Some (Very Belated) Resolutions for the Libertarian Movement
With the Iowa Caucuses recently completed (and Paul in a close third), the New Hampshire primaries upon us, 2011 receding into the past and 2012 coming upon us full-bore, the heavy boot of government dropping from the sky, the usual insanity and corruption coming out of Washington, and me trying to figure out how to write an intro for a belated post, I was thinking about what the libertarian movement should try to focus on in 2012. It took me awhile to figure out what to say, but I think I finally have it. Maybe. In a quick summary, the three things I believe the libertarian movement should try and do are:
- Set itself apart from conservatism and create its own “brand”
- Refuse to let the perfect be the enemy of the good
- Continue to educate the public on “crony capitalism” and “corporatism” and not engage in “vulgar libertarianism”
Rest assured I will do my utmost to explain what all of this means.
For me, one of my biggest problems with the way we’re spreading the libertarian message was crystallized with the resurgence of the Ron Paul newsletters last month. Jason cited professor Steve Horwitz’s Bleeding Heart Libertarians post on the subject, which plainly explained what was going on and the problems that libertarianism has to contend with. Namely, we must examine our past, see where we went wrong, and reject that, and boy, is there a lot of rejectin` to do.
Throughout much of the 20th century, libertarianism and conservatism were joined in a strategy known as “fusionism.” The strategy came about thanks to the editors of National Review, then the leading conservative journal, as a way to keep communism at bay. It worked through much of the century because communism—next to fascism, social democracy, and any form of authoritarianism and totalitarianism—is the complete antithesis of libertarianism, and was also an opponent of the moral code trumpeted by American social conservatives. However, after the Soviet Union fell, the alliance between libertarians and conservatives became increasingly archaic, awkward, and out of place. Even though libertarians are against war and big military spending, conservatives continued to bash the table in favor of expanding military budgets. There was an increase in fervent rhetoric against gays, lesbians, athiests, Muslims, and anyone who didn’t quite follow one form of Christianity or another, another breaking point with the socially liberal principles of libertarianism. And then, of course, American conservatives abandoned proper free market principles and instead secretly endorsed corporatism—the notion that big government should work together with big business to manage the economy.
On top of all of this, there was no longer any communist threat to justify uniting the two disparate factions. Yet, for better, or as I would argue, for far, far worse, libertarians remained wedded to the hip of conservatives through the 1990s and the early 2000s, with some even trying to create a “neolibertarian” strain to work side by side with the “neoconservatives” in Washington, surely a black mark in our history.
The problems with this are numerous. First off, as Clint Townsend identified in his list of libertarian “oopsies” on the Students For Liberty blog, “Conservatism and libertarianism are separate and distinct intellectual traditions.” There are huge gulfs between conservative and libertarian thinking. A conservative wants things to stay the same, or in some cases, even to go back to some prior condition, which may be perceived to be better than the current situation (but which is usually not.) A conservative wants things to remain in amber, unchanging, static. A libertarian, on the other hand, simply wants to increase individual freedom as much as possible, and this means giving people the freedom to experiment, to change, to evolve, to adapt. They are about as far from each other as you can get.
Indiana governor Mitch Daniels put this quite well a few years ago in an interview, when he talked about the two concepts of “dynamism” and “stasism” (not “statism,” although certainly they overlap.) Dynamism is a system where things constantly change, where stasism is where things are in “stasis” and, predictably, do not. Conservatism is, quite simply, the latter; they do not wish for society to change in any way, to let people even consider doing something new in their own lives. That, my friends, is simply not libertarian, and there is no reason for us to be in such an alliance. We’re dynamists, they’re stasisists*, like fire and water, we cannot coexist.
For a time, I argued that libertarians should go more leftward and identify with American liberals (or social democrats, if we followed Europe on this one.**) The reason I thought this was because I was in college, and there were many disaffected, disgruntled, young college students, most of whom leaned to the left, and I recognized that this was our country’s future. If we didn’t reach out to them, if we didn’t try to appeal to them, I figured, the libertarian future in America was doomed. I thought we should become more “liberaltarian,” as the phrasing went. However, considering what’s going on now, with the youth firmly behind Ron Paul and the work of Students for Liberty creating new alternatives for young Americans, that’s not really necessary and may even be detrimental now. We need to create a new, separate brand, and sever the links between libertarianism and conservatism. This is not to say we should stop supporting Ron Paul and say goodbye to the Republican Party—I’m talking about the ideology of conservatism, not any political party. Libertarians should be represented in both in order to influence public policy, while simultaneously promoting a healthy alternative party.
Another big problem we seem to have is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I remember many arguments about the Ryan Plan because, in the view of some (actually, just about all) libertarians, it did not go far enough in cutting government spending and reform. I agreed with these concerns, but where I disagreed was in their disapproval of the plan. They felt that, because the plan simply did not go far enough, it did not deserve their support and they wanted it to fail. Similar arguments arise over public education when people don’t sign on to the “separation of school and state” philosophy, or when it comes to libertarianism’s most extreme form, anarcho-capitalism.
These are foolish and ultimately deleterious arguments. Yes, you are certainly well within your right to argue for stateless capitalism if you wish, and you certainly have a good point to make when a plan does not go far enough. But if we were to argue against every idea that reduced government simply because they did not go all the way, we would not have any sort of liberty at all. It’s like football: you need to advance the ball steadily up the field before you can score a touchdown. Yes, occasionally the receiver on the kickoff returns it all the way, but that’s not very common, and it’s even less common in the real world. Advocating for the most radical situation gets us nowhere; incrementalism, while slow and at times frustrating and seemingly unrewarding, will get us there by changing the conversation. Charging into a conversation or discussion with “We must abolish the government” will turn more off than on.
A corollary to this is that we have to recognize that we cannot just chop away at the federal leviathan willy-nilly; some things must be done in sequence. The best example I can think of is the minimum wage. Most of us here would like to abolish it or at least reduce it, but doing that now would be problematic and might actually cause more harm than good. The reason is because of the dollar’s weakened purchasing power, which would be unable to buy very much (and probably even less in the years ahead.) Could you imagine being paid for $1 a hour, or even just $5 an hour, in this economy? Yes, there are very good arguments as to why employers would not do that, but some would try, and that’s all we need to get stories of people not being able to make enough to buy bread. Instead, we should focus on removing the Federal Reserve, the largest factor in the weakened dollar, then, after the dollar has recovered and the economy is more stable, get rid of the minimum wage.
That is only one example, and I am sure there are more of them. Some parts of the government we could do away with without any sequence—the Department of Homeland Stupidity Security springs to mind—but there are many that require us to consider a step-by-step path before we can get them to go away. Part of this is PR, part of this is politics, but most is actually good governance.
Finally, the third thing, which we’re starting to do really well: we must continue our pressure on crony capitalism and corporatism, and continue to educate the public about the differences between true free market capitalism and this horribly disfigured, corrupted, warped, thing we have today. As Anthony Gregory wrote in 2005 on the Future of Freedom Foundation’s blog, “proponents of the free market often find themselves in the awkward position of defending the status quo of state capitalism, which is in fact a common adversary of the free marketer.” This is a horrible, horrible mistake. The last thing we should be doing is defending corporations and the status quo, because it is absolutely anathema to the idea of a free market. Unfortunately, over the past twenty years, we’ve done little but defend those poor little Fortune 500 executives from those ravenous working hordes. There is some sense to it—we certainly do not want the socialism many of the horde members are promoting—but at the same time, the current system is indefensible.
Libertarians who defend big business in this manner have earned an interesting epithet, mostly from left-libertarians such as Kevin Carson of the Center for a Stateless Society: “vulgar libertarians.” And, as one libertarian blogger points out, they work against the cause of liberty in a way no one else can. They make it harder for the rest of us to argue for a truly free market. They lend fuel to misconceptions and myths about libertarianism, which we must work harder at to dispel. And of course, they also make up arguments for crony capitalists and statists to use against the rest of us. One step forward, too steps back—and since we’re gun-loving libertarians, a .45 in our foot to boot.
This year, we should redouble our efforts at combating crony capitalism and corporatism, showing the great divide that exists between those ideas and true free market capitalism, and also make an effort to explain things to vulgar libertarians, show where they’re wrong, and help them deliver a better message. If we can get the public to understand the difference between the two “capitalisms,” I think we’d have much higher support for libertarian economic policies—and probably a lot more money in everyone’s pockets.
So, in summary: we need to establish a new “brand” of libertarianism, distinct from conservatism; we cannot let our more radical ideas and desires short-circuit the entire cause; and we need to keep hammering away at crony capitalism and helping to educate not only the public, but vulgar libertarians as well. If we can do these three (or, I guess, five) things, even if a libertarian doesn’t get into the White House this year, we’ll have made some dramatic successes.
*I have no idea how to spell that. **I have many complaints about Europe. Their political terminology is not one of them.