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It is time for agonizing reappraisal. If we Libertarians look honestly at the past national election (with the same amount of intellectual honesty that we accuse our opponents of lacking), we can come to no other conclusion than to admit that our approach to national politics has been and continues to be a dismal failure.
The idea was to attract more members that will attract more activists that will generate more revenue that will turn into more votes. If we had 14,000 members in 1996, and got a half a percent of the vote, then if we sign up 100,000 members, we should get more than five percent of the vote. And in order to get those voters, we must attract them by showing the benefits of freedom, e. g., lower taxes, rather than selling them on the abstract feature of freedom. I call this the MBA/ corporate approach to third-party politics. It sounded good. It sounded professional. It almost had me convinced for awhile. Yes, it convinced me in the same manner that my Keynesian economics professor convinced me during my undergraduate studies of economics, after studying for the seventh time the mathematical formula that “proved” the “multiplier theorem”–the Keynesian notion if you inject the economy with paper money by “priming the pump”, you can increase wealth, A theory repeated often enough and accepted by an overwhelming majority of people can almost convince even the most stubborn amongst us.
I have the utmost respect for Harry Browne. His book, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, changed my life. He is unsurpassed in presenting logical arguments. So when he presents a plan to bring success to the Libertarian Party, I’m not about to dismiss it out of hand. But that plan, as outlined above, unfortunately, has failed.
We can come up with excuses. Too close of an election . . . not getting to participate in the debates— these types of excuses if accepted will only bring us continuing failure.
If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep on getting what we always got. I believe we need to redirect our energies. Let the Republicans proceed with a utilitarian approach funded by tactics inspired by MBA-style business plans that emphasizes benefits. This approach works better in the realm of marginal successes in the realpolitik.
We are different. In my opinion, Libertarians need to continue to lay the groundwork for freedom from a fundamental, radical, natural rights position even while those of the Republican realpolitik may move us marginally closer to our goal. Our tactics for local candidacies may be different where winning is a possibility. But at the national level we need to get back to our radical, (fundamental) roots.
Selling the benefits of lower taxes is not working in an era of prosperity. Without a firm framework for a fundamental belief in freedom, people will accept whatever tax burden is presented to them as long as they have disposable income left over to spend.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and humans act in relation to incentives. When government enacts policies that are so destructive as to make earning a living, difficult, what do people in general do? Do they quit working because of a lack of incentive, or do they work all the harder and smarter to maintain a certain level of comfort?
I believe it comes down to their personal philosophical belief as to their position in relation to society. If they have a full grounding in natural rights theory and believe the individual is supreme, they may to a certain degree opt out in “Atlas Shrugged” fashion. However, if they believe they are part of the whole, or (more likely) have no conscious philosophy concerning the individual in society, then they will act according to the prevailing ideas and attitudes that permeate popular culture. If that culture is loaded with a combination of mind-numbing banal consumerism on the one hand and altruistic values (coming from both the left and the right) on the other, the people in general are unlikely to go on strike against their oppressors. They are more likely to work harder and think smarter in order to get by.
That may be what has happened with the information-age technological boom of the last twenty years. Of course, certain things needed to happen to catalyze the boom. One is the positioning of the Hank Reardon of our age, Alan Greenspan, as Federal Reserve Chairman. Another was the creation of the illusion that government was beginning to get off our backs and out of our lives. Add to this a cultural shift that encouraged mothers to stake out a place in the workplace thereby exchanging the non-monetary values of a stable, nurturing, disciplined home life for children, for a higher family income (just to stay afloat). The result has been more prosperity in a period of rising taxes (and way too many ersatz restaurants like “The Olive Garden”). And way too much “teen-age angst” (and talk of it) to boot. (I’m not making a value judgment against working mothers here. Fathers could just as easily stay home and raise the kids.)
I first recognized this correlative trend relating acceptance of taxes, and wealth when I was editing “The Madison Report” for The Heartland Institute. The Madison Report was a digest of the prevailing publications in the free market, Libertarian/conservative think-tank movement. I discovered that from studying the relative tax levels of various states, I found a correlation between the amount of disposable income available and the relative tax rates in those states. The richer the state, the more disposable income available, the more money for the government to mine in the form of taxation. It’s hard to squeeze blood out of a turnip.
The relatively rich seem to care far less about the level of taxation they endure than do the working poor and lower middle class. ( I don’t refer to the middle-middle class at all in this essay, because their numbers are dropping rapidly) The rich can afford the taxes. That is why Bush’s insipid tax cut as presented won’t pass. That is why Gold-Coast Congressmen tend to be so disappointing to us freedom-loving types. That is why Congressmen from high income states such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are so unrepresentative of freedom. That is why New Hampshire’s political landscape is quickly changing as the more well-off cyber-yuppies move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire. That state is becoming more like Massachusetts and less like its legacy. It will not be too long before they substitute their motto, “Live free, or die!,” for “Security forever.”
I do not foresee any fundamental change is this trend until we Libertarians are better at laying out fundamentals. It may be beneficial for the realpolitik Republican Party to nibble at the margins, to move us with baby steps toward a freer society. However, it does the Libertarian Party no good emphasizing benefits instead of features, taking a utilitarian approach instead of a natural rights approach. And the irony of the utilitarian approach is that it has empirically failed.
Libertarians should advocate freedom because it is the right thing to do. It is a value a priori. It is consistent with a moral state of affairs. It is the state of being that makes us really human— being free with choices, including the choice of right and wrong. Directed activity forced by the State removes the quality of being human–of making ones own choices. That is a living death.
Until the general populace understands this, they will be willing to let the State make their own choices as long as they are relatively comfortable. And they will be inventive, innovative and productive up to the point of the comfort level to which they are familiar. A fascist-socialist model that provides an adequate means of comfort in relation to the perceived needs of the populace will survive and perpetuate when viewed from a utilitarian mindset.
But what about the captains of industry, you ask? Why will they continue to lead, innovate and be productive if the incentives are not there? But the incentives are there for the captains of industry, as well as for the upper-middle class lieutenants. The captains have access to the political realm, and sometimes may even direct the political realm. In the fascist state, they make the rules so that the challenger has less chance to challenge them. Yes, the players in the captains-of-industry game do change from time to time, so that excellence sometimes does rise to the top, but at what price? If the rules of the game aren’t based on natural law or an objective morality, but on Nietzschean power, the effects of the excellence may be less than moral.
What are some of those effects?
The intrinsic value of being free is a lost notion to the man on the street. And the examples of wealth he sees, to a great extent, are those who are part and parcel of the political process. Barksdale whines and the Justice Department acts. Steve Jobs contributes and gets government contracts. Perot builds a billion-dollar empire on a Social-Security government contract and then exercises political muscle. And then we see the likes of Ben and Jerry who want to altruistically give their money away now, or Bill Gates, who wants to give it all away when he’s dead. Now the Phillip Morris Corporation proudly sells us not on the fact that they provide good tobacco, cheese, or beer, but that they are on the forefront fighting spousal abuse Yes, there are some good role models out there, but we have to really search to find them. T. J. Rogers comes to mind.
The American populace is probably the least ideological it has ever been in its history and probably the most prosperous. Selling the material benefits of freedom hasn’t worked and will not work on them until they are reeducated to the fundamental values of what it means to be free and to truly have property. The Age of Reason culminated in the American Revolution. It was the result of a fruition of ideas much more than economic circumstances. The Patriots didn’t appeal to their countrymen by promising lower taxes. They appealed to the concept of justice, “No taxation without representation.”
So Libertarians need to hold out the ideal, shining the beacon of a freedom paradigm through a reeducation process, while the Republicans can use cost and benefit analyses in Congress to nudge us marginally closer to that goal.
Libertarians must champion the Austrian-economic-model torch, grasped by an objectivist hand, while Republicans use their neoclassical-economic-model metering tools to calibrate that light in the most effective direction to illuminate the glory of freedom.
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