Arnold Kling  

Libertarians: What Now?

PRINT
Richard Epstein on Happiness, ... Obama Doesn't Heart Glass-Stea...

Cato Unbound this month deals with a core issue. Peter Thiel writes,


I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible...

As one fast-forwards to 2009, the prospects for a libertarian politics appear grim indeed. Exhibit A is a financial crisis caused by too much debt and leverage, facilitated by a government that insured against all sorts of moral hazards -- and we know that the response to this crisis involves way more debt and leverage, and way more government. Those who have argued for free markets have been screaming into a hurricane. The events of recent months shatter any remaining hopes of politically minded libertarians. For those of us who are libertarian in 2009, our education culminates with the knowledge that the broader education of the body politic has become a fool's errand.

I tend to agree that for libertarians the "voice" option is looking bleak. I prefer exit options. But by the same token, I do not want to move to New Hampshire (see Jason Sorens) or to a seastead (see Patri Friedman).

I think that perhaps the best positive approach for libertarians right now is to support institutions that compete with government. That means charities, churches, charter schools, clubs, consumer information services, and other sources of public goods. I would count the traditional family as an institution that competes with government.

You are likely to see Democrats under President Obama launch assaults against all of the institutions of civil society. Already, the Washington DC school voucher program is under attack, as is the tax deduction for charitable contributions. As libertarians, our electoral voice is worth little. Our threat to exit is probably too costly to carry out. Promoting institutions that compete with government is the best strategy I can come up with.


Comments and Sharing


CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (33 to date)
mgroves writes:

How do you compete with the power of coercion?

Zz's writes:

Great post. Thank you.

Sean O. writes:

I view the world in terms of two classes: the productive class and the political class. And in my opinion the political class (those that are elected and those that benefit from the system) are winning the battle but not the war. They are winning the battle because they offer security and comfort at the expense of productivity. We all know that without productivity their offer of security and comfort is not sustainable and that is why they will lose the war in the long run. Its our opportunity as libertarians to create new sources of productivity that capitalize on the unintended consequences of the political class's actions.

dorty writes:

Charter schools are public schools. They're OK now?

You expect the Democrats to attack the family?


Frederick Davies writes:

"I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible..."

Took him awhile!

"Promoting institutions that compete with government is the best strategy I can come up with."

That or buy a gun and learn how to use it; after all, it was not The Constitution which made America free, but the soldiers who defeated the British.

Zdeno writes:

I agree with the incompatibility of democracy as it is practiced today and libertarian government. Any libertarian who doesn't is either hopelessly naive, or terminally ignorant of history.

I take issue with your proposed solution, though. Focus on para-government institutions? Really? You said it yourself, progressives are launching full-scale attacks on these institutions as we speak. "Focusing" on these institutions is not going to stem the assault, unless by focus you mean fight for them, tooth and nail, at every turn. To paraphrase: we may not focus on politics, but politics will still focus on us. Remember, they have all the guns.

Zdeno


Zdeno writes:

dorty:

"You expect the Democrats to attack the family?"

Since they have spent the last half century already doing so by tinkering with divorce laws, welfare incentives and the social norms surrounding soft polygamy and casual sex, I don't think it would be a stretch to say they will continue to do so in the future.

Jayson Virissimo writes:

"You expect the Democrats to attack the family?" -dorty

Where have you been? Who do you think has been trying to ban homeschooling and make sure that all kids have to go through the indoctrination machine? For many of them, it is too risky to let parents teach their kids. They might teach them the "wrong" things, or fail to make sure that they share the same values as the rest of society. It is much safer to let the state handle all of that messy socialization process.

http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0310/p01s03-ussc.html

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-homeschool6mar06,0,7343621.story

Zac writes:

"I think that perhaps the best positive approach for libertarians right now is to support institutions that compete with government."

This is really a great quote. Arnold is promoting his civil societarian stance, but you could read this in a more radical way, which indicates we should support private roads, currencies, legal systems, and defense companies - not just churches and charities and other public good providers which the state has not yet fully displaced.

Either way, the message is that even if you recognize the existence of public goods it does not follow that you need a coercive monopoly provider of these goods, and the best way to keep government small is to promote its competitors. Arnold's position (of focusing on direct support for government's competitors) is the political strategy advocated by agorism [wikipedia.org], a market anarchist political philosophy that shuns parliamentarianism. Agorist Brad Spangler writes, "As government is banditry, revolution culminates in the suppression of government by market providers of security and law. Market demand for such service providers is what will lead to their emergence."

JPIrving writes:

Seems to me that trying to tailor a single welfare state to fit both Texans and Vermonters is doomed to end in succession. Hopefully libertarians can find a warmer state than New Hampshire to converge upon should this happen.

David writes:

I've been entertaining the thought of moving to NH after I retire, but that's about it.

Jubal Harshaw writes:

Isn't libertarian politics an oxymoron?

Fighting in politics seems a pretty inefficient way to better your situation.

Politics is an economy of natural emotion - from an individual's point-of-view, is it much less an external force than a hurricane?

If you can dispute this, please send to nickgreen12@hotmail.com

Matt C writes:

I don't really understand how promoting churches, social clubs, etc is a positive approach to dealing with ever-expanding government. Is the idea that promoting more and better voluntary institutions will eventually reduce the demand for government, or is it something else?

I don't want to sound like Eeyore, but I don't think there is much to be done to "save" the U.S. We've entered our period of decline. Let's hope it is a long and relatively peaceful one.

Dr. T writes:

I disagree. The aggregated governments of the USA employ a quarter of the working population and spend almost a third of the GDP. How can charities and private schools compete in any meaningful way? Besides, libertarianism isn't antigovernmentalism. Libertarianism seeks a different kind of government.

I gave up on the US returning to a libertarian government years ago. It will not happen unless we suffer a major calamity (think asteroid strike) that wipes out much of the population and all of DC.

The history of our nation's government is continual shrinkage of the Bill of Rights and continual movement towards a national government that continually acquires more power and control, and, in return, offers more and more nanny-state protections to the people. Obama is pushing for socialistic and fascistic changes and still has the support of over 60% of the public. What actions can libertarians take to reverse these trends? We haven't even been able to slow them. We have as much chance of weaning the people from our big national government as atheists have of getting others to give up their religions.

Joshua Lyle writes:
You expect the Democrats to attack the family?
There's always the possibility of inheritance reform; serious taxation of estates would do a lot to reduce the ability of people to insure themselves against disasters in their core support system. Social Security is a related problem: even if you buy the government's outright lies that it is insurance or some sort of retirement benefit that those that buy in have some right to it is still the case that death causes the loss of most of the benefits, thus preventing the accumulation of wealth in relatively vulnerable families who could otherwise retain the portion of their income that is seized through the payroll tax.
eKENomic writes:

Democracy never was compatible with freedom, but maybe a democratic republic was the best we could hope for.

I think the big issue today is that since the fall of the U.S.S.R. Americans have put aside the great "individualist" books and ideas that I actually read in government schools 20 years ago (beleive it or not and I'm not saying we were in good times for liberty during the cold war; far far from it). The american population no longer had a cogent perceived external threat so they have wilted into the ideas that we were supposedly fighting (collectivism). This next 'generation' is becoming the first to not know the ideas of the great writers and philosophers and Founding Fathers either superficially or internally and they now embrace collectivism. Government schools and their product (ignorant students)are now paying off hansomely to the politicians.

We need to win the battle of education of the young and they need to know "real individualism" with those great libertarian ideas, books, media, and art. So far we have fallen down not winning the fight for the big ideas.

Dave writes:

Things aren't all bad. Economic policy is looking really bad right now, but civil liberties are OK, and in fact I think we need a few years of Obama-appointed judges to help balance out all the police-power-loving judges appointed by recent Republican presidents.

And I think there will be another turn of the wheel someday on economic policy. If the Dems go too far, there will be a backlash.

The big problem right now, I think, is that the Republican party has been fairly well discredited (not in a black-and-white sense, but in a -10-20% voting sense) and so there is no opposition that can argue powerfully for free-market policies. And the remaining Republican supporters are now even more numerically dominated by the right-wing pro-war, anti-immigrant, and pro-government-enforces-Protestant-morality groups, further diminishing the ability of the party to persuade centrists.

I expect some kind of party realignment, but I have no idea what it will be. Supposedly Gen Y is more libertarian than previous generations, so there is more reason to believe it will be good than bad.

Stephen M writes:

The real problem was the breakdown of federalism. Federalism is what made freedom and democracy compatible because the states held the federal government in check. If you didn't like the laws of the state you were in, you could move to another state with like-minded individuals. As more policies became nationalized, the differences between each state now hinge largely on whether you would rather pay a higher property tax or sales tax.

The more policies become localized, the more freedom we can enjoy and democracy can be compatible. So I say, while we should support alternatives to government, we should be the biggest advocates of a devolution of federal power.

floccina writes:

"You expect the Democrats to attack the family?" -dorty

I do not see it so much as intentional attack but a result of the belief that enough families are incompetant and so create too much of inequality of outcome. You see this in a move to get the children in "competent" Government hands earlier through Government provided quality daycare with staff trained in child development and also in moves to reduce inheritance.

To a certain extent Social security is an outgrowth of this attitude. SS forced young people to remit money to their parents even though the majority already cared for their own elderly.

fundamentalist writes:

Congressman do not respond to voters; they respond to money. Politicians have an audio frequency range that responds only to cash. In addition to supporting civil society as Arnold suggests, libertarians need to finance libertarian candidates for office. We are great at financing think tanks, but we need to finance politicians. Educating the public is a fools errand; buying politicians is the key. And in order to buy politicians, we need to have more wealth, so use the Austrian Business Cycle Theory to invest wisely and avoid market crashes. The process of success is simple: become wealthier, buy politicians, support civil society. The implementation is a little more difficult.

Chris Chang writes:

Congressman do not respond to voters; they respond to money. Politicians have an audio frequency range that responds only to cash. In addition to supporting civil society as Arnold suggests, libertarians need to finance libertarian candidates for office. We are great at financing think tanks, but we need to finance politicians. Educating the public is a fools errand; buying politicians is the key. And in order to buy politicians, we need to have more wealth, so use the Austrian Business Cycle Theory to invest wisely and avoid market crashes. The process of success is simple: become wealthier, buy politicians, support civil society. The implementation is a little more difficult.

No. You're working with the wrong paradigm. Look at Ron Paul's campaign, which massively underperformed relative to its funding. Or California's announced Republican candidates for governor, both billionaires or at least near it (I'm not sure how much damage they've taken from the financial crisis) -- they obviously don't need money, they are just trying to get important (in their perception) things done.

Money is a piece of the puzzle. But you need an integrated strategy for persuasion; throwing money at the problem is far from enough (and indeed, there's a point of vastly diminishing returns). Ideally, you become expert at tailoring your presentations to the personalities and worldviews of the people you're communicating with. This is very hard work! Especially when you're committed to principles that don't naturally play well to key audiences!

We have to figure out how to sell our ideas effectively to all personality types and most reasonable worldviews. Not just the ~16% of the population naturally sympathetic to libertarianism.

Steve Y. writes:

"I think that perhaps the best positive approach for libertarians right now is to support institutions that compete with government. That means charities, churches, charter schools, clubs, consumer information services, and other sources of public goods. I would count the traditional family as an institution that competes with government."

Two institutions--the legislative branch and a free and independent press--have ceased to fulfill their constitutional role of being a check-and-balance against the Executive. In the forlorn hope that the press has not become completely cuckolded, I am a paying subscriber to publications such as the National Review, Forbes, and Wall Street Journal. They may not be 100% libertarian, but in these parlous times one must support anyone who speaks against the tide of statism.

Tim writes:

Some Austrian economists call a recession "a correction". The recession reveals the real value of assets was an illusion. The real values were masked and inflated in the "boom".

I think we are seeing something like this in politics too. In recent decades many people, including many 'libertarians', who should have known better, imagined that 'free markets' had triumphed. After all the Soviet Union collapsed, China threw out the iron rice bowl and even the democratic socialists of the left started to say nice things about markets and competition.

The trouble with this analysis was that it was an illusion. The collapse of communism was wonderful but the "winner" was, at least as much, social democracy as it was free market capitalism. And the retreat of one world empire, encouraged another to fill the gap. At the same time, domestically, the rate of growth of government (in fiscal terms) may have slowed, but it was never reversed. In terms of regulatory impact it may never have even slowed as environmental, occupational safety and 'anti-discrimination' controls continued to extend.

The slowdown in public sector take was never a libertarian, and often not even a conservative, triumph. In many cases it was liberals and social democrats who instituted it. And it was not undertaken because of any libertarian awakening. In many cases public sector assets were privatised and sold, not to enhance competitive markets, but to free up funds for new welfare and vote purchasing programs. My guess is that sheer arithmetic slowed the revenue growth of the state. It is easier to increase the percentage of GDP spent on government from 20% to 40% than it is to increase it from 40% to 80%. The social democrats' interests in markets and privatisation had more to do with load shifting than load reduction.

Big business and big government are now if anything closer than ever. The mass of administrative law has resulted in all major businesses having to carry large internal bureaucracies focusing on enforcing and propagandising government mandated directives. If the social democrats have indeed reduced their hostility to private enterprise it is because they have largely been successful in reshaping much of the corporate sector in their own image. Over time, even slave masters develop some affection for their chattel.

The current setbacks for libertarians and 'the free market' are really the cold wind of reality blowing away the illusion that we were moving towards a laisser faire society.

The Freedom Thinker writes:

Great post. Thanks...

Yancey Ward writes:

A forlorn hope. The aggregation of power will only cease on collapse of the monetary system, and even then the response is quite likely to lead to even greater restrictions on liberty.

The unfortunate reality is, and this is borne out by history in nearly every instance- increases in freedom are born from violent revolts. If you want to increase your liberty and protect it, you must first be willing to kill the oppressors.

AB writes:

C'mon, now is the time to fight harder for our freedoms.

rk writes:

I haven't moved to NH but I really don't see why people don't take that idea more seriously. I am considering getting a summer home there when I can afford it. The people in NH right now are working hard, and it doesn't take 20,000 people to make a lot of noise and produce more freedom.

I think that those libertarians who can move to NH should consider it very seriously. A cold winter shouldn't stop you. You'd rather live in a welfare state with warmer winters than in a free state with cold winters? Seriously?

People don't see the free state project as a reality. I didn't either. But after watching videos on youtube of the people there and the type of community they have, it is most definitely a reality and could become a phenomenon.

I came up with the idea of an institution to compete with the NEA and NEH, and I have let many, many libertarians know about it, but so far there has not been a single donation. Nothing. Perhaps libertarians are just like everyone else -- wanting to rely on getting the reigns of government rather than putting the money where their mouth is.

fundamentalist writes:

Chris: "Look at Ron Paul's campaign, which massively underperformed relative to its funding."

I wasn't thinking of getting libertarian candidates like Ron Paul elected as much as buying existing Congressmen. It certainly would be nice to get more libertarians in office, but that requires more than money. It requires a certain political skill that many libertarians lack. Libertarians want to talk about liberty and nothing else. Most voters couldn't care less about having more liberty because they think they have all they need. You have to address the issues that voters care about.

As brilliant as Ron Paul is on economics, he lacks a lot of political skill. Going into the Republican primary, he of all people should have known that he would be competing with the Republican base which is very pro-war. Denouncing the war as he did was political suicide and kept a lot of people from hearing his economic views. Every politician knows you have to pander to the base to get the nomination and then move closer to the center for the general election. If a libertarian candidate is not willing to do this, he doesn't help the cause very much.

Skeptical writes:

What exactly do you mean by "traditional family"? Cause when I hear that, I think "father knows best." In other words, the traditional family doesn't seem to me to be a great bastion of freedom. Women and children typically haven't have great freedom in the family, historically speaking.

I would say family structures are important, but I think "non-traditional" families are just as, if not more, important to combating state power. It seems to me that state power is furthered by keeping the "traditional family" in place - keeps teh gays in line! Family means no more and no less that what people in a given family take it to mean.

Niccolo writes:

It sounds like you're now talking about Agorism.

Patri Friedman writes:

I wasn't thinking of getting libertarian candidates like Ron Paul elected as much as buying existing Congressmen.

This is hopeless. Buying Congressmen to get them to pass efficient laws can never compete with buying Congressmen to get them to pass laws which benefit the buyer. If a bad law will make an industry $1M and cost each person in the state 10c, the industry will pay almost $1M for it, and so you must pay almost $1M to outbid the industry.

It doesn't take very many repetitions of spending $1M to save everyone 10c before you go broke.

It's a rigged game.

I think Arnold's missing the technology angle - find and improve technologies that shift power from government to individual.

Also, as others pointed out, if you are going to try to reform politics, pushing for federalism is the way to go. It's a root cause of bad government.

terrymac writes:

Amen! I used to be very active in politics. Nowadays, I promote three issues: home school your children. defend yourself. secure your own financial well-being. In short, find other ways to do what the government claims to do for you.

The government is going bankrupt. In a few years, your skills will be needed.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top