Should Libertarians Switch from Politics to Culture?

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A fundamental problem with libertarian politics is that libertarianism is a very unpopular political ideology. If you use Presidential vote count, libertarians get about 1% to 3% of the tally. In public opinion surveys, people who favor both liberal economics and liberal social policy might add up to about 10% to 15%. While Salon writers believe libertarians have taken over government, the truth is much more mundane. Libertarian policy proposals tend to be ignored. They are only implemented when the interests of one of the major parties happens to move in the right direction. Furthermore, Libertarian Party candidates very rarely win elections.

There are many responses to this position. One is simply to insist on the “Long March.” Just dig in and build the movement or party. If activists work hard enough, libertarianism will gain a real following. I don’t think this approach is crazy. Some small movements eventually have a big impact over the long term, but I remain skeptical. I’d love to see a world with less war, less social regulation, and more liberalized markets, but I am not betting money that libertarian political activism will be a process that brings that world into being.

My skepticism about libertarian political activism is rooted in a basic belief about political psychology. What people want out of politics is not freedom. Rather, they want states that do a few things. First, people want state to provide to services. Today, states provide a wide range of services from swimming pools to college education to social insurance to national defense. And it seems very hard for most people to believe that limiting states to law enforcement, defense and a handful of other activities is desirable or normal. Second, people want states to punish their enemies. It could be people in another country, or immigrants, or any group that is viewed as a threat, abnormal, or distasteful. Third, people want states to be an emergency institution of last resort. When banks fail, insurers go broke, or when floods hit, people want states to clean up the mess.

The purpose of this essay is not to persuade you about this theory of political psychology. Instead, accept it for now and ask, “now what?” If 97% of the population loves government services, wants government to punish enemies, and wants the state to underwrite the rest of society, then what should a political movement do if it is anti-statist? If you think that states are either immoral or ineffective, then what is the plan for social change? At most, libertarian politics will be a side show or niche product. Occasionally, a libertarian might be in a position of influence and be able to push policy, such as when Milton Friedman effectively argued against the draft. At other times, libertarian ideas might match up with other forces. Right now, it is very easy for libertarians to join with progressives to demand more accountability for police.

Still, those moments are rare. There aren’t a lot of Milton Friedmans who can glide between policy and academia. It’s also rare that major movement appears, like Black Lives Matter, that just happens to overlap with some libertarian ideas. Even then, long-standing libertarian critics of police power, like Rodney Balko, don’t seem to be the ones driving conversation. Adding insult to injury, the political party that was willing to entertain libertarian has now gone into a deep and distressing nationalism.

One strategy is to turn from libertarian politics to libertarian culture. There may be value in having a formal party, or political candidates, but it may be wise to recognize that the biggest impact may be in “by passing” the state and instead focusing on what you can control, which is culture. This would entail a mix of different social practices. The most humble is to simply implement a liberal sensibility in every day life. Don’t participate in cancel culture. Try to empathize with people who have very different politics than you. Don’t pass judgment on others.

But there is more than that. For example, the number of people in the creative arts who instill libertarian or classical liberal ideas is fairly small. Instead of trying to influence Congress by getting a gig at the Cato Institute, why not get a regular “day job” and write libertarian novels? Another approach to is to build social institutions that emphasize voluntary participation. Already, there are Voluntaryist websites that will help you get involved in social services.

Moving into cultural production and cultivating voluntary social institutions has a number of advantages. First, we already live in a relatively liberal society. As long as you don’t openly antagonize the state, the US government will often let you do your thing. Second, it is much easier to export culture than politics. If you make a video or a music track with your point of view, it’s easier to get people to listen than having your local Congressman take your phone call. Third, there is bundling. If you develop an institution of some sort that provides a genuine benefit, you can also use it to advertise your ideas. This is why many religious groups continue to have hospitals and schools. They provide a genuine benefit, but it also provide the religion with a positive face.

I wish libertarian political activists well. A democratic society needs a consistent voice for limited government and individual autonomy. Still, I’m not expecting political activism to be a huge factor in affecting what states actually do. Instead, a better alternative might be to build a more libertarian culture.

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