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What Are Libertarians To Do?

Roberta X has a pretty good post up that makes the case against John McCain.  She says:

The choice between Democrats and Republicans is the choice between the noose and slow poison and the “hold your nose and pick McCain”[3] school of thought takes comfort in at least having time to dash off a few more Letters To The Editor before the end. Buncombe!

I don’t think she’s necessarily wrong here.  This may be exactly what’s happening.  Our constitutional republic may very well be death spiraling into an inevitable sea of Social Democracy, and there might not be enough people left who would rather be free than be taken care of.  I do not think it’s inevitable, however.  If we do want to reverse it, there are some thing small l libertarians are going to need to accept.

  1. We’re a minority.  When you get down to it, we’re all a minority.  Very few people’s political views can have a nice neat label placed over them.  When you’re a minority, you can only exert political power in coalition with other interests, which means, necessarily, you’ll never get a candidate that’s perfect in every way, and most of the time you probably won’t get a candidate that’s even perfect in most ways.
  2. The system of government set up under our constitution makes two party domination all but inevitable.  We are not a parliamentary system with proportional representation, so coalition building in our Republic happens outside of the government, in the political parties.  Groups have been known to enter and leave the coalition, often to start third parties, but these have always been short lived, and have often meant the political death for the components that followed.   Paleoconservatism walked out of the Republican coalition with Pat Buchannan, and haven’t been heard from since.  Third party politics is the political wilderness in our system of government.  Some people like it there.  I can’t say I blame them, because it can be more fulfilling than always having to compromise with other interests in a coalition, but has the Libertarian Party been able to make either of the two parties reconsider the War on Drugs, or get anyone elected who could possibly have any effect on it?  You can’t keep blaming other people because they won’t get on board.  At some point you have to look inward and start to ask if maybe you’re doing something wrong.

It’s worth pointing out that I’m still, according to my state, registered as a Libertarian.  I have been for the past 10 years, just about.  My flirtation with the LP didn’t last long, after I realized that Libertarians weren’t about creating a political movement, but instead were mostly interested in making sure people who weren’t sufficiently pure remained outside of their “movement”.  They couldn’t see how people who were 70% with Libertarians might be able to work with them to help advance the 70% of their agenda they might be able to agree on.   It was 100%, or nothing, and if you couldn’t accept that, well, you’re not a real libertarian are you?

Sometime around 2002, I started to realize that I don’t have much room to complain about the state of things, because I’ve basically not been participating in the process that ends up giving us the candidates we all end up having to vote, or not vote for.  I didn’t vote in primaries, I didn’t donate money to candidates I liked, and I didn’t do anything to try to help candidates I liked get nominated or elected.  I just bitched about the choices I had to make in the end.  In my adult life, starting with voting for George H.W. Bush over Bill Clinton, I have never felt good about anyone I’ve ever pulled the lever for.  I didn’t feel good about voting for Harry Browne in 2000, because even by that time I had come to realize the Libertarian Party was mostly full of shit.   I didn’t feel good about voting for Dole, George W. Bush, and I won’t feel good about voting for John McCain.  I’ve never not pulled the lever for Arlen Specter, because although I’ve despised him, I’ve despised every person that’s ever run against him even more.

I decided this election year that I’d do things differently.  Despite very early misgivings, I donated to Fred Thompson’s campaign.  Those hopes were quickly dashed as the campaign season started.  Fred was too late getting in, and was early getting out.  Living in Pennsylvania, there’s not too much else I can do.  Our race doesn’t come around until April, so we’re irrelevant.

I’m starting to understand the wisdom of former House Speaker Tip O’Neil, who famously qipped “All politics is local.”  If liberty minded people want candidates who more closely represent them, they have to work to front those kinds of people at the local level first, and get them elected.  National political leaders most often start small, and this is certainly an area I’ve been deficient, and am looking for ways to remedy, without having to become a party hack that supports the party no matter what.

Libertarians have to understand that politics is not primarily a process of principles and ideas.  It is more closely likened to a strategy game, than to a debating society.  In a game, you will not always win.  There will sometimes be periods when you lose. There will sometimes be periods when you might appear to be losing, but suddently see an opportunity to execute a strategy your opponent won’t see coming.  Sometimes winning will require you making risky moves,  Sometimes your opponent yesterday will be a friend tomorrow.  The real risk for libertarians is that a lot of people who start playing this game forget the reason they started, and they find themselves playing for the sake of playing.  That describes a lot of politicians in power today.

Every libertarian knows what their overall goal is; a lot more “leave me the hell alone” and a lot less of the typical shit we’ve seen from government since the progressives took over most of the institutions.  To that end, we need to pick a handful of issues that we can push in the mainstream today, that advance the cause of a more limited government.  It will require slaughtering an awful lot of sacred cows, and I know enough about how libertarians think to know they won’t want to do that.  So the mainstream will keep ignoring us, and will keep nominating socialists, and people like John McCain.  We’ll choose to see all of our issues and concerns addressed or none of them.  We may quite likely end up spiraling into the sea of Social Democracy, but I’ve never met a libertarian who is serious about doing something to stop it.  They insist on pushing a button to get the plane flying perfectly off onto the right heading and at the right altitude, rather than applying a little left rudder here, and right aleron there, in order to methodically get the plane out of the spiral, and onto a truer heading.  I do think we have to start fixing this soon, because the sea is starting to get pretty big in the cockpit window.  Some suggest just letting the plane crash, because what doesn’t kill us will just make us stronger.  I tend to think it’ll just make us dead, and I’m not ready to accept that the idea of limited, constitutional government has no traction left in main stream politics.

7 Responses to “What Are Libertarians To Do?”

  1. Jim W says:

    There are politically active libertarians out there, many of us pretending to be conservative republicans. I met a few at the Florida legislature last week.

    I would consider myself a politically active and pragmatic minded libertarian. I have been organizing libertarian focused events at the law school all year and I’ve been helping others to sponsor similar events themselves.

    But it is slow going. There is no shortage of politically powerful interest groups that benefit from the current social democrat atmosphere. Florida is undergoing a huge battle at the moment between raising taxes and cutting government services and the big government RINOs are making it really hard for meaningful reform to take place. But the current situation is still preferable to a Democrat majority that would be split between liberals and socialists. Even in the currently mediocre environment we still managed to pass a constitutional referendum doubling the property tax exemption and giving a huge bunch of property tax cuts to business.

    Anyway, things aren’t hopeless. There are many people out here fighting the fight and winning an inch at a time.

  2. Roberta X says:

    You write, “I’m not ready to accept that the idea of limited, constitutional government has no traction left in main stream politics.” Good for you; idealism is a vital component hope.

    My hopes are smaller and of the small-l libertarian kind: I am trying to communicate my displeasure to the the Right half of the Party of Treason, in the hopes that they’ll abjure themselves of their meddlin’ ways. The best tool I have to persuade them is the only coin they understand: my vote. I’m tellin’ ’em no and I’m doin’ so loudly. If we reward them for their terrible choice of candidate by giving them our votes, they’ll give us more like him.

    On the incrementalism vs. “purism” thing, I have a different take: if you want to break a board with your hand, you have to hit through it; if you swing no farther than your goal, you’ll never get there. I aim for no government at all. (I’m going to have to look up the L. Neil Smith essay on this very topic). Purity? I don’t give a darn. I do believe in the Zero-Aggression Principle and have never seen it as a “purity test;” it is such basic ethics that anyone who cannot abide by it cannot be trusted in civil society.

    I hope to change our government enough that I won’t have to spend my declining years shooting at baddies, that’s all.

  3. Flash Gordon says:

    I’m in agreement with about 80% of what libertarians say they believe, but the other 20%, particularly libertarian views on foreign policy, places them in the kook category in my view. If the libertarian views on foreign policy were ever implemented we would have no security from foreign aggression. Libertarians are odd in this regard because they seem to clearly accept an individual’s right to self defense while at the same time denying that same right for the nation as a whole.

    But the worst thing about libertarians, the one I’ll never get over, is all the Democrats they help to elect. Janet Napolitano is a liberal Democrat governor of Arizona and Kathleen Sibelius is the liberal Democrat governor of Kansas. These are two conservative states with liberal Democrat governors thanks mainly to libertarians voting for the libertarian candidate who had no chance of winning. How libertarians think they will ever get any of the their ideas into actual policy changes by helping liberals into office is a mystery to me.

  4. Sebastian says:

    But the worst thing about libertarians, the one I’ll never get over, is all the Democrats they help to elect. Janet Napolitano is a liberal Democrat governor of Arizona and Kathleen Sibelius is the liberal Democrat governor of Kansas. These are two conservative states with liberal Democrat governors thanks mainly to libertarians voting for the libertarian candidate who had no chance of winning. How libertarians think they will ever get any of the their ideas into actual policy changes by helping liberals into office is a mystery to me.

    Libertarians get tired of that argument, and to some degree it’s understandable. You can’t really fault people for voting their conscience.

    But the reality is, that’s why we form coalitions. If you have two groups, for instance, social conservatives, libertarians, and defense hawks, who on their own can’t beat the Progressives in a four way contest, each group has a choice to make, and that choice is going to be based on which groups you find least distasteful. The groups that least hate each other will coalition to defeat the groups that they really hate. That’s why it’s always going to be a lesser of two evils choice.

    The Democratic Party is a coalition too, of various interest groups that want something from government, greens, internationalist elite, and peaceniks. They also don’t always like each other either, but their coalition works a lot better than the Republican one.

    Roberta is an anarcho-libertarian, which I’m not going to begrudge her. If your assumption that forming a government at all is an evil in itself, that’s an entirely different assumption than we’re making, which is that this system is faulty, but necessary.

  5. Eric Dondero says:

    I think every one of you would find a comfortable home at the growing Mainstream libertarians movement. Check out our site at http://www.mainstreamlibertarian.com

    As for direction for 2008? Three things:

    1. The Libertarian Party is about to nominate a mainstreamer – Wayne Root of Las Vegas. He’s the best LP candidate since Ed Clark!

    2. Support libertarian Republicans for Congress like Tom McClintock in California, and right there in Pennsylvania, William Russell against Murtha.

    3. Join the Republican Liberty Caucus at http://www.rlc.org. Best group going for Mainstream libertarians who care about winning elections.

    Eric Dondero, Founder
    Republican Liberty Caucus

  6. Sebastian says:

    Thanks for the RLC link. I was aware of them, but didn’t think of them for the context of this post. I will certainly be joining.

  7. Danno says:

    I’ve tried to bite my tongue, but I’m all the way through..

    Mathematically, Flash’s assertion may hold sway, as the final results separated (D) Napolitano from (R) Salmon by less than 12000 votes (out of > 1M) while (L) Hess collected 20,000+ votes. However that analysis completely ignores the (I*) Mahoney factor who collected nearly 85000 votes! (Source: Az Recorder 2002 general election results: http://www.azsos.gov/election/2002/general/ElectionInformation.htm

    It had everything to do with a strategy that leveraged public campaign financing to wage a 2 against 1 war on the conservative candidate.

    The 2002 election should have been a 2 way fight between Big D Democrat Napolitano and Big R Republican Matt Salmon. But “someone” fielded an independent candidate Mahoney who siphoned off 4x the votes the Libertarian candidate received.

    Both Napolitano and Mahoney took public money to finance their campaigns. Matt Salmon stood on principles and did not. Mean while, Napolitano and Mahoney tag-teamed Salmon and played the “M” & “P” card (Mormon and Polygamist). Salmon’s response was weak, but of course, Napolitano hasn’t done squat about the P’s since either!

    Place blame where due, but the Libertarians don’t own this one!

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