As the Texas Republican primary season is wrapping up with the May 29 election day, the airwaves are filled with candidates touting their conservative credentials or questioning the conservative bona fides of opponents. Some candidate platforms are better than others. But even in the conservative stronghold of North Texas, those candidates most wanting to reduce the scope of government powers have a more difficult time getting on the ballot for the general election than I think they should.
From my understanding of the conflicts within the party, certain factions are interested in pursuing more modest attempts at scaling back government, since the perceived lack of general election support for more devout pro-liberty policies put Republican seats in jeopardy. I think those politically moderate Republicans have a valid concern that their party could run the risk of prompting a backlash from voters.
After all, the dominant source of information that voters make contact with are from traditional media sources, narrowing the window of policies that are portrayed as politically practical. I don’t think that any electoral backlash would necessarily be an indictment of the principles of liberty as much as it would be of the policy reforms that liberty-oriented candidates are pursuing.
If we want to make liberty popular, we need to understand the way that political questions are framed by the electorate. With every proposed act of political privilege or government intervention, some interest group stands to lose if the privilege or intervention is not present. Seemingly, the question under debate is whether the needs of the people who would benefit from the government action take priority over the needs of others that would stand to lose. I do not think those are the proper terms of a political debate, but it is the way things seem to be. That win-lose mindset is modeled after the destructive politics of coercion, not liberty. When they do so in kind, people honoring the choices of others is not a sacrifice. When people are free, they interact with others for their mutual benefit.
Given that terms of debate are where they are, though, a means of gaining more popular support for liberty, as I see it, is to pursue principled reforms explicitly for the purpose of bettering the lives of ordinary people who are the least advantaged economically and socially, since it is allegedly for their sake that the rights of others are often restrained. If I am right that there are no irreconcilable conflicts of interest among people within a rational social system, genuine pro-liberty policies better the lives of all those willing to honor the choices of others. In that respect, everyone — from the most advantaged to the least advantaged — has an interest in defending the principles of liberty.
Because of the intricate consequences of overreaching government action, it is one thing to want to advance liberty, but it is another to know which kind of reforms will do so. For that reason we have to consider not only the nature of a particular government policy but how that policy is embedded within the larger system of government intervention itself. If we are determining the effect that a government regulation has on people’s liberty, it would help to know if the regulation in someway restrains previous grants of government privilege or intervention. For example, federal banks are required by law to maintain a 10 percent reserve requirement for the funds they have on deposit. Were it not for government privileges like taxpayer-backed deposit insurance, customers would likely demand that their banks hold a greater proportion of deposits in reserve. In that case, removing the reserve requirement would increase the magnitude of existing government intervention. If housing prices are made artificially high by government policies, I would think a similar lesson about the need to think contextually would be informative, for example, when evaluating proposals to cut housing relief for the poor.
This is not just a discussion over the practical consequences of political policies. There are profound moral implications that tug at people’s sense of decency. That is why advocates of liberty need to think strategically to appreciate how alleged pro-liberty reforms could injure the most vulnerable in society, making genuine reforms to advance liberty seem callous and lacking in empathy. I think popular actions would be to target those prior acts of intervention that make the secondary regulations appear necessary. Rather than hacking at the branches, which have unintended consequences of their own, of government intervention, we can spend our resources striking at the root in principled and still politically popular ways.