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The Way Forward: 5 Big Challenges for Libertarians

November 30, 2015

by J. Andrew Zalucky


Where we are vs. where we need to go

Last year, The New York Times published a piece called “Has the Libertarian Moment Finally Arrived?” which drummed up a lot of excitement among libertarians. Even if the article itself cast a critical eye on the movement and some of its ideas, just getting recognized by the Times seemed like an accomplishment. But a lot of this hype was centered around Rand Paul, the libertarian-leaning conservative senator from Kentucky, and his presidential campaign. Lately, Rand Paul is trailing his rivals by a significant margin and many politico’s are declaring his candidacy dead. But Rand Paul and his campaign have little to do with libertarianism on the whole. Though his political stagnation speaks somewhat to libertarianism’s tension within the Republican party, the challenges facing the movement itself go much deeper.

Libertarianism is having trouble gaining traction in the United States, both in electoral terms and as a distinct ideology. It’s based on a very simple set of ideas (the non-aggression principle, J.S Mill’s harm principle, voluntary exchange and individual autonomy), but this simplicity can make it seem thin, almost ethereal and lacking the romanticism of progressivism or the moral fervor of conservatism. We have a lot of work to do to change these and other perceptions.

Here are 5 challenges that we must come to terms with if we want to have a future in American politics:

  1. People don’t know much about us.A lot of Americans simply don’t know much about libertarianism. At best, they might know who Ron Swanson is  not a terrible example, but not exactly informative either. At the very worst, they think of the selfish, conspiracy-obsessed, meme-sharing shut-in who lectures people on the internet about Bitcoin. Through their indoctrination in the public school system, and their continued (and unfortunate) reliance on cable news, most Americans still reduce politics to the broad categories of “Conservative” and “Liberal” i.e. those deemed acceptable by the polite consensus. But both of these groups bear the libertarian strain, and it’s here where we can find common ground (e.g. NSA surveillance, foreign policy restraint, crony-capitalism, mass incarceration, the war on drugs). The new divide is not so much between conservative and liberal, but between people who want more state intervention in their lives and those who want less. But many of the latter still won’t identify as libertarians or break party loyalties. Why is that?
  2. We’re caught in the political crossfire.Because there are libertarian-minded people in both major parties, this has allowed each side to smear libertarians as a way to gain leverage over the other. Libertarian thinkers like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises tend to get erroneously lumped in with conservatism, due to their influence on Reagan and Thatcher. This association has stuck in the minds of many on the left (more on that in a moment). A progressive friend of mine once told me, “Libertarians are just Republicans who are ok with pot…and maybe abortion.” Yikes. But this association is a misnomer. For all their rhetoric of “small government,” it’s been conservatives who, when actually in power, pass bills increasing state control of education (No Child Left Behind), state intervention in the economy (Sarbanes-Oxley) and the curtailing of civil liberties (The Patriot Act). As for our recent, shaky alliance with progressives on pot legalization, gay marriage, immigration and foreign intervention, this has mostly been a coincidence and less of an active coalition. Still, conservatives take every chance they get to slam us as pacifist, amoral bohemians who only agree with them on taxes. In other words, because we’re amenable to both sides on certain issues, it’s easier for them to pick us off and toss our other concerns aside.
  3. People think we’re selfish.When trying to convince liberals and leftists, this is the most difficult problem we face. I call this “The Uncaring Fallacy,” which goes something like this: because we don’t want the government to manage it, we don’t want it to be managed at all, and therefore we don’t care about large-scale issues (e.g. healthcare, education, roads, poverty). This nonsense has a lot to do with websites like Salon and Alternet painting a straw-man of libertarians as naive, Ayn Rand-worshiping social Darwinists (even calling Somalia a “libertarian paradise,” here’s why that’s garbage). On the contrary, libertarianism’s roots lie squarely with the classical liberal tradition. No ideology has a monopoly on selfishness and coldness toward the less fortunate. The point of disagreement with progressives is that, despite good intentions, government programs and regulations often produce complexities and contradictions that wind up benefiting the powerful. And there’s also left-leaning libertarians like the people at C4SS and Bleeding-Heart Libertarians (and myself), whose support for ideas like the guaranteed minimum income should appeal to those on the left but, see challenge number 1.
  4. People like power and status.Monuments, military victories and grand speeches have a way of capturing the imagination. Things like the Hoover Dam, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Apollo Space Program all feed into the story of American exceptionalism we’re taught in school and reassured about by the press. People like the fancy titles, uniforms and responsibilities associated with public service, as they appeal both to our egotism (“I’m important!”) and our self-righteousness (“I’m making a difference!”). This is why the royal courts of the middle ages still seem so fascinating to us (Crusader Kings II…anyone?). But there have been innumerable inventions, architectural achievements, scientific and medical breakthroughs, and other historic heights achieved outside the alliance of big business and government (and big unions in some cases). And they were done without coercion, which is essentially what all government boils down to. Even now, Blue Origin, a private company, just launched a re-usable space rocket! We must convince people once again of Machiavelli’s old saying, “It is not titles that honor men, but men who honor titles.”
  5. We’re a victim of our own success.How did Bismark neutralize the German socialist movement? He introduced social security. As I addressed in points 1 and 2, there is a catch-22 at play here. Libertarians want to get their principles injected into public discourse  but it seems like every time this happens, it makes further efforts look unnecessary. When a portion of libertarian economic ideas made headway with Republicans in the 70s and 80s, it made liberty-minded conservatives complacent and comfortable, even if it meant an alliance with social conservatives and interventionist neocons. The same could be said of the left, as pot legalization gains wider acceptance and Americans become more relaxed on social issues, it may leave some liberty-minded liberals thinking “well, we came this far, maybe the fights over economics can wait.” But to the surprise of exactly no one, the major parties always end up falling into their roles as large institutions, ones that support a set of established interests  i.e. the well-connected and the privileged.

What Is to be Done?


Finding a way forward

We have two clear options. On one hand, we can try to keep infiltrating Republican and Democratic party politics. This has seen limited results that only prolong the challenges listed above. On the other hand, perhaps liberty-minded people of all persuasions should leave the two main parties and unite behind a third.

There is a Libertarian Party, but thus far it’s only seen tepid, marginal support, and is not taken very seriously. In 2012, Gary Johnson only got 1% of the vote, not enough to even get the party eligible for national ballot registration. But why should we be resigned to this? American political journalists like to bemoan how “polarized and divisive our politics has become” (spoiler alert: politics is polarizing and divisive by definition).

But is this such a bad thing? I say we take advantage of it.

In a way, the US is slowly becoming more like the nations of western and central Europe, with a large centre-right Conservative party (the Republicans) pit against a centre-left Social Democratic party (the Democrats). But what we’re missing is the balancing act of a Liberal party (“liberal” in the original, pre-New Deal version of the word), like the Liberal Democrats in the UK. Yes, yes I know they got trounced this past May. But the 2010-2015 coalition was still the first time a liberal party held power in Britain since the grand coalition of the Second World War. And even though they were the junior partner in the coalition, the Lid-Dems still got many of their manifesto items through the House of Commons. Additionally, liberal parties currently hold power or in are coalition governments in Canada, Denmark, The Netherlands and elsewhere. While not libertarian per se, the existence and success of these parties show that there is a workable path for us to take.

We might be able to make a better case for libertarianism (and for electing libertarian legislators) if we reframe it around “classical liberalism,” using European liberal parties as examples. This would give us some historical grounding, some possible allies abroad and can help show that we want to create a credible agenda that people can get behind.


“You have chosen…wisely”

Furthermore, we must show that we have a positive case for a free, flourishing, open society with minimal state intrusion. To potential allies on the left, we must that we do care about education, housing, healthcare and poverty, but that we wish to address these issues through parallel, voluntary institutions  or through simplified programs that require as small a state as possible. To those on the right, we must show that we still care about our sovereignty, though we wish to simplify our immigration laws and reduce our propensity for foreign entanglements. And as much as we detest the war on drugs and the foolishness of state prohibition, that does not mean we support the life-destroying excesses of the drug culture. As Frank Furedi writes in his excellent essay, “Breathing Life Back into Libertarianism,”

It is precisely because libertarians trust people and believe in the human potential that their outlook can capture the imagination of those who believe that what they do really matters. But for the human potential to be realized, libertarians need to develop arguments that match up to the great ideals of freedom and autonomy.

Human action often has unexpected outcomes, some of which are difficult to live with. Nevertheless, the ideal of autonomy offers people choice and often results in progress. It was those who took autonomy seriously who successfully challenged repressive institutions and the use of arbitrary powers that thwarted people’s ambitions. An enlightened society should harness the ideal of individual autonomy, in order to create the optimum conditions for human development.

Building an opposition movement is difficult, and reframing it in a clear, practical manner even more so. But honestly, sharing memes with people you already agree with and shouting at people you don’t on Reddit isn’t getting us anywhere. Trusting the major parties hasn’t helped either.

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