Former Reason intern–like doing time in a Mexican prison, some experiences brand a boy so deeply he'll smell the burning flesh for the rest of his life–Ryan Sager, author of the forthcoming "whither the GOP?" tome The Elephant in the Room, throws cold water in the face of hot-tub lovin' libertarians everywhere. Turns out, sez Sager, that libs are as "politically impotent" as Bob Dole sans Viagra, Pepsi, and Britney Spears commercials:
Libertarians used to be one of three groups that made up the Republican Party, along with social conservatives and economic conservatives. But, since 1994, they've been replaced by a group of voters Pew [Research Center for the People and the Press] has called Populists, but most recently renamed Pro-Government Conservatives. In essence, it would seem, these Pro-Government Conservatives—about 10 percent of the electorate, largely female and southern, and equally at ease with universal health care and banning controversial books from libraries—are squeezing libertarians further and further toward the fringes of the GOP.
Is there any way to reverse the tide?…
The Cato Institute's executive vice president, David Boaz, tells two stories. In one, a man wouldn't come to a rally for 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ed Clark because he had to look at his sister-in-law's car. In another, a man skipped a rally at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco because he had a more pressing engagement … in a hot tub….
The challenge, then—for those who don't want to see the Republican Party succumb once and for all to big-government conservatism and who don't want to see it become overrun with populists lacking in respect for taxpayers' money and individuals' right to be left alone—is either to organize existing libertarians more effectively to vote and contribute time and money as a bloc or to identify new constituencies with an overriding interest in remaking the time bomb we call the New Deal (everyone under 40 comes to mind).
So, libertarians: It's time to get out of that hot tub!…And start thinking about how you're going to reclaim your rightful place in the conservative coalition.
Elsewhere in the piece, Sager notes that of libertarians the Pew crew found, 50 percent identified themselves as Republicans and 41 percent as Democrats. Whole thing, well worth reading, here.
I don't particularly care for hot tubs but I'm a longtime supporter of what Sager derides as the hot-tub mentality. In a 2000 piece called "The AWOL Electorate: What We Can Learn From Vanishing Voters," I suggested,
We participate less in politics for the same reason we stopped going to drive-in movies the way we used to, getting married as teenagers, making dinner at home, and, for men at least, wearing blue suits with white shirts and red ties: not because we can't, but because we don't want to. Our flesh is not weak when it comes to voting; it's just not willing.
The center of gravity in American life has shifted away from partisan politics and into other areas of activity in which individuals (and groups of individuals) have far greater hopes for gaining satisfaction. The big story in American life over the past few decades is not the decline in voter participation but the ever-increasing proliferation of options, of choices, and of identities in everyday life.
More here. Note that all the changes that have helped increase our choices in life have a political dimension, but most are far removed from politics per se. For instance, trade policy and other laws had an effect on the rise of the personal computer, but the PC revolution was mostly cooked up far away from (and often in defiance of and/or with blithe indifference to) government at all levels. The same goes for many, if not all, of the advances that fundamentally change our lives (notable exceptions include legally mandated and brutally enforced discrimination such as slavery and the disenfranchisement of women not from the vote so much, but from owning property, etc).
Sager is right, I think, that libertarians should take an interest in effecting specifically political change: immigration laws matter and so do drug laws and other areas where government gets to call more shots than it should. But we shouldn't forget that libertarianism is, in the end, a philosophy which seeks to shrink the political sphere to the smallest size possible precisely so we can get on with the real stuff of life.