Why Does Liberty Lose?

It’s a question I’ve wondered about for a while, but never really had a good answer for. A lot of people say they want smaller government, and more freedom, but that never seems to translate into the people in power making that happen. Why? I didn’t really understand it until I started involving myself in local politics through NRA’s electoral apparatus. I am definitely more of an observer more than a major player, in most things, and that’s true of my involvement in this endeavor as well. I am relatively uninterested in the elbow rubbing, social, or even civic aspects of political involvement, so much as figuring out the game and coming up with strategies to beat it. While I’ve learned a few things in this regard, the big thing I’ve learned is that the game is eminently beatable, and what prevents it from happening is a lack of players willing to participate in the game.

SayUncle linked yesterday to an article that sort of hints at what the problem is, though the author is a lot angrier than I am. The problem, essentially, is that there’s been no political constituency for liberty. Note that there’s a difference between a constituency, which is a lot of people saying they want more of it, and a political constituency, which are people saying they want liberty, and who are building a political structure to accomplish it. The Tea Party, right now, is mostly a constituency, but who is showing early signs of evolving into a political constituency.

I say evolving, because whether the Tea Party movement is for real, or a flash in the pan, depends entirely on what happens on November 2nd, and a lot more on what happens after. This is not because we’re about to elect the saviors of our Republic, and can happily go back to sleep, knowing the GOP will take care of the problem. That’s what happened in 1994, and the GOP took care of jack. But this year is somewhat different. 1994 did not have the levels of grassroots anger we’ve seen manifested through the Tea Party movement. This is something truly new. New and familiar or not, I’m not optimistic that a movement based purely on grassroots anger will stay angry long enough to seriously change the political dynamic. The question, after November 2nd, is whether or not the Tea Party movement will merely remain a vessel of grassroots anger, or will evolve into a political constituency.

What does a political constituency look like? Well, first and foremost, it creates a structure to enable the two fundamentals of electoral politics, money and votes. If you don’t wield either of those two things, you can’t change anything. The Tea Party movement has shown it can turn its anger into fundraising, and we’ll see how well it turns it into votes, but Tea Party victories are going to energize the left eventually, and a lot of newly elected politicians are going to disappoint us. What happens when the anger goes away? What happens when people who support smaller government decide things are getting better? To me that’s the real question. Can the Tea Party maintain positive momentum toward liberty even when times are better? If the answer is yes, this might be a game changer.

One thing that’s particularly bothered me about liberty loving people is how hard they think it is to change things — like a finger of lightning came down from the heavens and etched the New Deal, forever unalterable, in stone. Having participated in several elections now in the role of a volunteer coordinator, the one thing I’ve been struck with is how little it would take to fundamentally alter the political dynamic in this county. The number of people with serious influence over your local political apparatuses is actually quite small, and a lot of those individuals with influence honestly don’t bring much to the table (in either money, votes, or good ideas). If you had twenty motivated individuals rally around a liberty related issue, who were willing to give a little bit of time, or who could raise money, you would have a serious effects on the politics in your county. Whether it’s a Democratic or Republican district wouldn’t matter a whole hell of a lot, it would just be a matter of adjusting your tactics and expectations based on what you had to work with. All politics is local, when you get down to it. Multiply that across every county in the country, and suddenly things start to look a lot different nationwide.

So why hasn’t it happened for liberty issues? Because most people who have a strong understanding of what liberty is have better things to do. I don’t say that with any condescension. I can think, off the top of my head, about two dozen things I’d rather do than volunteer for an election, and at least as many things I’d rather spend my money on than political donations. I’d rather rub elbows with a dog than most politicians. It comes down to what you really value, and I’m not going to bemoan anyone’s choices there. But whether the truth hurts or not, people who love liberty haven’t put enough value on it to do what it takes to make a political constituency for it. That’s why Liberty loses.

15 Responses to “Why Does Liberty Lose?”

  1. Jacob says:

    Liberty requires effort. Statism does not.

  2. 1. Lots of people want liberty–for themselves. For others, maybe not so much. I’ll give some examples where both sides have offenders.

    There are people that want the liberty to carry gross-out pictures of aborted fetuses outside abortion clinics–but would not extend that liberty to people that want to put up gross-out pictures of gay sex to advertise a movie theater.

    There are people that want the liberty to be out of the closet and even be pretty loud about it–but aren’t prepared to extend that liberty to people that would prefer not to hire someone who insists on making a big deal about their sexuality.

    2. Some of the lack of a political structure for liberty is that it won’t make a small, identifiable group piles of money. If you are 1% of the population, and you can figure out how to use the government to loot $1,000,000,000 from the other 99% of the population, it is very easy to justify spending $10,000,000 on politics: that’s a 100:1 return on your investment. Each member of that 1% is going to get filthy rich. But the 99%? What are they losing? A billion dollars sounds like big money–but split over 300 million people, that’s a bit more than $3 a piece. Can you justify spending even $500 to prevent being looted of $3? No. All those $3 thefts add up–but most people don’t realize how much, until the looting gets out of hand (as happened this time).

  3. “Liberty requires effort. Statism does not.”

    I disagree. Statism requires effort and money. Those who expect to get rich off the government are prepared to invest money and effort to get a spectacular return. Take a look at what Wall Street invested in the Obama campaign, and how much they received back.

    Unfortunately, those who are rich can afford to spend cubic miles of cash to get even more cubic miles of cash back. They also enjoy the advantage that they are generally capable of long-term planning, and see the clear advantage of spending .01% of their net worth to add 5% to the net worth.

  4. Sebastian says:

    That’s largely the rent seeking problem. The result is that liberty loving people might not be able to rely solely on raising money. The left has unions to do a lot of the legwork. What do liberty loving people have? What other liberty group has the election apparatus of a union?

    I can think of only one liberty oriented group that does.

  5. craig henry says:

    One reason that libertarians fail is that very few of them are willing to think and act programatically. Often they seem to expect that someday a majority of Congress will come to their senses and vote to create a Rothbardian nirvana.

    Unfortunately, they don’t offer much in the way of intermediate steps in the meantime. They focus alot of attention on the desired end-state but seem uninterested in moving toward it in the here and now.

    I contrast that with the NRA and other Second Amendment supporters. We agree that there are still too many restrictions on our rights. But instead of demanding the moon and the stars in one election cycle, we work the issue a piece at a time in whatever place we live: An end to the total bans in DC and Chicago, Castle doctrine in PA, shall issue CCW in the few states without it, killing the AWB at the federal level.

    In the end, the 2d amendment voters have made big, tangible gains in the last fifteen years.

  6. Jacob says:

    Lack of effort is the problem. How many people who read this blog have actually done something productive in support of a candidate who shares their belief? Heck, only about half the people eligible even bother to vote. People who do nothing but piss and moan get what they deserve.

  7. SayUncle says:

    Liberty loving people also tend to not run for office. they got things to do.

  8. Sebastian says:

    I think that’s a more fundamental problem, and would be difficult to solve. But most people who run for office and stay there long enough to have any real power in a legislative body will tend to cater to those interests that benefit their staying in office, no matter how much they personally do or don’t care about a particular issue. I’ve not found that elected officials are any more or less coherent in their political philosophies than average people.

    Gaming the desire to stay in office is the key to influencing them. The other thing to game is their lack of good information. That doesn’t mean lying to them, but they have no real way of measuring influence or judging an issue.

    You could probably even start with an absurd issue no one gives a shit about, like protecting house cats from the dangers of bathtubs, and if you had a few volunteers or big donors (and big in state races is hundreds of dollars, not thousands) who were willing to work for a candidate on a particular issue, he’d probably seriously think about how far he could go on your issue without being embarrassed publicly over it.

  9. mariner says:

    The finger of God may as well have etched the New Deal in stone, given how few people would be willing to end it — all of it.

    You’re right that it takes surprisingly few people to change some things. But other things won’t be changed as long as there is a government apparatus to print the checks.

  10. “Unfortunately, they don’t offer much in the way of intermediate steps in the meantime. They focus alot of attention on the desired end-state but seem uninterested in moving toward it in the here and now.”

    What you are describing is a common problem among any ideology that is so in love with ideas that its advocates don’t understand that few others think in ideological terms. The ideals are so beautiful, that everyone, once exposed, will go along–or so they think.

  11. Sebastian says:

    The reason people have been unwilling to end it because for all the problem it creates for people who like libertarian ideas, life under the New Deal hasn’t been too bad for your average person.

    I think the reasons for this have everything to do with factors that are completely independent of the New Deal, but favorable demographics, the general lack of global competition in the post-war period, and a few other things have masked the inherent problems with the philosophy surrounding the New Deal.

    Those foundations of New Deal prosperity are about to completely turn upside down. Who is going to get to write the post New Deal history? That’s being decided right now.

  12. Being a poli sci guy, it looks like a collective action problem. The benefits of liberty for any given individual tend to be diffuse and relatively minor. If liberty means that the GDP grows an extra few percent every year, well, ok, great, that helps my 401K, but it is abstract and minor.

    On the contrary, the benefits of anti-liberty actions tend to be limited to smaller groups which benefit relatively greatly. These groups have the advantage of being able to focus their side and get the turn out.

    To look at it and dollars and cents, a Boondoggle Project might cost every citizen in a county $1. It is hard to get people worked up over a buck. But the beneficiaries of the project get a large sum and are highly motivated to undertake collective action.

    Until you can define what the benefit of liberty is to the average person, make those abstract benefits tangible, and highlight just how much a lack of liberty costs, you won’t have much success in mobilizing collective action.

  13. Ian Argent says:

    New Deal survived as long as it did because the rest of the freaking industrial world was bombed flat by ’45 and the US wasn’t. It took up to 40 years for the rest of the world to recover to the point of being able to challenge the US economically.

  14. craig henry says:

    If we could shrink government back to New Deal size, then we would expand the sphere of liberty considerably. Plus, a lot of the New Deal programs are already out of business.

    So why do all discussions of increasing liberty always jump back to undoing the work of the old devil FDR? Why not start with some of the newer, programs from LBJ and Nixon?

    BTW, does a desire for the pre-FDR regime include a belief in high tariffs like the GOP stood for from Lincoln to Coolidge?

  15. Sebastian says:


    Mostly because I need a convenient term for progressive statism. The New Deal is also largely what got the Government into the business of trying to regulate nearly everything.


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