Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Challenge for Libertarian Activists

politics - Clint's Nolan Chart - 20020718 - sl...Image by Captain CHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSSSSSSS via Flickr

In "Libertarian Democraphobia," an article by Will Wilkinson on his site (May 4, 2009), I found these especially cogent thoughts about the problems facing libertarian activists.

"...[L]ibertarians have done a terrible job countering the widespread suspicion that it's a uselessly abstract ahistorical ideology for socially retarded adolescent white guys... If libertarians are going to shift the politics of the countries we live in, we've got to get it through our thick skulls that many people have considered libertarian ideas and have rejected them for all sorts of decent reasons. We've got to take those reasons, and those people, fully seriously and adequately address them. Otherwise, we should probably just accept that libertarianism is a niche creed for weird people and reconcile ourselves to impotent, self-righteous grousing.... For my part, I'm going to continue to try to convince people that free markets and limited government are better than they might have thought."

Well said. The libertarian challenge is, and has been, and will be for a very long time, to persuade people to take it seriously as (at some level) an attempt to address practically and pragmatically the problem of governance. At the level the Founders operated--and that certainly wasn't minarchism, though it probably seemed that way to some at the time--it was a practical alternative offered after long hard thought about the very real problems and risks of governance, and it still is.

That's one reason I like the Reason Foundation/Magazine so much -- they spend almost all their effort thinking and talking about how, as a practical matter, one can move closer (even if incrementally) to a more peaceful, prosperous, and free society, in specific situations such as garbage collection, police protection, air traffic control, highway congestion and maintenance, career licensing, and on and on -- just the kinds of things most people would think libertarians have no ideas about, and just the kinds of things most libertarians aren't interested in. In this, they follow Milton Friedman, whose entirely practical and sensible book, Free To Choose, created many a libertarian.

But since libertarianism tries to limit government power, its political arm has never figured out how to attract workers willing to invest time and money and energy in running for offices they will attempt to limit in scope and power -- the opposite of why people typically get into politics. So libertarianism attracts too many people who simply enjoy the arguments and ignore the question of how to move forward, which is why so many libertarians spend so much energy arguing among one another about who's more libertarian than the other. I remember one libertarian-minded pol whose reaction to someone who said "I like some of your positions, but I have problems with these other positions," was to focus on where they agreed, and build on that -- most libertarians will instantly jump on the area of disagreement and start an argument, which is dumb.

Sigh. Thank goodness there are a few free-market thinktanks pushing to convince voters and bureaucrats of the value of their ideas.

One thing I'd like to see pursued is the ideas of a 19th-century French politician who, in arguing against some socialist proposals, pointed out that a government that allows itself to be tasked with fixing every single problem put before it is a government setting itself up for failure. As hard as it is to keep peace and security among the citizens, it's got to be even harder to make them love one another, be happy, and have their many contradictory ways must surely be a formula for disaster. The US military, oddly enough, following Vietnam learned the lesson of failure, and until Iraq had dragged its feet about being sent off to pursue war -- they knew how easy it was to screw it up and then catch the blame. If only politicians could be so wise. If only we could encourage them to think so.

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