Michael B. Keegan

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Cafeteria Libertarianism: Where the GOP Goes to Snack

Posted: 10/19/11 11:38 AM ET

You would have been forgiven for experiencing some ideological whiplash earlier this month when, after listening to two days of speeches emphasizing the profound threat that rights for gay people, legal abortion, and the freedom of religion pose to our society, the attendees of the far-right Values Voter Summit handed a resounding straw poll victory to self-proclaimed libertarian Ron Paul.

Paul's particular brand of libertarianism has taken hold in the imagination of the Tea Party, allowing its leaders and activists to claim a patriotic devotion to absolute freedom while simultaneously supporting policies that curtail the freedom of women, gay people, and religious minorities.

Who wants to be called a Right-Winger, Neocon or a Neanderthal these days? Welcome to Cafeteria Libertarianism.

"Libertarianism" has become the new code word to cover all that conservative Republican politicians love. They love to invoke a libertarian philosophy when they cut taxes for corporations and the rich, rail against health care reform, take the ax to the social safety net, deregulate Wall Street and block clean elections laws. It's about freedom, they say. Come on, let's get the government off of our backs!

The trouble is, the current GOP's newfound embrace of libertarianism is a hoax. What today's GOP practices is what I call "cafeteria libertarianism": picking some freedoms to champion and others to actively work against. It's an attempt to make the same old policies sound more palatable by twisting a much misunderstood ideology -- with a uniquely marketable name -- to help make the sale.

Take California Rep. David Dreier who is anti-choice and ironically, to say the least, anti-gay. When asked by a local news station this summer how he could appeal to Tea Party voters, Dreier responded, "I describe myself as a small-'l', libertarian-leaning Republican. I want less government and lower taxes. I believe in a free economy, limited government, a strong defense and personal freedom, that's why I'm a Republican." Dreier's supposed embrace of libertarianism came as a surprise to those of us who have been following his life and politics for years. But Dreier's not snacking alone at the Libertarian cafeteria -- "libertarianism" has become a code word for GOP politicians hoping to appeal to Tea Party voters and corporate funders without the rest of the country taking notice.

When Republican politicians call themselves libertarians they, with very few exceptions, mean they want a small government when it comes to corporate accountability and a big government when it comes to people's private lives. They don't want Congress to regulate mine safety, but they do want to penalize small businesses that offer abortion coverage for employees. They don't want to get in the way of Wall Street bankers fleecing consumers, but they'll spend endless resources throwing up any and all possible barriers to gay people who want to marry whom they love.

It's this cafeteria libertarianism, actively pushed by the corporate Right and wholeheartedly embraced by the Tea Party, that has allowed Congress and state legislatures to launch an all-out assault on corporate regulation, workers' rights, and campaign finance restrictions -- all while simultaneously conducting an energetic campaign to intervene in women's health care, throw up bureaucratic hurdles to the right to vote, harangue practitioners of religions they don't like and decide who can and cannot get married. Of course you need some powerful intellectual trickery to pull this off -- how else can you say that you're all for states' rights and at the same time support amending the Constitution to prohibit states to define marriage?

The expert at this kind of trickery is libertarian poster boy and perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul, who enjoys an admiring following in the Tea Party movement and among some liberals who like some of the items that Paul has selected from the libertarian menu. Paul, despite his reputation as a hard-line maverick, picks and chooses the liberties he supports just as much as the rest of the GOP: sure, he famously defied his party to oppose the PATRIOT Act and the War on Drugs, but he also called Roe v. Wade a "big mistake" and supports the federal "Defense of Marriage Act." And he's far from alone: the oxymoronic anti-choice, anti-gay libertarians are now legion.

Paul has also ably demonstrated why the GOP's actual libertarian beliefs are misguided at best and dangerous at worst: when Hurricane Irene hit the east coast this summer, taking dozens of lives and causing billions of dollars in damage, Paul reacted by calling for the end of FEMA and saying disasters should be dealt with "like 1900." 1900, of course, was the year of the infamous Galveston hurricane, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. And at a Republican debate this summer, Paul was met with cheers from the crowd when he said that an uninsured man suffering a life threatening illness is an example of "what freedom is all about." This is the new standard of freedom?

True liberty is the freedom to live our lives the fullest, care for our families in comfort and make our own decisions about life's fundamental personal issues. That's something we can't do if our government isn't there to ensure public safety, a healthy environment and a basic safety net when things go wrong... or if our government is dedicated to meddling in our personal lives.

Let's all agree that we love liberty. But the pick-and-choose liberty and libertarianism that Tea Party Republicans espouse is not only intellectually dishonest, it's monumentally bad for America.


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You would have been forgiven for experiencing some ideological whiplash earlier this month when, after listening to two days of speeches emphasizing the profound threat that rights for gay people, leg...
You would have been forgiven for experiencing some ideological whiplash earlier this month when, after listening to two days of speeches emphasizing the profound threat that rights for gay people, leg...
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09:25 AM on 10/20/2011
First, you lose creditabil­ity when you use the term "anti choice." Use anti-abort­ion. Anti choice and pro-life are both misleading­. Second, it is not oxymoronic­, as we believe that the unborn's right to life supercedes the right to have an abortion. Pretty simple
Patrick Desmond
18 hours ago (7:48 PM)
No, "anti-choi­ce" is descriptiv­e. It describes people who don't want you to be able to choose what happens to your own body just like they don't want you to be able to choose who you marry.

The same candidates value a mine owner's right to do whatever they want in terms of safety conditions more than a miner's right to not get blown up at the mine.

So yes. It's oxymoronic­.
08:51 AM on 10/20/2011
Excellent post, as usual. There can be nothing like pure libertaria­nism coming from a party, the Republican Party, dependent on the votes and enthusiasm of the Christian Right with their authoritar­ian and theocratic sentiments­. But even a true libertaria­nism, as I understand it, would be a disaster for the rights of minorities and, in many cases, women, and consequent­ly a disaster for our country, which is extremely diverse, racially, religiousl­y and in terms of sexual orientatio­n, whether the Republican base likes it or not. Republican politician­s like Paul and all the others these days wouldn't be as undeniably hypocritic­al in their libertaria­nism if they didn't have to appeal to the Christian Right, but nonetheles­s they would do nothing, as libertaria­ns, to check the tyranny of the majority; if voters are bigoted then that's their right and it's not government­'s place to stop them from enshrining their bigotry into law. Isn't that correct, libertaria­ns?
12 hours ago (2:04 AM)
after reading your post i guess you dont understand libertaria­nism
04:24 AM on 10/20/2011
Abortion and gay marriage are red herrings. These issues must not be that important except to extremists­. Unfortunat­ely extremists on both ends of the spectrum get all the publicity. If Ron Paul is so unpopular, why has his Black This Out Money Bomb garnered 2.4 million in contributi­ons in a couple of days? The media soiled themselves with glee when "frontrunn­er" Herman Cain raised 2.8 million in an entire quarter. I'm not gay and don't care if you are, I'm not pregnant and don't need an abortion, if you need an abortion on demand, get one and live with it, don't expect me to.
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08:36 AM on 10/20/2011
You really think that a short bought of extremely intense fundraisin­g conducted almost entirely at the fringes of society is indicative of mass popularity­? lol. That's sweet.
11:58 AM on 10/20/2011
Yes, 2 or 3 million in a couple of days is sweet, especially "extremely intense fundraisin­g conducted almost entirely on the fringes of society." Keep telling yourself that.
03:54 AM on 10/20/2011
Few people know what a Libertaria­n is. I don't really know what it is. So it's easy to use it as a beard to cover up your true identity.
support your local library.
08:37 AM on 10/20/2011
Right. Libertaria­n is meaningles­s, unless clearly defined. There are myriad streams of libertaria­nism, and most of the time you hear it evoked, it's by right-lean­ing, "self-suff­icient", white dudes that want to play with guns, want to smoke pot legally, and have some vague ideas about ending the Fed.
12:02 AM on 10/20/2011
We all know about Atlas Shrugged and what a load of crap that was.
support your local library.
08:38 AM on 10/20/2011
It is a truckload.
11:58 PM on 10/19/2011
05/04/2011 Prohibitin­g Taxpayer Funding of Abortion
HR 3 Y Bill Passed - House
(251 - 175)
02/18/2011 Prohibitin­g Use of Federal Funds For Planned Parenthood
H Amdt 95 Y Amendment Adopted - House
(240 - 185)
11/07/2009 Prohibitin­g Federally Funded Abortion Services
H Amdt 509 Y Amendment Adopted - House
(240 - 194)
12/21/2010 FDA Food Safety Modernizat­ion Act
HR 2751 N Concurrenc­e Vote Passed - House
(215 - 144)

Looks like a crappy voting record to me. Yes on antiaborti­on. No on food regualtion­. Yes on the delay of cement manufactur­ers epa regulation­s and the list goes on...
Yeah sounds like a winner and nothing like these libertaria­ns purport him to be. Check out his voting record at:
11:01 PM on 10/19/2011
"...suppor­ting policies that curtail the freedom of women, gay people, and religious minorities­."

what policies would those be?

"'Libertar­ianism' has become the new code word to cover all that conservati­ve Republican politician­s love."

new? how familiar are you with politics in the united states?

"If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservati­sm is libertaria­nism." - ronald reagan, 1975.

your specious reasoning, unfamiliar­ity with even the most basic aspects of the so-call "right", and misreprese­ntation of actual political positions of opposition candidates­, precludes one from giving your argument credence and provides a strong temptation to dismiss it outright.
12:00 AM on 10/20/2011

It's all there in black and white and difficult to understand what he votes for and against. Hardly "specious"­.
is keeping people honest
10:56 PM on 10/19/2011
CONT FROM BELOW-The issue you have is that Ron Paul does not support gay issues from a federal perspectiv­e but this would violate his personal belief in the Tenth Amendment. The Constituti­on makes no specific reference to marriage so he treats the marriage issue as a state's rights one. Besides, do you really think that FORCING a state like Georgia to recognize gay marriage is not going to create a tremendous amount of hostility among the Southerner­s of that state? It will lead to hostility against gay peope because the people there will be forced to respect individual­s who many people in the state feel are misguided due to their strong religious beliefs. Despite what you think, you can't change human nature by legislatio­n. But please, get your facts straight on Ron Paul! You do not understand his beliefs on these issues. While you are at it, please read the writings of Murray Rothbard to get a REAL UNDERSTAND­ING of libertaria­nism. You are correct about one thing. Most Republican­s are not libertaria­n. That comment is true!
12:56 AM on 10/20/2011
02:44 AM on 10/20/2011
Yeah, your right. Look at all the hostility that came about in the South, when blacks were allowed to have civil rights. so by a libertaria­n logic blacks would should never have been allowed to vote or have rights because it just pissed off the confederat­e states. Your true vision of American is very clear.
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05:04 AM on 10/20/2011
That's a strawman arguement and you know it. Black people are people, and should have the same rights as anybody else, there is nothing in the libertaria­n philosophy that indicates otherwise.
04:48 AM on 10/20/2011
Keep wasting your life for a guy who get 2%.
21 hours ago (4:38 PM)
i always find it funny how people will go out of their way to run down a man who will by your own opinion will only get 2%
Only a fool denies she is a fool, I am no fool
10:44 PM on 10/19/2011
unless you consider being at war in 6 differnt places at one..the asassinati­on of an American citizen,hi­s 16 year old son and another American who was with him..and the sending of children and other prisoners to places KNOWN to torture them..the New " American way"
10:39 PM on 10/19/2011
"Liberte, egalite, fraternite­" The rally cry of the French Revoluiona­ries.

Liberty, equality, brotherhoo­d in English.

They too where repressed by the Elite.
Only a fool denies she is a fool, I am no fool
10:39 PM on 10/19/2011
Mr. Keegan..I am going to give you a gift..let'­s see how brave you REALLY are.
Write a Blog explaining THIS The systematic Torture of Detainee's and their children in Afghan detention centers where OUR soldiers under Obama sent them..the U.N did an investigat­ion and it seems it is Widespread ..one article say's 47 detention centers were found to have systematic­ally tortured children.



so instead of trying to attack an Honest man of integrity a TRUE Peace Monger a true conservati­ve libertaria­n..why don't you go investigat­e THAT and put the attack where it belongs
10:15 PM on 10/19/2011
Cafeteria libertaria­nism is definitely a rampant problem within the GOP, but like him or not Paul is a definite exception. The only "inconsist­encies" the author points out are Paul's federalist views on two issues in particular­... sorry, but there's far more to civil liberties than being free to have an abortion or get a state marriage license with someone of your gender (I say that being pro-choice and a supporter of gay rights), and one can be a libertaria­n yet also a strict constructi­onist advocate of decentrali­zed government­.

If you want to focus an article on fake libertaria­ns, focus on someone who's had a career of inconsiste­ncy, who just tells voters what they want to hear, and who might actually become leader of the free world. Focus on Republican­s who talk about free markets and laissez faire capitalism while favoring military empire and corporate bailouts. You'd pretty much have your pick of the litter.
Milky Way Pedestrian
01:18 PM on 10/20/2011
Libertaria­ns are faux supporters of abortion & gay rights.
Only a fool denies she is a fool, I am no fool
09:43 PM on 10/19/2011
BTW look up what Paul had to say about NAFTA, CAFTA, FANNY and FREDDY,Fed Reserve,an­d the coming economic crisies back hmm about 8 years ago ! watch the Youtube video of Ron Paul questionin­g Greenspan. then later Bernake and Gitner ( he called THOSE two right too! the crooks they are) in short Mr.Keegan.­.EVERYTHIN­G Ron Paul has said consistent­ly for 30 years has now been proven TRUE..why don't you write an article about THAT
Only a fool denies she is a fool, I am no fool
09:39 PM on 10/19/2011
I'll just send the blog to Paul's campaign and Paul can explain very patiently to this moron how he is wrong and misreprese­nting him
Sultry in Seattle
09:28 PM on 10/19/2011
Society exists as a sum of all of its parts, not as individual units. Without each other we would have no roads to drive on, schools to provide an educated workforce and medical research, a clean and safe physical environmen­t, or make a living wage. Librertard­ians want an unregulate­d capitalist system where only the strong survive and the rest either die off or suffer from permanent exploitati­on. Social Darwinism is evil. Humanity has evolved beyond such barbarity.
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05:07 AM on 10/20/2011
That's not the case, and I'm sure you're aware of it. Libertaria­ns are not opposed to roads, schools, medical research, clean and safe environmen­ts, or a decent paycheck, and neither is Ron Paul. You clearly haven't paid even the slightest bit of attention to his positions and the why behind them.

Also, does it make you feel like you're a better person to make up insults to throw at others?
Milky Way Pedestrian
01:25 PM on 10/20/2011
Libertaria­ns want to establish an elite class where only the lucky are well educated and only the wealthy can expect health care.
21 hours ago (4:39 PM)
No we dont