Rethinking Libertarian Success

Yesterday I asked if libertarianism has failed as a political theory. The question is merited: in a world where government is involved in everything from health care and education to “saving” for your retirement, and where government involvement is increasing, one has to wonder why the libertarian movement has not been able to move the needle in the right direction.

Despite this pessimistic review of the lack of libertarian accomplishments, the answer to yesterday’s question is actually: No.

The libertarian movement has not failed. But its list of accomplishments is way too short. If all libertarians share the common goal of saving – and restoring – individual and economic freedom, then our combined efforts thus far have missed the target by a big margin. If we are going to reach the ultimate goal of a minimal state with a maximum of freedom, we need to reboot our operations and get back to work, but do so under two very important conditions.

Before we get to the two conditions, though, let us acknowledge what is actually on the list of libertarian accomplishments. Globally, the movement helped bring down the Soviet empire. It provided moral inspiration to liberty-minded people from Greifswald to the Black Sea. Economic literature on free-market Capitalism were studied behind the Iron Curtain long before the Wall fell in Berlin. Even Robert Nozick, who himself had Polish ancestry, influenced thinkers and inspired people to challenge the prevailing communist order.

Domestically, though, the accomplishments in Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America were more of a temporary nature. They are in fact difficult to see today. The United States reaped the harvests of the Reagan tax cuts all the way through the 1990s, but unrelenting growth in government spending eventually neutralized and overwhelmed the positive effects of the tax cuts.

In retrospect, the Reagan era and its surge in the intellectual, political and economic pursuit of liberty looks less and less like a corner turned in modern American history. In the context of the decades before and after his presidency, Reagan appears to have inspired a temporary halt to, but not a termination of, a very long trend of welfare statism.

The first condition for future success is that libertarians revise their political methodology. the need for revision is well explained by the Niskanen Center, a newly founded libertarian think tank in Washington, DC. In their conspectus, declaring their raison d’etre, the Center explains:

Despite having invested tremendous time, energy, and resources in achieving political change, libertarians have produced little policy change. Of the 509 significant domestic legislative policy changes since World War II, more than half (265) expanded government while only four percent (20) contracted government. When policymakers act, they have, on balance, acted to expand state power.

 They also analyze the “mechanics” of policy change in Washington, DC and how libertarians, despite major investments, thus far have failed to correctly identify and successfully use those mechanics to turn libertarian ideas into legislative practice.

In addition to misunderstanding the legislative mechanics, libertarians have also failed to fully comprehend the nature of government spending. This brings us to the second condition for future success. The Reagan-era tax cuts were accompanied by 7+ percent annual federal spending increases; the George W Bush administration repeated the pattern, combining tax cuts with 6.7-percent annual spending increases. The libertarian movement has failed to fully comprehend the reasons behind, and the complexity of, those spending increases. Therefore, they have lost the debate over government spending to the welfare statists.

This is a general observation; there are bright exceptions to it who pursue actionable reforms to welfare-state entitlement programs. But they are just that – exceptions. Their voices are simply not strong enough to set the tone for the libertarian movement in general. Instead, libertarians tend to fragment their analysis and policy approach, and in too many cases they leave the entitlement sector of our society altogether. Those who do tend to end up fighting the battle of eclectic flea killing, a.k.a., legalization of recreational drugs.

While some libertarians turn on, tune in a and drop out of the fight for economic freedom, the welfare state eats its way deeper into the flesh of the free market. The time to change course is now – and it begins with:

a) following the advice of aforementioned Niskanen Center, i.e., revising the political methodology and learning to master legislative mechanics; and

b) studying and intellectually conquering the welfare state.

I cannot stress enough how important the second condition is. Libertarians in general – again, there are exceptions – dismiss the welfare state by saying either that “just cut spending darn it” and the welfare state will go away; or by refocusing on issues that are not as intellectually intimidating or hard to navigate in terms of policy and actionable reform legislation.

In other words, there is an enormous amount of work to be done. But all is not lost. On the contrary, looking at the young generation in this great country, there are glimmers of hope. A fledgling libertarian grassroots movement has risen as a result of the Tea Party reaction. It consists for the most part of regular Americans whose interest in politics and willingness to become activists are fueled by clearly visible government over-reach.

More specifically, the Obama presidency is actually a gift to the libertarian movement. After having promised “hope” and “change” and rallied millions of young voters and activists, the 44th president burdened job creators with massive regulations that made it very difficult for young workers and professionals to find jobs; he put health insurance out of reach for many of those who got jobs; and he vigorously defended government surveillance programs, invading the electronic integrity of a young generation who takes the privacy of their cell phones as seriously as the privacy of their own pockets.

Young voters turned away from Obama in his re-election bid. Thanks only to an unbelievably out-of-touch Romney campaign, Obama managed to prevail. But this has not made disappointment among the young go away – on the contrary. When today’s 20-somethings look at the career opportunities their parents had, and when they know that the government is intercepting and storing their text messages, their minds are open to arguments on government over-reach, individual freedom – and libertarianism.

The growing interest in individual liberty is a promising platform for a renewed effort to end America’s slow but steady transformation into a European welfare state. High school and college students are flocking in growing numbers to internships and educational offerings by liberty-promoting organizations. Dedicated donors provide financial support, and sharp minds at think tanks and advocacy groups can turn that money into intellectual firepower.

Only two pieces are missing. One of them is the right use of the legislative mechanics. Explains Niskanen Center president Jerry Taylor, whose operational credo “terrain dictates tactics” sets the prelude for his verdict:

The political terrain could not be clearer. Despite our best efforts, America is a center-left nation. Libertarians constitute no more than 5 percent of the public. And if a Republican manages to win the White House in 2016, the recent erosion in the public support for more government will almost certainly reverse.

Europe’s record is even more disappointing. Anyway, Taylor continues:

Until some political tectonic plate shift occurs, radical libertarian policy change is not in the cards. Repealing the Great Society, much less the New Deal, is unlikely. Business regulation of some sort is not going away. The EPA, FCC, SEC, etc. will not be abolished. Less radical improvements in public policy are possible. But to do that, we need to stop making “the better” the enemy of “the best” and cease complaining that the former commits the unpardonable sin of “compromising on principle.” By definition, advocating anything short of the night watchman state “compromises on principle,” and the night watchman state—for now anyway—is a fantasy.

While Taylor unintentionally overlooks the rekindled interest in libertarian ideas during the Obama years, he is correct in that the road from today’s welfare state to the night watchman state is long and littered with road bumps and uphill battles. But if libertarians can intellectually conquer the welfare state, and if they can learn to master the legislative mechanics that Taylor points to, then no road bump or uphill will stand in their way.