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A generic way to define a libertarian in the US could be 'fiscally conservative, socially liberal'.

Given that the two major parties (Republican and Democratic) tend to (again, speaking generically) be diametrically opposed to each other on both of those broad categories of issues, why does it appear that Libertarians tend to side more with the Republicans?

Is that actually the case? Or is that the Republican party attempting to market to a particular political mindset more so than the other party? Does the actual Libertarian party affiliate with one of the two major parties more than the other?

UPDATE:

So, some random theories. Are any of these valid?

  • The Republican Party is better at framing their agenda's messaging to better appeal to libertarians.

  • Libertarians feel the Republican Party is more amenable to their ideals and easier to enact change within.

  • Libertarians have a platform that overlaps parts of both primary parties, but tend to prioritize the platform items that overlap with the Republicans more so than the ones that overlap with the Democrats.

  • The term 'Libertarian' is fuzzy, and the ones that find the Republicans appealing are merely adhering to one definition of libertarianism in the US and don't represent all libertarians.

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    Money is the means to all ends. on the face of it the American left are socially liberal but the bottom line is the more control they take over the economy and the redistribution of wealth, the more power they will gain over society at large and the more power they will have to implement social engineering projects. Economic freedom is a necessary component of social freedom. Oct 24, 2014 at 11:05
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    I don't know that I would actually describe libertarians as 'socially liberal,' at least not in the same sense that I would describe Democrats as 'socially liberal.' Libertarians favor personal freedom to the maximum extent reasonably possible. Democrats nearly the opposite of that. As DVK explained very well, even on the marriage issue, the DNC doesn't take a position of personal freedom. They still want the government to define what does or does not constitute a marriage, they just want a different definition.
    – reirab
    Nov 20, 2014 at 20:34
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    @DA True, but at least the GOP (in rhetoric, at least) does support personal economic freedom, so they have a lot more in common with libertarian ideas than the DNC. It is true that there are a lot of areas of disagreement between libertarians and the GOP leadership, though, just not as much as between libertarians and the DNC leadership. I do agree that the question is a valid one (and I think DVK answered it well.) I was mostly just commenting to point out that 'socially liberal' in the same sense that Democrats use the term doesn't really apply to most libertarians.
    – reirab
    Nov 21, 2014 at 0:12
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    @reirab: The empirical evidence is against you on that. Unrestricted free markets simply hand all the power and wealth to a small oligopoly, leaving everyone else "free" to work under T&Cs set by the oligopoly or starve. The question is not whether state regulation is required to prevent this, but what kind. Jun 26, 2018 at 7:17
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    FYI, the DNC is the formal governing body for the Democratic party, much like the RNC is the formal governing body for the Republican party. DNC doesn't refer to the party itself in the same way GOP refers to the Republican party.
    – De Novo
    Nov 9, 2018 at 19:55

10 Answers 10

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The high level reason is fairly simple. The Democratic party poses more of a threat to libertarian ideals and way of life than the Republican party.

The main philosophical concern of Libertarians is reduction of violence (or a threat of violence) and coercion in political life, aka "NAP" or "Non-Aggression Principle". All of the other things that characterize libertarians stem from that high level point.

In practice, the main source of said coercion since at least 1930s comes from the government; therefore in practice, this means that achieving this philosophical goal requires limiting the power of the government.

Between the two parties, the Democratic party is clearly 100% for increasing the power of central government - both as a goal and as means to achieving other goals. Whereas the Republican party is - while far from anarcho-capitalists - significantly less so (they still tend to grow government power, and wish to use it in politics for their ends - which is why they are Republicans and not libertarians - but their drive to do so is significantly less both in practice AND on ideological/philosophical level).


Even in areas where the Republican party does seem to be (or is) supporting government interference, it is VERY frequently in areas that many libertarians either don't view as undue interference, OR where they disagree with the underlying premise by both parties, or both Republicans and Democrats are not all that different. To wit, the four main "government interference" items that the Republican party is usually accused of are: abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and military intervention abroad. Let's look at each one in detail:

  • Gay marriage:

    First of all, libertarians don't support EITHER side here. Most of them want marriage equality via the means of turning marriage into a private contract between consenting adults, with ZERO involvement by the state.

    More importantly, while virtually no libertarian I'm aware of supports prohibition of gay marriage (e.g., if they can't get their preferred outcome, they prefer Democrats' approach over Republicans'), many of them simply view it as an issue to small in importance compared to other ones when choosing between the Democratic and Republican parties.

    I don't have polls to back this up, but a simplified version of what I just said would be: A libertarian is likely to vote FOR "pro-gay-marriage" specifically - e.g. in a referendum - but vote against politicians ("D") who are for gay marriage for reasons that have nothing to do with gay marriage but with the politicians' other policies.

  • Abortion:

    It may surprise you, but for the vast majority of people opposed to abortion, that opposition has nothing to do with "wanting power over a woman's body". Nearly 100% of people opposing abortions view the aborted fetus as a live human being, and therefore view abortion as nothing short of killing a human. When viewed from that angle, opposing abortion is nothing more than opposing killing, and therefore is fully within the very few powers that the state SHOULD have, namely protecting lives via law enforcement. So, a libertarian very plausibly can (and as per NAP, should) be pro-life, if they view a fetus as a human life. In other words, pro-life vs. anti-abortion position - either one - is not stemming from libertarian philosophy, but rather, from one's view of whether fetus is a live human being; that in turn defines how a given libertarian views abortions. Which is ironically, pretty much what nearly 100% of people having a view on either side base their decision on; the only difference is that for libertarians, NAP makes pro-life less of an "optional" position once "fetus is a life" view is taken.

    Note that some have such view for religious reasons, some have such view for purely scientific ones (e.g., for a fetus in a stage late enough that it would have survived in nICU if delivered prematurely, it's hard to make an argument that merely being attached to a placenta and not to nICU life support somehow turns the fetus from a live human being to "perfectly fine to surgically excise part of mother's body". So saying that "but for GOP it is a matter of theocratic domination so against libertarianism" is a straw-man; an ad hominem attack and probably a couple of other logical fallacies.

  • Immigration

    This is another one where purely practical considerations matter.

    Yes, in an ideal world, libertarians prefer unlimited immigration (citations to position statements trivial to find so I'll skip them).

    However, that ideal world includes one very important stipulation, that the government won't compel anyone currently residing in the country to help provide for the living of the people who choose to immigrate.

    As it is, that's not the case, and the immigration model as it currently stands serves to strongly enhance the welfare state, since all those immigrants get to be taken care of by the state (health, education, other welfare payments) if they are allowed to reside in USA legally without restrictions. You don't see Democrats offering to trade amnesty for "no welfare/social payments to any newly legalized people, ever", do you?

  • Military aggression

    OK, this one is pretty much one of the main areas of disagreement between many libertarians and the hawkish parts of the Republican party.

    So why don't libertarians vote for Democrats because of this? Reasons vary between different people, but some of them are:

    1. It's not like Democrats (as governing party, not as antiwar demonstrating individual voters) are terribly more peaceful compared to Republicans. JFK was more of a hawk than Nixon, LBJ was deeply and fully committed to Vietnam War even if he didn't start it [ed. note JFK did](LBJ subscribed to Domino theory); Clinton military intervened in Serbia and Kosovo, and shot cruise missiles at Sudan and Afghanistan; Obama intervened in Syria, Libya, continued in Afghanistan and re-introduced troops into Iraq and greatly expanded the drone program of George W. Bush.

      And having left-wing government never stopped USSR from invading Afghanistan or being an aggressive military superpower. [Ed. note: Marxist theory calls for revolutionary terror as a "necessity".] Plus, for all their condemnation of US foreign adventurism since Bush, the socialist government of France happily got themselves involved in the war in Mali and before that, started the war in Libya.

    2. Some people simply take a more pragmatic view that defense of the country is the proper (only one of 2 proper) jobs of federal government, even if they are libertarian. Therefore they may object to specific foreign policy steps but don't have any inclinations to vote Democrat just because they are "less militarily inclined". Remember that Eisenhower was a Republican.

    3. Some simply take the long view. ANY large and powerful government is more liable to be more militaristic, that's just how history shows the world works. Therefore, going back to the beginning of this answer, to them stopping Democrats from growing the power and size of government is actually synonymous with long term having less militaristic government. See USSR or Cuba.

There are plenty of other topics where libertarians disagree with Republicans but Democrats would not be much of an improvement in practice based on observed history (war on drugs/drug legalization, prostitution legalization, SWAT and aggressive police tactics, censorship etc...)


To view it another way, look at the stated ideal end goal (leaving aside that in reality the end state would differ from that end goal).

Republicans want the country to be the way USA was in 1950s, sans segregation/racism.

Democrats want the country to be the way France is now.

Which of the two countries do you think a random libertarian would prefer to live in, 1950s USA sans segregation/racism; or 2000s France?

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    I edited the question to remove references to GOP and DNC because these expressions are not analogous, and there is no shorthand for the Democratic party analogous to GOP for the Republican party. So I have edited this answer to match the question.
    – phoog
    2 days ago
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    You omit other areas where Republicans are strongly interventionist, notably drugs. And to some extent other areas like free speech particularly with respect to obscenity, "corrupting minors", and unpatriotic speech (although Democrats have also been active in censorship). Also Republicans seem very keen on trying to interfere in what schools and universities teach, have supported laws against buggery and other sexual practices, and other attempts to impose private/religious morality.
    – Stuart F
    2 days ago
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    @StuartF - actually, I don't :) "war on drugs/drug legalization" is right there in the answer. And yes all those other areas fall into the same conceptual buckets (either both parties are being disagreed with, or Rs are not as bad, from libertarian perspective). ...
    – user4012
    2 days ago
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    @StuartF - As example, let's take laws against buggery. First of all, R platform doesn't support that, even though some small percentage of Rs may individually. Second, even the most fundie Rs in bible belt never as much as arrested anyone for buggery, whereas the shining beacon of left wing, USSR, literally put tens of thousands of gays in jail specifically for being gay (check Wikipedia); and Che and Fidel put them in labour camps. Democrats also shut down Craigslist personals where most of LGBT had fun finding partners in a reasonable way. in the name of some weird made up moral crusade
    – user4012
    2 days ago
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    @phoog - thanks! I was just being too lazy to type up proper terms, your edit is absolutely correct
    – user4012
    2 days ago
22

I think it has less to do with Republican/ Democrat and more with conservative/ liberal, and even these definitions are in a high state of flux.

A Libertarian wants personal freedom, and believes the defining characteristic of government should be in allowing, supporting, and encouraging personal freedoms and the exercise thereof.

Recently, the liberal mindset has geared more towards regulation and implementing social and legal pressures to encourage or discourage behaviors. The liberal is more inclined to support more laws restricting personal freedoms where the individual may be empowered to harm, cause discord, or potentially encourage inequality. Examples of this include gun control laws, SEC/ stock market regulation, environmental regulations, laws against smoking, drinking, behavior, etc.

The conservative mindset is generally resistant to more laws restricting or changing behavior, although there have been notable exceptions in recent years, with conservatism and hawkish behavior becoming closely associated, and additionally the conservative group being dominated with a strong religious conformist influence.

In general, however, the Libertarian's views more closely resemble that of a conservative who resists new laws and regulation, although quite often for different reasons than your standard conservative.

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    I think that last paragraph is a good answer!
    – user1530
    Apr 25, 2013 at 16:05
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    For some reason politicians can claim they are something and their actions define what that means. Imagine If I claimed to be a duck so walking upright and using tools were a duck like thing. There are many people claiming to be conservative and even libertarian that really do not fit that description. And I am so tired of the charge of being liberal being thrown at big governement democrats that want more social programs to keep things basically the same. That is populism not liberalism. Apr 30, 2013 at 18:16
  • Recently? Since the 1930s at least.
    – user9790
    Jun 25, 2018 at 23:29
12

The libertarian party only represents a particular flavour of libertarianism, a.k.a. anarcho-capitalism. Other anarchists, such as anarcho-syndicalists, tend to oppose both the state and major corporations, but individuals may still consider the state as the lesser of two evils. For example, see Libertarian socialism and Left-libertarianism.

The argument may go somewhat like this: in the past, feudalism and slavery were the norm. Lords owned their subjects, who had no rights but were at the whim of their lords. As social movements and revolutions progressed, this slowly made place for the rule of law; in some countries being gradually replaced by a government somewhat subjected to democratic control, in other countries being replaced by an authoritarian government claiming to represent workers interests. But even in the countries known as democracies, democracy usually extends only to the government, and not to the workplace; at work, policies are still dictated by the boss, as they were in the feudalist part. With the important difference that, at least in theory, anybody is free to leave. Left-libertarians may argue that freedom is not achieved by transferring power from a somewhat democratically controlled government to fully undemocratic companies, but that freedom and egality are achieved by an increased sharing of power.

Now where such libertarians stand in the US political landscape, I'm not sure, but I strongly suspect the majority does not tend to side with the Republican Party. Major forces within the Republican Party have recently supported more corporate power (privatisations, lower taxes, etc.) and a restrictive government (invasive privacy rights, harsher sentences, Patriot act, stricter control on border and immigration, etc.). But such libertarians won't be big fans of the Democratic Party either. But I guess that if forced to choose between those two and only those two (and the first-past-the-post system effectively does force people as far as elections are concerned), they will likely vote for candidates from the Democratic Party.

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    Good info, but not sure this answers my question as much as sets up the premise for my question. It appears that 'libertarians (generically speaking)' in the US tend to affiliate themselves more with the GOP than DNC. And, as you state, there doesn't seem to be a strong/clear reason for that at least in terms of matching political agendas.
    – user1530
    Mar 4, 2013 at 16:43
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The outcome seems much more natural if you consider the demographics of libertarians in the US and take into account the fact that adoption of an ideology is based on personal factors more than a person changing their lives drastically to suit an adopted ideology.

Libertarians are overwhelming white, and (somewhat less) overwhelmingly male. This is the demographic least likely to come into conflict with the state with regards to their personal lives and also happens to be richer on average. Since this is the case, their personal priorities naturally drift to what financial benefits they can obtain from things like tax cuts rather than focusing on issue of personal freedoms that don't affect them personally.

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    Personal freedoms like a right to legally buy drugs actually are desired by libertarians. But said libertarians very often choose to abide by the law and live somewhat orderly life because it's a good way to ear money.... And personal freedom of abortion is considered to be conflicted with right of foetus to live. Nov 11, 2022 at 20:15
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"Socially liberal" is accurate in the sense that Libertarians oppose regulation, interference or curtailing of the rights of the individual by government. This extends to "interference" in the form of social safety nets (particularly those provided by public funding through taxation), which are core to the liberal platform.

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    @DA. - Corporate safety nets are voluntary, and therefore don't draw any objections from libertarians. Contrary to leftist caricatures, libertarians have no objection to safety nets - only to people being involuntarily compelled to join/support them.
    – user4012
    Mar 4, 2013 at 15:09
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    @DVK sorry, didn't mean corporate managed safety nets, I meant things like corporate welfare, military contracting, energy and farm subsidies, etc.
    – user1530
    Mar 4, 2013 at 15:48
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    @DA. - (1) compare the size of corporate welfare and social welfare (2) "Corporate welfare" is a loaded term but usually means corporations pay less taxes - not that government gives someone else's money to the corporation. Leaving aside the problematic issue that this is applied unevenly, that's on a high level tactically a GOOD thing from libertarian standpoint.
    – user4012
    Mar 4, 2013 at 15:51
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    @DA. - No, it's not the case that libertarians are so weak minded that they fall for "marketing", as you seem to imply. There is a deep and fundamental difference between government giving someone other people's money, and govenment taking less of their own money, having nothing to do with semantic games of calling both "welfare".
    – user4012
    Mar 4, 2013 at 15:59
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    I simply disagree that that is a deep and fundamental difference--but that would be a different question/debate. I also am not implying libertarians are any weaker minded than anyone else in terms of marketing. I'm saying marketing is important. The democrats, IMHO, haven't excelled at that as of late.
    – user1530
    Mar 4, 2013 at 16:01
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I think it's because the Democratic party doesn't try to hide the fact that they are for expansion and spending more money, whereas the Republican party attempts to create the illusion that they are for cuts.

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    I somewhat agree, but that appears to take care of only one part of the libertarian objective (shrink federal government). Is it that libertarians prioritize that one particular agenda item over all their others?
    – user1530
    Mar 4, 2013 at 15:48
  • I think the reasoning behind it is that in theory -- not necessarily in practice -- if a party is working towards cuts then it is likely decreasing the scope and invasiveness of the government. Mar 4, 2013 at 22:06
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    I agree, but that still leaves a level of dissonance given that the GOP isn't necessarily doing either.
    – user1530
    Mar 4, 2013 at 22:48
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Historically, the parties were more divided on economics and less divided by culture. For example, Obama was never in favor of legalizing weed and wasn't in favor of gay marriage until 2012, while Biden sponsored a fair amount of tough-on-crime legislation. So this left with Libertarians with a choice between a party that supported their economics and not their culture and a party that didn't support their economics and only somewhat supported their culture.

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    The Democrats definitely had a socially conservative wing, linked both with blue-collar unionized workers and the (white) Southern Democrat constituency. Both of these groups have seen reductions in recent decades. More recently Democrats have seen unsure what they stand for, with a tendency towards centrism since Clinton (going into Obama), and libertarians seem temperamentally far from centrism.
    – Stuart F
    2 days ago
1

There is an article from 2013, Why Libertarians And Progressives Will Never Get Along, which attempts to explain this from a left-wing perspective. The TLDR is that, in that author's view, economic issues are the "fundamental fault line" (their wording) in American politics, other issues are secondary.

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Given that the two major parties (Republican and Democratic) tend to (again, speaking generically) be diametrically opposed to each

They aren't. They represent the edges of the overton window in the U.S., but when compared to other countries and ideologies, then their ideologies are still rather close together. Like the Republican RomneyCare became the model of the Democratic ObamaCare and despite the republican party moving ever further to the right the democrats are still willing to cooperate with them, because on the issues they often aren't far away from each other. Like it's often joked that the U.S. has a right wing and a far right wing party, but there's a whole other side of the spectrum that isn't really covered and which would be the diametrically opposed.

The term 'Libertarian' is fuzzy, and the ones that find the Republicans appealing are merely adhering to one definition of libertarianism in the US and don't represent all libertarians.

Definitely that one. Like classical Libertarianism was floated as a more palatable alternative for the term "Anarchism", because it focuses less on being opposed to rulers, which is often confused by opponents as being opposed to rules and instead puts the focus on "liberty/freedom" which has the same effect (no rulers=more freedom) but might have had less of a stigma. Also by Anarchism I mean the real, original anarchist movement, the one that opposes all social hierarchies. Which crucially makes them anti-capitalist as economic inequality is also a plainly obvious way to command other people to your will and against theirs. And with increased political participation, this antagonism to the exploitation of economic inequality was not just a side note, but a rather important part of that idea.

And for those reasons "right-libertarianism" or what is called "libertarianism" in the U.S., actually makes no sense in the framework of classical libertarianism, like at all. It's almost as if it is a completely different thing that just co-opted some of the original Libertarians terminology... and that's precisely what apparently happened.

Unlike classical Libertarianism/Anarchism, which exists since the 19th century under that label, the U.S. version only came into being in the latter half of the 20th century. Apparently the New Left and anti-war movement gained so much traction that, that a group of conservatives tried to get into that wave of populism and rebranded their "Old Right" ideas of "classical liberalism" and anti-interventionism as "libertarianism". Like the founder was literally previously a former member of the Republican party and their ideological base in in Austrian School economics (Anarcho-Capitalism), drawing inspiration from Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell. Who themselves even came up with idea of paleolibertarianism a mixture of right wing-libertarianism and paleoconservatism so "socially conservative and fiscally conservative". Implying that at least to them the economic "Old Right" part is what mattered and what they wanted to propel into the "New Right" and the rest is just baggage.

Now anarcho-capitalism, the founding ideology of the libertarian party, is so absurd that even it's followers ended up being a minority in their own party. Like when classical anarchism exposes an antagonism against the state, it's usually because anarchism is literally "against rulers", so they are fine if society is transformed from a top-down hierarchy to a bottom-up self-organization. While for anarcho-Capitalists "the state" is not the concept of rulership over a group but a concrete central government. If the same sort of power falls into the hands of a private individual, like because they bought it, that person could have tyrannical free reign, because they can decide what to do with their property and it would not be a problem to an Ancap. Though they can't outright force people, but idk hiding it in the Terms of Service is fine and if you own the media, the education system, the military or the health care sector you can make people sign contracts quite easily...

Now while in classical anarchism the absence of property or the shared ownership of crucial resources is at least in theory able to sustain itself without external force, like if someone were to acquire all they would literally be stealing from the rest who would have an incentive and a moral mandate to take it back. The unlimited right to property, to the exclusion of others and to the detriment of others, because of it's unrestricted usage, is something that is much less self-sustaining and need enforcement. So while anarcho-capitalists already reduced anarchism to "anti-state" most of these libertarians and anarcho-capitalists ended up not even being anti-state. As they ideologically needed a state to enforce property rights. Of course you can fend others off with your private nukes, be a feudal landlord with your own army of slaves or hire the mob I mean "private security contractors". But that was so fringe that even the majority of the libertarians apparently were minarchists (a minimum state that defends property rights) and who achieved the Dallas accord (1974) leaving it vague in the party platform as to whether the state is the enemy. And in 2006 apparently they deleted further anarcho-capitalist details from the platform affirming the government as the protector of life, liberty and property.

So that the initial founders and ideologues were furious that it was now timid and no longer the party of market radicals, but one that tries to be inoffensive to get more voters.

So TL;DR U.S. style right-libertarians are really just "Old Right" economic conservatives (against New Deal Politics) that rebranded with catchy leftist terminology that drew from conservative voters and aimed to confuse anti-war people and push the conservative platform further to the economic extreme version of capitalism. The socially liberal part is more accidental as the extreme capitalism doesn't prescribe a social stance and so they can partner with conservatives and progressives alike as long as they are for unregulated capitalism where the Republican party is closer.

-2

Libertarians don't side with GOP or Democrats. They are split between them. Your confusion is caused because there is another axis of political affiliation that you are missing, authoritarian/populist/totalitarianism vs. libertarian/individualism/anarchism. Libertarians are outside the 1 dimensional spectrum. See the Nolan chart for the best explanation.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nolan_Chart

https://www.nolanchart.com/article7443-what-do-the-nolan-chart-categories-mean-html

nolan chart

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    The question was in the context of Libertarians in the US overwhelmingly (if not completely) running as Republicans...however, that wasn't necessarily clear. Perhaps that would be a better separate question (why, in the US, do Libertarian candidates always run as Republicans?)
    – user1530
    May 7, 2015 at 6:21
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    @DA. - I wouldn't be surprised if libertarians also vote for R overwhelmingly, with some exceptions.
    – user4012
    May 7, 2015 at 16:16
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    @Chloe - they DO side with GOP or Democrats, not out of some deep ideological intricacies of Nolan Chart, but out of the first-past-the-post electoral system enforcing the dominance of only 2 parties. Outside of narrow range of exceptions, you will ALWAYS have either D or R in a specific elected slot; so as an electorate member you have to pick one to side with even if you aren't identical to either politically.
    – user4012
    May 7, 2015 at 16:18
  • This chart is just an advertisement with little real bearing on reality.
    – user253751
    2 days ago
  • @user4012 it should be noted that in elections for specific seats the 2-party-dominance effect is per-seat. They don't have to be Republican and Democrat in every electoral district.
    – user253751
    yesterday

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