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Why are Libertarians disenfranchised?

Sunday, October 22, 2006
Keywords: Libertarianism, Politics

Excerpts from The Economist:

That is easily enough libertarians to tip an election. And their votes are up for grabs. In 2000 George Bush won 72% of the libertarian vote, to Al Gore's 20%, by repeating the mantra "My opponent trusts government. I trust you." But in 2004, after Mr Bush increased the size of government and curtailed some civil liberties as part of the war on terror, his margin dropped to 59%-38%.


Mr Boaz and Mr Kirby argue that wooing the libertarian vote could propel either party to electoral success. Yet with an election only weeks away, neither shows much sign of trying. Republicans are rallying their religious base with jeremiads about stem-cell research and gay marriage. Democrats, on the other hand, would put up taxes, block school choice and lead a witch-hunt against Wal-Mart.

Libertarians are ignored partly because they are hard to find, not least because they just want to be left alone. (There is a Libertarian Party, but it gets hardly any votes.) [emphasis mine] Politicians can reach social conservatives through churches or union members through their unions, but where do libertarians gather? Parties will always court the votes that are cheapest to court because, for once, they are spending their own money.

Well, The Economist is right about the cost part of the cost-benefit analysis, but I am not so sure about the benefit part. Sure, it is easier and less costly to fire up the religious right or the labor unions, but those are people who already support you, and there is a significant problem of diminishing returns with getting your base to turn out on election day.

But it is also worth asking why libertarians are a disenfranchised group in American politics. As the article rightfully points out, "[F]ew Americans are familiar with the term 'libertarian'." Well, why is that? The word itself should not be a problem; people are probably more familiar with the root word "liberty" than they are with "republic". Libertarians do tend to be more educated and academic, but there is really nothing inherent to preclude someone who is poorly-educated from saying, "Government should mind their own business." I think that the education bias may be a result of self-selection in the sense that, when an ideology is so obscure in the mainstream political landscape, those who are not well-educated will be less likely to be exposed to it. But this brings us back to the original question, why are libertarians so obscure in the first place? And for that answer, I direct the reader to the emphasis that I added to the Economist excerpt above: the Libertarian Party of America, I think, is the primary reason for this political obscurity and for the subsequent disenfranchisement.

The problem is that there is a large number of libertarians who believe in a very black-and-white view of libertarianism. But taken to such a polar extreme, there is really little difference between libertarians and anarchists. What makes a libertarian a libertarian and not an anarchist is that a libertarian recognizes that there is indeed a need for government, and that the goal is to meet those needs efficiently with as few unwanted side effects as possible. An unconditional desire to reduce government without any regard to the need for a government is the hallmark of an anarchist. However, the failure to recognize this distinction is not the fault of people, but instead, it is a fault of the history and perhaps even nature of libertarian belief. This distinction regarding the role of government is easy to see and to recognize in the realm of personal freedoms, as the role of government can be fairly easily defined, which is, in rough layman's terms, "let people do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt others, and government should exist to ensure to make sure people aren't hurting (killing, stealing, etc.) each other." This is, in a nutshell, what Locke and Jefferson believed in, but they also formulated their beliefs before Adam Smith and modern economics.

The world of Locke and Jefferson was one of autarky. Yes, there was trade, but there was, relatively speaking, very little of it, and most of that trade was local in nature. It is because of this that there was never much thought given to the role of economics in the political discourse. There was the protection of property and a general desire to limit the amount of taxation, but that was about it. This changed, of course, with the Industrial Revolution. People were no longer islands isolated from the world. As economic specialization grew (and as populations grew), people became more dependent on each other and with this greatly increased interpersonal interaction, the general condition of "not hurting others" became much more complicated to define in the economic context. What used to be a simple "don't steal other people's property" now included issues like factory working conditions, monopoly pricing, pollution, etc. There is, of course, much controversy, even to this day, of whether or not these sorts of things constitute the sort of malevolent action that, like murder or robbery, government should try to control: the traditional way of looking at government's proper role does not make provisions for the new conditions that arose out of the Industrial Revolution. Because of the tangled web of unclear rights and wrongs that emerged out of this (how does one weigh an employer's "right" to pay whatever wage s/he feels is appropriate with an employee's "right" to a minimum standard of living?) and because it is difficult for government to address these issues efficiently and in a way that does not cause more problems than is solved, libertarians have traditionally stuck with a traditional Jeffersonian view of the role of government: prevent obvious crimes like murder, robbery, etc. and leave everything else alone.

While this traditional form of libertarianism is seductively simple and free of the controversial and sticky gray areas, this comes at a cost of turning a blind eye to reality, as reality is never this tidy. Fortunately, the field of economics--especially the work that has taken place over the past five decades--offer a sort of clarity that had previously been unavailable. Not only has the study of economics offered a more systematic and comprehensive way to precisely identify and describe the sorts of problems that need government solving, it also offers solutions that are efficient and that also minimize undesirable side effects. (I will not go into more detail here, as I have already written about some of these things, and it is impossible to go into detail in a meaningful way in the limited space here, but I do promise to write more about these things in more detail later on.)

Unfortunately, many libertarians are still living in a Jeffersonian fantasy world. They recognize the need for government in the traditional contexts, but they fail to recognize it in the modern contexts. The principles are still the same: government does have a role to play, but it should pursue that role as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible. The difference is that moderate libertarians (a number of whom are economists) hold a more realistic view of the role of government and recognize that government does need to address, in additional to murder, robbery, etc., issues such as monopolies, externalities, and the need for wealth redistribution, but in ways that are efficient and consistent with free market economics (e.g., see my essay on the merits of pricing/taxation instead of regulation as a way to address environmental issues). (Aside: there is a huge difference between some of the solutions that a moderate libertarian would support and what a leftist would support; as I like to say, Republicans and traditional libertarians try to brush away the problem, Democrats valiantly try to fix the problem, but in the wrong way because they have been blinded by socialism, and moderate libertarians try to fix the problem the right way.)

There are invariably objections from traditional libertarians. Some will claim that government intervention flies in the face of free market economics. This is a common myth held by many who do not fully understand the nuances of economics. This flies in the face is laissez-faire economics, but not free-market economics, and the two are not the same. Asymmetric information, externalities, natural monopolies, etc. are features of real-life laissez-faire economics and are things that preclude an efficient free market. An efficient free market thus requires that these problems be addressed (but also addressed in such a way that does not destroy other aspects of free markets, which is why the moderate libertarian approach of pricing rectification is better, less intrusive, and more efficient than the socialist approach of regulation; the poorly-engineered regulations of the left are sometimes just as bad as the traditional libertarian approach of ignoring the problem). Another common objection is that doing this is increasing the role of government. I do not dispute that this is true, but I do dispute that this is a problem, considering that the goal of libertarianism (as opposed to that of anarchism) is not to blindly whittle down government, but instead to accomplish what needs accomplishing in a way that is efficient and unobtrusive, thus constraining the whittling down of government only to cases where it makes sense and is appropriate.

And this brings us back to the question that I was asking: why are libertarians out in the political wilderness? The Libertarian Party is a party of traditional libertarians who inhabit a Jeffersonian illusion and who are in denial of the realities of the world. This detachment has made the Libertarian Party a radical fringe party that many libertarians (such as myself) would not support. Yet, they are the closest thing libertarians in this country have to a banner under which to rally. Needless to say, there is very little in the way of libertarian leadership, and without this leadership, there is no infrastructure to organize like-minded libertarians, to educate voters about the party, and to get the libertarian name out into the public spotlight. Even the Green and Reform parties have more effective leaderships, which is quite remarkable for a country whose founding was so profoundly rooted in libertarian philosophy. As the age-old cliché goes, "Every journey begins with a step." The first step that libertarians must take if they wish to emerge from obscurity is to acknowledge that the traditional Jeffersonian flavor of libertarianism is an outdated relic from another era and that, with the help of economists, effective, efficient, libertarian-style solutions are possible. Once this first step is taken, the libertarians can finally begin to provide the rational political middle ground than this country has been in desperate need of for so long.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/22 at 16:28:11 GMT -0400.

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