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A Look at Readers’ Comments on Our Libertarian Post

If you don’t make it a habit of perusing FiveThirtyEight’s comment section, aside from missing the many, many insights of our learned readers, you also probably missed the interesting debate that erupted in response to Nate Silver’s post on Monday about an apparent uptick in libertarian leanings.

The argument, generally, was over the merits of libertarianism as a governing philosophy. But more fundamentally, readers were sparring over just what, exactly, libertarianism is. And, for the most part, each camp rhetorically pushed the other side’s viewpoint to its extreme.

Readers on the anti-libertarian side of the ledger dominated the early stages of the discussion. Eric from Oregon defined a libertarian as “just an anarchist with a mortgage.”

“Both are juvenile/idealistic/uninformed ideologies that are simply oblivious to the realities of modern existence.”

BlueMoose of Binghamton, N.Y., had a similar take: “So-called libertarianism is nothing but warmed-over laissez-faire Republicanism with a smattering of anarchism thrown in to delude the gullible. It didn’t work in the 19th century and it will work even less now.”

In turn, the pro-libertarians offered a different definition of their politics. James from Arizona wrote, “Libertarian (does not equal) someone who believes that the government is best when it governs least. A Libertarian is someone who emphasizes the value of personal liberty; holding it as a key or even fundamental political virtue.”

And JP from Washington wrote: “I love the straw men. Most libertarians believe you need a government that is strong enough to perform basic functions well, which is what is called for in the Constitution.”

Dennis from Michigan made a similar point: “Libertarians are not Anarchists. Smaller government, which can mean different things to each, not no government.”

Another charge that was leveled against libertarians was that the gulf between libertarian theory and day-to-day life is too wide, or as Jerry Rubin of Wisconsin put it, “People want government out of their lives until they need them!”

Evan of the Bronx agreed, writing, “Americans love the idea of libertarianism, until they actually have to live its reality.”

Some readers questioned the very premise of the article, that libertarian ideals were in fact on the rise. Scott McIntosh of Chevy Chase, Md., wrote, “I’m not sure that the first question provides a reliable measure of economic libertarianism. The question asks whether ‘the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses.’ But what the government ‘is trying to do’ is a moving target. For better or worse, the government is doing a great deal more under the current Administration than it was doing a few years ago. So even if nobody’s values regarding economic regulation had changed, you would expect to see a rise in the percentage of people who think the government is now going too far.”

Sajwert from New Hampshire boiled down the overall debate to its crucial question. Sajwert addressed the question to libertarians, but it could equally be asked of Republicans and Democrats: “Exactly HOW much LESS government do they specifically want?”

It’s the same question that underlies almost every debate in Washington, including health care and financial regulations (as well as our recent redistricting discussion): Where exactly should we draw the lines?


For readers who want to learn more about libertarianism, here are some resources (for, against and neutral):

The Libertarian Vote” and “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama,” by David Boaz and David Kirby from the Cato Institute.

The Libertarian Party’s platform.

A 2010 essay by Christopher Beam in New York magazine, “The Trouble With Liberty,” highlights the growing popularity of libertarians, but asks, “Do we want to live in their world?”

In a GQ essay from 2009, Andrew Corsello lamented the ballooning influence of the libertarian author Ayn Rand. (Warning: the essay has some not-so-nice words).

And in 2008, Nathan Thornburgh, in Time, wrote a good primer on libertarianism.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.