Wednesday, January 30, 2008

But Do They Want Freedom for You?

Here's my latest editorial, which appears in the February issue of California Freedom:

In the late 1970s, New York radio host Bob Grant griped, "The American people have a peasant mentality. What they really want is fascism. They just don't want to call it fascism."

Conversely, some libertarians (sounding more like motivational speakers than political philosophers) brag that we have the most popular "product" in politics -- liberty! They cite the many people who score "libertarian" on the Nolan chart, then blame our dismal vote totals on "poor marketing"; all we need are candidates with the expertise to "sell liberty" in the "marketplace of votes."

I worry that Grant has the more accurate worldview. The Nolan chart overestimates our numbers. The chart is effective at marketing, but not at market research. It entices people into investigating the LP, but most of its questions (so far as I've seen) practice push-polling. Most Nolan chart questions are phrased so respondents will more likely fall into the libertarian quadrant by asking people about their own freedoms.

Well, most people think they should be free to do whatever. That's not a problem. Rather, threats to liberty have historically come from people who (1) want their liberty subsidized, or (2) don't trust others with liberty.

If asked, Should you or the government choose your doctor?, most people would score libertarian. But if they are instead asked, Should government health care funding increase so that you can afford the doctor of your choice?, many of those "Nolan chart libertarians" would now score "liberal." Likewise, while most people think they can choose wisely about owning a gun, taking drugs, paying for sex, sending their child to school, etc., fewer trust their neighbors with those decisions.

Libertarians often speak of government as if it were an alien being with a life of its own, apart from the people. Yet people (great and small) get political power, economic favors, salaries, "private" contracts, entitlement checks, etc. from the State. Socialism-imperialism is sustained by people who believe (often correctly) that they're better off with the State than they'd be under freedom.

How many people want liberty for themselves, much less for you? Consider two examples:

In 1994, Newt Gingrich led a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, winning votes with his libertarian-sounding Contract With America. And he delivered! Gingrich made a sincere attempt to push his "libertarian lite" agenda into law, resulting in the 1995 government shutdown when President Clinton refused to sign the GOP Congress's slightly smaller budget.

Remember what happened next?

Only a tiny portion of government shut down, yet people panicked! Polls indicated that most Americans blamed Gingrich for the shutdown (as if it were a bad thing), and that they thought his "libertarian lite" budget was "extremist." And so, politically crippled by an uneducated, statist electorate, Gingrich gave up on liberty.

In 2003, Arnold Schwarzenegger promised smaller government when running for governor of California. And he delivered! Twice! First, by taking his "libertarian lite" reforms to the state legislature. After the legislature rejected them, he took his reforms directly to the people via four 2005 ballot propositions.

And the people rejected them!

I'm not saying that Gingrich or Schwarzenegger are libertarians. But both men made authentic (if slight) attempts at advancing liberty -- and the people threw liberty back into their faces. Whereupon both men gave up and fully embraced statism. (Why not? These men represent political parties, so it's natural that they focus on "getting votes.")

It seems Grant was right. Americans love the rhetoric of liberty, yet they get nervous when the chains loosen. No wonder they keep re-electing politicians who talk freedom and deliver slavery.

Many people want their "liberty" paid for by the State. Or they want "liberty for me but not for thee." The State needn't hide its outrages; the people are complicit. Radio shock jocks play "Don't taze me bro!" for laughs. Water boarding has ardent fans. So does NSA wiretapping. ("Hey, if someone's got nothing to hide...") Years ago, Liberty reported about a young man imprisoned on a marijuana charge, who contracted AIDS from prison rape and died. Yet comedians joke about prison rape because audiences think it's hilarious.

"Liberty for me but not for thee." Not principled, but certainly pragmatic.

That's why the term "liberty maximizing" (used in some LP circles) discomforts me. It sounds ominously utilitarian. The greatest liberty for the greatest number. What's wrong with that? Well, it can lead to unprincipled, anti-individualist policies. If you eliminate all taxes on 99% of the people by increasing taxes on the remaining 1%, you've a "net gain" in liberty -- very "liberty maximizing" (too bad for the unfortunate 1%). Likewise, if you "liberate" ten million people by napalming 100,000, some may judge that to be "the greatest liberty for the greatest number" -- tough cookies if your daughter was among those burnt to a crisp.

Our problem is not marketing a popular "product"; it's that many people don't even know what liberty is. That liberty does not entitle one to subsidies. That liberty is not democracy; just because a majority voted for it, and it's legal, does not make it moral. That liberty demands you respect the rights of others -- even of foreigners and "bad people."

I am baffled by Libertarians who attack Schwarzenegger for expanding government, yet who want to ignore political education in favor of "getting votes." If an uneducated electorate thought Gingrich and Schwarzenegger's tepid agendas were "too extreme," then how much more so must the LP compromise to compete for votes?

Of course, we can run candidates on those pro-liberty issues that are already popular with most voters (such as ending the war -- thank God most Americans do not see the war as "liberty maximizing"). But if we are to "get votes" without selling out, we must change the culture through educational election campaigns, and the arts, and any other means available. Otherwise, even if we are elected to office, the people will block our reforms.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Steve Kubby Invites Me on His Radio Show

Last Friday, January 4th, I was a guest on Steve Kubby's Blogtalk Radio show. He and I, and Richard Cowan, discussed the Ron Paul phenomenon and the upcoming presidential election.

We pretty much agreed on all the big issues. The importance of putting principle and liberty first, ahead of party politics. And that the Ron Paul phenomenon is a good thing for libertarians.