Free Minds & Free Markets

The Case For Back-Room Deals, Party Hacks & Unlimited Money in Politics

Jonathan Rauch's Political Realism argues that libertarians should embrace "transactional politics" if they want big changes.

"Libertarians forget that the winds are generally—socially, economically—in their favor," says Jonathan Rauch, author of the new Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy. "It is not in their interest to just obstruct on the grounds that everything gets worse if Congress does nothing. What really happens if Congress does nothing is power flows to the president, who does what he damn well pleases."

Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has a message that idealistic libertarians, progressives, and populists don't want to hear. Appropriations committees are good for us. So are unlimited political contributions to political parties and individual candidates. So are earmarks and even political hacks of all persuasions. What manner of madness is this?!?!

A longtime political reporter at National Journal and The Atlantic and the author of a shelf's worth of important books on topics from free speech to gay marriage to special-interest politics, Rauch's latest book, available as a free download at Brookings' site and at, provocatively argues that back-room deals and what used to be called "honest graft" actually strengthen our democracy.

Such dealings, he tells Reason's Nick Gillespie, are more than just necessary evils that grease the rusty wheels of politics and allow politicians to enact more laws. They're a fundamental way that human beings communicate and negotiate in a functioning democracy. And in a country that tilts toward individual freedom and libertarian values, he says, that is a good thing.

About 18 minutes. 

Produced by Todd Krainin. Vignettes by Joshua Swain.


Reason:  Hi, I’m Nick Gillespie with Reason TV and today we’re talking with Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution. His latest book is Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Backroom Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy. John, thanks for talking to us.

Jonathan Rauch: Nick, it’s always great to see you, and I’m glad to see you’ve changed to black today.

Reason:  That’s right. This is the Frankenstein ensemble, with a jacket and everything.

Rauch: The new Gillespie Look. 

Reason:  Yes. This book is fascinating. It’s available for free at the Brookings Institution website and Amazon. 

Rauch: It’s very short; only 16,000 words, so you can read it on your plane home. 

Reason:  It’s a particularly challenging document, I think, to libertarians, because what you’re saying is that there are problems with our political system and that libertarians, progressives, and populists are part of the problem here. That’s because as a general rule, we expect a kind of dogmatic allegiance to extreme ideological positions in the political realm. And that that crashes the system in a way that hurts everything. 

Talk a little bit about political realism. What do you mean by that term? And then let’s talk about why machine politics weren’t as bad as they usually are perceived to be. 

Rauch: So, the four-word bumper-sticker version of Political Realism is: “Let Politicians Be Politicians.” 

The very slightly longer explanation is: In order to organize politics, and for anything to work, you need political machines, or things that function like political machines. These are informal hierarchies that make politicians accountable to each other, because in our system politicians cannot reward and punish each other directly. It’s not like Britain where you can basically be fired if you vote against the party. So you have to create these networks where they incentivize each other, so that followers will follow leaders and that requires stuff like pork barrel spending and political machines. It requires some control of the ballot, so you can protect your people and they can take a tough vote. The problem is that if you’re an idealist, those kinds of machines and structures don’t look really good when you hold them up to the light and say is this perfect, is it beautiful? So we spent the last 40 years demolishing all of that equipment, and libertarians have been a big part of that. 

Reason:  The 2016 presidential race is a kind of example of the breakdown of the system that you’re talking about. You wouldn’t have a Donald Trump or a Ben Carson, or arguably a Bernie Sanders, running if political machines and if political party hierarchies were still functioning in a meaningful way. 

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  • Sir Chips Alot||

    lol wut?

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    His viewpoint is valid if, and only if, you start with the assumption that there must be a police power monopoly state.

    Otherwise, fuck off, slaver!

  • firstpriorities||

    My thoughts as well. His approach is sort of 'if you can't beat them join them'. No speaking of eliminating the use of government for personal/religious/whatever agendas. No mention of 'buzz off, live and let live'.

  • Robert||

    If you have a magic way to get that, be my guest. Otherwise, yeah, you can't beat them, so let's make the best deals we can, & keep up pressure for more.

  • dchang0||

    Yeah, but by participating in the bad system, one aids its growth.

    It is basically the choice one shopkeeper makes when the local Mafia demands that he pay protection money or see his shop burned to the ground. Of the principled responses he has, he can leave the neighborhood, shut down his business, go to war with the Mafia, or go to the (uncorrupted) law enforcement agencies (if any are left). None are great choices for a simple shopkeeper.

    But to go with the most popular corrupted response, he can pay the protection money, which helps the Mafia to grow and spread its thievery. He can go further and seek to actively help the Mafia, gaining more for himself in exchange but advancing the thievery further.

  • Vampire||

    Exactly Scarecrow.

  • mfckr||

    Libertarians have zero political leverage for any of this.

    Also, what Scarecrow said.

  • MC Guru||

    It's Krainin' men, halellujah it's Krainin men

  • ||

    Never heard that one before. :-|

  • woody the woodchipper||

    I appreciate the general tone of this. libertarians in general tend to be dogmatic. Libertarians should drop their dogmatism, drop the Austrian econ (Chicago School FTW), drop the ancaps, drop the rothbard and rand.
    Realize that we will never get rid of the welfare state (and that it may not be desirable to abolish it either) and that we will have some level or regulation.
    Realize that we often need to intervene abroad and that we should form a strategy that conforms loosely to our values.

  • woody the woodchipper||

    ANd embrace Friedman

  • Cytotoxic||

    Libertarians should drop their dogmatism, drop the Austrian econ (Chicago School FTW), drop the ancaps, drop the rothbard and rand. libertarianism -Shorter derp

  • woody the woodchipper||

    Embracing a more Friedmanite consequentialist version of libertarianism is the only way to makei progress and attract people.
    Sorry cyto Ayn rand is not a good face and Austrian econ is just demonstrably wrong. ABCT is not a sufficient explanation for most crises

  • mfckr||

    Lol. The only people that pay attention to shit Milton Friedman said are those 'dogmatic' Libertarians/Market Anarchists, etc.

    Nobody else cares about anything he's ever said, and they never will. Embracing Friedman is just as sure a path to irrelevance.

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    I embrace a Friedmanite consequentalist version of libertarianism. That's why I'm an anarchist, and while I don't annoy non-libertarians as much as Rothbardians or Randians do, I still have a lot of troubling attracting people.

  • woody the woodchipper||

    "I still have a lot of troubling attracting people."
    Because you are an anarchist

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    But I'm a Friedmanite consequentalist! Which is the only way to attract people, so what's the problem??

    Oh, it's my libertarian positions. So Cytotoxic is right.

  • woody the woodchipper||

    /no being a small goverment person is more attractive and reasonable than being an anrchist. anarchy is a cool thought experiment. polycentric law yada yada, but not at all realistic

  • mfckr||

    but not at all realistic

    Nor is the belief that co-opting Libertarians into the two big govt parties is somehow going to result in smaller govt.

  • Vampire||

    A cool thought experiment? Anarchy is very realistic. The problem is folks who scream about how bad and inefficient socialism is, only to embrace it as magically efficient and effective when it comes to the military and sometimes even security.

    Freedom (aka anarchy) is realistic. What is unrealistic is the belief that only "top men" should be able to rob folks and use violence against them, and that only when applied to what they believe in, such departments will be magically efficient.

  • Cytotoxic||

    "Anarchy is very realistic. "

    Well in the sense that '90s-era Somalia was real.

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    Why would anyone be "attracted" to my broader position? I don't go up to people saying "here's why you need to be an anarchist!" Likewise, no one's going to respond, "Oh, you believe in small government? Please, tell me more." I don't think I'm alone in saying that I talk to people about issues, not labels, and I usually approach an issue in a way the audience already sympathizes with. No one I met has been with me on pot decriminalization and then changed their position if/when they find out I think the state has no legitimacy at all.

    What's hilarious is that you're the one being dogmatic here. No ancaps argh blarg! The Friedmanite thing to say is probably what Friedman himself said to his ancap son: I disagree with your conclusion, but do continue trying to persuade others.

  • Cytotoxic||

    Have fun trying to get results with a movement that has no serious coherent philosophical core. Say hi to The Conservative Movement on Mt. Useless.

  • woody the woodchipper||

    People dont care about philosophy. Neither of the parties have coherent philosophies, its just gimme gimme gimme and tell me what i want to hear

  • Cytotoxic||

    The Chicago school monetarists have failed spectacularly. Thanks, but no thanks to that heaping helping of derp.

  • woody the woodchipper||

    How so? And have you looked into Sumner's market monetarism?

  • ace_m82||

    You can stimulate the economy by... the magic of messing with the money supply! Yay! Dollars for everybody!

    Production is where wealth comes from. Anyone who says otherwise is an idiot or is trying to sell you something.

  • toolkien||


    But we are SO FAR beyond that, to the point of critical mass, and people want MORE free shit.

    If we don't throw a line to pull this thing back to reality, then we do no good at all. If the attitude is "the line is drawn here and no further" we are ALREADY Wile E. Coyote standing fifteen feet off the cliff, we just haven't looked down yet.

    In short, even so many libertarians are ignorant of just where we stand fiscally, economically, and monetarily.

    Or put another way, who the fuck is out there cutting my 50% tax, regulation, debasement confiscation back down to some reasonable % (like 25-30%)?

    No one.

    The parasites are eating the host from the inside out and outside in. And it's gone three decades past "compromise".

    The whole bubble nearly burst seven years ago, and all we did was strap another $7,000,000,000,000 of stupidity to the blasting caps, and I'm supposed to "reasonable".

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Hear, hear. Why is it that the compromises always involve taking more out of my pocket?

  • Akira||


    The voting public is not ready for pure libertarianism at this point. We have to give them seemingly ordinary candidates with a libertarian streak, like Rand Paul.

    "Abolish all occupational licensing and end all welfare programs immediately" is simply not going to happen anytime soon. Yes, it's the philosophical ideal, but it's just not possible. If people want libertarianism to be anything more than a little meme on comment sections, they have to learn to wheel and deal and play the political game, as disgusting as it may be.

    Libertarians should put the most attractive aspects forward and put it in terms that most people can agree with. Learn to use terms like "income inequality" when discussing how stupid government policies prevent people from improving their lot.

    Someone on here said one time, "you can be right, or you can win." Take that to heart if you actually want to take some steps toward Libertopia rather than talk and talk and talk about the details of this theoretical Libertopia that exists in your mind.

  • woody the woodchipper||


  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    Oh please, this is all more masturbatory than the "dogmatic" libertarians sketching out Libertopia. Who are you talking about? What policies do you see enacted, and how? Are you talking about the Libertarian Party getting Serious and moderating its positions? Maybe if they're not so radical about occupational licensing they'll pull... 1.3% of the vote. Huzzah!

    Or are we talking libertarian-leaning Republicans or Democrats? They're moderate enough, though it doesn't matter how far they moderate their positions. No one talks about ending all welfare programs immediately. The most that gets discussed is tweaking who gets what benefits when. Such middling proposals are characterized as starving the masses and are difficult to pass, especially in a form that actually saves money or increases liberty. The best a libertarian-leaning candidate do is offer those kinds of policies, while also surviving the culture war.

    Cato, Reason, Rand Paul, Justin Amash, etc., all provide sensible policy proposals to nudge us a little closer to a libertarian country. What more do you expect, and why do you think it would be any more successful than it has been so far?

    If libertarians need to wake up, it's waking up to the fact that most people don't want what we're selling. That's that.

  • woody the woodchipper||

    So just give up and cry?

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    Don't expect politics to accomplish much, if anything. And when politics does fail you, don't blame the "dogmatists" as if it's all their fault for not being moderate enough.

  • woody the woodchipper||

    So nothing could be done to advance liberty? Just muh agorism? I already use dnms

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    No more than what's being done currently. A few technological breakthroughs that undermine the state, the occasional policy emerges that is more good than bad, maybe there's a floating city that gains sovereignty.

    Again, what are you proposing? What do you envision happening when Lew Rockwell says, "OK, the welfare state is fine, but let's rethink Medicaid payments"? The LP actually gets someone elected? GOP voters flock to candidates good on regulatory issues but with no strong position on abortion? Anyone gives a shit about monetary policy?

  • mfckr||

    What's funny is that woody apparently believes this is a new idea and that people haven't already been trying this for decades now.

  • Cytotoxic||

    To be fair, an electable Libertarian Party might do some good on the political front. Costa Rica made it happen.

  • Robert||

    Maybe some more people start saying it, & then maybe Medicaid payments actually get rethought.

  • Akira||

    My post was in response to the people on this comments section who say "fuck off, slaver" to anyone who advocates anything other than an overnight transition to pure anarcho-capitalism.

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    Ah! That's it! It's Internet commenters holding America back! Damn us! Gary Johnson could have gotten 2%, if only we had kept our mouths shut.

    No one here fits your strawman. And why do you think none of us put our most attractive aspects forwards and use buzzwords like income inequality when it suits us? It's really a funny complaint to lodge here; you're not at infowars or ronpaulforums or We're some of the least aggressive libertarians on the Internet. (...well, aggressive in terms of dogmatism) There is very little grouching about any "transgressions" by Rand Paul. Alternative tax schemes that don't start with "abolish all taxes" are seriously discussed. Ditto welfare and regulatory reforms. Cato usually only gets shit if they propose something that might be counterproductive (e.g. replacing gas taxes with per-mile fees). Etc.

  • Cytotoxic||

    This. Amusingly, you actually allude to a better point Akira could make. Gary Johnson should be a senator, but he wanted to play fantasy games with the LP. Now that would be a good example of libertarians doing it wrong.

  • Cytotoxic||

    We need to be careful to segment our efforts.

    Our efforts to elect politicians absolutely must be pragmatic not dogmatic and will have to be for a long time.

    Our efforts to build a movement must be based on a philosophy ('dogma' as some would slur it) or it cannot succeed.

    "Learn to use terms like "income inequality" when discussing how stupid government policies prevent people from improving their lot."

    Oh give us all a freakin' break. This was tried with OWS. Those retards want Collective Power Uber Alles and 'income inequality' is just a talking point to justify it. You can't fight for capitalism with weapons designed to destroy it! Thanks for reaffirming my Objectivism.

  • MJGreen - Docile Citizen||

    Perusing this, I agree that these are all important parts of a functioning democracy. That's why I'm not a fan of democratic politics.

    Or, what Scarecrow already said.

  • Foo_dd||

    while i appreciate the concept that absolutism is not always helpful, and compromise is often needed..... the idea that earmarks and pork can be good is more naive than the absolutist positions he is arguing against.

    the only good example he gave was Utah. and they did not use riders, or "incentives" to get the law.... they talked and talked for years until they had something they could agree on. there is nothing illegal about talking, and reaching an understanding. the problem is that the sides are not willing to talk things out.

    with earmarks, the point is to get someone to vote for something that they (or the people who vote for them... translation of "tough" votes) do NOT agree with. it is lazy legislating, and probably a big reason so many of our laws are so terrible now... they don't bother getting to a workable law that people can agree to, they just throw enough people a bone to get them to agree.

    as for the lack of money and power of the party... GOOD!!! we need to stop looking at everything as R vs D, and look more at the people we elect.

  • to_each_his_own||

    "with earmarks, the point is to get someone to vote for something that they (or the people who vote for them... translation of "tough" votes) do NOT agree with. it is lazy legislating, and probably a big reason so many of our laws are so terrible now... they don't bother getting to a workable law that people can agree to, they just throw enough people a bone to get them to agree"

    A bit of a stretch, but that could be used to describe a voluntary, mutually beneficial transaction.

    i.e. in the market there is a price for everything..

  • Foo_dd||

    "A bit of a stretch, but that could be used to describe a voluntary, mutually beneficial transaction"

    by this logic, progressives are actually libertarian? if you give people free stuff to get their vote, is that not voluntary and mutually beneficial? (even if it impacts more than just the people involved directly in the transaction?) the stuff they are giving to the people to get their vote is stolen from the rest of us, and earmarks are a way to force it through, by attaching it to unrelated laws, or budgets that they need to or should pass.

    if you think earmarks are good, then you think waste of taxpayers money for things not even related to the law being passed is good. nothing market about it.

  • DonW||

  • DonW||

    This is what you said.

  • Devil's Candy||

    Um....I don't want it to be easier for Congress to get "stuff" done. That sounds dangerous to me. In fact the only "stuff" I want them doing is getting rid of the old "stuff" they've already done.

  • Beowulf||

    That is really the key point - I want my congressman to do his best to prevent bad laws from being enacted. Period. Getting stuff done is not necessarily a valid goal. Keeping people from screwing things up worse than they already are is always beneficial.

    I found Rauch's argument largely uncompelling... to blame Libertarians for the decline of the system is to give them credit for power that i have never seen them possess, much less exercise.

  • Homple||

    a "do-nothing Congress" is sort of like a "do-nothing arsonist."

    ...Twittermeister Iowahawk

  • ||

    TEAM BLUE/RED, aka TEAM BE RULED: "Come on, baby, why don't you go down on me again? I promise not to come in your mouth this time."

    Fuck you, Rauch.

  • Robert||

    TL;DR yet, but so far it looks like he's saying what I've tended to say here & elsewhere for years, which is:

    (1) Accept that politicians exist to be influenced. That's their job. Especially elected representatives. They're not supposed to believe in anything, although it's OK if they do as long as they don't let their beliefs interfere w their jobs.

    (2) As RAW wrote, "Convictions make convicts." Judging issues morally is bad for you if you take it too seriously. Better adopt an attitude that there is no absolute good or bad, and that people who take the bad side are not bad persons, they just disagree w you.

    (3) The people who disagree w you are just like you in the most important ways. What you think about them, they think about you. Neither of you can prove the other wrong. That's what opinion is.

    (4) Although there's no absolute good or bad, there's always better or worse. Go for better.

  • JFree||

    I think the guy is completely correct that transactional politics is the only way to ever get anything done in DC.

    And I suppose if you think that libertarian ideas will ever be implemented by DC from the top-down; then I suppose libertarians should embrace transactional politics.

    Me? I think the only solutions to anything are gonna be local. And the only tough part is gonna be breaking the dependence on DC - and centralized intermediaries (incl Reason).


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