The short answer—the answer that plays along with the idea that there is such a thing as a one-dimensional “political spectrum”—is that Libertarians hold many positions that journalists would place to the “left” of the Democrats, and many other positions that journalists would place to the “right” of the Republicans.
For example, Libertarians want to end to the war on drugs. We want to rein in presidential power to commit us to undeclared wars. We stand up for civil liberties that have been violated in the name of the “war on terror.” In newspaper-speak, these positions are “left” of the Democrats, at least in practice. Consequently, many voters who think of themselves as Democrats but who are dissatisfied with their supine representatives in Congress should give the Libertarians a careful look.
At the same time, however, Libertarians oppose government interference with free markets, including many kinds of interference supported by Republicans in recent years. We oppose not just Obamacare but also the Bush expansion of Medicare entitlements. We oppose not just the Obama stimulus and bailout legislation of early 2009 but also the Bush stimulus and bailout legislation of early and late 2008. We favor the wholesale elimination of federal programs in areas like agriculture and energy that should be handled by private markets. In newspaper-speak, these positions are to the “right” of the Republicans, and many voters who think of themselves as Republicans could send a much clearer message about their preference for smaller government if they were to vote Libertarian.
The main reason Libertarian positions don’t fall neatly along a left-right “spectrum” is because Libertarians apply a consistent philosophy of maximizing personal liberty, not only in economics but wherever civil liberties are concerned. By contrast, Democrats and Republicans take inconsistent positions about the extent to which government should interfere with personal liberty. Democrats make a big show of staying out of your bedroom, but they want to micromanage the way you earn a living, tax you heavily on whatever you earn, and place massive bureaucracies in charge of fundamentally personal issues like medical care and retirement. Republicans claim to be pro-business, but in practice they express this by giving tax breaks to special interests instead of simply staying out of the way and letting markets work. And despite the way Republicans disparage federal bureaucracy on the campaign trail, they seem all too happy to treat government as practically omniscient when it is accusing people of crimes, operating “no fly” lists, or deciding who should rule Iraq.
For better or worse, then, the left-to-right “spectrum” metaphor isn’t a very useful guide to contemporary American politics because there is no single political value according to which the positions of Democrats and Republicans can be compared in a straight line from left to right. It would be more helpful to say that Libertarians consistently oppose interference with personal liberty, whereas Democrats and Republicans often favor large, powerful, and intrusive government at the expense of personal liberty, albeit in different areas. Anyone who is consistently in favor of smaller government and greater personal liberty should be voting Libertarian.
(As always, I welcome comments on this post at my campaign blog, where the same piece is cross-posted.)