Libertarian vs Republican: How Different are these Two Political Groups?

Are Republicans and Libertarians two peas in a pod?

Political commentators have led many students of American politics to believe that the two groups have tons in common. After all, they usually want to keep the government’s greedy paws from people’s checkbooks and don’t like the idea of politicians spending like drunken sailors.

At a surface level, these political factions’ shared beliefs on limited government, free market principles, and individual responsibility makes said alliance a no-brainer. So, what’s the hold up?

In politics, it’s wise for us to not assume too much. These two factions part ways on questions of national security, civil liberties, and certain economic issues such as central banking. As a result, there lie fundamental differences between the two groups, which lead them to form distinct political organizations to further advance their goals.

What is a Libertarian?

One must remember that libertarianism did not emerge in a vacuum. It is ultimately the product of centuries of classical liberal thought and arguably the logical conclusion of classical liberalism.

A desire to uphold individual liberties and the freedom of association are hallmarks of any serious lover of liberty. These characteristics make liberty supporters firm opponents of the current state of affairs in Western politics. This is a time that is marked by big government, high taxes, big spending, and an activist defense policy.

Cutting taxes and burdensome regulations are how libertarians would handle economic affairs. Freeing the economy from state control allows for business to expand their operations and hire more people, thus raising living standards. Conservatives in the Republican Party largely agree with this position on taxes as well.

From the liberty perspective, economic subsidies that prop up certain industries are wasteful and reward inefficient industries that could potentially be corrupted by constant government injections of money. The free-market advocate believes that people can manage their own lives without the government holding their hands. Similarly, the conventional right-winger is in agreement with this take on subsidies.

On education, libertarians believe that the state plays too much of a role. Instead, market forces should shape the way education is delivered. In their view, the current education model favors administrators and bureaucrats. Parents and children are completely left out of the equation, while the state shapes the way education is administered. 

Reforms such as school choice, making it easier to set up private schooling initiatives by removing barriers to entry, and allowing homeschooling to operate without much interference are the best ways to tackle this problem.

What is a Republican?

The modern-day Republican Party traces its origins to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, who sought to preserve the Union in a time of great sectional strife. Its origin was more pragmatic in nature, dealing with a Civil War that threatened the integrity of the American state. 

Since then, conservatism has evolved into a philosophy that is skeptical of radical change and seeks to nominally preserve America’s traditional system of limited government. Additionally, the party of Lincoln tends to favor traditional values such as the sanctity of life and traditional marriage. Some factions of conservatism would go as far as to have the state enforce these values

Conservatives are in favor of markets, but in a generic sense. They want to reform policies around the margin by pushing for tax cuts and having some deregulation here and there. 

In reality, most on the right side of the spectrum do not seem enthusiastic about rolling back any of the expansions in government that activists during the Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society brought about. In a sense, they serve as a false opposition to liberal counterparts in the Democratic Party.

The Key Differences Between Libertarians and Republicans 

The difference between a libertarian and Republican individual may look subtle but can actually be quite striking on the issues that have redefined U.S. politics over the last century. 

A number of political commentators often quip that Libertarians are Republicans who just smoke weed. Such an interpretation does a disservice to the unique nature of the philosophy of liberty’s foundations.

But there are significant differences between the two groups that warrants scrutiny. 

Foreign Affairs

Libertarian: Liberty-minded individuals tend to take a more non-interventionist approach to foreign affairs and eschew the hawkish behavior conservative policy makers such as President George W. Bush and his neoconservative brain trust pursued in the first decade of the 21st century. 

The liberty perspective on national affairs is one based on non-interventionism and commerce. The only time force – be it through wars, sanctions, or other punitive actions — against a foreign state is justified is when it attacks the U.S. But when a country does not directly attack the U.S., it is not justified to use force against it.

Republican: The Bush administration ignored restraint by carrying out the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which are still being fought to this day. Fiscal conservatism completely went out the window after Bush launched these wars in which the U.S. government has spent trillions in conflicts that still have no end in sight. The Republican stance on foreign policy tends to take a “patriot” approach which is somewhat bullish. 

Republicans tend to believe that America is the greatest country on Earth and as a result, our allies as well as our foes should fear us above all else.

Economics 

Libertarian: For a believer of radical liberty, a central bank is a printing machine that debases the national currency and creates boom-and-bust cycles and inflationary death spirals throughout the economy. Because of this, they believe that central banks should be abolished and replaced with competing currencies on the free market.

Libertarians take a firm stance on their belief in the free market. They believe that everyone has the right to offer goods and services in exchange for whatever they want. They believe in the power of opportunity and that this type of economic freedom allows business owners to conduct business how they deem fit. 

Unfortunately, regulations do not typically allow for this type of free market capitalism and this is one area that the two relate. 

Republican: Conservatives support central banks on the grounds that they allegedly stabilize the economy and give the U.S. a geopolitical edge thanks to its status as the world reserve currency. The mainstream right is convinced that without the Federal Reserve guiding the economy, all sorts of instability will be let loose.

That said, Republicans do support a semi-free market within reason. They believe in unlocking the shackles that have kept businesses down with stiff regulations and horrendous policies. Do they believe in a completely free trade policy? Of course not because all of politics involves having your hands where they don’t belong. 

Education Nuances 

Libertarian: While both political groups agree that the current federal policy with regards to education is not sensible, liberty-oriented individuals are largely more radical on the issue. They believe that education is a service and the best way to provide it is on the market. Therefore, most education should be privatized and state involvement should be reduced to a bare minimum. 

Republican: Conservatives, on the hand, still believe in public education, with the caveat that it be run at the state and local level. Some of the more pro-state right wingers may actually use public schools to promote their own traditional values, which may offend other school attendees who do not share these beliefs. 

Social Policy

Libertarian: A number of libertarians are pro-life. They argue that a child in the womb is an innocent being that merits protection. Whereas socially liberal sects of this movement argue that abortion is a question of what an individual does with their body and the state shouldn’t interfere with it. 

Due to the contrasting views on abortion, liberty-leaning individuals end up taking the more neutral view that it’s a state and local matter that should not involve the federal government. Plus, they believe that taxpayers have no business subsidizing this activity. 

Republican: Conservatives are largely pro-life, and believe that life starts at conception. The right is very much in favor of using the state to legislate social issues and would not hesitate to criminalize abortion. 

Where the Libertarian vs Republican Comparison Falls on the Nolan Chart

The Nolan Chart, which charts political views on the axes of economic and personal freedom, remains useful for political comparisons.

Those of the libertarian persuasion would fall in the top quadrant, while conservatives would fall on the right quadrant.

Libertarian ve republican - the nolan chart

If we were to use a libertarian vs republican chart, we would not see much of a difference on political views as in the case of the libertarian vs conservative chart comparison. After all, the party of Lincoln is the de facto home of conservatives. However, the leadership of the party is perhaps more centrist than the conservative wing of that party. 

There are some conservatives who straddle the liberty quadrant of the Nolan chart. A similar dynamic can be seen with libertarianism, where certain followers lean more towards the right part of the quadrant. 

The Distinct Spirit of the Ideologies 

Despite all the talk from Fox News about how conservatives are against big government, they’ve done little to scale it back. Once conservatives leave office, Democrats go back to the usual program of massive government regulation of people’s’ lives. Both of the major parties are committed to big government, which makes the prospects of getting back to small government look bleak.

How Libertarians Have Attempted to Fuse with the GOP

Since Ron Paul became prominent through his presidential runs in 2008 and 2012, a republican vs libertarian debate began to emerge inside of the Republican Party itself. 

America’s electoral system is constructed in a way that is unfriendly towards third parties. Just ask the Green Party and Libertarian Party how difficult it is to have electoral success as a third party in the United States. 

This has compelled liberty-minded individuals to infiltrate the Republican Party. As a result, pro-liberty activists who are successful running as Republicans have formed a faction within the party in order to move the party platform in a more pro-liberty direction.

The Tea Party Insurgency 

Certain ideological uprisings such as the Tea Party made things interesting within the GOP. 

Formed in response to the spending policies of Barack Obama, the Tea Party served as a dissident movement that tried to shake up the political establishment. Several senators such as Rand Paul got their careers launched at this time. 

The Donald Trump Shakeup

The rise of Donald Trump caught many political commentators off guard. His signature policies on free trade and immigration went against the neoliberal consensus that favored free trade and open immigration.

Libertarian vs Republican - Donald Trump in red "Make America Great Again" red cap giving a thumbs up to the camera

The fact that a New York billionaire could take the Republican national convention by storm had many political pundits reeling. This went to show how dynamic the New York City magnate’s message was in building a new coalition of voters that propelled him to victory. 

Candidates like Hillary Clinton of the Democrat Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party on the other hand curiously agreed on both of the issues from a status quo perspective. 

What Politics Will Look Like Post-Trump

While the election results of 2020 have seemingly produced an outcome of divided government, the impact that populism has had on politics has been undeniable.

Thanks to President Trump’s electoral victory, Republican Party will likely transition into being a populist party that can have some overlap with the liberty movement on issues of foreign policy restraint and a skepticism of elite consensus. 

No matter what happens, the libertarian vs republican infighting within the party of Lincoln will not disappear. In fact, it will continue to rage on for the foreseeable future.