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.