Epstein on "The Libertarian’s Dilemma"

The Libertarian’s Dilemma
Richard A. Epstein
Defining Ideas
November 5, 2012

In the final countdown to what promises to be a close election, the libertarian finds himself without a comfortable home in either political party. Political parties and their presidential candidates offer market baskets of policy prescriptions on a large array of different issues. We do not have the option of picking out from each basket the policies that we like and rejecting the rest. Politics do not come served a la carte in our two-party system.

As an academic, my objective is to analyze each package inside each market basket. As a voter, I don’t have that luxury; choosing between baskets means taking the bitter with the sweet. That means voting for a candidate whose policies I may oppose on many key issues. For most voters, those choices are less painful than they are for libertarians. A typical Republican or Democrat believes in most of the policies that his candidate puts forth. For a libertarian, voting for either candidate causes internal philosophical dissonance.

The source of the puzzle lies in the libertarian attitude toward individual liberty. To put it crudely, Republicans tend to be market liberals and social conservatives, while Democrats tend to be market regulators with mixed sentiments on social issues. Libertarians tend to take the same stance on the market and social issues, which is that state intervention into both should be presumed bad until it can be shown good. In other words, libertarians lean to small government in all policy domains.

Richard A. Epstein