It was hundreds of years ago that scientists discovered that litmus, a water-soluble coloring matter obtained from lichens, turns red in acid solutions and blue in alkaline solutions, thus functioning as a litmus test to indicate the relative pH of a substance. On a scale of 0 to 14, a neutral solution (water) has a pH of 7.0, while solutions with a pH below 7.0 are acidic (battery acid is 0) and solutions with a pH above 7.0 are alkaline (drain cleaner is 14). It has been less than a hundred years that the term “litmus test” has become a metaphor for a single-factor test that reveals the true nature of someone or something or that suggests what someone thinks about a wider range of related things. It is interesting that litmus test strips turn different degrees of red or blue, since for some time now, red has been associated with Republicans and blue has been associated with Democrats. And both political parties have their litmus tests.
Republican litmus tests
The number one litmus test for Republicans is abortion. According to the Republican Party platform:
We assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to children before birth.
We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare.
We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.
Since 1980, Republicans have imposed an abortion litmus test on judicial appointments to the Supreme Court.
Yet, for decades, Republicans have funded Planned Parenthood, the largest abortion provider in the country. In spite of what the Republicans say in their platform, because Planned Parenthood’s funds are fungible, they are either directly funding abortions or, by ostensibly allocating money to other medical services, freeing up funds to provide abortions. Republicans also generally envision a federal role on the abortion issue even though the Constitution doesn’t authorize the federal government to have one. Before Roe v. Wade (1973), some states had laws against abortion and some didn’t. And that is how it should be under our federal system of government.
Another litmus test for Republicans is a strong national defense, that is, higher defense spending. Although the Biden administration asked Congress to approve an increase in the Pentagon’s budget to $773 billion in the next fiscal year — an increase of $30 billion from last year — this was not good enough for the GOP militarists in Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget neglects to “sufficiently account” for inflation. “America must spend more on defense,” said Kori Schake, a senior fellow and director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI):
Confronting emerging international dangers will require a dramatic increase in Washington’s spending, and the administration’s proposal is insufficient. The longer policy-makers wait to make up this shortfall, the greater the risk the United States runs of operating without the forces it needs to win wars, and the more it tempts autocrats into taking advantage of American deficiencies.
Democratic litmus tests
The number one litmus test for Democrats is also abortion, but in the opposite direction. According to the Democratic Party platform:
Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice. We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should be able to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.
Democrats oppose and will fight to overturn federal and state laws that create barriers to reproductive health and rights. We will repeal the Hyde Amendment, and protect and codify the right to reproductive freedom.
Democrats oppose restrictions on medication abortion care that are inconsistent with the most recent medical and scientific evidence and that do not protect public health.
It used to be the case that outside of abortion, Democratic Party platforms and acceptance speeches rarely imposed other litmus tests. Lately, though, several such tests have been entertained: free college, Medicare for all, abolition of the Electoral College, a $15 minimum wage, expansion of the Supreme Court, the Green New Deal, and increased LGBT rights.
The latest Democratic litmus test is procedural rather than ideological: ending the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. According to Washington Post political columnist Paul Waldman, the case for the removal of the filibuster “is so obvious that we no longer need to spend time on that debate.” He believes that “it’s now time for a real litmus test.” Democrats must “place filibuster reform at the absolute center of their agenda and their identity.” To Democrats, he says: “It’s time to say that if you don’t want to reform the filibuster then you can’t call yourself a Democrat in good standing.” This means: “If you’re already in office, Democrats should run primaries against you if you don’t support filibuster reform. If you haven’t been elected yet, no primary voter should accept that you’re sincere in what you say you believe.”
Waldman laments that “many Democrats have gotten away with not taking a clear position on this issue,” and that only “34 of the Senate’s 50 Democrats have clearly advocated eliminating or altering the filibuster.” He would even “apply this litmus test to Democrats running for offices other than senator, if only as proof that they believe what they say.”
Libertarian litmus tests
Libertarianism is quite different from the conservatism and liberalism that Republican and Democrats identify with, and libertarians have their own litmus tests as well. Libertarianism is the philosophy that says that people should be free from individual, societal, or government interference to live their lives any way they desire, pursue their own happiness, accumulate wealth, assess their own risks, make their own choices, participate in any economic activity for their profit, engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate, and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit. As long as people don’t violate the personal or property rights of others, and as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, and their interactions are consensual, they should be free to live their lives without license, regulation, interference, or molestation by the government. What follows are four key issues and a libertarian litmus test for each issue to judge one’s commitment to the libertarian philosophy.
Foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy is aggressive, reckless, belligerent, and meddling — and has been for over a century. Among other things, this results in a terrible misuse of the nation’s military, which leads to the unnecessary expenditure of blood and treasure. This has happened only because the country’s leaders have strayed far afield from the noninterventionist foreign policy of the Founders. The United States is not the world’s policeman. Therefore, the United States should not guarantee the security of any country, go abroad “seeking monsters to destroy,” change regimes, take sides in civil wars and territorial disputes, defend other countries, enforce UN resolutions, or carry out assassinations. And the United States certainly shouldn’t garrison the planet with hundreds of bases and thousands of troops.
The best litmus test to judge one’s commitment to the libertarian philosophy of nonintervention is the war in Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is different, say many people who would otherwise be inclined to the United States having a noninterventionist foreign policy. The reasons for their change of opinion are varied: Vladimir Putin is another Adolf Hitler; Russia wants to retake Eastern Europe; Russian soldiers are killing civilians, including women and children; Russia wants to absorb Ukraine, like Germany did with Austria during World War II; Russia is committing genocide; or Russian soldiers are committing torture, rape, atrocities, and war crimes. What is then usually said or implied is that the United States (meaning, the U.S. government) should send money, weapons, and supplies to “help” Ukraine.
But the terrible truth is simply this: Even if Russia had killed every person in Ukraine — men, women, and children — razed every building, destroyed all the infrastructure, and turned the whole of Ukraine into a parking lot, the United States should still have not intervened. If Americans — individually or collectively — want to “do something” about Ukraine, then let them send their own money or go fight on behalf of Ukraine. But it is not the business of the U.S. government to force Americans to do either.
Drugs. There should be no laws at any level of government for any reason regarding the buying, selling, growing, processing, transporting, manufacturing, advertising, using, possessing, or “trafficking” of any drug for any reason. All government agencies devoted to fighting the war on drugs should be abolished, and the war on drugs should be ended completely and immediately. There should be a free market in drugs without any government interference in the form of regulation, oversight, restrictions, taxing, rules, or licensing. Although this is true of government at any level, the federal war on drugs is especially egregious because the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with criminalizing, prohibiting, or regulating any drug in any way.
The best litmus test to judge one’s commitment to the libertarian philosophy of drug freedom is the question of fentanyl. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. It is approved by the FDA for treating severe pain. Many who recognize the folly of marijuana prohibition laws draw the line at the government legalizing fentanyl. They say things like: fentanyl is just too dangerous, fentanyl overdoses have risen substantially, just a little bit of fentanyl will kill you, America is in the midst of a fentanyl crisis, fentanyl is hugely profitable for drug dealers, fentanyl overdoses are the leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 18 and 45, unsuspecting Americans are being poisoned with fentanyl-laced drugs, or I know someone who lost a child to a fentanyl overdose.
But as bad and as dangerous as fentanyl is, the government still shouldn’t prohibit it or lock people up for selling it, possessing it, or using it. In fact, laws against fentanyl are impossible to reconcile with a limited government and a free society. It is not the job of government to keep people from harming themselves — no matter how dangerous a substance is. It is not the purpose of government to punish people for using mood-altering or mind-altering substances — even if they might kill the user. It is an illegitimate function of government to concern itself with people’s medical or recreational drug habits — no matter how reckless they are.
Trade. Trade is voluntary commercial exchange, usually of a good or service for cash. Although trade is properly just engaging in commerce, it is commonly what we call international commerce. And just as people have the natural right to engage in domestic commerce, so they have the natural right to engage in international commerce. Free trade is simply the freedom of individuals or businesses to buy products from and sell products to other individuals or businesses in any other country without government regulations, sanctions, restrictions, subsidies, rules, barriers, tariffs, quotas, or anti-dumping laws. Free trade does not need trade ministers, trade representatives, trade negotiators, trade agencies, trade agreements, trade treaties, or trade organizations. It just needs a willing buyer and a willing seller, each of whom benefits from engaging in commerce across country borders. Free trade is part and parcel of a free society.
The best litmus test to judge one’s commitment to the libertarian philosophy of free trade is the question of trade with China. “We don’t beat China in trade,” said former president Donald Trump on many occasions, as if trade was a national game in which some countries are winners and some are losers. Many conservatives who used to consider themselves “free traders” believe that an exception should be made when it comes to trade with China. The reasons are varied: China is a communist country, China has an authoritarian government, China disregards human rights, China has state-owned or partially state-owned industries, China has forced labor camps, China persecutes religious groups and ethnic minorities, or China does not practice fair trade. This is all based on the fallacies that trade takes place between countries and that the government should manage trade.
Countries don’t engage in trade, people do. One government doesn’t buy up goods from domestic businesses and sell them to other governments. And it is not the proper role of government to manage trade. In a free society, if someone in the United States doesn’t like what goes on in China, he can choose to not purchase goods from Chinese firms or American firms that have manufacturing plants in China. But it is wrong for the U.S. government to restrict trade with China or impose higher tariffs on imports from China.
Education. The federal government has been granted no authority by the Constitution to have anything to do with the education of any student at any grade level. This means that there should be no federal student loans, Pell grants, school breakfast or lunch programs, school-accreditation agencies, Head Start, Higher Education Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Education for All Handicapped Children Act, special-education or bilingual-education or Title IX mandates, Common Core, research grants to colleges and universities, math and science initiatives, and, of course, no Department of Education.
The federal government also has no authority to subsidize, regulate, or interfere in any way with a state’s public-education system. But that’s not all. At both the federal and state levels, there should be a complete separation of school and state. It is an illegitimate purpose of government to have anything to do with education. It is not the job of government to provide educational services any more than it is the job of government to provide other services. In a free society, there would be no property taxes earmarked for public schools because there would be no public schools. In addition, there would be no regulation, accreditation, or control of private schools, no mandatory attendance laws, no teacher-certification standards, and no state departments of education. All education would be privately provided and privately funded. Parents would be solely responsible for the education of their children. No American would be forced to pay for the education of any other Americans or their children.
The best litmus test to judge one’s commitment to the libertarian philosophy of separating education from the state is the question of vouchers. Many who decry the condition of the nation’s public schools continually posit “school choice” as the answer to problems with public education. But what is libertarian about giving some Americans the choice of where to spend other Americans’ money to educate their children? The essence of educational vouchers is that money is taken by force from some Americans and given to other Americans. Vouchers are not an intermediate step toward a free market in education. Government spending on vouchers doesn’t mean that less money will be spent on public schools. Vouchers are simply a form of welfare and education socialism. Once government vouchers for education are deemed to be acceptable, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s providing vouchers for any other service.
Republicans and Democrats who are said to be libertarian-leaning or libertarian-esque because they say or do certain things need to take some libertarian litmus tests. And unfortunately, so do some libertarians.
This article was originally published in the July 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.