The Sober Political Reality for Libertarians
Ed: The following is an excerpt from a talk given by Mises Institute president Jeff Deist at the 2016 Texas Libertarian Party convention. This portion of the talk deals with the political reality faced by libertarians and the Libertarian Party. The full talk can be viewed here.
So what do I mean by better understanding and accepting reality? What I mean is this: libertarians should understand the numbers, and tailor goals and expectations accordingly. First, recognize that America is no longer a country of natural or reflexive libertarians which it once was—to put it mildly.
Sometimes we forget that the 20th century was the progressive century, because progressivism has become part of the landscape. Central banking, adventurous foreign policy, income taxes, Social Security, Medicare, welfare programs, housing programs, food stamps—all of these would have sounded outrageous to most Americans at the turn of the 20th century. By the turn of the 21st century, all of these progressive programs were entrenched. They are merely the baseline for the next program. Both major parties are thoroughly and irretrievably progressive.
The entrenched mindset, the default position in American politics today is for government to “do something.” This is the activist view of the state—held by both Democrats and Republicans—that no area of human activity is not the state’s business.
We can blame pandering politicians for this, we can blame the cronyist patronage system, we can blame mainstream media and government schools for this—and they are all to blame. But it doesn’t change the fact: most Americans are now reflexively progressive, meaning they want government to do something, rather than reflexively libertarian.
This explains so much. As I mentioned, the internet and social media have been great levelers. But they also tend to create echo-chambers, where we all live in bubbles of content tailored to fit our viewpoint. We live in bubbles on friends who share that viewpoint.
That’s why a few million dedicated people can feel like a huge movement online—we saw this during Ron Paul 2012—but have little impact on electoral politics. When libertarians are scattered around 50 states, their political impact is severely diluted.
Let’s also not forget that America is much larger than it was when the Libertarian Party began in 1971. The US was 207 million people then, compared to nearly 320 million people today. This raises an uncomfortable question: has the population grown faster than interest in libertarian ideas has grown?
It’s also important to accept the extent to which the two-party system has locked down certain deep advantages at every level of government. We’re not just talking about ballot access laws or campaign finance rules that benefit those parties.
We’re talking about a bicameral federal legislature that is fundamentally structured to maintain the status quo. The Constitution simply says that the US House and Senate may determine the rules for their proceedings. The Constitution simply says that a census for apportioning representatives will be taken every 10 years. The Constitution simply gives Congress power over the time, place, and manner of elections.
It says nothing about political parties, or congressional committees, or congressional leadership, or gerrymandering, or how campaigns are financed.
But today we have this incredible system of party power and party apparatus that doesn’t allow for a single Libertarian, Green, Peace & Freedom, or any other third party in Congress. Not a single one, in a country of 320 million people! Think about that.
Now I’m not particularly enamored of the Constitution. My point here is that the parties have set up a wildly extra-constitutional system of patronage for themselves, using the legislative process to funnel money and power to themselves. The political class is not going to be persuaded to this all up in the face of superior libertarian arguments!
I think we’d be far better off today with a parliamentary system, at least it would allow for minority parties, strategic alliances, and coalition building.
My point here is not to discourage anyone, but rather to counsel acceptance of the numbers and the facts and make tactical decisions based on that reality.
And there are bright spots. For example, a 2014 Gallup poll suggests that roughly 24% of Americans could be characterized as libertarian, in a category distinct from conservatives, liberals, and populists.
My own highly unscientific opinion is that perhaps a quarter of the US population is sympathetic to libertarian ideas- regardless of how the identify themselves, and regardless of how they vote. Perhaps 5% to 10% of the population is actual libertarians, people who agree to a large extent with the idea of serious reductions in the size and scope of government.
So take heart, knowing that we’re still talking about 10 or 20 or 30 million people. That’s quite a vanguard, and if history is any guide, vanguards are just that: a small but highly influential and highly energized group of individuals who lead new developments and new ideas. Take heart, but be realistic about the numbers and the system itself. It’s OK to have modest short-term goals, and it’s OK if progress is slower than we’d like. Not everybody sees the world the way we do. Progressives have built their political victories over 100 years! It may not be popular, but every great society was built by people with time horizons beyond their own lifetimes.