Sunday, December 7, 2008

Thinking about third party personality disorder (yet again)

Recently Dana Garrett made a really good point with respect to Libertarian candidates (even if he is a social democrat):

I do think that Libertarians have a particular tough row to hoe because their foundation is in part the idea that government is necessarily inefficient, that it can't be made to work FOR citizens, that at best it can and should only be restrained, and that when the government acts for the public good (a phrase that makes Libertarians skin crawl)it is really a nefarious statist plot against liberty--all that is a message that doesn't sell well w/ the public. Who wants to vote for someone whose basic message is "Don't expect me to make this government to work for you?" It's a self-defeating platform.

In other words (I'm feeling bold tonight), what Dana's observation can be boiled down to is this key idea: Libertarianism is a critique of government and not a governing philosophy--at least not in the normative sense of American political parties.

There is some truth to this, especially in the current narrative being constructed for political discourse over the upcoming decade.

According to that narrative, it was the essence of the free market ideology that failed during the Bush administration (with a prologue going back, depending on the story-teller, to 1994, 1980, 1964, or 1953). Dubya represented the climax of a forty to fifty year libertarian/conservative counterattack against the New Deal, and left the economy, health care, foreign affairs, and pretty much everything else in such rotten shape that only a new, much more empowered government, deriving its powers from the tax dollars of the governed can put things right again.

Libertarians will tell you (just ask them, but be prepared to sit for a long, long time) in great detail, however, that throughout the period in question true free markets never existed, just differing kinds of regulatory madness that distorted the correct operation of the market.

If we'd only let markets well enough alone....

But Dana would point out (as a process comment) is that the timing is wrong for people going into a recession that many have been told will resemble the Great Depression to hear that the government--like Herbert Hoover, they will be told--to do nothing. People in fear of losing their jobs are not a great audience for the message of government inaction....

And (again, as a process comment) he's got something there.

It has been my observation that too many Libertarian candidates (allowing for the unequal playing field and no money) want to talk about (a) what the government has done wrong; (b) what the government should not be doing in the first place; and (c) how they will shrink the government. This is, you say, the essence of Libertarian candidacy and candidates, but I think it is a combination that--by itself--perpetually guarantees the Libertarian movement will not achieve electoral success above the range of 5-6%.

[And that's OK by a lot of anarcho-capitalists, minarchists, and others...]

But the reality is that we live in an era wherein a huge government bureaucracy exists, and is not going to be magically eliminated by the stroke of anyone's pen. So people have the right (not the mention the urge) to know not just what a candidate won't do in the government, but what he or she will do. And people have the expectation that winning candidates will understand both public policy and how to get things done in government.

Some Libertarian candidates get this. When I asked Michael Munger what would be his first three priorities as governor, he listed actions; (a) declare an immediate moratorium on the death penalty; (b) consult an expert on strategies for attracting more jobs to North Carolina; and (c) clearing the state prisons of non-violent drug offenders who could be put into treatment rather than jail cells. He also had well-grounded ideas to defend counties and small towns from annexation; to extend greater public school choice; and to modify health insurance rules to help reduce prices.

Michael said as much in his brilliant keynote address to the LP convention in May: we are too good at telling people what we are against, and not what we are for.

Personally, I'm for a lot of things that I believe would make sense to many voters:

I'm for a non-interventionist foreign policy that doesn't send our sons and daughters to die in little wars for the greater profitability of the military/industrial complex.

I'm for a government that does not discriminate among American citizens on the basis of sexual orientation at any level.

I'm for a government that removes the special pay-offs and regulatory advantages to some types of energy companies that has allowed them to build artificial monopolies and stifle competition.

I'm for a government that holds its own agents accountable for their misdeeds, whether those deeds involve shooting dogs in bad drug raids or torturing prisoners.

I'm for a government that gets the essential contradiction that you can't allow some American citizens choice with their bodies (women, abortion) without allowing it for all Americans (everybody, whatever pharmaceuticals they prefer).

I'm for a government that stopping executing its prisoners.

I could go on, but I hope you get the point.

Libertarians have to start telling people what we are for--what we will do.

I can give you one example of when Bob Barr (certainly not my favorite candidate) did something like this: he issued a press release saying, As President, of course I will talk to the Iranians rather than bomb them. That was exactly the kind of thing he needed to be saying. Pity he didn't do it more often.

Libertarian candidates--I'll say it again--have to start telling people what we're for and what we will do.

Here's a start:

I'm a Libertarian candidate, and I'm for peace, and for using the prestige and the trading ability of the US--not bombers and cruise missiles--to forward the cause of peace.

I'm a Libertarian candidate, and I'm for challenging ordinary American citizens to get out of their comfort zones this winter to help somebody in need. I'm not going to mandate that you do this, or slap sanctions on you for not doing it.... but, it is my expectation of everyone who works for and with me, of everyone who takes a government salary, of everyone who claims to be devout, that you begin reaching out now....

There's power in these kinds of words.

Just sayin'.


Bowly said...

My, how the times change. Once upon a time, Americans loved a government that promised not to do things. Off the top of my head, see amendments 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, and 9.

Nonetheless, the times have changed. This is why I'm more pessimistic about any eventual libertarian electoral success than you seem to be.

Delaware Watch said...

It's a good statement, Steve. Still thin on what government should and can do for its citizens from my perspective. But our difference on that matter is fundamental. Nevertheless, I think your party should listen to you about how to package its message.

Steven H. Newton said...

Obviously it was more of a process post than a content post, and I think there are some relevant Libertarian solutions to the problems you and I disagree on, but I have to get other Libertarians to accept the idea of actually packaging their message first.