Friday, August 26, 2011

Actual Reason Why Your Mayor Isn't a Libertarian

Conor Friedersdorf has a post up giving some of the reasons that libertarians don't succeed at the local level, and why that's a problem for them as they try to win at higher levels.

Unfortunately, he misses the main reason: on the whole, libertarian views just aren't very popular.

Look, it's very, very difficult to get a real fix on what Americans "really" want. As I read it, the evidence (which mostly consists of a lot of contradictory views) is consistent with the idea that Americans would like a somewhat larger government and also with the idea that Americans would like a somewhat smaller government. But I really don't think there's any evidence at all that Americans are longing for Gary Johnson's or Ron Paul's views on public policy.

That's particularly true, alas, on the issues with which I strongly agree with the libertarians: civil liberties. Again, the specific polling is murky, but at least my reading of it is that most people's commitment to most civil liberties is very shallow indeed. Especially when it's other people's civil liberties at issue -- that is, when it's perceived that various government actions are mainly targeted at someone else.

I do think that various libertarian slogans appeal to lots of people, but that's not because they're actually libertarians; it's because most people aren't ideological at all, and respond positively to all sorts of contradictory reasonable-sounding ideas.

I'm not sure what specific political advice I'd give to libertarians, other than to retain a realistic understanding of their status as a small minority, and start strategy from that point of view. I do think that they have a chance of winning occasionally on quite a few specific issues. My guess is, however, that libertarians currently are overrepresented in the blogs and similar areas of opinion leadership, and may well be about as effective as they can be given their numbers. But that's just a guess. If I were really pressed for advice, I'd probably say to pick the issues you care most about, pick the major party closer to you on those issues, and get involved with that party, working especially to push the party towards you on those issues. Or, join or form an organized group outside of the parties working for your position on those issues. Which, of course, is pretty much the advice I would give to anyone wanting to affect public policy.


  1. Jonathan Chait has pointed out that media tends to imagine there's a large group of Americans, perhaps a majority, who believe in fiscal conservatism married to social liberalism. In reality, there are far more voters who are the exact opposite--socially conservative and economically liberal--yet for some strange reason the mainstream press doesn't seem aware this type of voter even exists. That's one of the reasons libertarians frequently overestimate the level of public opinion in their favor. It's a media framework that arises because the press's opinion makers are projecting their own ideological preferences on the public.

  2. Funny, I thought you mayor wasn't a libertarian is because almost every libertarian is deadly serious about politics. Real politics, that is, where you have to go knock of 3000 doors and ask people to vote for you and deal with their very petty concerns.

    Rather like why more political scientist aren't mayors...Wilson and Paris Glendering aside.

  3. I think Friedersdorf gets it right -- libertarians are unorganized and disengaged from politics, although Ron Paul may be starting to change that. Libertarians need to look for votes where the parties have failed to deliver on their core messages -- they can point out that Republicans are spendthrifts and Democrats are warmongers. It's hard to say just how popular that combined message might be because there's no party voice to promote it right now. But between the late Democratic peace movement and the Tea Party, there's clearly a market for what a libertarian candidate has to offer. The two party system just makes things extremely complicated for the libertarian candidate.

  4. I live in a state where libertarian candidates often get 20% of the vote in statewide elections, and the Libertarian Party is recognized as a "major" party. I use to take them seriously, but, years of listening to their arguments have made me suspect that their most consistent characteristic as a group is this; they are unusually conspiracy minded. Their faith in the ability of human beings to do ANYTHING together in a cooperative way is extremely limited, if not non-existent. That shapes their view of government -- as, in fact, a conspiracy against the individual.

    I've met many self-identified conservatives and liberals while doing volunteer work in my community. Never met a Libertarian, at least not at the Crisis Center, Cancer Lifeline or while sorting cans for the food bank.

  5. Sadly I agree about the salience of civil liberty issues. In order to care about something like torture you have to care about the ideal behind it being illegal. A lot of people probably couldn't even explain the ideas behind many civil liberties. So when the issue is framed in a manner that makes it sound like an either or; either you get your civil liberties or the country is in grave danger, its easy to trade a fuzzy idea for the feeling of security.

  6. Anonymous -- If you volunteered with me, you wouldn't know that I was a libertarian.

  7. To me, there are two practical constraints on libertarianism, the impact of which is perhaps magnified by the fact that no one ever admits either is true.

    The first: noble ideas aside, donations to a candidate or political party carry a certain contractual element, with an implied expectation of consideration. As money drives politics, libertarians find themselves in an awkward position with every possible donor group: give me money and get less for it.

    The second is more basic: many of us are libertarians with strangers, but we are probably all communist/socialists where loved ones are concerned. This is an unusual moment in history to see the truth of this second concern. As I write, there's a small chance that any/all of 4 of the Top 10 MSAs (and 5 of the Top 20) will experience devastating impacts from Hurricane Irene.

    I'd be willing to guess that everyone reading this either lives in one of those 5 MSAs or has at least one loved one in one or more of those MSAs. And further I'd guess that when you consider the metro(s) where your loved ones live, you feel extremely concerned about their preparation, their community, where the storm will go, and how the various levels of government will respond.

    And when you think of the other MSAs, the ones not housing your loved ones, you're still concerned, but its a different concern, perhaps even tinged with some guilty pleasure awe to be living through history - as long as its a history that is not too punishing for your loved ones.

    Mind you, this isn't meant to be a liberal/conservative type argument; its supposed to be a human nature argument. Because of it, I don't think libertarianism can ever be a strong national movement.

    We're mostly only libertarians where aspects of national life not impacting our loved ones are concerned.

  8. As Jonathan notes, few voters are civil libertarians, and presidents have incentives mostly to push their powers as far as possible. It would seem that those in interested in civil liberties should mostly (1) give to the ACLU, (2) cultivate elite opinion through the law schools and editorial pages and (3) seek the occasional champion in Congress.

    Which leads me to think, are there any presidents who have been particular champions of civil liberties? I could put together a top ten list of presidents for their accomplishments on civil rights (Lincoln, LBJ, JFK, Grant, Obama, Truman, Clinton, Nixon, FDR, Ike), but on civil liberties, all I can come up with are Carter, Harding, and maybe Ford.

  9. Madison. Or so argued Garry Wills, and as far as I know he's right. Only wartime president who didn't restrict civil liberties.

  10. He certainly didn't keep the Hartford Convention from meeting.

  11. CSH - I actually think libertarian issues do much better when they're personalized. Do you want a family member imprisoned for drug use? Or how about a family member sent to Afghanistan? Wouldn't it be nice to have some choice of where you educate your children? It's easy to distrust strangers (and to want to control them), but people generally trust themselves and those close to them to make their own decisions. The gay community has put this lesson to good use.

    I have nothing against the government doing disaster relief. Sorry for being obtuse, but I don't know what an MSA is.

  12. Couves - sorry to be pretentious, MSA = metropolitan statistical area...I'm not 100% sure, but I think that's what people mean when they say "metro area".

    I agree about the benefits of personalization where libertarianism is concerned. Which complicates my argument above a bit: I think we want government where our loved ones are in need, but when we are not in need, we want government to butt out, leaving us to our own devices. And then we hope that government is wise enough to know the difference.

    One other thing: I didn't mean to suggest that libertarians were indifferent to assistance for the metros not housing their loved ones: that would be ridiculous. Its just that we all tend to feel a lot more strongly about circumstances where those we care about are in jeopardy.

  13. CSH - Yes, that's a fair point. I'm sure that even most libertarians feel they pay enough taxes that they and their families are justified in benefitting from government programs. The trick is to coincide benefit cuts with tax cuts... but in our current fiscal climate, the former is unavoidable while the latter is just not going to happen.

    If I may be indulged, one of my favorite bits of social psychology is from Adam Smith (Theory of Moral Sentiments). To paraphrase: "If I told you that 100 million people just died in a terrible earthquake in China, you'd feel bad, but you'd still sleep well tonight. But if I told you that you'd lose the tip of your little finger in the morning, you wouldn't sleep all night." As you said, our empathy is limited to those closest to ourselves.

  14. Couves, the Smith quote is an outstanding add to this conversation for two, seemingly contradictory, reasons.

    On the one hand, it sets the upper limit for libertarianism (as an organized party) somewhere well below the sort of credible, third-party status that supporters surely desire.

    But then on the other, considering the proliferation of the Great Society, with a government commitment to provide a safety net for traumas with ambiguously-defined parameters, the Smith quote provides an excellent rationale for why the libertarian voice needs to be a vital and strong one in our national discourse.

  15. For Libertarians to actually have more credibility, they need to be seen and heard actually working for political liberty, personal liberty, and civil liberties.

    Maybe I'm missing it all, however, I see no particular libertarian effort against, say, the ridiculous "security theater" imposed on the traveling public by the TSA, or the continuing National Security Agency surveillance of each and every electronic communication in America. Are the Libertarians saying or doing anything as the organized Republican Party tries to deny ballot access to the poor and disadvantaged? Or are they continuing to mostly work with Republicans on all levels, apparently bamboozled by hypocritical Republican rhetoric about "small government?"

    Unfortunately, Libertarians seem mostly interested in their concepts of "economic liberty," which easily degrades to a sort of populist Ayn Rand-ism. It's ostensibly about the individual, however in practice it is all about enhancing the powers of huge corporations (as opposed to the powers of average citizens)-- huge corporations which then go on to overpower government institutions to give even more power and benefits to huge corporations.

    As an economic historian, I have several rants against the many problems of so-called "free markets" at the blog associated with my screen name, I won't repeat them here.

    But when Libertarians are mostly associated with an economic mythology that has never existed and could never succeed if it did exist, and when they continue to shuffle along in the footsteps of Republicans for the most part -- Republicans who actively work against the political and civil liberties where I might be able to ally with Libertarians if they really cared about these issues -- it just makes me more determined to do my job better: writing and speaking out to put a stake through the heart of Libertarianism, a shallow, hypocritical, mostly selfish and ignorant excuse for an ideology.

  16. CSH – My quote isn’t Smith’s actual words, just my paraphrase from memory. The actual quote is longer, but worth looking up (just text-search Theory of Moral Sentiments for “China”)

    I’m not sure there’s an upper limit for libertarians. Gary Johnson was elected Governor of New Mexico and reelected with 60% of the vote. A recent poll showed that of the Presidential candidates, he’s far and away the most popular in his home state. That’s because he’s extremely popular with independents and almost as popular with Democrats as Republicans. His positives were higher among Hispanics than any other demographic group. But the two party system divides people in a way that makes Johnson’s electoral victory difficult for libertarians to duplicate.

    philosophical-ron – If you follow Ron Paul or Gary Johnson, I think you’ll find that they are frequent critics of the TSA, warrantless searches, foreign adventurism, the war on drugs, corporatism, etc.

  17. >I could put together a top ten list of presidents for their accomplishments on civil rights

    Civil rights are bound to be more popular than civil liberties, because they concern the conditions of whole groups, such as blacks and gays. There is always great resistance to them at first, but the public usually grows increasingly sympathetic to the cause as awareness of the group whose rights have been curtailed expands.

    Civil liberties, on the other hand, usually require one to stand up for the rights of some highly unsympathetic individuals, from the Westboro Baptist Church to Al Qaeda terror suspects. It's no wonder civil liberties are mostly unpopular.

    >but on civil liberties, all I can come up with are Carter, Harding, and maybe Ford.

    A great deal of the attacks on Dukakis concerned his positions on civil liberties issues. In fact, much of the attempt to paint him as a leftist had to do with his civil libertarianism. I'm not going to argue that's the reason he lost, but it's pretty well-established that many people perceived it that way. Mainstream Democratic presidential candidates since then have taken pains to appear "tough on crime," and none has been an opponent of capital punishment. Obama is probably the first Democrat since Dukakis to run explicitly on pro-civil liberties positions, even though he's been a big disappointment in that arena as president. But he's simply reflecting what most Americans believe. Unfortunately, civil liberties are one of the most fundamental aspects of modern democracy that ought to be immune from popular will.

  18. Hmm, I actually think libertarian ideas are quite isolation.

    Ask anyone in the US about 10 issues, and almost everyone will have a libertarian position on at least one. It's the guys who go 10 for 10 that are rare and unpopular.

    My advice to those people vacillates between "You should moderate your extremist views" and "Oh just grow up already."

  19. Here's another possible take on why our mayor (in particular) is not a libertarian. Mayors in most cities have a responsibility actually to deliver public services. While I could (possibly) see a libertarian getting elected once, re-election would be a challenge. Our experience with actually privatizing things like residential trash collection and street repairs (including traffic lights; incidentally, are libertarians in favor of or opposed to traffic lights? Anyone know?) and police and fire departments is fairly small, and I suspect that it wouldn't work out well.

    Libertarians will continue to be most successful, I think, in getting elected to legislative positions. The lack of administrative responsibility is at least not so clearly a bug there, whereas it is fairly clearly a bug in administrative positions.

  20. doc -- Gary Johnson was reelected as Governor of New Mexico with 60% of the vote. And after vetoing more bills than all other Governors combined and pardoning hundreds of drug offenders, he still has the highest home-state approval rating of any Republican candidate for President.

    Lots of towns have a long history of private trash collection. Traffic lights are purely voluntary... when no one is looking ;-)


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