Incrementally Advancing Freedom

With relative success in the 2012 Presidential elections – considering Ron Paul in the Republican primary and Gary Johnson as the Libertarian candidate in the general – libertarians maintain our strongest position in modern history.  With opportunity in front of us, hopes abound to create a “broader freedom movement” – a term which rankles top libertarians.

With this opportunity comes risk – specifically, the risk of being co-opted again, a la Tea Party 2010 – therein diluting an otherwise powerful message.  With CPAC 2013 in the near term, the 2014 midterm elections in the – ahem – mid-term, and the 2016 Presidential election in the far-term, we should expect more posturing from establishmentarians, mostly on the Right, for their votes.

It might be tempting to reject all policy ideas that don’t immediately get us to the Promised Land, or to support policy ideas when we disagree with their proposed end states. I don’t think we have to do either/or.  I believe we can work incrementally within the existing framework to build bridges and, as the minority, work our ideas upward within a broader movement, strengthening both the broader movement and ourselves.

Messaging Strategy

When presented with new opportunities, the typical impulse for political movements on the Left and Right is to look for new policy positions to woo more voters.  But libertarians don’t have a policy problem; we have a messaging problem.

Many in the freedom movement, including myself, too frequently answer policy proposals to solve problems with the standard “That’s not supposed to be a government function,” too often discarding any incremental improvements a proposal may make.  This is too often the libertarian approach to social issues such as gay marriage and drug legalization, and civil society issues such as health care and education; it’s either all or nothing.

While aiming for the ideal, we reject incremental and pragmatic solutions – as it’s not the ideal – instead of dealing with the world we have.  In the market, incremental improvements produce best results, through spontaneous human action and without formal planning.  We know that.  Incrementalism can work with public policy as well.

As Eric Olsen at the blog Humble Libertarian puts it:

“I want to be careful not to ignore “better” over “perfect,” with the pragmatic part of me slowly being won over to support bills I don’t really like, over the current state which I dislike even more.”

I believe we need a three-prong messaging strategy to communicate our policy positions:

  1. Praise the good in proposals that would bring incremental change towards our desired state;
  2. Plainly state what else must be done to reach our desired state, and why that state is desirable;
  3. Reject settling before reaching the goal. That is, never compromise in pursuit of the desired end state.

This simple model shows a gap analysis of how we should endeavor and the pitfalls to avoid. This is a balancing act, and there are ways to overcome these risks.

Evoking Winston Churchill, I repeat, never compromise; never; never; never. The above strategy could be misconstrued as compromise, but incrementalism is not compromise; incrementalism is taking gains where you can get them.  We must avoid being co-opted, connaturalized, hijacked, diluted, distorted, maligned, and sold out again by the establishmentarians.  Enough said there.  And as this mixed message is vulnerable to misinterpretation, it must be plainly stated every time, with the end state in mind.

Overcoming Challenges

Although it is the nature of libertarianism to oppose most policy proposals, we must rethink how we do so, as opposing everything leaves libertarians open to the classic criticism as being ‘against’ everything and ‘for’ nothing – or worse, having nefarious intentions.

Libertarians are ‘for’ many things; namely, individual and economic rights.  But we should go beyond that, because it’s not just about the individual, for the individual is not entitled to anything not his. It’s about transactions. It’s about an exchange of earned value in the marketplace. It’s about respecting the rights of others. That requires placing your neighbor above yourself.

It takes a certain measure of maturity to treat others the way you want to be treated. Modern political movements clearly lack this maturity. Alternately, the message we convey must be one of humility, although it’s admittedly difficult to be humble when you are right all the time. I kid.  As G.K. Chesterton said, “Humility means making the subjective objective — realising that to the universe oneself is not I, but only he.”

In the ideal state, the individual is sovereign and has no obligation to fellow man or government. In the real world, he must interact with others for survival, given division of labor and all that. That does not make him subservient; it makes him a member of civil society. These interactions themselves are a form of government.

It is our duty to convince establishmentarians to unravel the government’s grip on many issues and return power to more local levels. Jason Kuznicki of the Cato Institute tells me:

“We need to learn how to let go creatively – in a way that doesn’t perversely maximize power.  All of this requires a good deal of careful judgment, but it’s not impossible. The state has let go of some very large realms of human activity in the past. There is no reason why it can’t learn to let go of more of them.”

More here. Another challenge is convincing others that libertarianism is not a cover for corporations. Kuznicki goes on:

“It’s sometimes said that libertarians’ incrementalism begins at the bottom – cut welfare to the poor first, cut welfare to the rich afterward. (If ever!) That’s a pretty messed up approach, particularly given how handouts to the rich often work indirectly to keep the poor in poverty. Of course, it’s not really what we’re up to.”

Kuznicki writes that on private property rights, the drug war, and the forever war, libertarians oppose policies that would enrich the wealthy. And for more on pragmatic and incremental improvements, see Milton Friedman’s epic Free to Choose series.

For the time being, libertarianism is a minority, mostly on the sidelines of American politics.  Succeeding in our future opportunities may require us to hold the hands of non-libertarians and usher them towards the natural laws of freedom written on their hearts so that we may all to get to the Promised Land – or, at least, incrementally closer.


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