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Friday, January 18, 2019

In Republican primary politics, the libertarian brand carries cachet, which explains why many of the GOP’s presidential candidates are battling to position themselves as the one true standard-bearer of small government conservatism. But a funny thing is happening on the way to the Republican primaries: The whole notion of small government libertarianism has been hijacked by politicians who often represent the opposite.

Take Lindsey Graham, whose political action committee is staffing up for the South Carolina Republican senator’s possible presidential run. In an interview with an Iowa newspaper earlier this month, Graham said: “Libertarians want smaller government. Count me in. Libertarians want oversight of government programs and making sure that your freedoms are not easily compromised. Count me in.”

Yet, despite that rhetoric, Graham has been one of the most outspoken proponents of mass surveillance. Indeed, in response to news that the National Security Agency has been vacuuming up millions of Americans’ telephone calls, there was no sign of Graham’s purported small government libertarianism. Instead, he said in 2013, “I’m glad that activity is going on” and declared, “I’m sure we should be doing this.”

Similarly, Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz has reportedly raised millions for his presidential bid, after launching his campaign on a promise of smaller government.

What Cruz doesn’t say in his speeches railing on “unelected bureaucrats” is that he has spent much of his professional life as an unelected government employee, first as an appointee in George W. Bush’s administration, then as an appointee in Texas’ state government. Also unmentioned in Cruz’s announcement speech at Liberty University was data showing that the conservative school has received one of the largest amounts of government Pell Grant funding of any nonprofit university in America, according to the Huffington Post. That fact can be described with a lot of words, but “libertarian” probably isn’t one of them.

Then there is Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, the candidate who most openly embraces the libertarian brand.

As a senator, he more than others has strayed from GOP orthodoxy and taken some genuinely strong libertarian positions — most notably against the ongoing drug war, surveillance, and the militarization of America’s domestic police force. He has also tried to foment a discussion about the taboo topic of government subsidies to corporations. In January, he said that “we will not cut one penny from the safety net until we’ve cut every penny from corporate welfare” and last month he said that if elected president, he’d slash business subsidies “so I don’t have to cut the Social Security of someone who lives on Social Security.”

However, Paul’s pledges about corporate welfare apparently do not extend to the Pentagon, which has often been a big repository of such welfare for defense contractors. As Time reported in March, “Just weeks before announcing his 2016 presidential bid … Paul is completing an about-face on a longstanding pledge to curb the growth in defense spending.” The magazine noted that he introduced legislation “calling for a nearly $190 billion infusion to the defense budget over the next two years — a roughly 16 percent increase.”

Additionally, Paul is anti-choice on the abortion issue. That’s right, for all of his anti-big-government rhetoric, he supports using the power of huge government to ban women from making their own choices about whether or not to terminate pregnancies.

While few believe across-the-board libertarianism is a pragmatic governing strategy, some of that ideology’s core tenets — like respect for privacy and civil liberties — are valuable, constructive ideals. But when the most famous libertarian icons so often contradict themselves, those ideals are undermined. They end up seeming less like the building blocks of a principled belief system and more like talking points propping up a cheap brand — one designed to hide shopworn partisanship.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising, and Back to Our Future. Email him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at 

Photo: U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

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15 responses to “GOP’s Libertarians Aren’t All That Libertarian”

  1. Dominick Vila says:

    I think it is also worth mentioning that the largest increases in the physical size of the Federal government during the last half century took place during the Reagan and Bush II tenures. It is also worth remembering that some of the proposals being made by conservatives on issues such as abortion, gay rights, religious “freedom”, and equality, are among the most intrusive ever suggested in the history of the USA, and often border on being unconstitutional.

  2. FireBaron says:

    Amazing how a “Libertarian” suddenly can become more of an “Establishment Republican” when the microphone is supposed to be off.

  3. bobnstuff says:

    When are the right wing going see the man behind the curtain pulling the strings. Why can’t people see what they do instead of what they say.

  4. charleo1 says:

    Libertarian values have a place, when considering such issues as the civil, and property Rights eroding, war on drugs, the militarization of Police, the privatization of prisons, or in it’s calls for strong verifiable oversight on an ever more Orwellian capable, State surveillance apparatus. Which accounts for it’s popularity, especially with young people. But that’s not, for a corporately owned Congress, or the militant social conservatives, what in fact, they see in Libertarianism’s smaller government tenants. What corporations see, is the opportunity for elimination of the various financial, and environmental regulatory agencies. Which they continue to whack away at, thru their legions of lawyers, and lobbyists. And thru their free market spouting minions at all levels of the Gov. Yes, taxation, and regulation, are freedom inhibiting, and so they hold, anti-libertarian. As are traffic lights, and speed limits intrusions of the State into our personal, and professional lives, by that narrow definition. So we need to be careful. As Libertarianism’s mushy core on it’s lack of recognition at times, of a need for any gov. intrusion. Can create a situation where might always makes right. And the Rights of the People themselves are trampled.

    Which bring us to it’s second group of advocates, the Social Conservatives, of the Evangelical Religious Right. Who often see what they consider big government’s enforcement of Civil Rights Laws, as abridging their strongly held Religious Right, to discriminate, shun, or otherwise refuse to do business with those they believe are openly violating their beliefs. If the State is powerful enough to require me to serve Gays, then, they hold, must the Jew serve pork? They are ideologues, and purists, as a lot of strong Libertarians tend to be. Rand Paul opined, had he been around at the consideration of Civil Rights Legislation in the 60s. He would have not voted in the affirmative, on the grounds of limited government. The government according to Sen, Paul, overstepped it’s authority in requiring Woolworth, a privately held company, to change it’s policy against serving people of African American heritage at it’s lunch counter. Not, he quickly explained, because he’s racists, or doesn’t personally believe Black people should not be able to eat at the counter. But, because he doesn’t believe it’s within the limits of government provided in the Constitution, to dictate company policy to business owners. Even if that policy is clearly discriminatory. And even if the policy is intentionally adopted for no other reason but to be discriminatory.

  5. Bren Frowick says:

    The notion that “respect for privacy and civil liberties” is exclusive to Libertarians is utterly absurd. The people who call themselves “Libertarian” cherry-pick select items from the menu, while congratulating themselves on not being part of those “other” parties, even as they routinely vote Republican Big Government types in, simply because the lying hypocrites talk the talk.

  6. johninPCFL says:

    Paul, Cruz, and Graham all want a government just small enough to put a cop in every bedroom (no gay sex!) and doctor’s office (no talking about abortion!) in the country.

  7. Carolyn1520 says:

    The corporate puppet masters find them very useful though.

  8. anothertoothpick says:

    Libertarians are only Hypocrites. Like Ayn Rand collecting SS and Medicare

    And Paul Ryan using his fathers SS benefit to pay for college.

  9. TZToronto says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the GOP primaries didn’t result in a clear winner at the convention? What if the delegates from the primaries are all over the map, and 4, 5, or 6 ballots are needed the find the rightest of the right? How much enthusiasm would right wingers have for voting for someone whose ideas are just not “right?” Would they stay home rather than be forced to vote for someone whose ideas are not close enough to their own twisted view of things? Well, I can hope, can’t I?

  10. Daniel Jones says:

    There *are* no libertarians.. just motherless carpetbaggers and those foolish enough to believe them.

  11. Hypocrisy has long been one of the G.O.P.’s most celebrated features. It should be no surprise at all that so-called anti-government libertarians are actually head over heels in love with the aspects of such that even true socialists would decry.

  12. Mr Corrections says:

    Since “Libertarian” philosophy transparently consists of nothing more than a sophomoric attempts to justify existing privilege, I am amazed this news required an article of any sort.

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