Libertarians and Political Reality

TM Lutas links to this thoughtful post on “Neolibertarian Practicality,” which takes radical libertarians to task for confusing faithfulness to libertarian values, which is good, with rigidity about political methods, which is counterproductive:

Practicality in lieu of principle seems to be anathema to Rothbard as it should be, but practicality joined with principle shouldn’t be, although he appears to make no difference between the two. He equates any nod to practicality as a compromise of principle. Compromising principle, in the case above would be to be satisfied with a 2% reduction of taxes as a goal. Attempting to achieve your goal of abolishing taxation by using 2% incremental cuts is not a compromising of principle, its simply a different and more practical way of achieving the same goal.

There is nothing noble or admirable about having good political ideas if you are too inflexible to get them enacted. I think that most intelligent people realize the validity of this assertion, which may be one reason why they have been leaving the Libertarian Party for years. Those who remain active in the LP seem increasingly to be strange people who are oblivious or indifferent to the empirical failure of their uncompromising political style.

As an aside, cursory comparison of the personal styles of some prominent libertarians and many utopian leftists reveals some commonality. Members of both groups tend to accuse anyone who agrees on goals, but not on methods, of being opposed to the goals. Perhaps certain kinds of people tend to be drawn to fringe political movements, and the Libertarian Party has its share of such people. Perhaps this is why the LP leadership often comes across as a bunch of cranks. It’s not easy to recruit ordinary voters who hate politics, when your leadership comes across as bitter, fractious, ideologically rigid and utopian. The LP could learn a thing or two from the Republicans in this regard, and maybe also from the Lubavitcher hassidim, who are doctrinally rigid but have recruited many Jews to their movement by being positive and open to dealing with different kinds of people, and by not insisting on compliance with all religious principles as a precondition of involvement. For ordinary voters to become engaged by a political movement there has to be something in it for them, and not just for the minority that enjoys struggle and politics for their own sake. The Republicans understand this, more or less, the Democrats are forgetting it, and the LP doesn’t have a clue.

20 thoughts on “Libertarians and Political Reality”

  1. “Politics is the art of the possible” Otto Von Bismark. Good post Jonathan, hope the reference to Bismark isn’t insulting.

  2. I think some of it is what the old folks would call common sense. Thanks for your point. And on a less, well, historical level, what about the AA? I was shocked by the libertarians who not only didn’t vote, but held it in contempt. Like it soiled them. Maybe I’m not sufficiently ascetic, but turning away from the soiled world seems a bizarre position for a party with so little reference to the spiritual.

  3. On the other hand, compromise has its own pitfalls.

    For one thing, if we’re not careful, the other side can come up with a “compromise” that’s designed to fail, and then stick us with the blame. See California “electricity deregulation”.

    When you get right down to it, I’m not sure how much compromise is possible. If the other side is firmly committed to the fundamental premise that human beings need lifelong parental guidance, they’re not going to work with us, and when they do appear to work with us, they’re looking for ways to discredit us. Every libertarian idea is based on the opposite fundamental premise, and for the other side, the purpose of government is to supply that which we insist should not be supplied.

    We’ll have to convert them, or escape to the heavens and set up America 2.0 elsewhere. Can we do either? Well, stranger things have happened – the Socialists managed to get their entire platform into law without electing a single candidate; of course a large part of that accomplishment required a catastrophe that they managed to blame on us. John Galt turned that formula around – let a catastrophe happen, and more honestly blamed it on them – but he’s fictional and that catastrophe had better stay fictional if we don’t want to see a body count in the hundreds of millions. I sure as hell don’t, no matter how wrong I think they are.

    Can we convert them without a catastrophe? Well, we can always promise them lots of money and rapidly improving goods and services – and unlike the Socialists, our promises can actually be delivered. I like to point out that the computer industry is a good example of what can happen throughout our society if our ideas are put into practice – not perfection, but rapid and consistent improvement in price and capability. How’d you like to see medicines get better and cheaper that quickly? How about aircraft and spacecraft? Even a socialist can understand the appeal of that, and if we can convince him that our ideas will make it happen and his won’t, we’ve got a shot.

  4. Ken, I’m hardly a doctor, but I don’t know if the price/performance curve of computers can be compared to medicines.

    Computers operate on a standard set of controlled inputs: A certain voltage, the internet protocol, etc. They also come off assembly lines like cookies (albeit, complex cookies).

    Biology is far more complicated. The number of variations in genetic makeup and metabolism among human beings is enormous. My understanding is that one of the prime drivers of the cost of medicines is the length and detail of the drug proving process.

    However, to argue against myself, I know someone who works for the FDA and she has called it the most disfunctional organization she’s ever encountered. Some I’m sure there’re improvements to be made on the bureaucratic front.

    Still, oversight is required. You can’t hire someone off the street and have them oversee or analyize the work of a doctor or clinical researcher. They wouldn’t have a clue what they seeing or hearing or reading.

    Prior to the advent of FDA like oranizations and reglation, buying medicine was a bit of a shot in the dark. Medicines were put on the market and advertised before their long term effects were understood. Heroin, for example, was invented by the Bayer company and advertised as a pain reliever. Bayer some years later: Oops. Sorry ’bout that. Penicillin, on the other hard, came from that same environment and turned out to be a wonder drug. But you never really knew. So I guess we need to ask ourselves, is that the environment we want again?

    Just to make the debate more contentious, and arguably more real, there’s a values debate to be had here. Are we prepared to live in an economically ‘more pure’ society if it results in higher levels of deep poverty for some? Goods and services might be cheaper, but if you’ve got no money, they’re still out of reach.

    I have people in my family who grew up in real poverty in the 1930’s and 1940’s. By that I mean they often had no money for heat in the winter (couldn’t afford coal), sometimes no food, owned one piece of clothing they wore every day, shoes that were worn whether the soles were worn out or not (newspaper will have to do), etc.

    So I ask myself, if we can make the economy 10% more productive for 80% of the people, but the cost is that 20% of the people experience a 50% drop in their standard of living, is that a trade I’m willing to make? One could argue (I’m NOT implying that you’d argue this. Only that it can be argued in the abstract. Let’s say I argue this point.) that those 20% are unproductive and don’t deserve our carrying their burdens. One might be right. That still leaves me asking the question, is that ok? Faced with that choice, I’d probably forego the increased economic efficiency. I have no clue what to do about those 20%, but I do know I don’t want them going hungry.

    This is not to say I don’t agree with the basic thrust of this post. In general, we’re better off letting the market deal with problems. I believe the free market will provide better schools, better PCs and better cars if we leave them basically alone. I believe we can reduce healthcare cost by allowing nurses to provide more services that are currently reserved for doctors (blood test, stitiches, providing basic healthcare, writing prescriptions for colds/flus, etc). I believe we’ve got to get a handle on doctors being sued for malpractice everytime there’s a problem.

    So what am I saying? I’m comfortable with a hybrid system. I like the market to work whenever possible. But I’m also willing to apply socialist ideas to keep people living at certain minimum standard of living.

  5. Wade, I think Bismark was also the one who compared politics to making sausage, wasn’t he? You might like the end product, but it’s a nasty business in the making.

  6. Michael, You’re right: “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.” From what I’ve read his diplomatic skill and pragmatism are credited for keeping Germany out of a WW1 after the Franco-Prussian victory, whereas Wilhelm IIs lack of such qualities helped plunge Germany into WW1

  7. Great post. With my remaining (limited) involvement with LPColo, I see it painfully.

    For example, I hear prominent libertarians arguing against social security privatization because it isn’t full and immediate, it’s “replacement of one intrusive government program with another.”

    I chalk it up, in part, to jealousy that the GOP is taking some LP ideas and running with them.

  8. Ken, I don’t think it’s about changing the minds of committed collectivists. It’s more about influencing the much larger group of citizens who are either mainly apolitical, or who casually accept collectivist platitudes but might be receptive to reasonable alternatives if they thought it were worth the time to pay attention. The reason they don’t think it’s worth their time is that life in the modern USA is, for most people, great, and the conventional libertarian message about how big govt is making everything go to hell in a handbasket simply doesn’t resonate. I don’t know what the solution for libertarians is, but I think the LP would be more effective if it could be just a bit more positive in its approach.

    Politically active libertarians who realize this tend to be operating as Republicans rather than in the LP. Which gets back to the point about compromise. There is no reason to compromise principles. However, in politics it’s often better in the long run to accept half (or even one tenth) of a loaf today, rather than to hold out for the whole loaf and maybe marginalize yourself while getting nothing. Some of the organized libertarians are like the guy on eBay who is convinced of the high value of the item he is selling and posts an extremely high minimum bid — he’ll get his price once in a while but lots of times no one will even bid. Meanwhile other sellers set low minimums and make many sales. The goal is the same in all cases, but some tactics are more effective than others. The LP is off-the-market tactically. I think that it could make itself more effective via better tactics without compromising its core values. Too much of some libertarians’ current rationale for their lack of political progress amounts to blaming the customer, which is a sure sign that they’re doing something wrong.

    BTW, I realize that you mentioned the John Galt scenario as an example of what we don’t want, but there is not a little of the John Galt kind of thinking among some libertarians and conservatives. I think it’s generally a very bad idea, because one should never spot one’s adversary a break, and because one can’t predict what’s going to happen — and unintended consequences don’t apply to statists only. I remember hearing people suggest, when Clinton was elected, that in the long run he would be good for freedom because he would screw things up so badly as to discredit the Left. But he turned out to be such an effective politician that he not only didn’t get blamed for screwing things up, but when he did screw things up he got people like us blamed (e.g., the govt shutdown) for the effects of his bad policies. And the other side was so inept that Clinton was able to get reelected and survived scandals that might have sunk anyone else. Overconfidence is dangerous. Usually in politics, if your side isn’t doing well it’s because you’re doing something wrong and voters are rejecting you, not because you haven’t sufficiently explained your positions. Tactics matter at least as much as do core values. Tactics should be changed as necessary.

  9. I think many people and groups actually flee from political success, popularity and accountability.

    I think the fundamental problem here is that to many pursue politics out of a need for emotional validation and not because they want to solve actual problems. They derive enormous satisfaction from viewing themselves as members of an intellectual and moral elite whose members are the only people who actually understand the world. Actual political success and increasing popularity threatens this self-aggrandizing world view. If the majority of the population accept your definition of problems and their solutions then you are no longer a member of the elite but just one of the herd. Further, actually gaining power and implementing one’s ideas exposes them to falsification. Being proven wrong is not something that the emotionally invested want to risk.

    As a rule of thumb, the further one goes out on any political axis you care to define, the more the individuals are motivated by personal emotion needs and not problem solving. In fact, I think people begin to select certain definitions of problems and their solutions based on the emotional gratification they provide. Politics becomes a form of entertainment, a Dungeons&Dragons of the intellect.

    Once people reach that point, they cease to be a functioning political force.

  10. “So I ask myself, if we can make the economy 10% more productive for 80% of the people, but the cost is that 20% of the people experience a 50% drop in their standard of living, is that a trade I’m willing to make?”

    “Are we prepared to live in an economically ‘more pure’ society if it results in higher levels of deep poverty for some?”

    False choices.

    Where do you get numbers like these? There is no such trade off to be made, at least not in the debate between free markets and more government intervention (left or right). The debate you are engaging in is what kind of statist intervention (left-wing or rigt-wing) can be used to correct the effects of all the other statist interventions that caused this sort of grinding poverty. The road not taken is to realize that long term structural poverty is the result of too much state intervention, not the lack thereof.

    This is the real problem: serious people, even those who are supposedly in favor of freer markets (than those on the left) actually believe this sort of socialist reasoning. The battle over tactics is already lost because the whole set of assumptions is so skewed to the statist position that the amount of effort required just to get to a common set of agreed upon principles is too much. The libertarian position is starting the count with 2 strikes because people have been fed this kind of nonsense since birth.

    If the economy were allowed (you will notice very carefully that I did not use the words “we” or “make”) to function more freely and properly it would result in less unemployment and poverty, not more. This pattern has been repeated so many times throughout history that its hard to make an argument against it, but the argument never comes up in serious. Libertarians will always be on the outside looking in as long as superstitions like this exist.

    Unfortunately statists (by embracing the state and taking it over) have permanently directed the debate onto their terms. Libertarians of most sorts cannot even agree on the basic set of assumptions in order to have a debate with the statists who occupy both sides of the political debate about solutions to a given problem.

    So where should libertarians focus their efforts? My personal opinion is that there are a lot of superstitions about the need for the firm hand of government force in every human situation that need to be addressed. Until that battle is won tactics are kind of pointless. If you don’t agree on what the problem is or that there even is a problem, it’s kind of hard to have a serious debate about solutions.

    That’s a long road to travel. It has taken me more than 10 gradual years to unlearn all of the economic superstitions that I was taught in public in school (the first step is to take the study of history back from the statists) and from society. I came to this position by largely ignoring the mainstream media and actively seeking out alternative points of view. To say the least this is not the path of least resistance.

  11. DS, you may be right that better tactics won’t help if most people accept faulty premises. I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does. One of the best reasons to privatize education is the possibility that more diversity among schools and scholastic methods would lead to better education in economics, history and civics, at least for some children. So many collectivist and authoritarian economic and historical fallacies find willing adherents only because a lot of people are ignorant, because they were taught nonsense.

    I think it’s wise to be cautious in making assumptions about the course of action that makes the most sense for libertarians. Certainly libertarians should support efforts to improve education in economic and other reality. However, I don’t think there’s much harm in redirecting the effort that now goes to LP gear-spinning into more productive political areas. I don’t think it hurts to win tactical battles, as long as we (libertarians) keep sight of the big picture.

  12. Your post, Johnathan, reminds me of Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative.” I support it because it begins to dilute the government’s monopoly on “welfare”. This blend of “practicality joined with principle” is, I think, a good example of McQ”s call to “nod to practicality.”

    And you’re right on – it is as hard a sell to my California socialist buddies, as it is to my libertarian purist friends.

    TM Lucas wrote last week: “Tough love is based on love.” Untill we can put the “love” back into “tough love” the LP doesn’t stand a chance.

    Bush’s “Ownership Society” is another Republican Party synthesis of our philosophies. The Republicans now occupy the “loving”, politically-viable ground on this debate.

    “Compassionate conservatism” has lapped up our ideals and repackaged them for maximum political palatibility. Sad to say, that makes the GOP the advocate best positioned to make our ideas into policy.

    Should we just throw in the towel, abandon McQ’s “rowboat”, and join the Grand-‘Ole Party? How can we build a competing battle-vessel when the ideas we rely on for flotation are being coopted by a better funded, enormously viable GOP-vessel?

    Rove has put the LP in a real bind.


  13. Steve — the best bet for libertarians is to be a faction within the GOP. Our system forces all groups into two parties which try to get 51%.

    Shannon put it very well: “…the further one goes out on any political axis you care to define, the more the individuals are motivated by personal emotion needs and not problem solving.” People who are interested in feelings of moral or intellectual superiority and being surrounded by like-minded people who will validate their self-image can then enjoy the LP as their personal play area. The ones who actually want some of their ideas to take on actual life in the world will become an effective faction within the GOP.

  14. Lex wrote, “the best bet for libertarians is to be a faction within the GOP.”

    The LP’s fate is writ. It should continue to devolve to its home-base: individual weblogs like this one. It should metamorphize into a medium. In this fluid, inquiring form, it can live on as a potent, responsive matrix in the marrow of our nation’s political discourse.

    The constant scrutiny it will receive in the “fact-check-your-ass” World of blogs will keep it sharp for national service, when needed. If it stays honest and energetic, even if overly practical, new adherents will school over time.


  15. I do not agree that the LP is inevitably dead. With so few dues paying LP members, a committed band of reasonable libertarians can take over just about any party organ and run candidates who have a chance of winning. I think that a reasonable set of principles for candidates would sound something like this:

    1. I believe that Thomas Jefferson was right when he said that that government which governs least, governs best
    2. I believe that we can do better at following his advice than our current crop of politicians are doing
    3. I believe that improving our government by governing less will better meet the needs of all the people
    4. I believe that forcing changes without first showing the happy ending of better government is short sighted and impractical. Small government is a habit which serves the people well and I pledge to work tirelessly to not only reduce government but create the societal consensus to make those changes stick.
    5. I believe in humane transitions from the old to the new so that people are never sacrificed for principle.

    There is nothing in this statement of candidate principles that should be objectionable to a sane LP. Such a statement would be objected to because it would leave in place certain forms of coercion for a time until public opinion understood the solution and the coercive law or regulation would be removed. A second objection would be leveled at the extra coercively extracted expenses on transition costs. Both objections are in error and desire Bismarck’s tasty sausage without the disturbing sausage making.

    The problem for libertarians who want to actually affect policy is that the LP is the crazy uncle who you just can’t get rid of. Every time you start to make headway you either have to hide your libertarianism or you have to deal with the fact that the LP has poisoned the well and turned off many of your potential partners. The LP must be fixed because the all or nothing libertarians won’t ever let it die.

  16. I’m not sure why it matters to have an LP. I’ve always been a Republican of the small-l libertarian variety, pretty much. It seems to me it would be better for people with these views to be an organized faction that came up with policy proposals, like Cato, except bigger and more populist. That is how the Conservative Movement originally organized by Bill Buckley and Bill Rusher, et al. took over the GOP between the late 50s and now. That is the model to follow, it seems to me. And the crazy uncle is like that, because, as Shannon points out, he wants to be. For people who don’t have any emotional investment in the word libertarian or the party name, what difference does it make?
    For those who do, why is that a reason to do things in an ineffective way?

  17. Where do you get numbers like these?

    I pulled them out of thin air as an example. There is no analysis behind them.

    The debate you are engaging in is what kind of statist intervention (left-wing or rigt-wing) can be used to correct the effects of all the other statist interventions that caused this sort of grinding poverty.

    So state intervention causes grinding poverty? If that were true, then before the existence of state intervention there would have been no grinding poverty, correct? Where did you get that idea?

    Grinding poverty isn’t ’caused’. Poverty is the starting point. Poverty is the natural state of things when wealth (or sufficient amounts of wealth) are not being created.

    Wealth, on the other hand, has causation; it’s the result of an activity; i.e, the rendering of services or the creation of goods. The goods and services are sold for profit to mutual benefit.

    I’ve lived under lots of different circumstances in my short (45 year) life: filthy roach and rat infested slums, basically poor lower middle class neighborhoods, working class and upper middle class suburbs with lakes and trails and all the sweet pleasantries. You notice patterns after a while. Like the lack of alcoholics and people with severe mental problems living in the burbs. Not many folks with felony records either. Hardly a soul whose education stopped at the sixth grade. You see those things more and more as you go down the wealth scale. When you get to the slum level it’s pretty much the rule.

    My feeling – my experience – is that without state intervation, which is polite way of saying tax dollars of mine going to help pay their rent, medical expenses, food bills, etc., is that’ll go hungry and possibly homeless. I think the welfare reforms were a good thing, by the way. It gets them out working, get’s them into classes teaching them good work skills and people skills (I assure you, they didn’t learn them at home) and so forth. I DON’T think we should be encouraging people to stay on welfare their whole lives and/or raising new generations dependent on the state. That’s bad news, I agree. Very bad. But I do think I (we) should be trying to help them.

    The single best thing we can do, IMHO, is to improve schools in the cities. That should be priority number one. That’s the ‘teach a man to fish’ approach to the problem. If we can succeed in breaking the state’s hold on the schools, even if I have to subsidize poor kid’s education with my money, we’ll make tremendous strides against poverty (and crime) by giving these kids a fighting chance to make something of themselves. Even then it’s gonna be tough. You have no idea (maybe you do, how would I know?) how dysfunctional some of these kids families are. Dad’s in prison or an ex-con. Mom’s in and out of mental hospitals. Mom and dad are drunk every night. It’s pathetic. No wonder so many of those kids end up as basket cases themselves.

  18. “If that were true, then before the existence of state intervention there would have been no grinding poverty, correct? Where did you get that idea?”

    When was “before the existence of state intervention?”

    State intervention has existed for thousands of years. The natural state of man kind most certainly is not poverty or none of us would be here today, our ancestors would have starved to death hundreds of thousands of years ago.

    “Wealth, on the other hand, has causation; it’s the result of an activity; i.e, the rendering of services or the creation of goods. The goods and services are sold for profit to mutual benefit.”

    Correct. The degree to which government gets in the way of this process destroys wealth and creates poverty. But I think you are confusing “wealth” with “money”, two different concepts.

    Wealth and economic growth do not come from government. That’s not to say that government should not exist or has no purpose. But governments since the beginning of time have made a mess by trying to engineer their respective economies and created needless poverty, sometimes out of corruption, sometimes as a means to control its people and eliminate its political enemies (USSR, China, etc) and sometimes with the best of intentions like most of the western democracies.

    America is the wealthiest nation on Earth simply because at every turn our government, either through intentional forethought or by accidental providence, has chosen to interfere less in our economy than other similar countries have chosen to.

    The problems of the poor that you point out have no active government solution. This is the classic case of the goverment casuing a problem and then claiming that only government can fix it. Your solution to simply use government funds (private sector capital diverted to government)to correct problems after the fact, instead of dealing with the root cause. The problem is that the resources diverted from the private sector destroy economic growth, which leads to more poverty, not less. It’s a downward spiral.

  19. The Self-conscious Libertarian: It seems many have a “Love-Hate” relationship with Libertarian principles. I read with surprise some of the comments that followed Mr. Gerwitz’ Jan. 6. ‘05 post: Libertarians and Political Reality. Their tone seems overly defensive of an ideology whose real political effectiveness needs no defense.

    The comments are riddled with self-conscious compromise. TM Lutas’ referred to his “Crazy Uncle”, and confessed to hiding his libertarianism (I share this experience). Michael Hiteshaw accepts a “hybrid system” and support for “minimum standards of living.” In a sharp scold to conform, Shannon Love wrote: “…the further one goes out on any political axis you care to define, the more the individuals are motivated by personal emotion needs and not problem solving.” Her words resonate and prompt me to pause…, because conforming to the “herd” can offer equal succor to the emotionally infirm.*

    An ancient Chinese proverb says, “When reality contradicts rhetoric, revolution occurs.” To be genuinely pragmatic, the Libertarian message must continue to coincide uncompromisingly with timeless, Natural reality .**

    In the debate over the presentation of Libertarian Principles there are two things we should never lose sight of. First, Popular Republicanism is suckling from Libertarian ideals. And, second, the success of the Democratic Party’s renaissance hinges on its ability to coopt these same ideals (recall the Clinton/Gingrich Welfare Work Requirements). That makes Libertarian Principles the Nation’s political fulcrum, its spear point, its standard-bearer. To Shannon’s point, this is our “political function.” And it cautions against softening these principles by dressing them in soft, fuzzy rhetoric. Simply put, we cannot continue to spearhead if we are running to join the “herd.”

    This “Standard-bearer Role” is different from that of a conventional “Party” in that it is Libertarian principles’ honesty and rectitude, indeed their real-world applicability, that is driving their popular adoption -not our political prowess. This is our subliminal political mechanism. In fact, Libertarians should drop the needless pretense of “Party.” We should instead seek a looser, plasmoid connectivity in our modern, web-based culture.

    American politics will always listen to a robust Libertarianism based on real-time information, and chastened by adversarial, honest debate. But it will always reject a flaccid, dishonest illusion. As the Chinese could tell you, keep it real, and you can’t go wrong.”


    *Not accidently, this disconnect exactly parallels our species’ semi-embrace of Nature. We all rejoice in a Spring shower and a rainbow-hued butterfly, but recoil at a graphic Serenghetti documentary.

    **See Naturalism at online Encyclopedia of International Philosophy

    ***TM Lutas, sorry for misspelling your name in a prior post.

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