By Charles Murray
Libertarianism: A Primer
By David Boaz
The case for libertarianism is being made in two new books, What It Means to be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, by American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray, and Libertarianism: A Primer, by the CATO Institute's David Boaz.
Last year, the Libertarian party celebrated its 25th anniversary, having managed the difficult task of getting itself on the ballot in all 50 states in two consecutive elections, 1992 and 1996.
Poll after poll reveals enormous skepticism about the performance of the federal government, a disposition that should boost Libertarians' fortunes. People repeatedly tell the pollsters that government is too big, too expensive, and too intrusive. To cite only one recent finding, 65 percent (45 percent strongly) in a Lake Research/Tarrance Group survey for U.S. News & World Report said that government interferes too much in people's private lives. Thirty-two percent in the November survey disagreed.
But most people don't want to dramatically shrink or dismantle government either, and this recurring finding in the data explains the party's limited appeal to date.
Americans' complaint about government is more with performance than size. The 1996 Survey of American Political Culture, a Gallup/University of Virginia project, found that 67 percent disagreed with the following statement: "The way the government is running, a government shutdown probably does more good than harm." A third agreed.
A three-part question in the U.S. News poll showed 24 percent taking what might be described as a Libertarian position: Other than providing for the national defense and the fair administration of justice, government should do as little as possible to interfere in the lives of people."
Thirty-four percent chose: "In addition to providing for national defense and the fair administration of justice, the government should work to protect the average American, providing a safety net in case something bad happens which they have little control over."
A slightly larger group, 39 percent, found this response most to their liking: "Government should guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone including job creation and basic housing."
In their post-election survey for the Democratic Leadership Council, Democratic pollsters Penn+Schoen asked people which of three statements was closest to their thinking about the proper role of the federal government. Thirty percent took what could be called a Libertarian viewpoint, that "government should stay out of people's lives so they can solve their problems without interference or regulation."
Thirteen percent said that Washington should solve problems and protect people from adversity, and 53 percent felt the federal government should help people equip themselves to solve their own problems.
Israelis vs. Palestinians
I've written in past columns that Americans are very reluctant about overseas involvement. In January, when the Pew Research Center asked whether President Clinton should focus more on domestic or foreign policy, a striking 86 percent opted for the former and only 7 percent the latter. That said, Americans still have strong loyalties.
For 30 years Gallup has been asking people about their sympathies in the Middle East. In 1967, Gallup found that of those who had heard or read about the situation in the Middle East, 56 percent sympathized more with Israel and 4 percent with the Arab nations.
In the late 1970s, sympathy for the Arabs inched up to the double digits. In 1996, 38 percent said their sympathies were more with Israel, 15 percent with the Palestinians (the question wording had changed slightly).
Over the years, substantial numbers of respondents have said they sympathized with neither or both or had no opinion. Support for Israel has fluctuated considerably over the years, reaching a high of 64 percent during the Gulf War.
Support for the Arabs has always been much lower. A November 1996 Louis Harris poll found 32 percent describing Israel as a close ally. Another 25 percent called her friendly, but not a close ally. Seventeen percent said Israel was unfriendly, but not an enemy, and 11 percent called Israel an enemy.
A Pew Research Center poll in early January found that 61 percent wanted the NATO alliance maintained, although 21 percent thought it was no longer necessary. Those numbers are similar to Gallup's from 1991.
Americans haven't paid much attention to the debate about expanding NATO. Only 5 percent say they have followed the issue closely. A near majority say they haven't followed it closely at all.
Japanese, Americans See Work Differently
For 25 years, Louis Harris and Asahi Shimbun have been asking questions in both countries about facets of everyday life.
In the late 1996 polls, Americans and Japanese were miles apart in attitudes toward work. Fifty-one percent here said their job gives them a sense of purpose in life (only 29 percent in Japan gave this response). The Japanese were far more likely (57 percent) than the Americans (26 percent) to describe their job as nothing more than a source of income.
Americans said they were willing to work more hours for higher pay (72 percent, compared with 32 percent of the Japanese); a majority of Japanese and only 18 percent of Americans said they would rather work fewer hours for less income.
Sixty-six percent of Japanese said they were overworked; 62 percent of Americans said they were not.
Karlyn H. Bowman is a resident fellow at AEI. Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at AEI.