February 18, 2004

Practical Libertarianism

Clayton Cramer has a good primer on why libertarian ideas are not that popular. Unfortunately, the title stinks a bit. I think that libertarian ideas are tremendously popular and fit in with a wide variety of people. The trouble is actually with Libertarians, not libertarians.

Libertarians with a capital are the organized forces that try to advance the ideology of libertarianism. They are often noted as 'big L' as opposed to 'little l' libertarians who have an intellectual affinity to the ideas but are not devoted to them as the core organizing principle of their life. The big L types are infamous for having all the flaws of that are pointed out in Cramer's article. They are limited demographically, they are hostile to religion, they are a bit culty and nutty in that they take things to extremes and blackball people out of the movement for not being enthusiastic about legalizing crack whoredom.

But a normal libertarianism exists, and finds its home in both major political parties as part of both major electoral coalitions and all major religious and social organizations. There are libertarians who are Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, every major stripe of Protestant, and all the rest. This is a libertarianism that is largely quiescent. It is uncomfortable with state solutions but it will not bolt from the room in horror just because somebody proposes a government fix for a problem.

A practical Libertarianism, if we are ever to detoxify and make the party a viable vehicle for libertarianism's ambitions has to recognize that a suboptimal practical solution will always beat out an impractical optimal solution.

Libertarianism has largely been lazy. There is little work that I can see on the problem of the Libertarian legislator honorably working in a minority capacity. Current 'big L' types insist that he be a Dr. No, and not engage in the normal give and take of legislative compromise to vote for bills that are improvements on the status quo but not completely libertarian solutions.

This demand for ideological fidelity takes away a great deal of a legislator's bargaining power. If you understand Libertarianism, you can accurately chart his voting behavior in advance. Thus Libertarian legislators, where they exist, are part of the voting terrain. They are never actors that must be accommodated.

In issue by issue, a libertarian argument can usually be made the the libertarian solution will just work better. Libertarian solutions thus have a ready and waiting set of allies, the non-ideological pragmatists and technocrats. But Libertarians turn off these groups by insisting on selling the ideology instead of selling the solution using pragmatist terms. It is pure laziness because the point of the exercise is to close the sale and win the vote and that's not viewed as the important part of the problem by the dominant strain of Libertarians.

Ideology is a heuristic, a sort of shortcut, that simply isn't strictly necessary. If libertarianism is truly functional (as I believe it is), you should be able to inductively go through the entire set of social problems that are currently being solved by government and demonstrate libertarian solutions that will work pragmatically. In fact, this sort of approach is superior because you will tend to pay a lot more attention to transition problems and not swamping the polity's capacity to change but rather growing that capacity to change.

This isn't to denigrate the theorists. They are important because they provide the shortcuts and jargon necessary to create strategy quickly and to identify functional end conditions. The sales job of going out there and traveling the road between where we are and where theory would take us is where Libertarianism is currently weakest.

Posted by TMLutas at February 18, 2004 10:26 AM