Electing "the Right People" Won't Fix Washington, DC
The 2016 presidential circus isn’t over with yet, but no matter the result it has already proven to be a frustrating electoral season for libertarians. Both Senator Rand Paul’s and former Governor Gary Johnson’s campaigns have disappointed most of their respective bases, and it now seems uncertain whether Johnson will achieve the 5% national goal the Libertarian Party to help them in future campaigns. What lessons should libertarians learn?
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that the goal of a libertarian savior riding into Washington and saving the day is an inherently foolish one. This goal overlooks how bureaucratic and indissoluble most of the Federal government has become. As opposed to Congressman Ron Paul’s Presidential campaign, which focused primarily on educating people on issues such as the Federal Reserve and blowback, both Senator Paul’s and Governor Johnson’s focused on the personal value each would bring to the White House and an implicit promise that they could make the beltway more libertarian.
But libertarians need to realize that Washington isn’t salvageable, for reasons Ludwig von Mises well understood.
While Murray Rothbard loved to hate the state, Ludwig von Mises did not. Throughout his life, Mises was a champion of liberal minarchism and believed that a watchman state was necessary for the protection of private property and individual liberty. But as an uncompromising advocate for free markets and fierce opponent of central planning, Mises was well aware of the dangers of a professional governing class isolated from accountability.
Anyone who has read his book Bureaucracy, or any other of his works related to the subject, knows the disdain Mises held for this professional class of government workers. Bureaucratic, tyrannical governments were disastrous — not necessarily due to the character of the individuals involved — but due to the stifling nature of the government bureaucracy:
The bureaucrat is not free to aim at improvement. He is bound to obey rules and regulations established by a superior body. He has no right to embark upon innovations if his superiors do not approve of them. His duty and his virtue is to be obedient.
In Planning for Freedom, Mises also highlights the perverse financial incentives within government bureaucracies, writing:
Seen from the point of view of the particular group interests of the bureaucrats, every measure that makes the government’s payroll swell is progress.
Unfortunately the sort of system Mises condemns here, along with his other writings condemning interventionist economic policies, are even more accurate descriptions of Washington today than they were when Mises was alive. The Federal government itself has not only added a whole collection of various departments, agencies, and police forces — but with such expansion we’ve seen a massive growth of lobbyists, think tanks, and other organizations that exist purely to influence government affairs in the capital.
Mises also was an advocate of democracy, not because he believed in the superiority of majority rule — but because it thought it served as an important mechanism in removing bad government leaders. While this remains largely true of our elected politicians, most of the decisions makers in Washington aren’t elected — even within the legislative branch. Meanwhile even low ranking Federal employees enjoy a level of job protection that most would be envious of.
Getting "the Right People" Won't Solve the Problem
What libertarians should take away from an honest assessment of Washington DC is that the mess we have is systemic, and not personality driven. As the disappointing record of Ronald Reagan shows, American government can’t simply be fixed by electing a politician who’s read Mises or F.A. Hayek.
Therefore, any libertarian political campaign should not be focused on the ability of an individual candidate to fix Washington, nor selling libertarianism as a centrist position of compromise between the two parties. Instead, what is needed is a populist message outing Washington itself as the problem and abolition — not reform — as the solution. Political decentralization should be the goal rather than political influence. We need a strategy that is more "Brexit," and less "Reagan Revolution."
The Federal government is never going to be fixed from within, but it can be attacked from without. The biggest gains in the drug war, for example, have come from nullification of Federal laws. The non-commandeering doctrine, which prohibits the Federal government from requiring state law enforcement from enforcing Federal law, has been employed to help combat Washington overreach on gun laws. And the most promising moves on issues like monetary policy have not come from Washington, but from state initiatives like the Texas gold bank.
This is not to say that Presidential politics is useless — after all, one common point among these movements is that much of the organizational foundation came from people who were involved in Ron Paul’s education-focused presidential campaigns. In fact, Congressman Paul’s effective populist attack of the Federal Reserve has transformed anti-Fed rhetoric into Republican orthodoxy, turning what was once considered a largely academic, “wonkish” subject into a question most Congressmen face routinely back home. But Ron Paul’s success came in making his campaign about ideas that can change the world, rather than selling himself as a figure who could do it. Ron Paul’s own election was always secondary to educating those who listened to him.
Given the track record of other approaches during this election cycle, hopefully we will see a return to Ron Paul’s issue-driven libertarianism. Because trying to “Make America Sane Again” won’t work until Americans identify the Federal government itself as the insane asylum.