Sunday, November 27, 2005

Latter-Day Libertarians

I spent a little bit of time over this Thanksgiving weekend, amongst my other dubious activities, participating in a comment thread in a blog written by the chairman of the Libertarian Party for the county in which I live. Now, I always knew that "libertarian" wasn't a good description of me. But I'm finding out that the reasons why not are changing. I don't, of course, know how typical of LP folk nationally the Indiana LP crew might be. It's probably safe to say, though, that "this is not your father's Libertarian Party."

Your Father's Libertarian Party was easily caricatured. Think back to high school. The chess club guys, taking a break to exegete Ayn Rand. How far could it be pushed? Maybe you didn't need any laws at all -- just a requirement (enforced how? one wondered) that he or she who injures another must make restitution. Money solves everything. What were the details of how the private-enterprise, freely-competing police departments, fire departments, and armies would work? Private networks of roads? People could debate -- without end -- whether any of these ideas would hold water, rationally, or not. One thing was certain, though: they would never be tried out. Your typical LP candidate for public office would attract a share of the vote that tended to trade somewhere in the sub-one-percent range. The thing had its own special charm, regardless. You could be quite sure that every LP candidate had a "day job" -- none of them were public-trough leeches. You could be rather sure that no sleazy corporate or union buyers of access and influence were lining their pockets, or their miniature campaign warchests. Why in the world would you want to even try to buy a libertarian? It wasn't as if they were ever going to be elected to anything. And so the LP enjoyed the presumptive cleanliness of powerlessness.

For some months now, I have been reading a fair amount of the online writings of the LP folks who participate in this thread. (Mr. Enders is the treasurer of the Allen County LP; Mr. Kole is a candidate for the Indiana LP's nomination for secretary of state.) And I've noticed how much like old-school conservative Republicans they sound. I took the occasion of this thread to inquire about this trend. Mr. Kole, in particular, provided some interesting replies:


Glad you brought up the fact that I am among the moderate-sounding Libertarians here in Indiana. Consider two things to see why I take a moderate, incremental approach.

1. Since we are on the subject of schools, consider the reaction of the average parent. Say he has four kids, aged 7-14. The Libertarian extreme or endpoint position is that public schools should be abolished tomorrow and replaced with private schools only.

He hears this and he rushes to help a Republican or Democrat. It is important to consider why this is the logical, rational thing for him to do.

Most parents do not have significant savings, sadly. Most parents have an entitlement mentality that includes the expectation of public schools. Having to pay for private education might cost $10k per child. The Libertarian endpoint position means an immediate cost of $40k you him for several years to come. He HAS TO work against the Libertarian candidate.

2. Think of the spectrum of economic thought, from left to right. On the left (but extreme furthest left), you have the Democrats. Somwhere in the middle, you have the Republicans. The Libertarian extreme is on the far right.

It is understood that speaking fiscal conservatism will not appeal to the left. So, the opportunity for Libertarian candidates to appeal to their potential voters can result in a divide of voters at a range determined by the dialogue.

If the Libertarian and Republican are as far away as possible, the best the Libertarian can do is split those voters in half.

If the Libertarian position is very close to the Republicans, but slightly more fiscally conservative, the Libertarian stands to take all of the voters more extreme than the position taken, and split the rest of the fiscal conservatives in half.

In reality, many fiscal conservatives conclude that the extreme Libertarian position is either unwinnable or untennable, so they vote Republican.

The bargaining position of the Libertarian candidate, such as myself, improves dramatically if trying to discredit Republicans as fiscal conservatives when I take a position such as 'cut the budget 1%'. It puts gneuine pressure on the Republicans to actually meet that objective, for if they can't even cut 1%, their base finally knows it can't count on the GOP to do anything with their majorities. If I was taking a cut 50% approach, they don't have to respond to me at all. They can dismiss me as a dreamer, tinfoil hat wearer, etc.

I like the Libertarian philosophers to take extreme positions. That is the role of the editorial writer.

Libertarian candidates have taken extreme positions for over 30 years, and have less than 1% nationally to show for it. Here in Indiana, we have been increasingly choosing not to fulfill Einstein's definition of insanity, but rather, are taking a different approach, because as we have seen, if policy is to be an all-or-nothing proosition, we will get nothing. 30 years of proof back me up.

This business of "endpoint positions" is interesting. Mr. Kole is running for secretary of state (within the LP, so far). Let us suppose he's out campaigning for this position, some October, in a general election season. He makes a proposal: cut the state budget by 15%. You, as a truly informed voter, have read the blog thread I've been writing about. Now, as "Dirty Harry" Callahan of movie fame might put it, you have to ask yourself a question. I've heard his words ... but I don't know what he's thinking. Does he really want to cut the budget by 15%? Or does he really want to cut it by 95%, but just doesn't want me to know that?

There's a technical term for a man who talks ... but talks so that his listener can't know what he thinks based on what he says. That term is "professional politician." You know ... careerist, "position-taking" (not "belief-holding"), technocratic, spin-doctoring politico. Just like a real, big-league, Democrat or Republican politician.

Why does Mr. Kole advocate this approach? Because, he says, it works.

Hmmmmm. I think there are a couple of problems with the LP Of Today model. First, I don't think it will work. Integrity might have been an LP distinctive. Once it's tossed, LP candidates are simply Demo or GOP wannabes. Given a choice between an ersatz Republican and the genuine article, why not vote for the real one, whose commercials are bound to be slicker anyway, and who might leave you with the warm fuzzy feeling of having Voted For A Winner? Secondly, quaint though it might seem, obtaining success by being less than forthcoming is, well, wrong. What does it profit a man, one might ask, to gain even a seat in the Mighty U.S. Congress, and lose his own soul?

Well, in any case, I hope my fellow blogger Mr. Sylvester is successful in his bid for a school board seat. I'm sure his constituents would be better served by him than by his freespending incumbent opposition. But I do think that all the local LP troops might want to consider the possibility that they'll wake up one of these days and discover that they have become, or have returned to being, Republicans -- by a different name.


lemming said...

The Ls always raise good and interesting (i.e. worthy of in-depth discussion) ideas. In my experience, they do not win many elections becaus the people who identify themselves are Ls are not strong enough in their views to vote a "straight party" ticket. This, IMHO, is too bad - we as a country would be better if a larger set of opinions were available on the national (and local) stage.

Grace said...

I'm starting to think that what we have are not so much political parties as groupings of people who tend to (some of the time) think in similar ways (about some things). What's more, the tendencies and similarities of their respective elected officials get jostled around by the need to compromise to get legislation passed.

Thus, in practical terms, a true believer is rarely going to get re-elected, unless it's for a local office in a community filled with a majority of very like-minded voters.

I guess what I'm saying is that in the real push-come-to-shove world, political expedience trumps political ideology.

Robert Enders said...

You said that you would rather vote for a real Republican rather than an ersatz one. This is like saying that you would prefer Stalin to Gorbachev. You would rather embrace a 100% Republican than a 90% Libertarian, so does the same principle work with Communists?

We are trying something that perhaps cannot be done at all, converting abstract philosophy into concrete reality. We try to make gains in some areas and avoid losses in others. I'm told that we have had some success in fighting smoking bans in bars. Its small, but it's a start.

By the way, I was in the chess club, and I read Ayn Rand. I fit the old school sterotypes better than you give me credit for.

Bartleby said...

Lemming: good points -- I can't disagree.

Grace: true, and more's the pity. I think that's pretty much why we are where we are.

Mr. Enders: I wasn't saying (or trying to say, at least) that I would vote for an actual Republican in preference to an LP candidate whom I evaluted as a Republican Lite. I was saying, apropos of Mr. Kole's contention that the deceptive strategy would be a successful one, that the typical voter would go for the real elephant -- and I submit that he does, regularly. After all, the real elephant has a good chance to win the election, and there's nothing that the average Americano likes less than voting for a loser ... unless it's voting for so lopsided a loser that he's told he "threw away his vote." I'm glad you brought up small variations among totalitarians, though ("Uncle Joe" vs. Gorby). In terms of actually making important change, I'm afraid I suffer from a complete lack of confidence that voting does any good at all. I'm pretty sure it doesn't. (Who was it who said, "If you could change anything by voting, it'd be illegal?") I still vote, every time I get the chance. But it isn't because I think it does any good at all. It's more a matter of a perverse enjoyment that I get, from some mysterious reason, from the act itself. I've voted for a good many LP candidates in the past (most recently, Mr. Badnarik), along with a few Constitution Party types. Again, though, it's just a hobby ... and may also make me more likely to be called up for jury duty.

Mike Kole said...

Bartleby- I know that you will stick to your assertion that my approach is deceptive. However, I disagree. I'm not hiding my true outlooks. Heck- my blog has almost three years and 1,000 entries worth of unabashed libertarian positions. I would tell anyone that the endpoint is the endpoint, which is indefinite. But in terms of moving policy in the here and now, I do take an incremental approach.

This approach is very controversial (to say the least) among hardcore Libertarians, and I understand why. Hardcore Libertarians comprise less than 5% of the population, however, and I figure I would have to be some kind of fool to court that 5% continuously with no thought to the other 95%.

Besides that, I am not Republican lite. Republicans and Democrats are both Libertarian lite. You can certainly call me Libertarian lite if you think I am shading pure libertarian philosophy. But in no way am I a watered down Republican. That's absurd.