The future of libertarianism in the United States


There are libertarians who see a bright outlook for libertarianism in the United States. For libertarians, it might be construed as a natural and inevitable ‘political evolution’ from a political system that sanctions the ‘mob’ to an enlightened system which serves as a rational exponent of one’s interests. There does however remain two problems:

  1. Majoritivism – You can’t expect a system that sanctions a mob to aid a minority by its very nature. You have to ask yourself whether the system has the ‘architecture’ to ever enable libertarianism to grow.
  2. Moral scepticism – You can’t expect libertarianism to grow if the system does not engage its constituents in the intellectual discourse to spread the merits of libertarianism, and ultimately to give it the ‘political mandate’ required.

These are not just issues for non-libertarians, but exist in the minds of libertarians as well. Consider the contemporary problem presented in the USA and every other representative democracy. Libertarians are a minority. In the US, at the peak of libertarian ‘success’, Ross Perot was able to gain 17% of the popular vote in the United States presidential election of 1992. Now, it is fair to say that only 6% of the US population is probably ‘core libertarian’ as opposed to conservatives with a ‘sympathy for small government’. The rest were likely just conservatives who liked a ‘can-do’ leader, and were given no serious competitor within the Republican party candidacy. They would have also welcomed him as a pragmatic business person, and a Baptist, prompting the question as to whether he was really a libertarian anyway. The answer is that most ‘libertarians’ are really ‘libertarian lite’.

Most libertarians are people who can be convinced of the value of libertarianism, however most of them are not so intellectually efficacious that they are able defend libertarian values.

The nature of the support for libertarianism adopted by these ‘modern libertarians’ is the opposite of their parents. Conservatives supported ‘bigger government’ because government in the past had a smaller role in people’s personal affairs. They did not readily see the false economy of government. The spectre of small government helping the community was really incidental when government was small. Now that governments are so much bigger, the balance of people is more split between those who argue that government is the problem and those who see government as the solution. So the ‘historic rhetoric’ of ‘helpful government’ arose when government arose when government was small. Today, for most aspirational youths of conservative parents, they are more likely to conclude that, given that government is so ‘vested’ or entrenched in economic activity, that government has played a huge role in their economy’s failure. This is the ’empirical libertarian’ at their most basic level of evolution. This seems to be a cycle we see played out over time. Consider that before people in the early 20th Century saw government as helpful, they were inclined to see government as the problem. Think back to the time when Brits escaped England and migrated to the New World. Some were escaping religious persecution, but a great many were simply seeking opportunity that largely rested upon under-utilised resources and the absence of class and government rules that could only prove to be an obstacle. Even the prospect of hostile Indians seemed tolerable.

Putting aside the quality or size of government; some people might even go a step further and condemn the existence of government per se. This explanation accounts for two types of libertartian:

  1. Minimalist libertarian (or ‘Minarchist’) who wants to curtail the significance of government. This type of libertarian are probably going to approve of representative democracy and the preservation of our electoral system. They will largely be against the welfare state, and will probably be against excessive regulation of business. Most libertarian politicians fall into this camp.
  2. Anarchists who attribute the problems of the world entirely to the existence of government. I have greater compatibility with this group, however this classification is far from comclusive because there are other value imperatives to differentiate between people.

This is not the end of the story because these responses are destined to be met by some criticism. For instance,

  1. The minarchist will be criticised for espousing freedom in one’s choices in life, except one’s choice of governance, or system of governance. One of the compelling reasons for believing small government is not ‘enough’ is because it wasn’t enough to stop the debasement of small government in the 19th Century, so why would it be any different today? What if it was ‘small government’ plus a modern understanding, or with the added benefit of electronic voting (i.e. e-referenda), or perhaps even evolutionary steps like bitcoin to enhance the human experience of minarchist government? These ideas are of course propositions that need to be critiqued. For too many libertarians, the choice is simply an arbitrary ‘subjective choice’ that private participants make. This is fine for choices, but it doesn’t auger well for their capacity to defend themselves against people’s choices which are ‘coercive’ in nature. the reason is that they have to defend the proposition that coercion is immoral. Most cannot do that.
  2. The anarchist will be condemned for ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. i.e. Just because there are examples of bad government, it could be argued, does not mean that there isn’t scope for a remedy to be made within the system. Most critics cannot point to what those remedies might be, so essentially they are asking you to have ‘faith’. Really they are telling you that you don’t really have any choices anyway. Most of these people simply attribute private failure to the government’s involvement in the economy. Their derision for government greatly resembles a child’s tantrums in defiance of parents who set the rules. But parenting is only an extension of the problem, and not a resolution in itself. Parenting can be coercive or voluntary.

Looking back to politic systems, the answer to these questions might simply be a ‘new technology’ or a ‘new approach’. You have to ask yourself however what is the foundation for any society? An application of a technology is good or bad depending on whether it affirms or repudiates certain values compatible with human nature. Technology, or even its application, does not give you a moral prescription. The moral concept has to come first. The idea of putting faith in technology to solve any problem is nonsensical. It is the same for guns. Guns are not good or bad, its the values of humanity to underpin its applicability in modern society, as they shaped values in colonial America and elsewhere. This is why we think the problem with libertarianism is not a ‘new technology’, or even a modest revision to the existing constitutional framework in the US. Certainly the adoption of a Multi-Party-Preference (MMP) system like in NZ, the Philippines and Germany would make it considerably easier for a libertarian party to get elected in the United States. The  ‘First-Past-The-Post’ (FPP) electoral system in the United States makes it near-impossible. The bigger issue is that representative democracy would make it near-impossible for a libertarian party to stay in power – simply because of the way the system thwarts healthy ‘rational’ political discourse. This brings us to the deeper values underpinning libertarianism. Most libertarians don’t have a sufficient philosophical awareness of their values to be advocates of their cause. We are thus destined to see libertarianism struggle to spread its values. It would loose confidence because people would see its exponents falter. We are destined to see many ‘false starts’ before the movement makes progress.

Notwithstanding the fact that there is growing support for libertarianism, the bad news is that the support base is still small. More problematic is the entrenched system which betrays what it means to be “libertarian”, as if there was one position, or that the majority who are ‘advocates’ could even convey the breadth of this school of thought. Another troubling aspect is that libertarians are obliged to seek a sanction from a system that many of them would condemn. Others are perhaps less ‘evolved’ in their libertarian values (i.e. still conservatives), and are therefore destined to see representative democracy as a legitimate power sharing provision. Some are destined to see constitutionalism as a reasonable measure to protect their natural rights. These contradictions need to be resolved by libertarians before the movement will will ever achieve political clout. Their quest is frustrated in the first instance, not by the ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPP) electoral system used for presidential elections, but the absence of sound formal education in libertarianism in the education system. There is a preponderance of Keynesians in schools and universities. It is far harder to find people in universities who are libertarian – simply because they don’t approve of government sponsorship of education. Libertarians are more likely to study business than education for that reason. Academics who consider themselves ‘libertarians’ open themselves up to condemnation as ‘hypocrites’. This is not necessarily a valid criticism, but it is certainly one that sticks in the minds of people who judge a movement by its role models, rather than analytical engaging to critique the ideas presented. Certainly, when libertarians are forced to participate in a coercive system, the moral responsibility lies foremost with the person who initiated the use of force, and not with the people who are defending themselves from such force. So for an academic to use ‘extorted wealth’ to defend libertarianism, it is a better approach than preaching Keynesianism. The question they have to ask is – “Is there a better strategy?’ Are they taking an easy way out? Was morality solely about ther betterment of others’. There is an element of collectivism in this path. Are they justifying a path that can only weaken their commitment to libertarianism? I believe they are. I believe they are placing themselves inside a ‘cocoon’  that will ultimately weaken their contribution to libertarianism. They probably don’t see it that way. They probably think it as putting themselves on an equal footing with their adversaries. The problem is that most values are learnt not ‘explicitly’ but subtly. We learn values through engagement. When you engage the world on their terms; when you are rewarded on their terms, I would suggest that you are slowly destined to define yourself on their terms. This would explain why a great many libertarians inevitably become conservatives. They set themselves up for failure. The reality is that being a libertarian is hard. You have to be disciplined and organised from the outset. Most are too indulgent and ‘rhetoric’ in their engagement. It is a considerable challenge to undo all the contradictory ideas that society has instilled in us from a young age. Our reference point is contemporary society and our parents values.

My argument to libertarianism is that they don’t need to follow contemporary values to shape their values, but rather to use ‘their values’ in a way that conveys that utter stupidity of contemporary values. This allows them to then reaffirm the stupidity of contemporary values by condemning society’s solution to your proscription. Consider the ‘voting example’ that I outlined above. It makes voting look silly. Their solution is destined to be forcing people to vote in certain places and seeking to ‘prove’ that people live in one place and not another. That is more compliance costs, as ‘loopholing’ demands ever-bigger government. The  greatest problem for libertarians is that they are so dis-organised. They are so uncooperative. This legacy is actually a testament to the lack of integrity in the movement. The good news is that, the more they plug away, the better they get. They are actually resolving those deeper philosophical contradictions that need to be resolved. This process is therefore to be welcomed. Of course the implication is that libertarianism might struggle for another decade. Ultimately, the faster we get organised, the sooner we will have an impact. Its not just the challenge of being organised, its the challenge of conducting intellectual discourse in a way which motivates, affirms and materially rewards people, so they feel that they are able to feel practical in a world with incompatible values.

The solution is clear. The federal electoral system is destined to only cause grief for libertarians. If gerrymandering conveys anything to libertarians, it is that humanity has a bad track record on questions of ‘principle’ when it runs counter to their interests. For this reason, the libertarian cannot hope to achieve liberty through the federal system. The question then is how. I would suggest the following pattern:

  1. Libertarian parties should focus on state elections – that means specific states with a high concentration of libertarians already, or small populations
  2. Libertarians should assign a ‘favourable’ address as their ‘electoral’ place of residence.
  3. Libertarians should parlay their votes in a campaign to secede from the Federated or United States of America

Consider this as an example of how libertarians could be more practical. At this time, in the United States, the population is probably 6% libertarian. A further 10-12% are probably sufficiently ‘self-reliant’ to consider themselves ‘small government’ libertarians. Under the FPP electoral system, these people lodge a ‘wasted vote’ if they vote libertarianism. This is a silly system spurned in countries like Australia (which adopted its electoral system after observing the mistakes in the US Constitution) because a voter endorsing a non-mainstream party effectively doesn’t get a vote because of who they voted for. People will argue that they did, but this is proscribing a conditionality to their voting. This system is destined to cause most libertarians to not vote. The reality is that by not giving them a 2nd, or even 3rd preference, they are actually punishing their party by voting for them. i.e. A libertarian vote in the US is a vote for Democrats, because one is merely splitting the Republicans.

The problem of course is that the Republicans are not really a compelling partner in the first place. They have long ago lost their liberal credentials. I think its silly to play this game. More so, when you are not organised as an electoral bloc along with other libertarians. My suggestion is that libertarians organise to migrate to another state. Now, people will object. Its an extreme measure to move to another state in order to concentrate one’s electoral voice. I suspect that voters don’t need to ‘move’, so much as register as having moved to a different ‘legal address’ in another state. i.e. Go to the US Electoral Commission and change your ‘legal address’ to another state selected by the Libertarian Party. The intent is to raise the libertarian scores in one state at the expense of another state, where it matters even less. This is a drastic action to take, however it is within the purview of the law to do that. It is a sad indictment of the system, since libertarians can vote ‘libertarian’ and still get no representation – even if they account for a significant share of the popular vote. The solution is – don’t be popular – but to surround yourself with like-minded people so that you can accentuate your significance or standing rather than be ‘diluted’ in an extortion-based system. This is actually no different than the actions taken by unionists to extort influence. They gather in one place and make a scene. They do it to extort money from corporations and governments. Libertarians, in contrast, do it to withdrawal our sanction for ‘their illegitimate system’. Their system imposes a toll upon our freedom. We are not coercing them by repudiating or attempting to repudiate their system.

The ultimate intent of such a move should be to educate other votes, and to ultimately raise the vote to a point where the state can secede from the United States. For such purposes, it would be better if the state was ‘not land-locked’. It should also have an existing large libertarian population, and a rather small total population to start with. The Great Lakes is obviously a problem since Canada and the United States control the St Lawrence River System and locks. I’d go with East Coast and West Coast States, Alaska or Hawaii. That would be my suggestion of how to snub the system as well as raise awareness of libertarianism in the United States. State-based politics presents a ‘hidden opportunity’. It does not stop there. Having chosen a ‘state’, there is a still-greater opportunity to choose a town wherein one can domniate the local politics. Federal governance is a waste of time; state politics deserving of more, and local politics still more consideration. In a town of 45,000 people, you might only get 6,000 people voting for the leading candidate. Libertarians need to have this type of impact. It takes organisation.

The basis of this strategy is based on the recognition that:

  1. Libertarians have more power if they live in a particular place, i.e. Where more libertarians live
  2. Libertarians have greater prospects of getting representation if they seek ‘state’ power rather than federal power.

I think the future for libertarianism in the US lies in such a ‘state mandated’ economic strike. Voting for the Libertarian Party in the Federal contest is akin to kicking yourself in the nuts. At a state level, if you have some discretion to seek employment in a ‘libertarian state’, then at least you will find betterment in affirmative relationships, you will also contribute to the ascension of libertarianism as a political force in your state just from greater media exposure. By doing so, you are destined to bring about an earlier reform to the electoral system at a federal level. One however cannot count on that. There are of course to other options:

  1. Migrating to the third world where you can benefit from ‘unobtrusive government’, but otherwise suffer the privations of such living standards. This can simply mean living life as a foreign alien, or playing a part in a libertarian community such as Galt’s Gulch in Chile.[i]
  2. Migrating to an isolated tropical island where there is no much economic activity, or depth to the economic, but you will live in relative freedom, if the costs of membership are not too onerous.
  3. Migrate to small, isolated NZ, where there is some level of economic liberty, less compelling reasons for intrusive government, and otherwise greater chance to effect change for two reasons:
    • NZ has a ‘multi-party preference’ (MMP) system that favours small parties
    • Voting dollars go relatively further in NZ
    • NZ has an established libertarian movement already – in fact it has a Christian ‘small government’ Conservative Party (4.5%) and a less successful secular ACT Party, which is ‘gifted’ an electoral seat every election by the centrist National Party in the Auckland seat of Epsom. Epsom voters are conservatives who vote ‘libertarian’, not because they have principles, but because they don’t like ‘big government’ stealing their wealth. You are permitted to vote in NZ after you have been a resident for one year. The next national election is in October 2017. Local government elections are held at different times.

The lesson of course is that there are actions that libertarians can take to improve their position in society. The first step is to embrace libertarian communities so that the wider community comes to see libertarianism as having some standing. With such exposure you can expect some attempt to ‘engage’ in debate, for people to take time to learn more, and ultimately for greater understanding and acceptance to prevail. There will be intellectual clashes as there always is, but ‘good ideas eventually prevail’. The starting point is blogs, MeetUp and Facebook groups. A person can feel very alone unless they seek to join communities which shares their values. Organisation is key. Surprisingly many libertarians spurn such opportunities to engage with like-minded people. Often this reflects some ‘conservative’ entrenched views they are not comfortable challenging. This is just the ‘uncomfortable’ start of people’s intellectual transformation. These ‘conservatives’ are just nascent individualists!

This raises the  2nd issue of moral scepticism in politics. There is no prospect of the libertarian ‘engaging the minds’ of their conservative and liberal opponents as long as they are hostile to ideas, and if they are able to escape accountability through the political system. It is common to speak of the relative lack of accountability of politicians, but it must be acknowledged that voters are even less accountable than politicians. A voter is not attacked for expressing their vote. The contrary is true – that the system extolls the virtues of personal expression and protection of it through the ‘secret ballot’. If this seems unfair, consider that the reason why secret ballots are ‘secret’, for instance in the union movement, was to stop extortive influence upon dissenting voices. This is not the same concern as with an electoral vote, where the entire electoral process is an legitimated extortion racket in its own right. A critic cannot condemn a libertarian for preventing their free expression to vote, when their right to vote entails sanctioning extortion against the minority, whether its to expropriate taxes or to regulate human conduct.

Of course voting is sanctioned and even celebrated because it is perceived as a means of overcoming scepticism. This is however a case of ‘reversing causation’ because representative democracy, or the anti-intellectual mode of engagement, is precisely the reason why counterparts in an electoral system, don’t need to engage and improve their ideas or values. They are sanctioned for persisting with their entrenched ‘popular’ ideas, that are destined to stay popular if libertarian opponents are not able to insist upon ‘objective’ values underpinning their political system. Without objective or rational discourse, truth and intellectual coherence will not prevail. The intent of constitutionalism was intended to protect the ‘natural rights’ of which I speak. The problem is that constitutionalism failed as a protection against those threats. We are paying the price for the moral scepticism of our forebears.

[i] “Galt’s Gulch Chile Buyers And Investors Take Back The Project In Daring Night Raid” by Jeff Berwick, TDV Chief Editor, website, 31st Oct 2014.




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