David R. Henderson  

Political Coalitions and the Tea Party Movement

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Like co-blogger Arnold, I enjoyed reading the discussion among Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Kibbe about the Tea Party Movement and whom libertarians should ally with. All three made good points but none of the three addressed a key issue: what's the context.

But first, I'm glad that Brink Lindsey has turned against the Iraq war; I always thought it was a major mistake, not just in foreign policy terms, but also in undercutting the small-government movement in domestic policy. And I love his expression "it's-always-1938-somewhere jingoism."

Second, like Lindsey, I have been frustrated by many of the anti-freedom views and just plain ignorance of many people in the TPM. What's interesting, though, is that those seem to differ from community to community. At the APEE meetings in Las Vegas in April, I was venting about their ignorance to a fellow economist from North Carolina. His story was very different. When he had been speaking about health care to TPM audiences in North Carolina, people would ask questions about specific parts of the health care bill that showed that they had actually read those parts.

Third, I'm with Matt Kibbe in thinking that when a large group rises from the grass roots and advocates some big worthwhile things, you ally with them on those things. That's why I just don't see the sense in what Lindsey seems to be advocating: that libertarians have nothing to do with Republicans or conservatives or the TPM.

That brings me to context. What's the particular decision you have to make and when do you make it? I've allied with conservatives locally to fight tax increases. But I'm also the co-chair of the local Libertarians for Peace chapter and I'm that chapter's representative to the Peace Coalition of Monterey County. Our chapter is the only non-left member of that large coalition that has over 20 organizations. So we ally with them on war and peace. Depressingly, by the way, since Obama was elected, our organization has been more outspoken on the wars, both the ones he's putting into high gear in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Iraq war, than most other members of the coalition.

The point is that we make a sequence of choices depending on the issue. We don't have to say that we will or won't ever work with a particular group. My metaphor for my political activism is that my brain and body are a crowbar and that I'm looking around for doors that are locked but slightly open [when the door is open, that's freedom] so that I can put my crowbar in and try to open it more. Every once in a while, there's a door that's wide open and I'll walk through that. The TPM is not typically a wide-open door. But, partly because of them, the crack is a little more open than it was a year and a half ago. And I want to help open it more. If my brothers and sisters in the peace movement start getting more active in pushing for the end of empire, I'll try to help open that door too. Similarly with the drug legalization movement.

One of the commenters on Arnold's post said, "Libertarians are too small in number to have any impact on either side." I don't think that's necessarily true. I think that libertarians were huge, for example, in helping end the draft: that's certainly the most pro-freedom thing achieved in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the commenter could be right for any given specific issue. But if that's true, then there's no point in being active at all.

But here's the thing and here's what I ask myself when I get discouraged. Let's say I get to the end of my life and I look back and I never fought for any of my political values. I never wrote a ballot argument, I never wrote an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal, I never gave a speech at a rally, I never carried a sign, I never wrote a letter to the editor defending the rights of someone who was picked on by a power-hungry judge. How would I feel about my life? I think I would feel disappointed and I would wonder if I could have made a difference by doing some of those things I hadn't done. That's what keeps me going in that part of my life.

But because most of my political activism doesn't pay me money, I need to get something else out of it. After all, in trying to get freedom, I'm involved with many others in producing a public good. So I look for things, ceteris paribus, that I enjoy. Writing is one; speaking is another; being around fun and interesting people is another. When those things don't exist or, even worse, when someone is toxic to be around [I'm thinking of a local TPM person], I leave. But I don't disown the TPM. I work more informally with some of its members whom I do like to be around.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
fundamentalist writes:

Of course, libertarians should allow others to be different. I certainly don't advocate everyone be like me. If I could be different, you couldn't pay me to be me!

I happen to be more pessimistic than Dr. Henderson about the prospects of change. I think most people never change unless forced to change by disaster. I actually have some PR research to back that up. Before the disaster, no amount of reasoning or debate can get people to change; after the disaster none is required because everyone knows the right thing to do. Two examples: the USSR and China. Both changed because their people were on the verge of mass starvation. Mules wish they could be as stubborn as humans.

Troy Camplin writes:

Butterfly effects.

Rob writes:

Professor Henderson,

Your outlook is accurate and inspirational. If we push on enough windmills some will fall. Even though I was not alive to experience it, I'm reminded when "Capitalism and Freedom" was published people thought that Milton Friedman's policies were impractical. After all, how could a country operate without a military draft, fixed exchange rates, and invasive regulation in every day life? We should take Friedman's lead and continue to push for individual liberty and restrained government.


Pietro Poggi-Corradini writes:

What do you think of the proposition that ending the draft made it *easier* to send troops on military adventures?

I don't know what to think about this: it's similar to advocating higher income taxes, instead of borrowing or other gimmicks, because at least the pain would be visible to everyone.

Gene writes:

Question for Dr. Henderson: Do you advocate abandoning the people of Iraq and Afganistan to their fate?

infopractical writes:

From the start I've felt that the Tea Party movement was just Republicans doing what Democrats usually do -- make noise. I usually detest the way that Democrats make "protest celebrities", and that's what the Republicans are doing now. It's a negative sum game.

What we don't have are good debates with large audiences. A crowd only makes the crowd feel good. A good debate gets people thinking. But how do we find a willing audience? If we can't, maybe there's no hope for good politics, or a good alliance.

Elvin writes:

Libertarians don't need to be large in number to effect change, they just need to be a crucial independent vote in close elections. (I'd like to say median voter, but I don't think they are.) Maybe if they could get up to 5% of the population, then the two major parties would have to pander for their votes in close elections.

I also think local libertarian parties should be willing to back Democrats or Republicans if they get close enough to broad libertarian positions. (This is similar to what the Conservative Party in New York does. It will nominate a sufficiently conservative Republican as its candidate.) By actually showing some political savvy and willingness to make astute compromises, then libertarians could more influential. (For example, I'd vote for a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage to get drug prohibition lifted.)

Neal writes:

I have attended 2 Tea party events in Morristown, NJ. The central argument voiced by all speakers or written on most signs is "Small Government", "Liberty" and "Our Children's Future". I even saw an attributed Thomas Sowell quote. It is refreshing to see intelligent libertarian themes expressed by the large (and growing each time) crowd.

Here and there are "special interest" anti-abortion signs or other issues that are typically right wing. Of course, abortion and national defense are issues that can place libertarians in a quandary anyway. On the other hand, there is almost nothing for a big government person (usually meaning Democrat)to support at the rally.

The crowd, extremely nonviolent, interprets Obama's policies (and him) as socialist. People are angry and fearful. But there has been not a hint of racism unless criticizing O puts one in that camp.

Bill writes:
Gene writes:

Question for Dr. Henderson: Do you advocate abandoning the people of Iraq and Afganistan to their fate?

The proper question is: How much more death and destruction should we tolerate before we ultimately abandon the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan to their fate?

It's not a question of "if," but "when."

John Jacob writes:

This might be interesting vice Kling's view: http://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/statistical-estimates-of-the-future-impact-of-the-free-state-project/

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