Thursday, September 02, 2010

The question facing libertarians... not the question debated in the August-September issue of Reason - "Where do Libertarians Belong?".

That debate featured Cato Kauffman Foundation scholar Brink Lindsey, Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg and Tea Party organizer Matt Kibbe. An interesting read, but more than a little frustrating. They re-litigate the same hand-wringing debate I first noted and commented on at the beginning of this blog, over four years ago. In particular, Jonah delights in beating Brink about the head and shoulders with the "Liberaltarian" trope that Brink enthusiastically supported a few years ago. Brink is decidedly less enthusiastic now. Perhaps he read this sad account of my own failed liberaltarian affair.

For those who don't have the time or inclination to read the entire article, I offer this debate summary:
  • Shorter Brink Lindsey: Libertarians should forget the right and aim for the center. BTW the Tea Party also sucks.
  • Shorter Jonah Goldberg: Libertarians should forget the left, and stick with the right.
  • Shorter Matt Kibbe: Libertarians should forget the right and left, and work with the Tea Party to find a new path. BTW - Fuck you Lindsey and the horse you rode in on.
Brian Moore has an even shorter version. No real conclusions were either expected or found by the paticipants. But at least there was one amusing answer to the question offered by a commenter at "Where Do Libertarians Belong? - In the camps, silly."

More interesting than yet another futile attempt to answer this unresolvable question, are the questions that the debate spawned around the blogosphere -

Clive Crook
thinks the question should be phrased "What Use Is a Libertarian?" Nick Gillespie answers his question with another question - "Are Libertarians Really as Useless as a Bucket of Armpits? Or Do They Just Smell That Way?" Black Jesus worries "Is Libertarianism Dead?" Ilya Somin wonders if Brink is moving "From 'Liberaltarianism' to Libertarian Centrism?" Noah Millman asks "Whither Libertarians?" Mollie Hemingway invokes the "The death of liberaltarianism?" Stackiii wants to know "Can These Groups Win Without Each Other? Heather Horn finds even more posts with even more questions and finally asks one herself "Should Libertarians Ditch the Republican Party?

So many questions. And yet, no one is asking the right question:

How can libertarians become politically relevant?

Back to Clive Crook:
"I cannot see what purpose is served by worrying about which of these unappeasable opponents would make the better partner."
Exactly. Aiming for the middle does not cut it. Nor aiming to shoot the right as Lindsey advocates, nor aiming to shoot the left as Goldberg advocates, nor aiming at both as Kibbe advocates.

From a practical perspective, asking rhetorically whether libertarians have a "use" or "where they belong" is less important than understanding how they can be politically relevant. One key to political relevance is simple - a predictable centrist libertarian swing vote. The rub - for a swing vote to be predictable it has to be organized. And nobody yet has figured out how to herd these cats. This is sometimes referred to as the "Hot Tub Libertarian" problem.

There is an answer. There is a way to herd these cats. There is a path to imbuing libertarians with policy shifting power and political relevance. Paraphrasing from an earlier post "Curing Libertarian Electile Dysfunction":
A libertarian swing vote organization is going to have to look different than traditional political organization. After all, it is something we will have to accomplish while sitting in the hot-tub. What is needed, is an organizing principle. Ideally, a principle that is so obvious, so logical, and so clear-cut, that no leadership is needed, no parties are needed, no candidates are needed, and no infrastructure is needed. Ideally it is this easy: You think about the principle, and you know how to vote.

That organizing principle exists. It is voting for Divided Government. It is absolutely clear-cut and easy to understand. Divided Government is documented by Niskanen to work in a practical real-world manner to restrain spending and the growth of the state. As a voting strategy it can be implemented immediately. More importantly, it can collectively be implemented individually as we sit in our hot tubs and ponder the sorry state of the world. Whatever the percentage of the electorate that a libertarian/Tea Party represents, whether it is 6% or 20%, if they vote as a block for divided government, they immediately become the brokers of an evenly split partisan electorate. They arguably become the single most most potent voting block in the country, specifically because they are willing to vote either Democratic or Republican as a block. Specifically because they are not fused to one party or the other. Specifically because they are not trying to figure out "where they belong".

If a libertarian/Tea Party divided government vote is shown to swing elections for two or three cycles, then libertarians will no longer be inchoate, their message no longer diffused, and their political clout no longer flaccid. As long as the bulk of the electorate remain polarized and balanced, even a small percentage libertarian (or Tea Party) swing vote organized around divided government will be enough for those Tea Party libertarians to proudly display the biggest swinging political "hammer" in town.
It could happen.

The Reason cover has an image of some of our favorite pols on a Nolan Chart. This quick quiz plots your political proclivity on such a two dimensional political chart, with the four corners defined as liberal (L), conservative (R), libertarian (U), statist (D). I hadn't taken the test in a while, and the result is unsurprising - this is where The Dividist belongs...

As a libertarian dividist, I'll be voting straight Republican for federal office this year. Should the GOP take the majority in either house of Congress, I'll be voting for the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.


justsayinz said...

Dead-on! . . . as to the question that should be asked. Imagine how different the past eighteen months would have been if there had been a bloc of 12-14 in the House with someone like Ron Paul as the primary spokesman, and a proportionate number in the Senate, say 2-4. With principled men and women not susceptible to political buy-offs (think Cornhusker Kickback) in these positions, the country might just be changing course to peace, justice, and prosperity.

However, in the context of becoming politically relevant and “herding these cats”, recent history - at least in terms of pragmatism - is not encouraging. We have succumbed to the modern cultural equivalent of Instant Gratification. Ron Paul for President . . . I could go for that personally, but from a pragmatic and realistic standpoint, it ain't gonna happen! To get that bloc of 12-14 in the House (and a lesser number in the Senate) we need to identify those with truly libertarian views at the (House) district level and in perhaps one or two states, support them financially (think Koch brothers, Tea Party Express, etc.), and ELECT them. For the immediate future, these candidates would no doubt have to run as “conservative” Republicans (a la Ron Paul, and Rand in the KY Senate race), and when we achieve a handful in the House and Senate, they could remain a member of the Republican causcus, but also form a “small L” libertarian caucus (similar to the Black caucus in the Democrat party). In a decade or two, a “cap L” Libertarian party would be feasible, and recognized as a “player” equal to the Democrats and Republicans, even if not quite as numerous. A question might even arise as to which of the two presently established parties would be the first to become the Whigs of the 21st century.

Divided government for the next few election cycles is a start!

mw said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Some thoughts -

We are on the same page, and I'm sympathetic to the idea of electing a swing group of legislators, but think that is going to be extraordinarily difficult. 3rd parties are generally only successful at acting as spoilers, and Rep & Dem party pressure will usually bring even the most independent mavericks into line. Larison has some insight on why even getting them elected is problematical.

I recognize that divided government is a tourniquet not a cure. But at this point, I can't really see past getting that tourniquet applied and hoping the patient does not bleed out while bigger libertarian brains than mine argue about out where the hospital "belongs" and how to build it.

I'll leave that task to someone else.