Libertarianism, Jews, and the Future of the Two-Party System

This is a guest post by Alan D. Krinsky, author of Running in Good Faith? Observant Judaism and Libertarian Politics.

Although the 2020 United States Presidential election does not feature any strong third-party candidates, the future of the two-party system remains uncertain. If it turns out that the diagnosis is correct that the Republican Party has been replaced by a cult of personality (evidence: no party platform adopted this year), then no one knows what will happen once the cult of personality collapses (or if it does not).

The truth is that although the two-party system has long provided a sort of stability absent from more diverse parliamentary systems—including the Israeli government—the two-party system has done a poor job of representing Americans in their political and ideological diversity.

Probably the most discordant part of the current system is the attempt to contain social conservatives and economic conservatives within a single party, the Republican Party. As for the Democratic Party, the gaps between between leftists and centrists are often rather broad.

The future, I would suggest, might bring us a more fitting four-party system:

  • A Left-Liberal or Progressive Party would attract a substantial portion of the population, including the supporters of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

  • A Centrist Party would capture a broad segment as well, from conservative Democrats to the dying breed of liberal Republicans to some of the Never-Trumpers, and probably many alienated citizens who now identify as Independents. New York Times columnist David Brooks might be a champion of such a party, where people would see government as capable of doing good, but within carefully drawn limits.

  • A Social Conservative Party would speak to those who believe government should be seriously involved with religious and cultural matters, and who may disagree among themselves as to the proper role of government in the economy.

  • Finally, a larger Libertarian Party might emerge to represent those in favor of free markets and small government, but who tend to be socially liberal, thinking the government should stay out of the very matters Social Conservatives deem so important.

Of course, our current winner-takes-all approach to elections will not fit well with a four-party structure. We would need to experiment with alternate approaches, such as ranked-choice or party voting, to make our political system more representative. And yet, with the vacuum created by the possible collapse of the Republican Party, who knows what will be possible?

In the light of all this, libertarianism might have an expanded and bright future in the United States.

The overwhelming majority of American Jews have long been associated with liberalism and the Democratic Party, though the last few decades have brought about a significant and increasing minority of Jewish support, primarily among Orthodox Jews, for the Republican Party (and even for Trump, despite his encouragement of white nationalists, who foster racism and anti-Semitism). Yet Jews in many countries over the last two centuries have been disproportionately engaged in political parties and politics of all sorts, libertarian politics included.

Jews have played prominent roles in the emergence of libertarianism in the United States: Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, and, of course, Ayn Rand, though she did not consider herself a libertarian. And so, I would suggest that there is value in looking anew at the relationship between Judaism and libertarianism.

However, with Jews so strongly associated with liberalism and ideals of social justice, is there any reason to think there is any link between Judaism and libertarianism? Or are they in fundamental contradiction?

Another way of posing the question: Can a religiously devout and observant Jew, without living a life of contradiction, uphold libertarianism—and even run in an election as a candidate championing a libertarian political platform? Would she or he necessarily violate basic religious or theological commitments? Would such an endeavor prove a betrayal of traditional Judaism? Or, perhaps, a fulfillment of it?

An initial reaction: a healthy dose of skepticism. Libertarianism, whether in terms of philosophy or political platform, remains anchored in absolute individualism and individual rights and their protection. Any version of traditional Judaism, by contrast, figures as a religion and a way of life rooted in obligation, duty, responsibility, community, and God’s dominion over us and over the world (and it is not at all evident that traditional Judaism even conceptualizes the very notion of rights). How can someone who lives the latter possibly believe and represent the former?

In Running in Good Faith? Observant Judaism and Libertarian Politics, I seek to answer these questions by consideration, using libertarian and traditional Jewish lenses, of a number of critical philosophical and political themes: Do we own ourselves? Can we own property? Do governments have the right to levy taxes and spend those revenues? does government protect or oppress? What does it mean to live in community? What does it mean to live freely?

Some of the ideas we have about Judaism and libertarianism fail to capture the richness of either. Readers who join me on this exploratory journey will likely find some of the twists and turns and answers rather surprising.

Alan D. Krinsky, a writer and senior policy analyst, has written and published on Jewish and general political, historical, religious, and other topics. He holds a PhD in History and the History of Science and a Master of Public Health. He writes to challenge, both himself and others.

Running in Good Faith? Observant Judaism and Libertarian Politics is now available for purchase on our website or wherever you buy books.