Know Thine Enemy: Political Ignorance and Libertarianism

Three stories illustrate my own political ignorance. First, I’m walking down what I think are secret hallways in the Capitol building, at least where normal tours aren’t allowed to go. I’m with a Republican aide, who’s leading me to a bitcoin ATM demonstration for members of Congress and telling me where I am and where we’re going. I understand very little of it, but am too embarrassed to ask for further clarification.

Later, I’m at dinner with a lobbyist for a major corporation and a woman who is damn near running a super PAC for a likely presidential nominee, despite not having graduated from Georgetown yet. I tell them, in a certain tone, that “corporations own the parties anyway.” And he tells me to wait a minute. His corporation, along with its competitors, all rallied very hard for three major policies and failed to get all three, thanks to grassroots opposition. I’m shocked. Oddly, on these issues I would have wanted the corporations to win. But I’m heartened at the thought that grassroots opposition to corporate interests could prevail.

Last, I edit op-eds written by young libertarians at my organization. Pretty regularly one will write a piece which betrays a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of the ideas he or she is trying to take down. The latest was on egalitarianism, which seems to be on par with devil worship according to the piece.

I’ve been a libertarian for years. And for years I’ve approached learning the ins and outs of the political process kind of like an abolitionist might view learning the inner workings of a slave plantation. Which is to say that I find it repugnant, and to be avoided if at all possible. And it’s been kind of shockingly possible for me to establish myself as a kind of professional libertarian without ever learning how the monolith I’m trying desperately to destroy actually works. I’ve been in it, around it, I’ve talked to its operators, I’ve covered it for the national news media and I’ve been on television devoted to covering it. And yet, at the end of the day, I still don’t get it.

I write this because I don’t think I’m alone. And I think this collective knowledge gap hurts the cause of shrinking or eliminating government in three main ways. First, it may be that ignorance of the political process is keeping principled libertarians from involving themselves, if only to offer analysis and critique, in the day-to-day sausage-making. Second, not understanding how government works has led many libertarians to buy into complex conspiracy theories which distract them from fighting proven abuses of power while discrediting them in the eyes of unbelievers. Third, a failure to fully understand our opponents has led us to downplay or ignore problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of private bigotry, problems not obviously fixable through statelessness alone.

Before we go on, it’s helpful to differentiate two kinds of libertarians. Although, obviously there will be overlap and the categorization is imperfect and inexact. On the one hand, you have the conservatarians. These people are basically disaffected Republicans. Because libertarianism takes no official stance on so-called social issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia, Republicans who feel that Republicans aren’t low-taxes and limited government enough feel at home in libertarianism.

On the other hand, you have unqualified libertarians. They are neither right nor left, finding common ground with both equally. They don’t value low taxes any more than they value ending the police state or secret government spying. They are offended that sodomy laws are still on the books and by the existence of mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. They favor both personal and economic freedom while defending everyone’s right to self-ownership.

It has been the case for me that the further down the rabbit hole of liberty I went, the more disgusting I found politics. Discovering the US involvement in deposing democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh in Iran, federal grants which incentivize police militarization and no-knock armed SWAT team raids in black and Latino neighborhoods, asset forfeiture, licensure laws, crony capitalism, all left me feeling that this is a system for which there is no reform. I couldn’t put it better than burn the fucking system to the ground.

On the flip side, the more I learned about Spontaneous Order and how private property and free exchange create innovation which creates prosperity, the more in love with the market I fell. What a beautiful system. I pursue my self interest, you pursue yours, and we’re both wealthier for it!

The issue is this. Many conservatarians vote Republican, campaign for Republicans, and write about politics. They’re involved. But they’re not fully bought into the ideology. Their defenses of free markets are weak. They’ll ignore a politician’s call to force women to report their miscarriages to police if it means lower taxes. Their conception of crony capitalism is underdeveloped. For them, bodily autonomy and civil liberties are lesser concerns than take home pay.

On the other hand, most true believers’ disdain for politics is intense. Their understandable wish to burn the fucking system to the ground leaves them less-than-motivated to understand that system soup-to-nuts. True believer libertarians can tell you the ins and outs of the Austrian theory of the business cycle, creative destruction, and the pernicious effects of currency inflation. They know whether their defense of property rights is utilitarian or natural-rights based. But their grasp of the processes behind bill writing, political primaries, and campaigning, for example, will be shaky at best.

So when it comes to actually making changes, let’s use the potential of a Rand Paul candidacy as an example, you have, for the most part, two extremes. You have rah-rah Republitarians cheering about how Paul’s going to end the NSA, who totally ignore his less-than-freedom policies. Then you have the downer libertarians, either ignoring Paul or crapping on him for not being an anarchist. And when the twain meet, it’s for rah-rahs to get super angry at libertarians for not getting on board the Paul train or messing up their game, while libertarians look down on rah-rahs for being unprincipled.

So what’s the libertarian strategy on mostly, but not totally, pro-liberty political candidates? Fight each other. How about policies like school choice, which insert some competition into the public education system, but leave it mostly intact? Fight each other. Gay marriage? Fight each other. Human trafficking? Ignore it for the most part, unless they want to fight each other. Are you seeing a pattern? Not that the Tea Partiers aren’t fighting mainstream Republicans and the communists aren’t fighting mainstream Democrats. But libertarians take infighting to the level that really nothing else gets accomplished. This is for better or worse, as we generally understand that the less that gets accomplished in the political world, the better.

Another problem with an incomplete understanding of politics is that, ironically, it’s given more weight and import than it probably deserves. We see this in libertarians’ belief in so-called conspiracy theories. One of the first Young Americans for Liberty meetings I attended ended up being a viewing of a documentary on the origins of the Federal Reserve which included an attempt to crash a Bilderberg meeting.

Now conspiracy theory is a broad category, spanning everything from lizard people to secret NSA spying.

“It doesn’t just refer to those Gothic tales where a single secret group runs the world; people use it to discuss smaller plots too, including a lot of stuff that falls under that public-choice heading,” Jesse Walker, who literally wrote the book on American conspiracies, explained.

“But there certainly have been covert decisions that did considerable harm,” Walker said. “A relatively recent example — which did not come out of the ‘conspiracy theory’ community but was exposed by regular reporters and human rights groups and confirmed by federal officials — would be the CIA’s network of secret prisons, or ‘black sites,’ where torture was conducted.”

Libertarians subscribe to public choice theory, which posits that politicians and bureaucrats aren’t saints, immune to the lure of acting in their own self-interest, but are normal people who make decisions at least in part based on what’s best for them.

But they take the reality of public choice and instances of secret (for a time) abuse and use it as evidence for ideas like that the Rothschild family or Bilderberg group is successfully plotting to take over the world, or that international banking is run by a small, secret group. Now, various small shadow groups may or may not be plotting. Who knows how profitable world domination really is? But while people in places of power certainly act in their own self-interest, the harm is limited by people’s general inability to either coordinate or actually keep things secret, both of which are required to actually pull off nefarious plots with any impact.

“It isn’t that conspiracies don’t exist so much as (a) the real ones tend to be smaller than the ones in those great big the-Rothschilds-run-everything stories, and (b) like other political and entrepreneurial ventures, conspiracies frequently fail,” Walker said. “Covert politics, like overt politics, is filled with fuckups.”

A close following of politics reveals how difficult and rare coordination and secrecy really are. Self-interest is also self-limiting, as it’s generally what gets in the way of both.

The last thing Republicans and Democrats get right by understanding the political process is that they offer potential solutions to the problems people think they have. Now, the solutions both parties offer to these problem are usually either impossible to implement, or implementable but ineffective. And we’ll leave aside whether people are right to care about the problems they care about. Libertarianism limits itself as a philosophy to just limiting or eliminating government. This solves some problems, of course. It makes everyone richer, though at different rates and to different degrees. It makes everyone freer from state control.

But what does it do about inequality? What does it do particularly about current and ongoing inequality created through theft, whether we’re talking about corporatism, redlining, or asset forfeiture? What does it do about inequality resulting from bigotry and discrimination in culture? Yes, of course, unprotected actors in a free market of perfect competition will suffer more for their bigotry and discrimination. But enough to end it? Racial discrimination isn’t rational. It’s always been punished to an extent. And yet it continues.

In the end, getting anything done, including shrinking the state, requires getting people to do things. Getting people to act requires getting them on board with your strategy. Getting people on board with your strategy requires that they believe that your strategy is aimed, and could be effective, at fixing the things they think are broken. Libertarians consistently miss the boat on appealing to people whose first and primary concern isn’t shrinking the state.

The state is, at its core, a monopoly on violence. Predictably, it features everything wrong with both. Everything it does, it does slowly and inefficiently, protected from competition which would otherwise spur innovation. Everything it gives has been taken from someone else, at threat of incarceration. Sure, it’s evil. To most, a necessary evil.

But to fight it effectively, libertarians, myself included, must come to understand it. Not the theory of it, how it actually works, how the sausage is made. I need to talk to the people who are operating in that world, without hostility or condescension. I need to follow bills and proposals and politicians longer and more closely. Otherwise, I and my libertarian friends will stay sidetracked by infighting, distracted by conspiracy theorizing and focused on problems most people don’t care about to the exclusion of those they do.

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