The state of the liberty movement in the Trump era

My friend Jack Hunter, Editor of RARE Liberty, recently wrote a piece asking (and answering) an important question:  Who are We? The Liberty Movement in the Trump Era.

In the article, Jack recounts the history of the modern libertarian -- or "liberty"movement (starting with Ron Paul's 2008 campaign) -- looks at the current situation, examines the various factions within the movement (right-libertarians, left-liberation, those who work in politics, and those who work with ideas in think tanks, the academy, or in journalism). The piece is quite long, but IMNSHO, worth the read.

Jack suggests there are core beliefs that everyone who calls themselves "libertarian" share and that should form the basis for unity among the various factions:

  1. A sincere dedication to smaller, constitutional government that both parties ignore (big government also being anti-free market).
  2. The promotion of a restrained, prudent, and non-interventionist foreign policy.
  3. Standing up for civil liberties that both parties abuse.
  4. Putting principles before parties -- or shattering what some have called the “false left-right paradigm.”
  5. Championing individualism over the collectivist ideologies that plague the left and right.

I agree with Jack's four core principles. Those who try to claim there is one -- and only one -- set of cultural or social values compatible with libertarianism -- and therefore anyone not sharing those values is not a true libertarian -- are making both a philosophical and political mistake.

Libertarianism is not a philosophy that provides a guide to living the "good life." It is simply a political and economic philosophy regarding the proper role of government. Central to the idea of libertarians is the idea that people have the right to choose their own cultural and social values as long as those values do not involve the use of force or fraud against others. Thus, libertarianism is compatible with a wide variety of lifestyle choices.

This openness to various cultural and social values is one of the movement's strengths. The liberty movement is one of -- if not the only -- a few movements that can bring together evangelical Christians with secular humanists, as long as both agree to never use force to impose their values on others. As Ron Paul says, "Liberty brings people together."

Insisting that people pass a litmus test unrelated to the core ideas of liberty is not just philosophically unsound, it is a political mistake as it drives people away from libertarianism. There is also a danger that drafting a cultural or social agenda unrelated to liberty will cause some who call themselves libertarian to support the use of state power to make people "worthy" of liberty.

This happened in 19th Century Europe, where some liberals supported infringements on religious liberty in order to promote "true" liberty. It also happened in early 20th Century America when some liberals decided simple liberation from state oppression was not enough. In order to make freedom meaningful, the state needed to actively promote and protect the interests of the "common man," even if it meant violating the rights of others and treating the so-called "beneficiaries" like children. The result was the morphing of American liberalism from a philosophy that supported limited government and free-markets to one that supported a welfare and regulatory state.

While I agree with much of what Jack writes here, I have a different perspective on some of the ideas expressed in this paragraph:

Some libertarians have wondered over the years why I talk about Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie so much, harping on figures instead of just libertarian ideas. Because I believe that it is human nature that people will flock to personalities they feel embody their beliefs, as opposed to the ideas themselves without any context. If you were ever a liberty event organizer over the last decade, tell me—could you draw a bigger crowd when Ron Paul was running for president or during non-election years? Might Judge Andrew Napolitano talking about civil liberties draw a larger audience than just a general discussion on the issue? People want champions. Celebrities often inspire people, even in politics. For good or ill, wanting to cheer people who reflect our identities is in our DNA. It took a person, Ron Paul, to take libertarianism to new heights in our politics and culture. Ron Paul was and is a symbol. Paul, Amash and Massie are ideological symbols, particularly in our movement. Conservatism needed a Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to become more than what it had been before them. Progressives needed a Bernie Sanders in this election, and socialism got a respectable public hearing and renewed interest in 2016 due almost entirely to him. Historically, you will be hard-pressed to find political movements that did not center on personalities.

It is true charismatic figures can play a vital role in helping ideological movements bring their ideas into the mainstream. Murray Rothbard also agreed with this. For an example, see his article "Assassination-Left and Right"  in the Mises Institute's collection  Never a Dull Moment: A Libertarian Looks at the Sixties.

Ron Paul's success in spreading libertarian ideas is a great example of how a political figure can popularize ideas that were once considered "fringe," and Rand Paul, Thomas Massie, Justin Amash, and other pro-liberty elected officials are doing great jobs of advancing liberty.

However, there is a danger in over-emphasizing the importance of charismatic leaders -- especially charismatic political figures. An ideological movement that gets too fixated on political leaders may forget politicians are supposed to serve the ideas and goals of the movement, not the other way around. Anyone who doubts this should look at the behavior of most conservatives and progressives during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama.

A focus on electing and protecting "our guys" will lead activists to "trim their sails" by modifying their agenda and refraining from discussing certain "radical" ideas.

There is also the risk that what began as a movement about ideas will degenerate into a  personality cult. These type of movements may be successful in winning elections and gaining access to power but are spectacular failures when it comes to enacting their agenda into law.

It has become common for so-called "realist" libertarians to scorn those who advocate for "extreme" positions (like ending the Federal Reserve) as unrealistic purists. But the truth is, it is the so-called realists who are being unrealistic. By tailoring their message to make it acceptable to the political elites, these so-called "pragmatists" are guaranteeing that political  "center of gravity" will never move toward liberty. Instead, the "realists" will be pulled more and more toward statism.

Candidates who market themselves as libertarian but who water down -- or worse yet, sell out the message -- set our movement back. This is because of what Murray Rothbard called the "even X" phenomenon. Statists love it when a libertarian advocates increasing government power, because they then have an example to point to claiming "responsible" libertarians support state action in this area. This makes it more difficult for those arguing against this policy.

Instead of worrying about how to make our message  "acceptable" to the political elite, the liberty movement should focus on mobilizing pro-liberty Americans to force politicians to vote for liberty and make today's "fringe" libertarian idea tomorrow's "mainstream" position.

Those who doubt that refusal to compromise one's long-term goals for short-term gain is an effective strategy should consider that just 15 years ago, you would have been dismissed as a kook had you suggested a majority of states would be Right to Work and have some form of legalized marijuana. And just a decade ago, no one thought Audit the Fed would pass the House twice, come within six votes of breaking a Senate filibuster, be included in the Republican Party Platform, and have the endorsement of the President. These victories are all due to years of hard work by dedicated individuals who would not listen to those who were willing to put aside their long-term goals to focus on a "realistic" agenda.

One split in the movement Jack touches on is the divide between the "educators" and the "activists" or political types. I always thought this was a ridiculous conflict, as an effective movement needs both.

And while it may seem self-serving, I think Campaign for Liberty's efforts to mobilize Americans to put enough pressure on legislators that even the bad guys are pressured to vote for liberty is a more effective way to advance liberty than trying to elect a majority of "good people."

Some "political" libertarians view studying libertarian philosophy, economics, and history as a waste of time. But the truth is, it is vital that those working to advance liberty -- whether they are running for elected office, grassroots activists, or journalists -- master our philosophy. This is because (to paraphrase Jerome Tuccille of It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand) they will be required to defend positions that have been under attack for centuries. If they are unable to defend these positions, they will fail to advance liberty.

One comment Jack makes that is sure to raise eyebrows in certain circles is his mention that his favorite thing about Murray Rothbard was that he encouraged libertarians to get involved in practical politics. Jack combines this praise with criticism of Rothbard for aligning himself with "extreme" movements.

I think Jack is a little unfair to Rothbard. Rothbard did not form alliances with "extreme" movements for the sake of extremism. In fact, his goal was to move radical libertarians from the "fringe" to the mainstream. Throughout the majority of his life as the leading libertarian theorist and promoter, most "mainstream" movements were hopelessly devoted to the welfare-warfare state, and Rothbard refused to make alliances with those who supported the warfare state -- he saw war as the most destructive government program and the quickest way the people lost their liberties. During the Cold War, adhering to a strict non-interventionist position meant one would have to find allies among those labeled -- both fairly and unfairly -- as radical extremists.

Rothbard's strategic vision also rested on the insight that the state and the elites who benefit from the state are unlikely to voluntarily relinquish power. Therefore, in addition to working with organizations like the Mises Institute to develop libertarian ideas and build up a libertarian "cadre," libertarians must pursue a strategy to educate the masses on how big government harms them and mobilize as many as possible to roll back the state.  Rothbard's interest in a populist strategy also led him to embrace those labeled as extremists.

Read Rothbard on strategy here and here.

While I disagree with Jack that Rothbard's involvement in practical politics is his most admirable quality, I do think one of Rothbard's many admirable qualities was his interest in -- and work toward -- building a real-world libertarian movement. I also admire him for not just considering questions of strategy but also integrating strategy into his scholarship, as shown by his "libertarian manifesto," For a New Liberty and his major work on the philosophical bias of libertarianism, The Ethics of Liberty.  

Whatever disagreements I have with Jack Hunter, I appreciate his willingness to look honestly at the state of the liberty movement and think seriously about strategy. I also thank Jack for inspiring me to think about strategic questions.

Campaign for Liberty continues to pursue the mobilization of pro-liberty Americans to push politicians to support pro-liberty positions.  Please support our efforts.

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