The 'Failure' of the Libertarian Movement
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
The "Failure" of the Libertarian Movement
(a strategy for political action in the 21st century)
The original strategy of the libertarian movement was based on the model of the socialist parties of the early 20th century, particularly Norman Thomas' Socialist Party of the 1930s. These parties did not win any elections, or even come close. They did, however, exert a tremendous influence on American politics. The Democratic Party (which had won office on the platform of a balanced budget and a reduction in government spending in 1932) kept moving further and further to the left, introducing many elements of the welfare state. The libertarian movement was an attempt to imitate this success - to move the major parties in the direction of liberty by raising an ideologically extreme banner.
In this sense the libertarian movement has been a success. The various left-wing parties of the early 20th century have pretty much evaporated. The world socialist movement is dying, and country after country is engaged in privatization of previously socialized industries. The Soviet Union self destructed in 1989, and one no longer hears the slogan, "socialism is the wave of the future." Labor union membership in this country is down from over 30% to just over 15%. The largest obstacle to small government today consists of conservatives whose minds are set 30-40 years ago and think that massive government spending programs and huge deficits are the way to get elected.
But in another sense the libertarian movement has been a failure. In the early '70s there was great confidence that libertarianism would grow. We were quite happy to start small because we had great confidence. This was based on Ayn Rand's teaching that in a contest between two ideologies it was the more logical one which would be the victor. If we could maintain a firm devotion to principle, then our movement would grow until we became a force in national politics. This, however, did not happen. Libertarian Party candidates are getting the same percentage of the vote in the new century as they got in the '70s.
Neither does the answer lie in the libertarian movement as distinct from the Party. Non-party activity can be quite valuable in politics. The movement for American independence from England and for the abolition of slavery were non-party movements which had a profound effect. But the libertarian movement has done almost nothing. It has sat back and declared itself holier-than-thou, has criticized the Party for being impure and has not taken any large scale actions. (The Free State Project is a notable exception.)
The problem is that, on this point, Ayn Rand was wrong. There are two aspects to spreading one's ideology: logical consistency is one, but conformity to reality is the other. A true theory, of course, should qualify in both aspects. But human knowledge is far from complete. And when most people are asked to make a choice between an ideology which is logically consistent and one which conforms to reality, reality is far more important to them than logic. A good example of this is the victory of monotheistic over polytheistic religion.
Traditional polytheism was wrong, but it was quite logical. The basic assumption was animism, the belief that everything that happened in the world was caused by an animate spirit (or god). We know today that this was a false explanation for the events of the world, but in an earlier age, when mankind had less experience, it was a plausible explanation. The beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Babylonians, etc. followed very logically from this assumption.
Monotheistic religion, on the other hand, was full of contradictions. God is everywhere but not anywhere in particular. (Yet the ancient Israelites fell to quarreling whether God lived on Mount Zion in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim in Shechem.) God has no physical shape. (Yet man was made in the shape of God.) Further, God is both omnipotent and good. (Although there is evil in the world.)
The battle between paganism and Christianity in 4th century Rome was a perfect example of a choice between one ideology which was logically consistent (paganism) and another which conformed much more readily to reality (Christianity). We today, living in a monotheistic culture are quite accustomed to its contradictions. But people in the ancient world felt them keenly. For example, when St. Paul first started to preach Christianity in Asia Minor during the 1st century A.D., he was met by hostile crowds who would drive him out of town by throwing rocks, all the while screaming "invisible god, invisible god."
However, during this time the Jewish people were widely respected for their practical success in life. It worked. Christianity was viewed as a more moderate, more universal Judaism. If the logical always won out over the practical, then we would all be polytheists today.
One failure of the libertarian intellectuals of the mid-20th century is that they did not listen to people. To convince someone you must rebut his false premise(s). If you don't listen to him, then you won't know what that false premise is. For example, I can refute the entire Objectivist ethics with one simple idea, the idea that there is a heaven and hell. If this premise were true, then the altruistic ethics of our society would be correct. It isn't true, but in all of Ayn Rand's works she devotes exactly one sentence to its refutation.
If you study ordinary people's reaction to libertarians (particularly their tone of voice and their body language), they have a sense that libertarians are kooky. This is their way of saying that libertarians are floating around in a world of abstractions and do not have any connection to reality. A person who argues logically from false premises will come to false conclusions. If he does not check his conclusions against reality, he has no defense against error. I have never met a person who is smart enough to reach the truth without going back and forth between concrete and abstraction. A person stuck on the concrete level will never get anywhere. A person whose abstractions are not connected to reality can come to believe almost anything. This is well illustrated by Ayn Rand's quarrel with the anarchists. The anarchists started with her principle of the non-initiation of force and carried it to absurdity. Rand, to her credit, recognized that their conclusion was absurd. That was where the break occurred. The limited government faction had a connection to reality; the anarchists relied purely on logic. The solution to this problem is that Rand's principle of the non-initiation of force is flawed (not false, just flawed). The principle does not provide us with an unambiguous course of action in all cases. Consider the following situation. A big, burly man is blocking the exit from the room, and he refuses to stand aside. To get out of the room I push him away. "Shame," he cries. "You are initiating the use of force."
On the surface it seems that he has a good argument. He has not pushed me, and I have pushed him. But in another sense he initiated the use of force when he blocked my right of way. When we go before a judge, the only way that the judge can decide the issue is by defining initiation of force as the violation of a right. That is, the concept of rights is prior to the concept of initiation of force. But since this is the case, the non-initiation principle is superfluous. It is simpler merely to say that people should respect each other's rights. This is indeed the way that America got started.
I understand that the left has tried to subvert the concept of rights by asserting all sorts of specious "rights" (the right to other people's property, the right to special privileges based on race). That is not an excuse for abandoning the concept. A right is a freedom of action. If you think that one person's rights contradict another's, then you do not know what rights are. We must draw a line in the sand here and defend the concept of rights. There is no right to welfare. There is no right to free medical care. There is a right to the product of one's own labor. And there is a right to deal with other human beings via their rational consent.
The average person is too bound to concretes. If we are going to reach him, we have to start our political action with the concretes in which he is interested. The art of effective political action is to start with a concrete that already has public attention and then lead the public to the abstraction which is the correct solution to their problem. (This was achieved brilliantly by the Anti-Corn Law League, which was responsible for Britain's free trade policy during the 19th century.) If there is one important difference between the Founding Fathers, whose movement succeeded, and today's libertarians, whose movement has not, it is that the former had a nice integration between concrete and abstract, and the latter pretty much confines itself to the world of abstractions.
Another failure of the libertarian movement is that its orientation is toward the America of the New Deal. It uses the concepts of that period and frames its argument in that context. (For example, Rand fell for F.D.R.'s con that he was a traitor to his class.) For this reason it begins with false concepts and false premises. But the problem did not start with the New Deal. It started with the social democratic movement in Germany in the 1870s. If you do not understand this movement, then you do not have a clue about modern American politics.
You all know that the American Revolution brought a new breath of liberty to the world. This spirit quickly spread to France, and from 1789 to 1815 the French people fought a revolution to attain the rights which Americans obtained in the 1780s. After a quarter century of war this revolution failed in its more radical goals; but it wrought a major change on the continent of Europe. Inspired by liberty the people of Europe began to revolt. One revolution followed upon another, each chipping away at the chains which kept the masses of the people in thrall. The aristocrats and defenders of the old order were struck with fear; they saw their way of life being destroyed.
What most frightened them was the effectiveness of the armies of the revolution. Once the French people had declared for "liberte, egalite, fraternite," they were filled with a sense of energy. For countless centuries the kingdoms of Europe had been quite even in military strength. They could fight for generation after generation with only small changes in national boundries. Then in a few years the single nation of France, while fighting almost all of Europe at once, achieved smashing victories. As Napoleon noted, one French soldier - fighting for liberty - was equal to two Prussian soldiers.
This was the problem that confronted the old order. The aristocrats were outnumbered 100 to 1 by the common people. Worse, their serfs would not fight, at least not with any energy. If England had not somehow wound up on the wrong side in the Napoleonic Wars and won the battle for them, then feudal Europe would have been destroyed. What to do?
Clearly the problem was ideological. There is no military solution to odds of 100 to 1. The question was to devise a new ideology, an ideology which would appeal to the people of Europe more than the ideology of liberty. By the middle of the 19th century this problem was solved by some intellectual in the newly formed nation of Germany.
"Yes, we have been bad," went the new ideology. "We aristocrats have robbed from the poor and given to the rich. However, we are going to change. We are going to form a new government based on Christian principles. This government will be a like a great father to its people and operate on the principle of love. It will rob from the rich to give to the poor. In order that we can do this we ask that you not be too strict about property rights. So rejoice; the bad old days are over. Do not look to the west for governments which give you justice. We are going to give you something better than justice. We are going to give you something for nothing."
The two (principal) somethings-for-nothing which this new government - called the welfare state - gave to its subjects were old age retirement (social security) and free medical care (socialized medicine). Of course the German aristocracy had no intention of giving up its privileges. It was non-productive and had to rob from the common people just to maintain itself. Once the principle of robbing had been accepted as proper to government, just a little manipulation ensured that the direction of the money flow was as it had always been, from the poor to the rich. There was no way that the state could provide old age retirement or enough medical care to meet everyone's demands; so a third leg was soon added to the first two. The country abandoned the gold standard and paid out its benefits by printing money. It was this system which came to America in the 1930s with the New Deal.
To put it in words of one syllable: What is going on in the minds of the great majority of the American people (and the welfare states of Europe) is the following syllogism.
The government is like a big father. It gives me something for nothing.
It gives me retirement in my old age, and it gives me free medical care.
I'd have to be crazy to look a gift horse in the mouth.
This is the wrong premise in the minds of the vast majority of the people in our society which leads them to support the welfare state. To stand a chance we have to address this premise. The failure to do so is the reason we have failed over the past 3 decades.
For example, if a Libertarian Party candidate goes on a talk show, the host is probably thinking: 'These guys are trying to take away all the free benefits I am getting from the government. They may be right ethically, but I don't want to hear that.' Because he feels morally on the defensive the host opts for a change in strategy and shifts the issue: "I understand that you libertarians want to legalize drugs." In fact he does not care that much about drugs. He doesn't want you to say that he is an immoral person; but at the same time he wants to "continue" to get something for nothing. Once he has shifted the issue away from what he really thinks, you can talk to him forever and not win him over.
It is common in conservative and libertarian circles to denounce New Deal type measures as socialistic. Again this is the problem of being too abstract. In logic, of course, they are socialistic. The Germans of the 1870s were between the communists to the east and the private property countries to the west. (I know that you were taught that communism came to Russia in 1917. This is one example of the false history that is routinely taught in our colleges today.) So they worked out a compromise. This compromise naturally contained elements of socialism. If we focus on these elements, abstract them out and continue moving in this direction, we would wind up a socialist country. But the Germans fought that battle a long time ago. They couldn't decide which way to go and so, as noted, fashioned a compromise. They became comfortable with the compromise (as you are comfortable with monotheistic religion). Their supporters in other countries accepted this compromise as an integrated whole. They have no intention of moving further in a socialist direction. America is in serious danger of socialized medicine. But it is not in danger of socialized agriculture.
One of the worst mistakes made by the conservative movement was to acquiesce in calling the social democrats liberals. A liberal is someone who favors liberty. The name was first applied to a Spanish group in the early 19th century which was influenced by America's founding fathers. (To this day "liberal" and "libertarian" are translated by the same Spanish world.) American social democrats called themselves liberal because liberalism was popular. It was a crude lie. It is a commentary on the ignorance of that time that they were allowed to get away with it. Knowledge is identification. You have to call things as they are. We are advocates of liberty; hence we are liberals.
Also, a successful political movement has to take cognizance of the concept of identity. A lot of people vote on the basis of who they consider themselves to be.
I am a kangaroo.
The Democratic Party supports more rights for kangaroos.
Therefore, I will vote Democratic.
It's too bad that I am only half kidding. When the Democratic Party made its appeal to the working man in the 1930s and '40s, the vast majority of workers voted Democratic. When they made their appeal to women in the 1990s, the majority of women voted Democratic (even though they ran a rapist as their candidate). How does this apply to us?
The German welfare state was founded exactly for the purpose of destroying America. American ideals of democracy and liberty were invading Europe. The welfare state was created to win the loyalty of the masses back to the feudal system and away from American ideas. It succeeded. In 1940 one French soldier was not worth two Prussian soldiers. In fighting against the welfare state we are fighting to restore America.
I am an American.
The classical liberal party is for America.
Therefore, I will vote classical liberal.