Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Why Libertarianism Fails

I've identified myself here as a conservative Libertarian before. I'm conservative in the broad, non-political sense of the word: I oppose change for the sake of experiment and believe that most of the "old ways" are successful for a reason. It doesn't mean I'm racist or sexist or homophobic, just very skeptical.

I'm a libertarian. I believe in the philosophy of "that which governs least, governs best." People should be as free as possible to live their own lives, free of interference. I also believe that political power should be kept as close to the people as possible. Government power at the Federal level is very broad and can be unwittingly dangerous. It should be reserved for the most basic, important things: border security, voting rights, foreign affairs.

And I'm a Libertarian, capital-L. I'm registered and voting as a member of the Libertarian Party, though I often find myself voting for Republicans in a pinch, and once in a very blue moon, the occasional Democrat. But my political philosophy finds its best expression in the Libertarian Party.

However. I'm permanently distressed with my Party. It seems the ideologues control the heart of the party, more concerned with purity of expression than achieving electoral or political success. Better we should stand there in our unstained white robes than we should kneel down in the mud to get something done.

I hate that. I've taken to calling myself a "gradualist Libertarian." I believe we should start where we find outselves and figure out the first steps to take to get us where we want to go. That means, for instance, you don't go calling for the legalisation of prostitution the day after Election Day, or the abolition of the IRS as an unconstitutional fantasy perpetrated on the American public. You don't tell people that, if elected, you're going to get rid of welfare, Social Security and education grants immediately. Or recall all American troops from everywhere around the planet, first thing, damn the consequences. The vast, overwhelming majority of Americans just aren't ready to hear that! They'll at best think you're eccentric; at worst, a full-on nut who doesn't live in the real world.

Because those actions would have profound, wide reaching, and seriously dangerous consequences. That's their problem is the oft-heard refrain from certain Libertarian quarters. It only reinforces the perception of libertarians as "to hell with you, this is about me" people. I've never understood libertarianism that way. To me, libertarianism means you don't have the government force you or others into caring about your friends, neighbors and community. You must learn it for yourself and put it into practice for yourself. No government agency is going to fix what's wrong in your community, you have to go out and do it yourself.

Few Libertarians act that way. It's all about the ideological purity and the triumph of principle. For example, take the Libertarian Party's nominee for President in 2004 -- Michael Badnarik. He stood before the nominating convention and pledged that one of his first acts would be to call a special session of Congress where he would give a lecture on proper Constitutional and American history to the legislators, and then make them sign a pledge to uphold the principles he'd just taught them.

Yeah, that was a distressing moment. Forget the constitutional issue of separation of powers, can you just imagine that scenario flying for even a micro-second in today's world? Neither can I. And yet, he was our nominee. And I voted for him.

What I desperately wish would happen is that sensible people would take control of the party. I'd even accept a Ross Perot-style, neo-libertarianish third party, one based on libertarian principles that takes a "we start here, aimed there" approach. Lay out a few simple, beginner steps like limits on government growth and the elimination of certain, specific government agencies. Making serious efforts to pay down the Federal debt. Removing troops from certain, specific, clearly unneccesary places. Re-examining the tax code with an unwavering eye to simplification.

Don't drag everyone kicking and screaming, bewildered and frightened, into Libertarian Wonderland. Don't shove it down their throats. Instead, take important issues where there's wide acceptance and give a light libertarian push. For now.

That's what Democrats have done for ages, and you can see how it's worked for them. If you study American history, you'll see that people's attitude to government has changed pretty dramatically in 150 years. They were clear from the get-go in the 20th century that they wanted a socialist worker's paradise. But whenever they faced strong opposition, they backed away, muted their talk, and went for the incremental change instead.

Remember welfare reform in the Nineties? The original push was to eventually abolish it. But President Clinton grabbed the issue and trumpeted it for himself, even though his party vilified him for it. For a while. Now, here we are ten years later and no one is talking abolishing welfare any more. Clinton gave the issue just enough of a push to take it off the front burner. And we still have welfare today, with no effort anywhere in sight to abolish it any more. Clever, huh?

Of course, as the Founders clearly saw and understood, once the people see their government as the source of whatever they need but can't get for themselves, they tend to view the public treasury as their own purse. They will start to vote themselves all sorts of bounty. More and more of the people will become dependent on that largesse; it will sap the public vigor. You will lose your nation of self-determining adult individuals to a great, formless mass of the lazy and sullen adolescents. Sound familiar?

What prompted this tirade cum lecture was this post from Wintermute on his blog, The Daily Docket. Wintermute is someone I've been reading both here in comments and elsewhere on the Internet. I'm not picking on him, nor should he feel defensive. It's just that the linked post is emblematic of what I despair of in the Libertarian Party.

He starts out with this:
These self-styled little-L "libertarian" interventionist warmongers seem to me little more than neoconservatives who smoked a little pot growing up. As an early big-L Libertarian....
He's picking up the thread of libertarianism that states that use of force to persuade is always wrong. America should not be off traipsing around the world involving ourselves in the affairs of other parts of the world and other nations, unless that problem will directly impact the safety and security of America herself.

It's a slippery slope. George Washington implored his countrymen to avoid entangling alliances, to be friend to all and enemy to none. By that light, Vietnam was unquestioably wrong; it was imperialist. Kosovo (remember that war?) was also wrong. We had no business fighting Europe's police action for them. But the NATO alliance called us into it. Which means the NATO alliance is also wrong and should be abolished.

By Libertarian lights, we might possibly, possibly, have been able to justify action against Afghanistan, but never against Iraq. It would be yet another step on the road from Republic to Empire. (You can learn more about that concept by reading around on Jerry Pournelle's blog.

Of course, the Libertarian path during World War II would likely have resulted in America stopping her involvement once we'd subdued Japan. There would likely have been no occupation or new constitution written by us. Germany was no direct threat to us until late in the war. And we likely would have confined our actions in Europe to economic and sub-rosa military aid (ie. Lend Lease) to those nations who specifically asked for it. Would we have honored a request to stop aiding the Resistance in France by the Vichy government? Frightening to contemplate how Libertarian purity would've answered that. Imagine a Europe-wide Germany with wide-ranging control of the Atlantic, via subs, Me262 jet fighters patrolling the skies, and the new A-10 intercontinental missiles aimed at our East Coast.

Anyway, back to Wintermute's post. He refers us back to the Libertarian Party plank that deals with the Iraqi War. Here's the relevant section on Transitional Action:
Voluntary cooperation with any economic boycott should not be treated as a crime. End all limitation of private foreign aid, both military and economic. Repeal the Neutrality Act of 1794, and all other U.S. neutrality laws, which restrict the efforts of Americans to aid overseas organizations fighting to overthrow or change governments. End the incorporation of foreign nations into the U.S. defense perimeter. Cease the creation and maintenance of U.S. bases and sites for the pre-positioning of military material in other countries. End the practice of stationing American military troops overseas. We make no exceptions to the above.
That's the transitional action! Not the goal, but the midpoints on the way to the goal.

You see why I despair, I hope. Do I think we should have gone into Iraq? I'm not persuaded. But the duly elected leader of our nation set us on this path and the Congress backed him. (The War Powers Act needs to be abolished. That's for sure.) I do understand his goal and eventual aim in the Middle East. But I don't think forcibly remaking this nation as an example to others, when it's not a clear and direct danger to America was called for. (Don't start up with the WMD claims. Anyone who counts thought they existed, or at least was pretty fearful they did and didn't want to find out for sure.)

Having done the deed, we don't just bail and wish the Iraqis "good luck!" As someone said, "You broke it; you bought it." We started down a path we cannot retreat from.

Again, anyway. I don't want to digress into a discussion of the War. What I want is to highlight that Wintermute's suggestion doesn't fly. It leaves chaos for others to clean up. We can't do that.

What we can do is this: Start in Europe by slowly backing away from NATO. Europe is becoming a sovereign nation, let them act like it. We subsidise their military by extending our's to cover them. They use the savings to finance their lavish social safety net. We should begin removing troops and closing bases. Let the Europeans defend themselves.

Finish the job we started in Iraq, then remove all but a garrison force from the country, which we should plan on keeping there for the near term. Say ten years.

Allow, as Wintermute notes, private Americans to support people like George Soros, whose Open Society movement has been successful in toppling totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet sphere, and democratising other nations in the area. It's a model to study, though one open to abuse as when Soros plugged tens of millions of dollars into American politics to topple Bush.

Grrrr.... This post has gone on way too long, dissembled, and now has all kinds of dangling threads trailing off from my main point. Which, restated, is this: The way to get success for the Libertarian Party is to propose and execute small steps, reasonable things, not announce and demand a total upheaval beginning tomorrow.

Water roaring against a granite mountain all at once, gets diverted. The same volume, in steady drops, will eventually, gradually, wear it down.

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