Who Are the Libertarians?

In this brief Teachable Instant classroom activity, students find out about the Libertarian Party candidates on the 2016 presidential ballot, and discuss where libertarians stand on the issues.   


1.  What is Johnson and Weld?

a.  A manufacturer of health care products.
b.  A national chain of metal fabricators.
c.  A presidential ticket.
d.  A pair of novelists nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.
e. All of the above.

Answer: c.

2.  In recent 3-way national polls, which party receives 10-11% of the vote?

a. Liberal Party
b. Liberation Party
c. Libertarian Party
d. Librarian Party
e. Liberty Party

Answer: c.


Student Reading:

Gary Johnson, William Weld & the Libertarians

Who are Johnson & Weld?

On May 29, 2016, the Libertarian Party chose Gary Johnson and William Weld as their nominees for president and vice president, respectively. Both are former Republican governors. The convention was sharply divided with neither Johnson nor Weld winning the nomination on the first ballot. The Libertarian Party is likely to be the only third party in the 2016 elections that's on the ballot in all 50 states. (The Green Party, by contrast, currently is on the ballot in only 20 states, though ballot access campaigns are underway in additional states.)

Johnson started a successful construction company and was governor of New Mexico from 1995-2003.  He ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, but ended up running on the Libertarian ticket. As governor, Johnson held true to his small government principles, setting records for the number of bills he vetoed (more than the other 49 governors combined). He cut taxes 14 times.

Bill Weld was elected to two terms as governor of Massachusetts after serving as U.S. Attorney and head of the Department of Justice Criminal Division. Early in his career, Weld was a friend and colleague of Hillary Rodham (Clinton): Both were on the staff of the Nixon impeachment committee of the House of Representatives.  Weld came from a wealthy New England family and famously replied to a reporter's question about where he got his money, "We don’t get money, we have money." Some of his "statist" positions (e.g. pro-choice, and in favor of gun control) made Weld very unpopular among the libertarians at the convention.

What are Libertarians?

Many of us look at the political spectrum in a linear fashion--with the right wing at one end and the left at the other. From left to right, we pass from socialist, liberal, Democrat, Republican, and then into conservative and right-wing territory. The idea is that where we stand on political issues neatly coincides with where we place ourselves on that left-right spectrum.

If you’re on the right, you will be more likely to oppose or want to put limits on:

  • government regulation
  • taxes   
  • labor unions
  • drug legalization
  • affirmative action
  • public housing
  • public transportation
  • environmental rules
  • abortion
  • programs to assist poor people
  • minimum wage
  • gay and lesbian protections
  • action to halt global climate change

You are likely to support:

  • business profits
  • corporate rights
  • wars and military spending
  • religious rights
  • private education
  • capital punishment
  • gun rights

For the left, simply reverse the above positions.

Of course lots of people mix it up a bit: generalizations go only so far. Not all conservatives oppose food stamps and not all liberals support labor unions. But libertarians (especially principled libertarians) really defy easy categorization. They are commonly associated with the far right because they are so extreme in their anti-government stances:

  • The billionaire Koch brothers, who fund a vast network of conservative and right-wing candidates, university departments, think tanks and other organizations, are libertarians.
  • The Cato Institute (a libertarian policy organization) led the effort to privatize Social Security.
  • Some recent headlines from Reason.com (website of the libertarian magazine Reason):
    • "Federal Programs Keep People Poor"
    • "Slow Economic Growth: It's the Regulations, Stupid!"
    • "Workers Don't Need Government's Help to Earn Higher Wages"
  • Libertarian congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul advocated abolishing the U.S. Departments of Energy, Commerce, Interior, Education and Housing and Urban Development.

But remember, true libertarians oppose most government programs—especially the federal government. So while they reject government projects that help the poor, many libertarians also oppose government handouts to business (tax breaks, subsidies, low-interest loans, etc.).

There are numerous other ways that libertarians confound and contradict the left/right stereotypes:

Many libertarians believe:

  • The United States should exit the United Nations, but should also abolish its CIA.
  • The U.S. should avoid foreign entanglements—wars, for example.
  • Drugs should be legalized.
  • Government shouldn't snoop on its citizens.
  • Laws shouldn't favor heterosexuals.
  • Government shouldn't censor speech.



For Discussion

1. Based on what you know about libertarians, what is the likely libertarian position on the following issues? Why?

  • Abortion
  • Charter schools
  • Syrian War
  • Help for flood victims
  • Hate speech
  • Same sex marriage
  • Obamacare
  • Gun control
  • Donald Trump
  • Minimum wage
  • Climate change
  • Capital punishment

2. "I do believe that the vast majority of the people in this country are libertarian; they just don't know it yet."  -- Gary Johnson.  What do you think?

3. Some people talk about "left libertarianism" and "right libertarianism." Does this make sense to you? Why or why not?

4. Can you think of a graphic representation of the political spectrum which includes not only left, right, liberal and conservative, but libertarian as well?


For Further Research

Ask students to do some research: Were they were right about libertarian stances on the issues in question 1? 

When the class reconvenes, ask student to share what they learned.