The Case for Libertarian Pessimism
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 Case for Libertarian Pessimism
Delivered by Jason P. Sorens to the Manhattan Libertarian Party, May 15, 2002
I want to thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight. It's particularly great to have the opportunity to meet some people whom I've previously met only through the electronic medium.
Tonight I am speaking on "the case for libertarian pessimism." I would not blame you for thinking it uncouth of a guest speaker to deliver a talk advocating "pessimism," but my defense is that I hope not to depress you too much, for the pessimism I am advocating is a highly qualified one.
One purpose of this talk is to put forward a corrective to the "case for libertarian optimism" that was in vogue in the previous decade. A new, realistic vision of our prospects will then allow us to proceed in the political arena in ways calculated to maximize our effectiveness. This is not to detract in any way, of course, from the wonderful work that the Manhattan LP and other chapters are doing right now. But the goal for all of us is the creation of a truly free society.
So the crucial question is, Measured against this goal, are we winning? There are several ways in which we can parse that question: Are our ideas winning? Are our candidates winning? Are our policies winning? I will deal with each of these in turn.
Are our ideas winning? In one sense, absolutely yes. The normative philosophical and social-scientific case for libertarian policy has never been stronger. To be sure, some very smart people have considered libertarianism and rejected it, just as some very smart people have accepted libertarianism. There are good arguments both for and against libertarianism, but by and large we have succeeded in arguing the statists back to first principles. There is very little else to argue, and so it is doubtful that either side will budge.
And that is the sense in which our ideas are not winning. Libertarian ideas have been on the table for twenty or thirty years or more. The "high water mark" of libertarian influence has come and passed. We made our mark; we carved our niche. But we must admit that our ideas have not taken academia or the media by storm, nor are they likely to do so in the near future. Perhaps we could take our ideas directly to "the people" and increase our influence that way. But it is likely that we will meet stolid resistance there too – and we have. There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem: without some policy successes to demonstrate our relevance, people will never take our ideas seriously; without getting people to believe in our ideas, we will never win the policy battles. The strategy of education is always a valid one, but it alone cannot bring us closer to a free society, certainly not within our lifetimes or our children's lifetimes.
If our ideas are not winning, are our candidates winning? Given that our ideas are actually more widely accepted in the "ivory tower" than they are in the general electorate, we must conclude a fortiori that our candidates will not win either. And that is essentially what we see.
1976 is the first year in which Libertarian Party votes are tabulated for the whole country. In that year the party received 0.1% of national ballots for the House of Representatives. This increased to 0.7% in 1980 and 1982, fell back, and only reached 0.7% again in 1990. Since 1994 party vote has been rising slowly but steadily, from 0.6% in 1994 to 1.6% in 2000, mostly because of a greater number of candidacies. We have seen some real progress over the last eight years in percentage terms, but in absolute terms the growth is very small. Let's say we kept pace and increased congressional vote one percentage point every six years from now on: it would be the year 2204 before we reached 35% of the national vote, possibly enough to elect a majority in the House of Representatives in a three-party system.
It's clear: a national Libertarian strategy is doomed to fail. No libertarian party will ever win the Presidency or a majority of seats in the U.S. House or U.S. Senate. We have to admit that fact before we can begin to make strategy for the future.
Maybe the Libertarian Party won't make America libertarian – but maybe politicians in other parties are moving the country in that direction. Not likely, but theoretically possible. This postulate brings me to the third question: Are we winning on policy?
Well, if our ideas aren't winning, and our candidates aren't winning, chances are that our policies aren't winning. And that's what we see.
Just a few years ago, many of us (myself included) believed that economic globalization, capital mobility, Internet sales, and encryption technology would bring about the death of the state, traditionally understood. Either we'd be able to slip the tax collector's net with ease, or governments would be competitively forced to slash taxes and regulations in order to keep what tax base they had. In my discipline, political science, they call this "the race to the bottom," which shows where their ideological biases lie.
There certainly is some fiscal competition out there – but it appears to be just as fierce among capitalists as it is among governments – governments can extract concessions from firms because firms want so badly into their markets. And what's more, governments can compete not just by cutting taxes and regulations, but by offering subsidies. We should have known better simply from decades of observing what local governments in the U.S. do to attract business. Certainly local governments are not all stalwarts of laissez-faire policy, even though they compete with each other for revenue.
My dissertation advisor, Geoffrey Garrett, is one of the leading scholars in international political economy. He does a great deal of work on globalization. What he has found is that countries more exposed to foreign trade have larger governments, while countries more exposed to capital flows have neither systematically larger nor smaller governments: it depends on other factors such as whether the right or the left is in power. These findings are reason for optimism for him; to me they're a little depressing.
Here in the U.S. we have not seen any decline in government power despite all the rhetoric of the Reagan Revolution and the Contract with America. The best single measure of total government control of the economy is total government expenditure as a percentage of national income. That number hit 40% in 1975, nearly half of the economy. In 2001, the number was 40%. Over the last twenty-odd years we have managed to stop the growth in government, but we have not rolled it back one iota.
The welfare state may depress economic growth, but the welfare state remains very stable. The welfare state will not fall of its own weight in the same way communist states did. The welfare state allows just enough economic growth so that the government continues to see an increase in revenues, allowing it to increase expenditures year after year.
So we can't expect "natural economic forces" to bring about the death of the welfare state, in the same way Marxists believed that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself by bringing about a proletarian revolution.
Restoring liberty is a supremely political act. It requires political will and courage. What we have seen is that the national scene in America is totally lost to political action. If we libertarians continue doing just what we're doing, the deadening, bureaucratic, stultifying welfare-warfare state will live forever.
That's a pretty dire thought. But we do have one very good option, and in my view, of course, that is the Free State Project, the plan whereby 20,000 libertarians and classical liberals will move to a single state of the U.S. I like to think of the Free State Project as a "meta-strategy," rather than a strategy in itself. Tonight I've basically canvassed three different strategic approaches with the three different questions: the "educational approach," the "electoral" approach, and the "beat the system" approach, respectively. The Free State Project can help with all of these.
Our ideas will only become relevant once a significant proportion of the population is talking about them constantly. If we can establish a significant presence in local media outlets, colleges, and schools, our message will be heard and will be taken seriously for the first time. Electorally, we can only win majorities by concentrating our activists in a single state. And as far as "dodging the state" goes, imagine what would happen when 5% of the population of a state is actively engaged in creating alternatives to state institutions. And that number will grow over time as we demonstrate what libertarianism in action is like.
The Free State Project gives us that critical mass that is essential for the success of any strategy. For that reason, anyone who truly values liberty should consider participating in the Free State Project. This may just be the last, best hope for liberty in our lifetimes.
The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent those of Free State Project, Inc., its Directors, or its Officers.