The Free State Project at Ten: Part Two (corrected 11/1/11)
In my first piece on the first ten years of the Free State Project, I offered a retrospective on how the Free State Project got started and how far it has come. While the strides that Porcupines have been making in New Hampshire have indeed been remarkable, we also need to think about how to secure and build upon those gains. In this piece, I take a candid look at the future of libertarian politics in New Hampshire. The essay is organized into two halves, the first examining tactical-level politics and the second taking a wider strategic orientation.
Now that libertarians and classical liberals are starting to be elected to office in New Hampshire, what can they do to stay in office and to build a permanent freedom coalition at the state house? In doing so, of course, they will need not to abandon their principles. It’s hard for principled politicians to stay in office a long time, given the way the political pendulum swings and the pressures to please interest groups and party leadership. Politicians who survive tend to be those who give the median voter what he wants on high-profile issue and give organized rent-seekers what they want on high-dollar but low-profile issues.
My first set of recommendations has to do with marketing the freedom message and appealing to the median voter. Most libertarians in New Hampshire run as Republicans, since the New Hampshire Democratic leadership has been overwhelmingly hostile to freedom and to Free Staters. Most voters see the political spectrum in a single dimension, from left to right. Whether they’re right or wrong to do so, that’s how they see it. Libertarians risk being seen as “right-wingers” if they concentrate heavily on economic issues and use standard conservative rhetoric and arguments. If your district is very conservative, that’s fine – but New Hampshire overall is not a very conservative state. It is a centrist state with some libertarian tendencies.
You can push free markets in the legislature while still making a play for the median voter in your district. You can do so by emphasizing the socially liberal aspects of libertarianism more than you otherwise would. You can also make the case for free markets in egalitarian or populist rhetoric. Concepts and issues like “justice,” “fairness,” “education,” and “environment” can be helpful in crafting a message that can reach across the ideological divide.
When it comes to issues on which there is interest-group pressure, a savvy candidate can take advantage of alliances in the media and among nonprofits to raise the salience of those issues. Left-wingers like to attack both libertarians and conservatives for allegedly having a philosophy of “greed,” because they think it should be possible for people to earn financial success. But financial success is not morally wrong; “greed” means the pursuit of financial success at the expense of others’ rights – and the people who support that are the people who support auto and bank bailouts, corporate welfare, forced unionization, modern-day guild restrictions (occupational licensing), and massive redistribution of wealth. The rent-seekers are the ones peddling greed – and we should not fear to point it out. Issues that might otherwise seem arcane, like occupational licensing or judicial reform, can become electoral winners when you expose and attack the rent-seeking behavior of, say, trial lawyers who try to use government to feather their own nests.
My last tactical recommendations have to do with cultivating competence and communicating that competence to voters. New Hampshire voters value competence and “straight talk”; they see through a phoney. Unfortunately, some Free Stater candidates have not been completely forthright with voters. I’m thinking of a recent New Hampshire Union Leader story about two alderman candidates “exposed” as Free Staters by the Manchester Democratic Party. The candidates tried to distance themselves from the FSP, and it was left to the Union Leader editorial to defend the Free State Project, essentially saying, “What’s so bad about the Free State Project? Free Staters move to New Hampshire because they like its culture of liberty and want to enhance it.” [Note: I was thinking mostly about what one of the candidates said, not the other, although the editorial made it sound as if they had both tried to distance themselves. One of the candidates, Emily Sandblade, wrote me to say that she enthusiastically acknowledges her FSP background in interviews and campaigning. It is pretty clear that she does not in fact distance herself from the FSP, like the other candidate. Apologies for any misunderstanding.] If you moved to New Hampshire as a Free State Project participant and subsequently run for office, I think you should be proud and forthright about your participation in the FSP: “I’m proud of what Free Staters and their allies are doing for our freedom.” Competence matters across the political spectrum; we all want more competent public officials rather than less. If you lose on the competence issue, you’re likely to lose the election.
Another aspect of competence is constituent service. Why has Ron Paul been reelected to the U.S. House so many times, by overwhelming majorities, despite a generally libertarian voting record? By all accounts, he is a workhorse on behalf of his constituents. Whenever one comes to him with a problem or issue that needs solving, he latches onto it like a dog with a bone and won’t let go until it is resolved. People appreciate that. If you’re going to pursue your own agenda with your roll-call votes, you need to do a superior job in constituent service in order to be reelected.
Finally, I want to close with some thoughts about longer-term strategy. Winning elections is fine and dandy, but we all know the political pendulum swings back and forth. In 2012 many Porcs may lose their elections; it would be surprising if they didn’t, given the historic size of the 2010 wave. Ultimately, we’re only going to get more freedom-minded policies if we have more freedom-minded politicians, and we’re only going to have more freedom-minded politicians if we have more freedom-minded voters.
Educating the public is the key to the ultimate success of the Free State strategy. Unfortunately, economic and philosophical education for the voting public has not received much attention from Porcupines so far.
It can be difficult to reach the average voter with the message of liberty. Most people are not very open-minded about political issues, even if they have an interest in them, and they won’t spend time learning a new perspective. We run into the problem of rational ignorance: given that one voter can’t influence most elections, people don’t bother to spend the time to learn about the issues in depth.
But there is a time in life when most people are open to new ideas: high school and college. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get our message out to every young person in New Hampshire? After a number of years, we should see a real effect in the way people think about society and government. When I was a high schooler in Houston, Texas, I participated in a program called Ten Pillars of Economic Wisdom. The carrot for participation was the chance to win college scholarships in speech competitions. But we also had after-school lectures and received free books. They sent us Hazlitt, Mises, Hayek, and Friedman, and I devoured them all. That was my introduction to free-market ideas, and so it was for many other students in the area. I don’t know how many libertarians that program created during its existence, but the number is certainly in the dozens, if not hundreds.
Another idea is to introduce ideas of freedom into the college curriculum. As a college professor, I view it as my duty in the classroom not to push any particular philosophical or ideological agenda. Nevertheless, facts are facts, and on issues like international trade the universally accepted facts often contradict students’ preconceived notions. Furthermore, I also see it as my responsibility to expose students to the full range of scholarly argument. What if we could set up a center at a New Hampshire university that would offer a broad curriculum in philosophy, politics, and economics, exposing students to Nozick as well as Rawls, Hayek as well as Samuelson? They may come to accept “our” ideas or not, but at least they will gain an appreciation for the full range of legitimate, scholarly debate on fundamental issues of government.
The educational programs I have outlined have one drawback: money. It will be necessary to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to keep these programs running for the long term and to reach a broad cross-section of New Hampshire young people. Small pledges from lots of Porcupines won’t do the trick. If only Porcupines were actually being bankrolled by the Koch brothers, as some of the more paranoid elements of the left have alleged! Undoubtedly, even finding a way to set up programs like these will take a long time, but there’s no better time to get to work than the present. Watch this space.