No, the US isn’t being swamped by a libertarian wave

Is there anybody out there?
Is there anybody out there?
Image: AP Photo/Molly Riley
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Only 11% of Americans say they are libertarians, despite media hype over a political movement rejecting government interference and the potential presidential run of the prominent libertarian senator Rand Paul (pictured above).

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The finding, from the Pew Research Center’s new national survey of political identity, helps illustrate that while libertarians remain a strong voice in American political culture, few Americans take a black-and-white view of how the government’s power should be employed.

The survey showed a fairly even split among Americans considering whether the regulation of businesses does more harm than good, or if aid for the poor helps or hinders, though a majority does think that corporations make too much profit. Libertarians, meanwhile, leaned strongly against any interference in business or help to the poor, though not as strongly as you might think: 41% of libertarians saw government regulation of business as necessary, and 38% supported aid to the poor.

Indeed, perhaps the most interesting finding is that self-described libertarians favor US involvement in world affairs more than the average citizen, despite their reputation for an isolationist lean. And, even more weirdly, 16% of libertarians said US citizens need to be willing to give up some privacy in exchange for greater security.

But the broad strokes of the opinion survey should be no surprise: While many Americans favor restricting government interference in their personal lives, as reflected in rapidly changing public opinion over gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana and outcry against mass surveillance, the US public typically looks favorably on civil rights laws, public pensions and healthcare subsidies for the elderly, and environmental regulation.

The presidency of Barack Obama has prompted an increase in anti-government rhetoric, thanks to the government’s massive response to the financial crisis in the form of economic stimulus and financial rescues, and the passage of a universal health care law deeply opposed by Republicans. But that’s a natural response to the party in power, just as progressive rhetoric escalated in response to the president George W. Bush’s more libertarian-leaning policies.

Indeed, one of the savviest political operators in Washington, congressman Paul Ryan, is backing off the libertarian rhetoric of “makers and takers” that had characterized his slash-and-burn budgets and his 2012 turn as the Republican vice-presidential nominee. That may not augur changes in his policy proposals, but it does suggest a recognition that talking to libertarians alone isn’t enough to win an election.