Libertarianism’s Limits: Political or Theoretical?

At AmCon, James Banks gives his take on the Christopher Beam piece in New York magazine on libertarianism. Like many other critics of the piece, Banks believes Beam focuses too much on the fringes of the movement. However, Banks still argues that libertarianism has inherent “limits”:

[I]t is still difficult to imagine a robust libertarian movement in the United States (at least in a form of which the Cato or Independent Institute would fully endorse). Libertarians might have the best ideas when it comes to the legalization of marijuana, the TSA, or the Federal Reserve. A central problems for libertarians is one of outreach rather than policy… The larger problem for libertarians, though, is more substantive: because they are so vigilant in their opposition to expansive government, libertarians often end up overemphasizing its significance. This mistake does not show up in their specific policy proposals, however, and thus libertarian institutions that emphasize policy over political activism fare better; libertarian politics, however, often end up embodied in initiatives like the Free State Project that have difficulty germinating into a mass movement.

It’s hard to know what to make of this critique, which I hear frequently from both left and right. Libertarians are politically inept, supposedly. In this variant, libertarians are good at making their case for specific policies, which certain politicians may pick up piecemeal, but they can’t create “mass movements.”

I think there are two things to say about this. First, political ineptness on the part of libertarians doesn’t have anything to do with the validity of the ideas. It’s unclear whether Banks himself makes this argument, but I have often heard variants of the argument: “You libertarians are just so far out of the mainstream; I can’t see how your views could possibly be right.”

Second, I question whether the lack of a libertarian “mass movement” is libertarians’ fault and whether libertarians really are all that politically inept. Libertarianism is still a relatively new ideology and by all accounts one of the most successful new ideologies in the U.S., other than perhaps the green movement (and I would argue that the green movement’s close alliance with standard-issue liberalism has set that movement back significantly). Breaking out of standard left-right thinking requires close attention to politics and, more importantly, political theory. That is not something that the vast majority of voters will ever undertake. Given the inherent limitations of a rationally ignorant electorate, libertarians actually seem to have outsize influence on public policy and electoral politics.

The example of the Free State Project helps make the point. The FSP was never intended to be a “mass movement” across the country as a whole. Rather, it was (is) aimed at highly self-conscious, activist libertarians who wanted to make a bigger political difference in their lifetimes. The FSP recruits these people to the state that the FSP membership has chosen, New Hampshire. The FSP actually doesn’t undertake any political activities in New Hampshire as an organization, but individual migrants do. And in fact we do see an emerging libertarian/classical liberal “mass movement” in New Hampshire. The NH Liberty Alliance is one of the most influential public-interest lobbies in the state, the NH Republican Liberty Caucus is one of the strongest state affiliates in the country and recently elected a state senator, at least a dozen self-consciously libertarian state representatives have been elected (that’s the tally of FSP movers alone) and one of them is now in state house leadership, and in a recent 2012 presidential poll 7% of NH Republicans and independents volunteered Ron Paul as their most likely choice, fifth out of the field, ahead of Pawlenty, Barbour, and Santorum. Is libertarianism the dominant ideology of New Hampshire? Of course not. But a strong movement exists. We shouldn’t expect most Americans to be activist libertarian ideologues, but then, we shouldn’t expect most Americans to be activist conservative, liberal, or green ideologues either.

6 thoughts on “Libertarianism’s Limits: Political or Theoretical?

  1. It’s been kind of hard for me to really discern how much pull libertarian thought has in this country. On the one hand, I’m still pretty young – so I know I don’t have much relative context to go by as to what role they’ve played comparatively from year to year, etc.. I’ve always had an underlying feeling (suspicion?) that many of the non-libertarians who do libertarian handshaking are often doing it for political expediency.

    Many liberal outlets have an open door policy (or at least a _more_ open door policy) with libertarian guests and points of view in general when they are out of power. Likewise, conservatives often seem more agreeable to conversation with libertarians when they’re on the outs. In some ways the Tea-Party movement reflects this. On the one hand, libertarians seem to have issues with portions of the ideologies of both parties, so of course those out of power will sympathize with our views when we’re criticizing their political opposition. This kind of hand-shaking also might have some other political advantages – maybe Democrats and/or Republicans feel/look more open-minded when they meet eye-to-eye with people coming from a different political platform. Maybe they feel it furthers an argument that there is some kind of political consensus (“Look, even libertarians agree…”).

    Of course, that isn’t to say that libertarians don’t legitimately agree with either major party on any given issue – we obviously do sometimes (even if for different reasons). But whenever it feels like we’re having an almost “libertarian” moment, I’m always hesitant to think that it really means that the country is actually becoming more libertarian. And you would think (given the Tea-Party’s success) that right now would feel like one of those moments – yet I can’t help but be struck by the predisposition to believe it’s largely a movement against _this_ government as opposed to government in general. The eight years previous to Obama certainly didn’t make many of the now-Tea-Partiers look to sympathetic to libertarian values. But I suppose I can’t discount the possibility of political awakening either. I suppose we’ll just have to see.

  2. How would you differentiate “Libertarianism is still a relatively new ideology” vs. the interchangeable use of “libertarian/classical liberal” in the next paragraph? One thinks of the Country’s founders as “classical liberals” and they’ve never really disappeared, be they Grover Clevelands or H. L. Menckens (both men popular in their time).
    Or are we just talking about those engaged in published political chatter? – it’s only through random chance that Horatio Bunce’s deep classical liberalism is known to history; one might expect undescribed libertarianism to be more pervasive outside political circles. Certainly the raw number of libertarian activists is now at a local maximum, but relative to the population, what does today look like vs., say, a random sample from the 1820’s?
    It can be argued that the bulk of the 20th Century in the US was a devastating blow to those principles (and perhaps supportive of the ‘ineptness’ argument).

    1. “It can be argued that the bulk of the 20th Century in the US was a devastating blow to those principles (and perhaps supportive of the ‘ineptness’ argument).” – I think this is a particularly interesting point in context. And I would say the predisposition of many libertarians (and particularly previous to 2008) was that things were generally getting worse over the last century…in the political sense.

      Although, on the other hand, some have argued that the 20th century was also a boon to freedom in many ways (especially in regards to loosening the cultural/political grip of religious/racial influences, etc.). You could maybe point to the womens’ suffrage movement, the civil rights movement of the 60’s (although some would argue some bad things came out of this as well), the anti-war backlash of Vietnam, and a healthy national debate over issues like abortion, drug use (this one has gone both ways), and gay marriage. Heck, some libertarians (particularly many divorced from more conservative leanings) saw things like Constitutional incorporation as a net-gain for individual liberty – although there is obviously the long-term question of federalism and the centralization of government power to contend with.

      I suppose you can really twist the argument in either direction, depending on where you’re coming from.

  3. cross – It’s true that government continues to grow, although in most instances my impression is that the reason for it is the usual explanation of interest group pressures, rather than anti-libertarian or anti-market ideology. The PPACA is a notable exception, however.

    Bill – That’s a very fair point. Classical liberalism has been around a long time. However, from the 1820s to the 1970s classical liberalism was a very marginal element of the American political debate. Abolitionists & gold standard supporters tended to be protectionists who favored a national bank, and so on. Britain had much more of a mass libertarian movement (the Whigs/Liberals) in the 19th cent. than the U.S. did.

  4. I’m curious, given your comments, what your opinion is of the claim of systemic bias among the electorate – proffered by people like Bryan Caplan in The Myth of the Rational Voter.

    He seemed to believe that although we often think of policy as being affected in this way (small interest groups with large political pull) the electorate really does have an anti-libertarian bias in many regards (he doesn’t specifically call it an anti-libertarian bias…he breaks it into anti-market bias, make-work bias, etc.). To support his claim he points to several issues (protective tariffs, agricultural subsidies, etc.) where we often think of policy being hoisted upon us by interest groups but for which data shows that the American electorate has overwhelming opinion on (in the pro-subsidy/protectionism direction). I think one of the specific ones he harps on is a something like 85% public approval (in general) for agricultural subsidies.

    I’m not saying that he is correct, or that special interest groups don’t have a large effect on policy. But there are obviously some conclusions (specifically economic ones) that the American public doesn’t _seem_ to come to. On some issues I’m sure it’s a matter of a difference in extremes – but on other issues (subsidies, tariffs, trade-restrictions) it seems they often come to completely different conclusions.

  5. I think the bias on most policy questions that Caplan deals with, such as trade, comes largely from interest group pressure. Voters don’t have the time & inclination to research the economic consequences of public policies for themselves, so it’s easy for organized interests to pass around specious arguments that people believe – even though they go against their own interests. Caplan himself admits that what he calls voter “irrationality” really just means that voters have preferences over policies as such, regardless of how those policies should affect them.

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