Sunday, 1 February 2004

Whither the Libertarians (and the libertarians)?

Stephen Green has caused quite a stir with his two posts on the schism between “doctrinaire” and “pragmatic” libertarians over the conflict in Iraq and the broader War on Terror. The schism is really nothing new, and at some levels is analogous to the “anarchist/minarchist” split in the movement; it all basically boils down to a question of “how much of a statist can you be and still call yourself a libertarian?” Martin Devon of Patio Pundit describes it thusly:

I often hear Libertarians lament that the two party systems prevents them from being able to take power and implement their vision. Hogwash. That’s the same thing you hear from the Greens, the Ross Perots and Jesse Venturas. Feh. The Republican and Democrat parties have dominated the political landscape because they’ve done the difficult work of translating a guiding philosophy into votes. In order to that they’ve had to cut some corners and make some unholy alliances. Libertarians could do the same thing.

As many bloggers have commented, there is a segment of the American population who believe in the “leave me alone” school. In order to make them happy you just have to leave them alone—on guns, on gays, on regulation, on religion. These sentiments draw considerable support from both red states and blue states, and therefore Libertarians could amass power by taking over the leadership of either the Democrats or the Republicans.

The truth is that they already have, but when they compromise enough to win power Libertarians are too pure to recognize one of their own. What do you think Arnold the Governator is? He’s a Libertarian who has traded some purity for power.

Now, as someone who himself has left the Libertarian Party for many of the same reasons that Stephen and others are repelled by it, I don’t know that I can offer any constructive advice. In a lot of ways, the party is trapped by the dominant narrative created for it by the media: full of weird people who have turned themselves blue or have strange views on prison rehabilitation and meet with potential voters in pizza parlors. That alone makes the “Ron Paul” strategy a compelling one. In other ways—although Martin discounts it—the party is trapped by electoral rules designed to favor the existing parties and agenda-setting effects by the press that stop libertarians from advancing their message through unpaid media. The LP has spent decades building a grassroots organization, the net impact of which on American politics has been approximately zero—by contrast, the small amount of media attention Ralph Nader garnered for the Greens in 2000 allowed them to build a comparably strong party organization in mere months.

But “Ron Paulism” isn’t all that effective either. Neither major party’s leading presidential contenders come close to sharing libertarian values—the Republicans treat their alleged principles of limited and small government as bargaining chips to be traded for support from the hard right, while the Democrats sit around whining about a PATRIOT Act that virtually all of them voted in favor of for cynical electoral reasons. The desperation associated with being in the “electoral wilderness” has brought Democrats closer to socialism, not libertarianism, and there’s no reason to believe a few years out of the White House will make Republicans genuinely turn to libertarian ideas either—they, like the Democrats, are far too wedded to the concept of The State as a credible moral actor, the only difference being that they’d use it to advance different moral ends. I don’t know what the solution is, but it isn’t going to come from John F. Kerry or George W. Bush.

Update: Gary Farber thinks Eric Raymond’s piece takes the slippery slope argument a tad too far.