Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Note to My Libertarian Friends

         I do not say that the libertarian commitment to preserve liberty is wrong, far from it.  Human freedom is a rare and valuable condition, one that deserves protection.  But I do say that American libertarianism lacks electoral prudence, and therefore is grotesquely self-destructive.  By its false notion of ideological purity, and by its political ineptitude, American libertarianism repeatedly and predictably marginalizes itself and prevents the success of its own important ideas.
         I want to tell my libertarian friends that they and their agenda are doomed until they learn how to win at party politics.  If you don’t know how to make your agenda prevail even in the major political party closest to your own ideals, then you won’t win elections.  If you don’t win elections, your ideas, however good they might be, will not obtain.  Someone else’s will.  If you don’t win elections, you will never get your hands on the levers of power, by which you can better establish an atmosphere more conducive to, and protective of, human freedom.
         I often have heard my libertarian friends eschew getting their hands on power.   To them, wielding power is tantamount to tyranny.  But it is not.  To have freedom, you must first have order.  To have order, you must first have power.  If you have power, you can establish policies, procedures, and institutions that foster human freedom.  If you refuse to learn how to get power and how to wield it, you doom yourself to failure.  If you wish to turn back tyranny, you must learn how get power and to exercise it so that the tyrants are kept at bay.  To suppress tyrants is not a compromise of freedom, but the very means of its preservation and a necessity of the first rank.  No power, no order; no order, no freedom.
         To my assertion above, my libertarian friends invariably assert the notion of spontaneous order.
         Yes, I know about spontaneous order.  It sometimes happens.  It sometimes works.  But I also know about not-so-spontaneous disorder, which, given human appetite, human combativeness, human greed, human apathy, and human ignorance, is a far more likely and predictable outcome than its alternative, especially on a national and international scale.  For various reasons, some people, some movements, and some nations crave disorder and chaos, and they will bring it about by whatever means come to hand, mass violence included.  In the face of the determined powers of disruption, subversion, and dislocation, libertarians need to be reminded that it takes a power to check a power.
         But libertarians don’t know how to get power.  Indeed, when it comes to getting power, they are shockingly, even jaw-droppingly inept.  They are so inept that they have never won even a single national election, not one.
         In fact, I have overstated their achievement.  It seems not to have occurred to them that even though I have never run for public office, and likely never will, I single-handedly have equaled the entire electoral vote count of Ron Paul, about whom libertarians swoon as if he were a rock star.  I have equaled him easily and without any expense at all.  Ron Paul and his supporters have invested years and millions upon millions of dollars in order to end up with me in an ignominious electoral tie: 0-0.  Clearly, if that’s what they have to show for their efforts, their time, and their money, they are doing something tremendously wrong headed.  They engage in electoral malpractice on the most spectacular national level I have ever witnessed in America.
         That failure results from following the wrong principles.  Too many libertarians prefer preserving ideological purity to practicing political prudence.  That is, they prefer to suffer defeat rather than to make smaller, incremental, steps toward their ultimate goal, steps that require what to them is compromise.  But it’s not compromise at all.  It looks compromise to them only because they seek to follow purely and resolutely the wrong methods and goal.  They need to junk their so-called ideological purity and in its place decide to make whatever incremental steps they can toward their final objective.  They ought to aim at accomplishing whatever progress is possible at the moment, however large or small it might be, thereby clawing and inching, if need be, to their intended destination.  They want to throw a touchdown pass when the best play available at this point in the game is three yards straight up the middle.
         Rather than achieving what actually can be achieved in the real world, libertarians too often banish themselves to the margins of political life by convincing themselves that they ought to sit out elections wherein the choice is between the lesser of two evils, as if a non-evil choice were ever actually possible.  There are no perfect political candidates, period.  There never have been and there never will be.  Every candidate and every platform will entail inevitable tradeoffs:  To get A, you’ll have to consent to B.  All political choices in a fallen world have been, and will continue to be, tradeoffs.  Libertarians despise tradeoffs, and seem to think that tradeoffs sully them and their movement.   But no; these tradeoffs make progress toward their ultimate libertarian goal possible.  Eschewing tradeoffs means only that you are now no closer to victory than you were when you first began.
         Victory for freedom is a tortoise and hare affair. It is faster to go slow.  It is faster to deal than not to deal.  You cannot get from here to an acceptable and preservable freedom in one ideologically pure leap, or even in six.   
         That is my first encouragement to the libertarians:  Learn how to play the game.  Learn how to win.  Learn how to get the power necessary to establish and protect freedom.
         Here is my second:  Learn that your political quest, as normally articulated, is conceptually ambiguous, perhaps even vacuous.  Learn that freedom is an incomplete concept.  You can’t be for freedom in the abstract.  You must be for, or against, specific freedoms.  When someone tells me that he or she is for freedom, I want to ask, “Freedom -- to do what?”  I must ask that question because some alleged freedoms are colossally vile, like the alleged freedom to slaughter one’s children before birth.
         I am for freedom in some cases and against it in others, just like I am for force in some cases and against it in others.  It’s simply foolish and presumptuous to be for either freedom or force in the abstract.  Real life isn’t about abstractions, but about realities.  It’s about the specifics, the details.  God, we must remind ourselves, is in the details, and so is prudent and precise political thinking.
         Don’t simply be for freedom, libertarians.   Be for this freedom or that.  To be simply for freedom is no more helpful or insightful than when liberals tell us they are for hope and change.  They need to tell us quite specifically, what they are hoping for, and what exact changes they propose.  Anything less specific is lazy and stems from a desire to spare oneself the great labor of precise conception, precise articulation, precise analysis, precise application, and precise defense.  In place of those multiple precisions is a mere ideologically based general judgment that allows lazy thinkers to take a position on insufficiently analyzed problems, or so they think.
         The lazy and the imprecise will not inherit the earth. They’ll inherit only the leftovers.    


Shaun Connell said...

Well said. This libertarian couldn't agree more.

John Moser said...

Actually, the Libertarian Party HAS received an electoral vote. In 1972 Roger McBride, a Nixon elector, cast his vote for John Hospers, the LP nominee.

Steve Griffin, D.Min. said...

Thank you for this thoughtful article.

You make several salient points, but the one I usually bump up against is this nebulous idea of "freedom." When I think of the various factions within libertarianism...I can't help but wonder: What in the world actually unifies this movement? What do I have in common with some--many--of these folks?

Could a contributing factor to the libertarians' inability to "get power" be that libertarians enjoy no real/concrete unity? What kind of unity can be built upon a foundation of nondescript "freedom"?

I voted for Ron Paul in the primary. But what becomes of the "Ron Paul Revolution" after the Ron Paul retirement? What are we left with, really?

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

Excellent! I didn't know that, John. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

John, In light of your correction, I have modified the paragraph in question. Thanks again.

David L. Russell said...

A brilliant friend of mine once said that he had a problem with Libertarianism because it embraced a form of "freedom without virtue."

Cole said...

This Libertarian does not believe that our ideals are vacuous or unobtainable. What we're left with after Ron Paul are millions of enthusiasts who look for another (such as Rand Paul) and are more informed than before. Your post seems to indicate that failed elections are failures all the way around; I don't agree. I believe that words are powerful and that words are actions. They don't always lead to offices in the short run, but I will hope for the long run.

One thing I really agree with is the notion of incremental change. Ron Paul said the same thing. He spoke in the debates of slowly changing entitlements rather than pulling the plug on 100% of them during his first year.

In the end, however, I feel that there is no way the Libertarian ideal--or really, any shade of it--will outweigh people's ability to pay no income taxes while voting others' money into their pockets. That's where we are, and that's where we'll stay. The Great Experiment is over.