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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: The Libertarian alternative to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

Former two-term governor of New Mexico and Libertarian

Former two-term governor of New Mexico and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks at Duke University, in Durham N.C. (Sept. 20, 2012) Credit: AP

As the presidential race enters its final phase and political passions and divisions grow stronger, millions of Americans remain intensely dissatisfied with both major-party options.

For all their differences, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney represent politics as usual. Many see a far better alternative in Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, the former maverick Republican governor of New Mexico. But is a vote for a third-party candidate a wasted one, or a legitimate refusal to support "the lesser of two evils"? At a time when every election feels more depressing than the last, such a vote can, if nothing else, send a message to the political establishment.

Jacob Hornberger, head of the Future of Freedom Foundation, a libertarian educational group, points out on his blog that both Romney and Obama support Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, farm subsidies, minimum-wage laws and the war on drugs. Both also support the "national security state," including military intervention abroad and restrictions on liberties at home in the name of the war on terror. The real philosophical divide, says Hornberger, is between those who think it is the role of the government to take care of people's needs, manage the economy and run a military empire -- and those who reject all of the above.

Many libertarians believe their ideas are marginalized by a political machine that shuts out true dissent, exemplified by Johnson's exclusion from the presidential debates. To a large extent, that's wishful thinking. There simply isn't a constituency for a drastic shrinking of government programs; even Johnson's proposal to cut both foreign and domestic federal spending by 43 percent, which is far from libertarian purism, would be highly unlikely to get anywhere near half the vote of the people in a referendum. Social Security and Medicare are overwhelmingly popular, even on the right. Most Americans support government action to ensure broader access to health care, though they differ on the specifics.

Nor is there majority support for a radical retrenchment on the international front, despite disillusionment with reckless interventionism. In a recent national survey conducted for the Washington-based Foreign Policy Initiative, more than 90 percent of likely voters said the United States should continue to play a major role in world affairs, and fewer than 30 percent wanted to slash military spending. While most support getting out of Afghanistan, a USA Today/Gallup poll last March found that only half wanted to speed up withdrawal and nearly two-thirds worried that leaving too quickly would create a safe haven for terrorists.

Johnson would bring the troops home immediately.

By and large, the range of ideas in major-party campaigns reflects, for better or worse, the range of mainstream opinion. It is no accident that, now that public sentiment has shifted toward same-sex marriage, we have a major-party presidential candidate who backs that right.

Yet dissatisfaction with the two-party choices is also real. The present party structure requires voters to accept a "package deal" in which, for instance, those who support less economic regulation and lower taxes must also accept an anti-abortion stance. In this sense, the libertarian alternative, which emphasizes more freedom across the board, is genuinely attractive. And Johnson is the only candidate willing to address the dangers to civil liberties posed by the war on drugs, an issue on which the libertarian view is gaining ground.

A vote for Johnson has only symbolic meaning. It's a reminder that individual liberty matters, and champions of small government must have a place at the table. And that makes it a worthy contribution to the political process.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.