Everyone is a libertarian these days: the outcast independent who is fiscally conservative but socially liberal; the gay-rights activist who wants to legalize same-sex marriage; the Tea Party protester who denounces Obama’s agenda; the college student who dreams of decriminalized marijuana.
The libertarian label has been appropriated by so many disparate groups that it often acts as an umbrella organization for those who feel disenchanted with or victimized by Republicans or Democrats. In popular usage, it has almost become a catch-all for any deviation from the standard two-party system. But while the party is growing, it needs to make sure it doesn’t sacrifice its principles in favor of increased membership.
Young people are especially drawn to the ideology because they find it harder to pin themselves down on the linear spectrum between liberal and conservative. Libertarianism is increasingly appealing to college-aged students who disfavor Democratic economic theory because they support a free market and are tolerant enough of liberal social values to disapprove of Republican intrusions in the private sphere.
“College students these days are just more tolerant of personal lifestyle choices than earlier generations,” said Wes Benedict, executive director of the Libertarian Party. “We’ve been outspoken against the war on drugs, the war on Iraq and Afghanistan and against the PATRIOT Act.”
A paper published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, reported data from the Center for American Progress that shows that 13 percent of young people identify themselves as libertarians, in contrast to just 6 percent of people overall. In addition, 2006 data from the Pew Research Center showed that one-third of all libertarians are between the ages of 18 and 29.
The face of libertarianism on the national stage is Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who is a frequent supporter of libertarian causes. Paul is a darling of the internet world, which is dominated by young people. He also won the Conservative Political Action Conference’s 2012 presidential straw poll in February, in which 54 percent of respondants were between the ages of 18 and 25. It is perhaps Paul’s honesty, sense of purpose and unwavering principles that young people admire most.
“We call ourselves the Party of Principle,” Benedict said. “We stick to our principles and espouse them more than Democrats or Republicans do.”
But the resoluteness of Paul and libertarians’ principles is also their biggest detraction.
Whether libertarians are praised or mocked, they refuse to surrender their ideals. Paul was criticized for being foolishly anti-federalist in his calls to end the Federal Reserve System. And the Libertarian Party joined Republicans in denouncing the healthcare overhaul, earning scorn for obstructing reform.
This unshakeable resolution in the face of pressure from both the right and left has caused an internal debate within the Libertarian Party. The clash is between “taking a more pragmatic approach versus a more principled approach,” said Mik Robertson, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Pennsylvania. He said the party needs to find a balance between principle and action, explaining that “You need to ground your public policies in principle.”
But while it may be tempting to try to change some of the party’s stances in an effort to please as many people as possible, this would weaken the party’s cause and do more harm than good. What already unites party members — why young people, gay-rights advocates and Tea Party protesters self-identify as libertarian — is the love of personal and economic liberty. A niche Libertarian Party that remains faithful to its current ideals is preferable to one that sacrifices its principles to become just another unscrupulous political party.
As Robertson said, “Without principles, you get Democrats and Republicans.”
Prameet Kumar is a Wharton sophomore from New York. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Political Penndit appears on Wednesdays.
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