A “Center-Libertarian” Nation?

In this recent article, James Rainey of the LA Times argues that public opinion has moved in a “center-libertarian” direction:

Many debates have broken out about the meaning of last week’s election, including over whether conservatives should still push their claim that America is a “center-right nation….”

A survey of last Tuesday’s electoral landscape suggests the truth may be somewhere in the middle. The results cut heavily against the notion of a center-right dominance, at least when it comes to social issues.

After 32 straight losses for same-sex wedding laws, four states approved marriage-equality proposals last week. Two other states legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Wisconsin elected the first openly homosexual U.S. senator in history, Tammy Baldwin. An Iowa Supreme Court justice targeted for removal because he voted in 2007 to approve gay marriage, David Wiggins, defeated an effort to oust him. And, crucially, Obama won with 60% of voters telling exit pollsters they supported the president’s call for higher taxes on the rich.

But Americans appear to remain more receptive to conservative viewpoints on spending, debt and the size of government. A bare majority, 51%, of voters last Tuesday told exit pollsters that government should do less, with 43% saying it should do more….

A more precise verdict would be that the majority of the country remains slightly right of center when it comes to supporting lower spending, decreased debt and smaller government. But America appears to have shifted left of center in allowing more liberal policies on drugs and the institution of marriage. So, left on social issues and right on economics. If you eliminated the desire to tax the rich, it would sound like we had a center-libertarian nation.

Rainey’s conclusion is reinforced by the fact that a plurality of Americans remain opposed to Obamacare, the most important expansion of government in recent years, even after the GOP’s attack on the law was hobbled during the election by virtue of the fact that the party nominated a candidate who could not criticize the law’s most unpopular component, the individual health insurance mandate.

As I have pointed out previously, there is a big difference between the kind of “center-libertarianism” that much of the public subscribes to, and actual full-blown libertarianism of the sort committed libertarians would embrace. But these survey and referendum results do suggest that public opinion could be mobilized to oppose further expansions of government and possibly to support significant reductions in regulation and spending from today’s extremely high levels. It is too early to say whether “center-libertarianism” is the political wave of the future. But it at least seems to be a potentially viable political strategy. At the very least, the evidence suggests that the public is not sold on either the liberal or conservative versions of activist government.