary Americans for the benefit of the politically well connected.
The good news is that there is an alternative: libertarianism. Let government return to its original functions of protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let government get out of the way of job creation and individual creativity. And let individuals flourish without violence or coercion.