Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online said that “very serious, committed, consistent libertarians are very rare in America (and really, really rare everywhere else). They don’t come close to constituting a major voting block. I respect folks who seriously believe in liberty-maximization in all spheres of life, but that is not a power-brokering constituency in American politics and never will be” (emphasis added).
This is the same point I made in a post earlier this month. Committed libertarians have not made any progress electorally because they are not willing to scratch enough backs, and if they were willing to scratch enough backs they wouldn’t be committed libertarians any longer. It is not simply a small-government versus a big-government mentality. It’s electoral libertarians or constitutionalists versus a multitude of warhawks, rent seekers, and stripes of big-government conservative and liberal social reformers who are more than willing to trade favors. Those are entrenched groups, and they find that big government suites their needs.
Before those groups came to power, Ludwig von Mises published “Human Action”, the most complete case for classical liberalism, and “Socialism”, which described the calculation problem of centralized economic planning. Leonard Read opened the Foundation of Economic Education, aiding the early careers of F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Henry Hazlitt. Ayn Rand championed the heroic nature of the individual. Their support for electoral politics was understandable given government’s popularity in the 1940s and 50s; but they failed to stop government growth when government was much less intrusive and when it was a tiny fraction of its current size. All the things that have happened since — the trillion dollar-per-year empire, the instillation of dictatorial client states in South America and the Middle East and the subsequent “blowback,” the hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians killed by American forces, and the authoritarian law enforcement tactic leveled against American civilians — happened despite their work. Those tragedies and many more happened anyways.
The fear is that liberty would be in full-scale retreat and that greater atrocities would have taken place had libertarians not participated in electoral politics. There’s a case to be made there, but it is speculation. What isn’t speculation is that government spending as a part of the economy is at an all-time high, and everyone expects it to stay on the current trajectory indefinitely. Most Americans still support pre-emptive war and torture for anyone the government labels a terrorist. In Michael Cloud’s book “Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion,” he cares to use the Weight Watchers Test to gauge the promises by politicians of reducing the size of government, referring to the famous diet plan in which participants meet regularly to weigh themselves in front of other members. He said:
The Weight Watchers Test of government lets us know where we are, which direction we’re moving … and how fast we’re going.
The Weight Watchers Test of government frees us from sleight-of-mouth and political illusions.
It offers us the facts, the truth:
Are we moving toward bigger and bigger Big Government … or getting closer and closer to individual liberty, personal responsibility, and small government?
According to the Weight Watchers Test, libertarians have failed and failed more miserably than anyone else I know. (I include myself in that criticism.) The government has grown from arguably the freest non-colonial government in all of history to the most dangerous existing threat to humanity (considering the military arsenal at a president’s disposal and their predecessor’s historical willingness to use it). A limited government has the perverse tendency of growing immensely since lifting many regulations and securing relative stability makes it possible to generate astounding amounts of wealth, allowing the government parasite to grow largely discretely until the point where the parasite of government becomes so entrenched that government and the market almost appear co-dependent and inseparable.
There are three possible reasons why I think libertarianism has lost political ground. First, we could be wrong, and libertarians fail to understand the scope and circumstances to which coercion should play in human interaction to promote prosperity. Philosophically, I think libertarians (those who support the maximum attainable role of individual liberty) are right. Human beings are the most prosperous, yet fragile, animals on earth. So I don’t think humans have progressed because of our extraordinary physical traits. It is because of the human mind and its reasoning ability. So it seems that the negation of the reasoning mind by initiating force is detrimental to the fruits of human progress. I appreciate Ayn Rand’s comment that “All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.”
Second, libertarians may have failed due to a lack of effort. For this, I refer to the Ron Paul’s presidential campaign of 2008. In one day in November of 2007, his supporters raised over $4.3 million. A month later, supporters exhausted over $6 million in a single day, a record for the largest fundraiser in the history of politics. Libertarians are unlikely to ever find someone as honest and distinguished as Paul. He got more media attention than any ideological libertarian before, yet he rarely garnered more than 10 percent in Republican primaries despite the thousands of YouTube videos and millions of dollars invested. Even if Paul ran again, I’m doubtful that level of enthusiasm could be reproduced.
Third, maybe libertarians have tried the wrong strategy of clinging to government strictures to achieve intellectual inroads. Instead of trying to liberate the entire country, we could try to focus on something of which we have some control — ourselves and our personal relationships.
A belief in the maximum role of individual liberty is inherently an individualist philosophy. That means taking responsibility for our own liberty, just as we take responsibility for our own welfare — instead of giving that power to middlemen, the politicians. We can “be the change,” as Ghandi said, and lead by example to thwart the arbitrary controls others seek to impose on us. In that way, our ideals, cascading individual by individual, will eventually be reflected in the institution of government to the point where it is commonly accepted that government is no longer necessary. I don’t have to wait for the whole country to shift before I take responsibility for my own life and enjoy the benefits of living by honest, consistent principles. It can be achieved by taking peaceful direct action through education, outreach, and agorism.
What if Rothbard, Mises, Hayek, Rand, and Hazlitt had worked outside the system 50 years ago? Imagine how much further liberty would have advanced. That too is speculation, but we’ve seen that electoral politics isn’t a path to salvation either.