March 20, 2010
The Politically Correct LibertarianBy Stephen Mauzy
To those who espouse, support, and promote the Austrian School of libertarianism, Utopia is a Rothbardian world of private property ownership, personal liberty, and exanimate government.
Unfortunately for them, and many others who list pro-liberty, the United States continues to move away from Utopia, which seems almost paradoxical. Liberty should be the road more traveled, for no other reason than it is the road easiest to travel. To pinch and bastardize a famous P.J. O'Rourke quote: "All that's needed for a civilized, free society is for everyone to mind his own business and to keep his hands to himself," which most of us do anyway. Liberty, therefore, should be the natural consequence of things.
But it is not, and the Libertarian Party is in no position to make it natural. To the contrary, the Libertarian Party is more likely to move the country farther afield from Utopia than nearer to it -- the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
The United States is a two-party political country, and that's not necessarily bad if we are going to hew the democratically officiated route. The U.S. system is more efficient than the multi-party systems of Western Europe. In the United States, political coalitions are formed before elections; across the Atlantic, they are formed after. Either way, coalitions must be formed, and coalitions demand compromise.
And therein lies the problem: the Libertarian Party is unwilling to compromise, its message being too pure and its ideology too logical. So it stands unwavering to the ideology, even if it means getting much less of what it wants instead of a little more.
To wit, in the 2000 Colorado Senate District 19 race, the Republican lost to the Democrat by 897 votes. The Libertarian, meanwhile, garnered 1,517 votes, almost all of which were redirected from the Republican. Instead of getting a near-libertarian representative, the Libertarians got a faraway Democratic one. Why is this important? The victory swung the Colorado Senate 18 to 17 in favor of Democrats, thus bestowing the new majority with the full adjunct powers of committee chairs, bully pulpits, and legislative agenda-setting.
At least the Libertarian made a difference. After all, "all politics is local," according to former House Speaker Tip O'Neill -- but Mr. O'Neil was wrong. Few aspects of our lives -- from roads, to education, to housing, to employment -- are insulated from federal diktat. So how has the Libertarian Party fared on the bigger stage? Locally, it's merely obstructionist; nationally, it's a nonentity.
In 1980, Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ed Clark received one million popular votes and no electoral votes. That was the high-water mark. In 1988, Ron Paul received 430,000 votes, which the Libertarian Party trumpeted as almost twice the total of any other "third" party. Paul still received no electoral votes. Ditto in 1996, when Harry Browne won 485,759 votes, the new second-best showing in party history. In 2000, Browne backslid to 382,892 popular votes; he garnered no electoral votes.
Has the Libertarian Party progressed in the eight years since Mr. Browne's presidential campaign? In the 2008 presidential election, former Republican Congressman Bob Barr was a one-man Libertarian Party Renaissance, capturing 523,686 votes, or 0.4% of the popular vote, supplanting Harry Browne for show position. Still, he received no electoral votes.
The reality is that third-party candidates are novelties at best and, depending on what side of the aisle you reside, spoilers at worst. Yes, John Anderson made some noise in 1980. Ross Perot did likewise in 1992, while Ralph Nader shouted in 2000, much to the chagrin of Democrats everywhere. None of them garnered a single electoral vote, either.
Libertarian Party presidential candidates should be so lucky, for they are crippled compared to the Andersons, Perots, and Naders of the world, who generally shadow big-government ideology. Libertarians are lousy at giving away other people's money because they are simply unwilling to do so -- a not-inconsequential handicap in a democracy that permits voting one's self other people's property.
It that weren't bad enough, Libertarian Party candidates have an image problem. They are perceived as cold-hearted, iron-willed, survival-of the-fittest Randians. This superhuman image frightens; it is too rigorous for generations of Americans inculcated and softened on government benevolence and dependence.
Murray Rothbard might have disagreed, arguing that the more radical the message, the better. Mr. Rothbard spoke at the 1989 Michigan Libertarian Party Convention, and he groaned that Libertarian Party candidates don't go far enough to distance themselves from the majority parties.
There are few subjects on which libertarian faithful will argue with Murray, but what he said at that convention should be one of them. In an otherwise astute speech, he glossed over an American electorate that believes that it benefits from the state and therefore is terrified of radical change that could weaken the tethers. Sure, the voting majority will embrace radicalism as long as it remains vague and distant radicalism -- hopey, and changey, and whatnot. Get specific with details and facts, and the majority scurries like cockroaches under a floodlight.
If libertarians want sustained political influence, then working within the structure of one of the two major political parties is the only alternative. No one can argue that Ron Paul has been more influential and popular as a libertarian Republican than he ever was as a Libertarian. Paul's new fame is encouraging; it shows that there's a receptive audience for libertarian ideas. Atlas Shrugged remains popular for a reason. All isn't lost.
Working within the confines of the two-party system, of course, means not getting all of what you want when you want it. But headway can still be made, especially if one is willing to adopt a reverse-Fabianist tact.
Many libertarians are philosophically opposed to Milton Friedman's school vouchers for two immediate reasons: One, government is still involved in education, and, two, subsidizing any good is market-distorting and costly. But that hasn't tinned their ears to political reality. If the only choice is between the status quo of all public education or public and private education funded by vouchers, isn't it sensible and self-interested to support the latter?
Removing that one brick offers the opportunity to remove another brick. Perhaps a decade or two down the road, the choice elevates to vouchers or eliminating vouchers and property taxes, with the savings mandated toward education. Fabians embrace the eroding power of gradualism. Libertarians should, too.
A politically independent Libertarian Party will never influence public policy to the degree that the two major parties do. That's not to say that the Libertarian Party should go away, but it should reconsider its abilities as an independent political organization.
Stephen Mauzy is a financial writer, analyst, and principal of S.P. Mauzy & Associates. He can be reached at email@example.com.