Saturday, May 30, 2009

A three-legged Libertarian stool?

So yesterday I blogged about Bruce Bartlett's strange description of Libertarians, which is still strange and inaccurate, but did get me started thinking....

Libertarians miss the point of American politics, I think, because we often focus way too much on way too many things, and because we're absolutists in our thinking.

I'll use Miko's comment to illustrate my point [which is not to lampoon it at all; Miko is one of the most rational libertarians who comments here]:

This is a bit like complaining that a prison-reform group wants to free all falsely convicted inmates instead of taking seriously the idea of providing them with better meals. I can see pragmatists endorsing the gradualist strategy, but for those of us that believe war is murder, taxation is theft, and regulations are designed to keep a large under-class dependent on the corporate and statist elite for their survival, the goal has to be ending the corrupt system rather than redecorating it. Sure, we may end up with gradualism in practice, but there's nothing wrong with remembering what we're aiming at. Which, incidentally, is why most libertarians prefer engaging in grass-roots activity to the electoral farce of "which of these candidates is slightly less bad?" Even if it loses us a few votes, we have to admit that the electoral strategy hasn't been working well so far, as the deck is stacked against us by those who have power and want to keep it.


The problem, Miko, is that short of the singularity I can see only two routes to a state which is based on human freedom as Libertarians understand the concept: (a) via revolution; or (b) via election. Grass-roots activity may stop a local seat-belt ordinance, but it's not going to create a material increase in the overall level of freedom in our society.

Put it another way: if the government is still free to put people in jail for using natural analgesics to reduce their cancer pain, still free to spend trillions of dollars of money stolen from my children, and still free to use enhanced fragmentation Hell-fire missiles against Afghani civilians, then there is a limit to what a minor local victory over the parking nazis means....

Nor is the revolution going to arrive any time soon.

Meanwhile, the Libertarian Party platform covers the Earth, detail by ever-loving detail....

I keep wondering if maybe the answer is to approach electoral politics from a Libertarian perspective is the same sort of three-legged stool that the conservative movement used so successfully to rebuild the GOP after Watergate.

Please note: I am talking process here, not ideology.

The conservative movement that took over the GOP united social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and libertarians. William Buckley forged the marriage between the social cons and the libertarians; being hawks on defense kept the fiscal cons and the social cons together; resentment of the welfare state made the libertarians fellow travellers with the others. [All hideously over-simplified, but what the hell I only budgeted a paragraph here....]

A three-legged Libertarian stool would include economics, social issues, and foreign policy, but without proclaiming any of them as more than primus inter pares.

Could we build a tent wherein any one of the following three conditions might pertain?

(a) Somebody who is profoundly against the military-industrial complex and interventionist wars, as well as expecting the government to stay out of our personal lives, but who is willing to support a moderate level of taxation and social welfare spending ... might find more of a home with Libertarians than with the pro-war GOPers and the nanny-state Dems?

(b) Somebody who thinks there is a need to stay the course in Afghanistan, but who can't see massive deficit spending/high-taxation and doesn't want the government tellling his/her kids they have to wear a bicycle helmet ... might find more of a home with Libertarians than with the pro-taxing and spending Demopublicans?

(c) Somebody who has strong feelings about abortion as murder or gay marriage as the destruction of traditional family values, but who opposes heavy taxation and foreign wars might find more of a home with Libertarians?

A lot of my Libertarian friends decry the idea of playing to folks who only agree with, say, two-thirds of the Libertarian message. They refuse to accept the idea that greater freedom results from convincing large numbers of American citizens to vote for candidates because they believe in at least two-thirds of our message....

6 comments:

ChrisNC said...

into a trees vs forest mentality when you look at specific platform items as a checklist. What makes a person a Libertarian isn't his position on gay marriage, the war in Afghanistan, or tax policy. Rather, it is his subscription to the non-initiation-of-force principle. If he holds intelligently to that, then his inconsistencies will tend to move toward greater consistency. And on that basis, I can acknowledge him as a fellow-traveler.

ChrisNC said...

Oops! Somehow my first words got cut off. That paragraph should have begun, "You fall..."

Eric Dondero said...

Bartlett is correct it is a three-legged stool. But it's more:

Free Enterprise

Anti-Nanny-Statism/Pro Civl Liberties

And very Strong on Defense!

Weak Girlie Man approaches to Defense issues are part of the leftwing agenda, and have nothing to do with libertarianism.

What Bartlett is defining is leftwing libertarianism, what is more akin to an abomination of originalist Goldwaterian libertarian viewpoints.

Tyler Nixon said...

No need for all the modifiers and segmentation.

Short libertarian on which, I believe, we can all agree :

"Government, stay the f**k out of my life."

Miko said...

Feel free to lampoon my comments if you wish; in all honesty I put less thought into blog comments than many other things, so I am liable to say silly things. :-)

I should mention that I do tend to be a gradualist in practice (e.g., I voted for Obama on the hopes that he'd reign in some of the Bush abuses), and I use long-term in a very literal sense of the word "long." While I'd like liberty in my lifetime, I don't view that as a precondition for striving towards it.

Now, while I participate in electoral politics, etc., and am not suggesting that libertarians shouldn't, I see problems with both of your options for change: (a) via revolution; or (b) via election.

With revolution, there's the obvious problem of facing off against the greatest military force ever envisioned and the even more difficult problem that a libertarian government (to the extent that it exists) must be democratic (at least in the sense of liberal democracy), rendering the revolution mostly worthless. But more generally, both of them face the problem of the leaders being less libertarian after gaining power than before. Looking at democratically-elected quasi-libertarian parties abroad tends to confirm this. The U.S. LP seems intent on one-upping them by making the switch to anti-libertarianism before gaining power. Also, there are public-choice problems whereby even a legislative body with the stated intention of passing only liberty-oriented law could still be dominated by well-financed special interests looking to exploit the unintended consequences of these laws by selectively opposing some and subtly reshaping others. (Indeed, the radical cuts-to-government plan faces this same problem, in the form of "let's start by cutting the things that benefit my competitors but keep the things that benefit me until the last day.")

But, I don't see these as the only two options. For example, consider Patri Friedman's seasteading work (which I also think is unlikely to work, but wish it well).

More practically, consider the option of civil disobedience. As de la Boetie noted in his "Discourse on Voluntary Servitude," the government isn't powerful enough to suppress us if only we'd all ignore it (which of course runs into "who wants to be first?" issues). I'd argue that we didn't get civil rights from the CRA1964, but from the movement leading up to it that convinced the government that enforcing Jim Crow was no longer practical. Similarly, the largest gains in gender equality have come not from any piece of legislation but from the increased opportunities for women to enter the workplace (and thus achieve greater self-sufficiency) beginning with WWII. Elsewhere, I've suggested a massive coming-out of gay soldiers as a strategy for ending DADT. In the future, it's reasonable to suppose that BitTorrent piracy will lead to a more rational copyright law (since what we have now will be, simply put, unenforceable). Grass-roots need not mean only local politics in opposition to parking tickets and it need not aim for an all-or-nothing victory; ideally, it should focus on the creation of alternate institutions that simultaneously render the government obsolete (private charity, neighborhood watch, LETS, etc.) and make the citizenry ungovernable. If government is the art of the possible, perhaps our best bet is to alter what's possible.

But all of this is action separate from politics. In terms of electoral activity, by all means encourage those who agree with us 2/3rds to come over; they're probably even right on some issues outside of our focus (but be careful about letting them rewrite the platform). Better yet, try for single-issue activism with a different coalition on each.

But unfortunately, we have to face the fact that the U.S. electoral system is set up in such a way that 3rd parties can't really win. The LP could (but often doesn't) serve a worthwhile educational role, but I can't see it being ultimately successful.

Miko said...

@Eric: What Bartlett is defining is leftwing libertarianism, what is more akin to an abomination of originalist Goldwaterian libertarian viewpoints.Anyone active in the 1960's doesn't get the label "originalist" by default. In any event, as a left-lib, I don't think that Bartlett's description:

"As a philosophy, their libertarianism doesn't extent much beyond not wanting to pay taxes, being paid in gold and being able to keep all the guns they want."

really sounds like left-libertarianism.