I listened to the last ten minutes or so of an interview with Thomas Frank last night:
He’s a bit annoying, but if you can stand to listen to him, there’s an important message for Libertarians here. He points out that, despite the fact that many *conservatives* are good and decent people who really do believe in making government smaller and less intrusive, the Conservative political movement has *never* been about those things. From the introduction to his book:
Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we’ve come to expect from Washington.
His thesis – and I agree with him – is that Conservatism as a political movement isn’t so much about laissez-faire as it is about enlisting government on the side of business. By yielding to the temptation – and it’s a powerful one – to get a few more votes in any particular race by painting ourselves (or perhaps worse, allowing ourselves to be painted) as ‘true conservatives’, we Libertarians deeply alienate the people who see easily the naked emperor of corporate greed through the curtain of ‘constitutional conservatism’.
We also put ourselves at the REAR of a movement that is clearly at outs with perhaps the majority of the population, and certainly with the majority of youthful idealists that we must set ourselves to attract in the next decade. Our party becomes a refuge for ‘true conservative’ politicians who either can’t get elected as Republicans or (to their credit) can no longer stomach the Republican Party. We get branded as yet another “Party of Big Business” without even getting any of the money that flows so easily to both Republicans and Democrats from big business. That’s a rotten deal! And what do we gain? Not as many votes as we might expect – because as flawed a vehicle as it may be for conservative values, the Republican Party does have the thing that most conservatives really crave – political power. The Libertarian Party simply cannot offer that to voters at present, so to stay with us people need to have a strong ideological commitment and belief that real change is possible – and a reasonably long time-horizon for change. So we’ll get perhaps a few votes from disaffected conservatives looking to punish their home party or a few recruits who (again, to their credit) can no longer believe that the Republican Party shares their values. The new folks are welcome, and we should work hard to help those who can make the transition from ideological conservatism to libertarianism. But for many the gulf will be too wide to leap, because conservatism really isn’t about individual freedom. It’s about better government, not self government.
And, yes, the same criticisms and observations apply to liberalism or ‘progressivism’ (as understood in current American politics). However, at this moment the conservative movement is on the ‘outs’ in American politics. Perhaps not coincidentally, as we political Libertarians seem to have a talent for catching a wave after it’s broken, the Libertarian Party is (arguably) fully embracing the conservative label at the national level at least. If we simply wanted to jump in front of the biggest and bestest parade, calling ourselves ‘progressive’ would seem to make more sense than calling libertarianism ‘conservative’.
This tension between libertarianism and conservatism plays out large and small. At the national level, the obvious example is Bob Barr. Whether he is an example of the first sort of conservative described above (washed-up Republican politician) or the second (deeply disaffected Republican), or some combination, is irrelevant. The fact is that Barr consistently sells himself as a ‘true conservative’ and is consciously targeting voters who find John McCain too ‘liberal’. Whether he does this out of conviction or because it makes using his old fundraising lists a more attractive proposition, is again irrelevant. Already we see the weakness of this strategy – Barr is simply “McCain’s Nader” to the media. When given a chance and when isolated from fawning uber-conservatives, Barr can do a decent job of representing the libertarian position on many issues. But he will always stick at ‘conservative values’. It’s not the state’s interference in abortion or drug rights that Barr is fighting – it’s simply the federal government’s attempts to control state governments that he objects to. Since when is THAT a libertarian value? Sure, smaller, more local governments are better than a federal behemoth, and almost any Libertarian would say so. But the NEXT words out of his mouth damn well ought to be “And those smaller, more local governments MUST place individual rights at a premium.” Barr consistently fails this test, even acknowledging that he would vote against individual rights in his state, in order to further his ‘conservative values’.
But even at the local level, the flailing conservative movement is pressuring the Libertarian Party to help carry its guttering torch. In my own home district where I am running for State House, for example, there is no Republican candidate against the Democratic incumbent. So naturally I have been approached by Republicans who want my campaign to stand for conservatism against my opponent’s liberalism. These are almost universally fine and dedicated people, strong in their beliefs and welcoming to me personally and (as they see it) as a ‘fellow conservative’. I like them. I want their help in spreading my message. I want them to embrace – fully – the ideals of freedom which keep me so engaged. It is incredibly tempting to simply go along with their understanding of me as a ‘fellow conservative’. Tempting and simple. After all, I just need to avoid the ares where we disagree – the death penalty, immigration, drug legalization, to name a few – and stick to the areas where we agree. The trouble is that these issues are important to me – and, more than that – they’re a big part of what it means to be L/libertarian. What good do I do – myself or them – by collecting a few votes and failing to shake them from their comfortable notions that Libertarians are just too-trusting conservatives who think the proles should be allowed to have actual opiates, rather than just religion, as their opiate?
So whose votes – and whose loyalty – do we get by sticking to the term – and the ideas behind the term – ‘libertarianism’? The answer sounds tautologous, but here it is: libertarians, of course! Whenever I talk to 25 people in one room, perhaps as many as 23 or 24 will have decided that they are ‘conservatives’ or ‘liberals’ – and I can try to get the votes of either group by carefully casting my message to suit the audience. Of course people are not generally stupid, and a closer examination should reveal to them that I’m not really either ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’. But say several of them, for one reason or another, accept me as ‘conservative enough’ and vote for me on that basis. Their votes will not win me the election, and their interest in me – and whatever message they thought they heard from me – will quickly fade. They’ve delivered their ‘message’. But what about the one or two folks I didn’t account for above? Those are the libertarians – those who value individual freedom as a governing principle. They may not call themselves libertarian, and they may not be completely libertarian – but the germ of the idea is there. And they care! There’s nothing that moves humans to greater passion than the longing for and love of freedom. It’s pure oxygen, waiting for a spark to ignite it. If I’m carefully selling myself as a ‘conservative’, they hear blah-blah-more-of-the-same, the oxygen gets sucked out of the room, and they then associate “Libertarian” with “Republican Lite”. If I stand up and actually SAY what I mean by ‘libertarian’ and the conditions are right, the spark falls, the oxygen ignites, and another passionate activist for freedom is found. He may simply vote. He may – at that time or later – become active in the libertarian movement. But he’ll know he’s not alone, and he will know there is a mechanism – several, many! – for him to help move the freedom movement forward. And he will – finally! – actually be represented by someone he chooses to cast a vote for.
That is, incidentally – and I was not thinking of it when I started this bit of writing – the effect that hearing Ron Paul (in that room of about 25 people) had on me back in ’88. I’d like to think that Bob Barr is having that same effect on at least some folks, but I am not confident that is the case. In my campaign, though, that is what I will aim at. I will ‘preach to the choir’, because so many of the choir members don’t even yet know that they can sing.