Uncompromising Position

Is "Libertarian politics" an oxymoron?


Over the Fourth of July weekend, the Libertarian Party will invade enemy territory–Washington, D.C.–and hold its national convention. By all accounts, the likely presidential nominee of the L.P. will be Harry Browne, a respected investment guru and best-selling author of the seminal Me Generation handbook How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. Browne's official campaign headquarters are located in Fairfax, Virginia, but most days you can find him struggling somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis–a rock and a hard place.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Browne is quite possibly the strongest candidate the L.P. has yet to consider. He is a thoughtful fellow and a persuasive polemicist for libertarian ideas. His campaign book, Why Government Doesn't Work, hit the bookstores in January and has sold about 40,000 copies–a strong if not spectacular showing. Having appeared on any number of radio and TV programs over the years, Browne is a seasoned, articulate pundit. He looks and sounds, in demeanor if not content, like a senior senator.

And these are fairly heady times for libertarianism–broadly defined here as a political philosophy advocating individual liberty and minimal government. Indeed, the rhetorical war has been won: Who would have ever thought Bill Clinton would read the eulogy for Big Government in this year's State of the Union address? It is no small victory that proponents of expansive government, whether left-wing or right, must now cloak their plans in sheep's clothing. And it is heartening to read that, in surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, only 25 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government (down from better than 75 percent in 1964). Such an attitudinal shift is surely a prerequisite for smaller government. Traditional conservative and liberal–and Republican and Democratic–world views are collapsing into a black hole of moribund sameness.

Because libertarian ideas represent perhaps the only viable alternative to the political status quo, they are taking on greater and greater importance. As Insight notes, "Signs of creeping libertarianism are everywhere." The terms in which the evanescent Forbes campaign was widely discussed, and dismissed, suggest that libertarian ideas are going mainstream. "Libertarians have become the intellectual avant-garde of the Republican revolution," declares New York, to the point where many of what writer Jacob Weisberg calls "pseudo-libertarian" Republicans are faking it–using small-government rhetoric to mask conventional policies.

But neither his personal skills nor the political climate has made it any easier for Browne to ignite a serious, legitimate bid for the Oval Office from an obscure third-party launching pad. This is no simple task and the results are not easy to watch, especially for those of us sympathetic to Browne's basic message that "government doesn't work." What seemed promising in posse has simply withered in the real world, and the quadrennial train wreck that is the L.P. bid for the Oval Office is right on schedule for yet another dispiriting performance. Since the 1980 election, when Ed Clark pulled in a stunning 921,000 votes–attributable in part to the deep pockets of Clark's billionaire running mate David Koch–the L.P. candidate has averaged a mere third of that total, about as many votes nationwide as George Bush got last time around in the state of Arkansas. There is no reason to believe Browne will boost the average. His campaign says he has raised about $750,000 so far, hugely short of the $50 million Browne claims is necessary to run a "first-class campaign."

Far from influencing the national political debate, Browne has received next to no media attention, aside from de rigueur stories about sad-sack third-party presidential hopefuls. Last fall, for instance, The New York Times Magazine ran a piece about fringe candidates. Titled "What Makes Billy Joe Run?," it featured squibs on presidential hopefuls good for a laugh or two. And there Browne was, cheek to jowl with such yuk-getters as the Rev. Billy Joe Clegg, whose campaign slogans include "What the world needs today is Jesus" and "Clegg won't pull your leg"; Millie Howard, an Ohio switchboard operator and mother of four who proposes a $10,000 "yearly birthright stipend" for all Americans and who readily admits that she is "an embarrassment" to her husband; and reputed comedian Pat Paulsen, who is making his fourth side-splitting bid for the Oval Office, complete with "frozen TV-dinner fund raisers."

Unlike the others, Browne neither cracked jokes nor cracked up in the paper of record. "Browne," reported the Times with a straight face, "wants to 'cut Federal Government out of all the areas the Constitution doesn't provide for: education, welfare, health care, crime fighting.'" Browne's serious demeanor and the Times's ostensibly respectful treatment, however, didn't help much. Just appearing in such a piece is the equivalent of putting on a clown suit, hanging out on a street corner, and waving wildly as your embarrassed family drives by.

The Browne campaign's fortunes raise larger issues about the intersection of libertarian ideas and practical politics. By analyzing the campaign, we may get a better handle on the best ways to translate libertarian theory into political practice. The passage from idea to reality is, of course, tricky enough for any ideology. But for libertarianism it is perhaps even more complicated than for most.

That's because many libertarians prize systematic consistency and contempt of compromise as the highest virtues (some even reject participation in elections on such grounds). Such a belief is shot through libertarian thought. A is A, after all, and that's not open to discussion. The central premise of F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom is that some central planning leads to more and more planning–a position that, however accurate, makes it difficult to embrace the brokered deals that characterize political reality. If politics is the art of compromise–the art of the possible–many libertarians want no part of it to begin with: It's, Live free or die, not, Let's make a deal.

While that stance may fuel a powerful philosophical assault on Big Government and its attendant ills, supreme ideological consensus also undercuts effective participation in electoral politics. Rather than capitalizing on the broad, if often inchoate, anti-government and pro-individualist sentiments that seem to be growing among voters, insisting on systematic libertarianism in the political arena reduces the libertarian impulse to a series of litmus tests on issues that many voters may not see as particularly important or connected: gun rights and abortion rights, property rights and drug legalization, free speech and lower taxes. To these mainstream issues the Libertarian Party platform adds such problematic esoterica as jury nullification, a reliance solely on tort law and "strict liability" to govern pollution, and the right of individual political secession. When libertarianism is presented as an all-or-nothing bargain, interested voters are more likely to leave the whole package on the table.

Some of the Browne campaign's other problems are essentially unavoidable. The major media treat third parties and their candidates as comic relief for the "serious" political drama of Democrat versus Republican (two parties which are themselves overstaffed with clowns). There are exceptions, of course: Billionaire Ross Perot, who grew rich off government contracts, can continue to get respectful press coverage even after claiming Republican operatives armed with doctored photos conspired to disrupt his daughter's wedding by smearing her as a lesbian. Though his actual policy prescriptions are barely more credible than his charges of GOP subterfuge, Perot remains a "serious" presence in American politics. But the general rule is that unless alternative candidates have some major-party credentials and don't really represent a third party (e.g., George Wallace or John Anderson), they get no respect.

Created in 1971, the L.P. has never shaken off its fringe image, which is only reinforced by the breathless claim that the L.P. is "the third largest" political party in the country. While that is statistically correct, actual membership in the L.P. numbers a mere 14,000 (about 123,000 voters are registered as Libertarian). Calling the L.P. a runner-up is like pointing out that George Harrison was the third-most prolific Beatle: Yeah, but so what?

The L.P.'s marginal status is partly the result of cold, hard political realities. All parties start off small; even the currently ascendant GOP had such humble origins in the mid-19th century. Absurd ballot-access requirements specifically designed to lock out alternative groups take a toll, too. And the L.P. wavers between being a "serious" party–one dedicated to electing candidates to office–and a party that serves primarily as an information source about libertarian visions of the good society. Those goals are hardly incompatible, but they often seem to work at cross-purposes. People interested in effecting political change in the foreseeable future tend to gravitate to major parties or groups affiliated with major parties, emptying the L.P. of the sorts of candidates likely to meaningfully engage the political status quo.

More recently, the L.P. has become a victim of "creeping libertarianism" in American politics. As ideas associated with libertarianism such as privatization, deregulation, and school vouchers gain widespread acceptance, the L.P. inevitably will become less relevant. Why go to the specialty shop on the other side of town when the neighborhood supermarket stocks the same brand?

Even Candidate Browne seems ill at ease with the party. In an interview with REASON last fall, he said that, prior to his campaign, he was "not at all involved [with the LP] other than being sympathetic to what they were trying to do. I don't think the Libertarian Party is the best vehicle. I think it is the only vehicle." While I long for the day when a major-party candidate mutters a similar line–imagine Bill Clinton dissing the Dems in the same manner–it hardly packs the same ironic wallop coming from a Libertarian candidate.

However uncomfortable he may be with the L.P., Browne nevertheless embodies the party's ambivalent electoral stance: Is he a "serious" candidate or an information source? Unlike previous L.P. candidates who explicitly ran informational campaigns, Browne stresses that he's in it to win. He told REASON he has found a warm reception on the campaign trail, that folks take him as a serious contender. People, he says, "ask me questions like, 'What will you do when you are president and x happens?' Not, 'What would a Libertarian president do in this situation?'"

"I am running this campaign to win the Presidency," he writes in Why Government Doesn't Work. "I know it is a very long shot, but not nearly as long as it might seem at first glance." Even as he acknowledges the odds, Browne feels a need to murmur that stranger things have happened. In his book, Browne estimates his chances at 100 to 1 (British odds makers have pegged him at 200 to 1).

It is impossible not to wince at such declarations, guarded as they might be. It is like watching a drunk belting out a tune at a karaoke bar: You stare transfixed, cringing at every slurred word, every sour note, wondering who the hell is going to pull him off the stage. Ironically, such claims make Browne a ridiculous figure largely due to his unwillingness to admit the impossibility of his position. The "I can win this thing" stance seems unlikely to win friends, influence people, or even open up many pocketbooks. If anything, it forces prospective voters to consider the ugly, no-win question that echoes a standing question regarding the L.P. in general: Is this guy a nutcase or a lost cause? (Browne's main competitor for the L.P. nomination, tax protester cum amateur magician Irwin Schiff, calls for avoiding the question altogether. "Isn't it time the Libertarian Party stopped embarking on a fool's errand directed at winning a presidential election?" writes Schiff. "Doesn't it make more sense to use this opportunity to frustrate and impede the government's ability to exercise its usurped and destructive powers and thus contribute to creating a more libertarian environment, regardless of who actually wins the election?")

In obvious ways, Browne's candidacy suffers from lack of engagement with political culture (in this, he again echoes the L.P.). On a certain level, this is hardly surprising. After all, in How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, published in 1973, Browne casts aspersions on the whole idea of political solutions: In a chapter titled "The Government Traps," Browne writes that people "waste a great deal of their freedom working to affect the government–through voting, politics, educating others…protesting, etc….[Don't] waste precious time and energy trying to work through the government to become free."

The disconnect runs to the core of Browne's campaign. Consider his basic platform. "What could a president do in the face of a hostile Congress on [his] first day in office?" Browne mused during the REASON interview. "I will pardon everyone who has been convicted of a tax evasion crime; I will pardon everyone who has been convicted of nonviolent drug crime; I will pardon anyone who's been found guilty of any gun-control violations–all on a federal level."

It'll be a long first day on the job: "I will empty the Federal Register of all kinds of things that the former presidents have dumped in there. I will force people who are within the jurisdiction of the administration…to abide by the Bill of Rights and either censure, dismiss, or prosecute federal employees who violate the Bill of Rights in any way. I will immediately remove all American troops from any United Nations operations. I will take steps to bring troops home from overseas wherever possible. I will see to it that the United States government never gets involved in Bosnia or Somalia or Haiti or the Philippines."

Browne has other, longer-range goals as well. He would legalize drugs, abolish the Food and Drug Administration and the Internal Revenue Service, "get government out of the health insurance business" and education, put the kibosh on "all loans and giveaways to foreign governments and international agencies," repeal federal gun-control laws, end affirmative action programs, and kill welfare–which he calls the worst governmental "helping" program because it consigns "beneficiaries" to a lifetime of despondent dependency.

The centerpiece of his campaign is a proposal to sell off over 90 percent of "unneeded" assets, including national parks, vacant land, oil and other commodity reserves, water and mineral rights, dams, pipelines, vehicles, aircraft, equipment, and buildings. Browne figures that this one-time clearance sale, which would take place over a six-year period, would net around $12 trillion. That would, he says, allow the government to abolish Social Security and buy a private annuity for anyone already dependent on the program or close to retirement; younger folks would benefit by being freed of the 15 percent Social Security payroll tax that is currently split between employer and employee.

The sale proceeds would also mean, writes Browne, "We can balance the budget immediately in 1998–the first fiscal year of the new presidential term." And the money would finance the repeal of all federal income taxes. "Everything you earn from 1998 onward will be yours to use as you see fit. No more keeping records to please the government, no more living in fear of the IRS," writes Browne, who notes that "the remaining taxes would be mostly customs duties and excise taxes."

His ultimate goal is a "freedom budget." "If we shrink the federal government from its current yearly budget of $1.5 trillion down to just its constitutional functions, we could get by with a budget of only $100 billion a year plus the interest that has to be paid on the federal debt," he writes.

Give Browne his due: He has thought his plan out. While not exactly a tome of Kissingerian depth or heft, Why Government Doesn't Work is as good as or better than most campaign books. Browne goes into considerable detail on a range of topics, and he explicates his positions clearly, concisely, and logically. Both in print and in person, he has an engaging, winning personality, with a knack for turning a phrase: Discussing the difficulty of publicizing his campaign, he notes wryly, "No one is going to give us respect and recognition just because we're cute guys and have great ideas."

And yet, underlying Browne's whole agenda is a ridiculous fantasy of presidential power. For the moment, let's assume that the numbers add up (and that announcing a fire sale of federal assets doesn't drive the asking prices through the floor). While it may technically be the case that the president can, with the stroke of a pen, excise bits from the Federal Register, it's easier said than done. Bill Clinton found that out when he tried to change military policy regarding gays by executive fiat. And shutting down whole agencies requires new laws, which in turn require congressional assent. Glacial bureaucracy did not simply appear overnight–nor will it disappear in short, fast order.

On a deeper philosophical level, the problem of engagement is even more acute. Browne can point to nothing in today's society that approaches his vision of Galt's Gulch. When he talked with REASON, we asked him if he could identify any model states that came close.

"There are just differences of degrees," he said. "States like New Hampshire and Tennessee have smaller governmental loads than states like New York, California, and Alaska, but certainly none serves as a model." Who did he think was the most libertarian elected official in the country? "I don't think I know of anybody that I would put in that category. I know you're asking for the most libertarian, but there's nobody that stands out in any way to me."

OK, what about past presidents, who's your fave? "I've heard so many good things about Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, and even Warren Harding, and Jefferson said so many good things. Unfortunately, he said most of them when he wasn't president. Nobody has been able to do what's necessary." (He is more certain on the topic of the worst president: "I think the ones who have hurt us the most are Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon because they…got elected on the basis they were going to turn things around and then went completely in the other direction.")

And then there's the $64,000 question: Has there ever been a time in history, short of a violent revolution, when government has rolled itself back in the ways he's proposing? "No," said Browne.

In a sense, Browne is absolutely correct on all counts. But following his line of reasoning, what we really need is the equivalent of the French Revolution, an event that remains the epitome of what Hayek disparaged as the "fatal conceit"–the idea that men could create the world anew, according to some grand, wise, and judicious plan. Ironically, among the great libertarian contributions to political economy is libertarianism's critique of utopianism and the insight that social institutions are built over time and are sensitive to place. We cannot simply bulldoze the past like a dilapidated building.

That insight, of course, leads to a real tension inherent in any libertarian political program: How, then, do you get from here to there, responsibly? Browne, for instance, is adamant that there be no "glide path," no long, easy transition from the old order to the new. And he has absolutely unimpeachable reasons: If there is a drawn-out transition, he says, "It will never happen. The moment you turn your back, Congress will turn back to its old ways." But his own plan would lead to considerable social upheaval which, if nothing else, would probably undermine any political consensus necessary for reform.

But we don't need a revolution, argues Browne, "We just need somebody that's more determined than anybody ever has been. Somebody who has the will and determination to go there for four years, pull this thing off and then go home and enjoy the last years of his life in peace and freedom." That someone is Harry Browne: "I'm the best qualified person because I have the will and determination to make this happen, and I do not know of anybody else who does."

In a way, by spinning out such a ludicrous scenario, Browne performs a meaningful social service: He is, after all, merely saying baldly what all mainstream presidential contenders believe in their hearts. When we hear it come from a marginal candidate, we get a stronger, fresher sense of the hubris and egotism that drives, say, a Bill Clinton or a Bob Dole. (And this is possibly one of the reasons why Big Journalism, invested as it is in the establishment power structure, refuses to take third-party candidates seriously.)

But the Great Man theory remains one of the grim specters haunting libertarianism, which is, after all, a political philosophy that exalts diffused power. All we need, it turns out, is Cincinnatus crossed with John Galt–we assume he'll look like Gary Cooper. The Great Man will come in from his mountain hideaway, kick some ass, and go home, leaving in his wake a society dedicated to individual liberty and true laissez faire. Public-choice economics–largely the product of libertarian-oriented economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock–casts doubt on such a beautiful dream.

If the belief in a one-man wrecking crew doesn't provide a strong cornerstone for a campaign effort, Browne's ritual invocation of the "people" offers little more foundation. "I have posed a simple question to hundreds of people I've met," he writes. "If you had your choice, would you want more government than we have now, less government than we have now, or about the same amount as now? I've asked this question of taxi drivers, store clerks, bellmen, and waiters; I've asked people who are black and white, men and women, old and young. Almost invariably, the answer comes back right at me: 'Oh, I'd like a lot less government. Taxes are too high, government is too big.'…Most people recognize [that government doesn't work]. That doesn't mean that politicians recognize [the fact]. I think, in essence, we have won the educational war, not just with drugs, but the whole question of government. What has not been won is the political war. People want less government." Browne backs up his "informal survey" with polls showing widespread disgust with and distrust of government.

But none of the anti-government mutterings that were so audible before and after the 1994 elections (and considerably less so now) mean that people understand that government doesn't work or that they want less of it–at least not in any concrete, specific way. Browne is right that the political war has yet to be won–in many ways, it has not even yet been engaged. But he is mistaking a rhetorical victory for an educational one.

Consider, for instance, his take on the drug war. "Today," he says, "nobody even asks about the War on Drugs. And if I bring it up, nobody challenges me [on legalization]." In fact, exceedingly few people have lost faith in current policies or the government that enacts them. Most people have embraced the drug war as every bit a part of the American landscape as the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon. Last fall, a Gallup poll found 85 percent of over 1,000 adults surveyed opposed legalization, 83 percent favored more anti-drug education in public schools, and 87 percent favored increased funding for drug police. While legalization is an increasingly popular idea among some political and intellectual elites, there is simply no indication that the "people" are rejecting the drug war. Indeed, there seems to be genuine enthusiasm for opening new fronts such as the current legal and political campaigns against tobacco.

The same goes, more or less, for the general anti-government mood. It is one of the tragicomic aspects of the American political system that we get the government we vote for (or, as H.L. Mencken would have it, we get the government we deserve). By and large, politicians do not rule the country against the majority's wishes. If libertarians have indeed won the educational war, how did Congress enact V-Chip and Internet censorship legislation, two provisions wildly popular with the general public?

This isn't to say that "creeping libertarianism" doesn't exist. Confidence in government is at record lows and people are willing to hear out new ideas. Opportunities abound for inserting libertarian ideas into practice not because they are libertarian but because they may prove more workable than the status quo. To non-believers, the promise of such ideas may well hinge on the perception that they are beyond ideology. For instance, the public debate over Social Security reform–which may well culminate in a semi-voluntary, more market-oriented policy–is not driven by outrage at the government forcing people to save for retirement. It's driven by the inescapable realization that the system is rapidly going broke. The same goes for the seeming enthusiasm for budget cutting and reduction in certain types of regulation.

While the lack of enthusiasm for libertarianism qua libertarianism helps explain the tepid reception of the Browne campaign (and by extension, the L.P.), it doesn't necessarily bode ill for libertarian ideas. When libertarian-oriented policies are implemented, it will happen on a piecemeal basis, not as the result of some sea change in political philosophy. This is, after all, how Big Government beefed up–and how it eventually remade individuals to see the government as the answer to any and all problems.

As Hayek noted in the 1956 preface to The Road to Serfdom, "The most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people. This is necessarily a slow affair, a process which extends not over a few years but perhaps over one or two generations….[T]he political ideals of a people and its attitude toward authority are as much the effect as the cause of the political institutions under which it lives." Statist policies were in place long before the majority of Americans were statists. The process, one hopes, works in reverse, too: It may well be that we will be living in a libertarian society long before a majority of people consider themselves libertarians.

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a fellow passenger on an airplane flight. We started talking about how successful airline deregulation had been: better fares, better safety, better service, better everything. When I made the pitch that such efficiencies were the result of relatively unfettered market forces and could be realized in other areas, he stopped me cold. No way, he said. You're going to have to convince me on that one.

This is similar to the point at which the libertarian movement finds itself. It is engaged in conversation with the mainstream–at long last!–and, if it is to become a dominant force in American political life, it will have to be persuasive every step of the way. To the extent that Browne and the L.P. add to that conversation, it's all to the good. But their fate is not the fate of libertarianism. Many libertarians, I'd wager, can find comfort in the irony that we may never have a Libertarian president until long after Big Government has passed from the scene.