Political Gimmicks Won't Increase Freedom

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Perhaps it’s understandable, given the sad state of American society, that freedom lovers are reduced to promoting gimmicks and quick fixes as the means to restore some semblance of liberty in a country that is growing more totalitarian by the hour.

Gimmicks always backfire.

For instance, I’ve been writing about the Assembly races in the March 2 Republican primary here in Orange County. This county is known as a hotbed of conservatism, an affluent suburban county that remains a Republican stronghold even after immigration-driven demographic shifts have created some solid Democratic areas.

Yet after the Republican primary — except in one seat, whoever wins the GOP primary wins the general election — it’s highly likely that the county will not send a single conservative to the lower house. Liberal Republicans, including a prominent backer of Bill Clinton in 1996, have better than even odds of winning their races.

This is a result of term limits, pushed forward by conservatives who thought they would force out of office the liberal Democrats who controlled Sacramento. Well, they did. But they forced out the principled conservatives also. The new Democrats elected after term limits are far more liberal than the previous ones, and the new Republicans are more liberal than the ones they have replaced.

Talk about unintended consequences.

Earlier this week, I met an activist friend of mine who is pushing forward another proposal designed to help conservatives. He wants to create a district election system in a city that elects its council members on an at-large basis. It’s polling pretty well, and the idea makes some sense. Only candidates who can raise big money across the entire city now have a chance to win, which means that even though the city is overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, the council is dominated by left-wing Democratic environmentalists. Elect candidates in districts, he argues, and neighborhoods will rule.

I like the idea. But I noticed that one of the first backers of the plan is the police union. Police unions are motivated by one thing only: controlling city councils so they can shake them down for higher salaries and more generous pension benefits. Cynic that I am, I fear that the district system will make it easier for cops to buy council members with a lot less money.

I still hope the measure passes and better candidates get elected to council, but it’s hard to promote freedom by jiggering the system. We might gain some temporary gains, perhaps, but rarely will anything like this make permanent changes. Government is like rust; it never sleeps. Government officials, and the maggot groups that feed off of government, always are looking for new ways to exploit whatever new rules are in place. That’s why government grows, no matter what process is in place.

This week, after exiting one of those rubber-chicken luncheons, I was cornered by a couple of Libertarian Party candidates who are running longshot races for the California Assembly and the U.S. Congress. My columns have steadfastly ignored their existence, but they were gracious nonetheless.

They weren’t bad guys, and unlike some of the third-party candidates I’ve met over the years, they wore good-fitting clothing, combed their hair and didn’t emit horrendous bodily smells. But they were typical of such candidates, in that they are throwing themselves into the political process even though they have absolutely zero chance of winning. If they get 3 percent of the vote, they will be partying on Election Day. They will tell themselves that they made a difference and were well on the way to smashing the two-party state.

This is electioneering as gimmickry, a pointless exercise that will do nothing other than waste people’s time.

Of course, their approach isn’t that much worse than an approach I have tried many times. That is, voting for the lesser of two evils — i.e., supporting the Republican candidate who cannot possibly be as bad as the commie Democrat who is running. That’s what I always tell myself, although I am not going to do it this time. I vow to hang tough this election. I promise.

Did you read the newspapers on Thursday and see the stories about President George W. Bush’s proposal to significantly increase the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, the unconstitutional federal agency that doles out millions of taxpayer-dollars to perverted and profane artists who like to photograph men with bullwhips inserted in unusual places and submerge religious objects in urine?

Thank goodness for a conservative president, huh? Conservatives are so stupid, though, they will probably go along with the game given that Bush has promised to earmark most of the new money for a program promoting American masterpieces. Welfare is fine to many conservatives, as long as that welfare benefits the "right" things.

The NEA proposal is a small insult, I suppose, after enduring President Bush’s foreign wars, the Patriot Act, record deficits and federal spending. Tax cuts were nice, but other than that there’s nothing to recommend this administration, nothing to justify the "lesser of two evils" approach. There’s no gimmick I can think of to fix this.

Let’s be realistic. Voting for major-party candidates doesn’t advance liberty. Nor does supporting hapless third-party crusaders. Staying home doesn’t do anything either. Around and around we go, trying to figure out what to do to promote liberty and stop the endless growth of the state. We propose new initiatives and legislative ideas, but nothing ever works.

Some "libertarians" have even stopped trying to figure out a solution, arguing instead that America continues to get freer and groovier with each passing year simply because consumer goods, pornography, narcotics and unusual forms of sex are more readily available than ever before. That’s an interesting delusion, but it’s a delusion just the same.

Others have chosen the wrong-headed path of despair. But if Ludwig von Mises didn’t despair, as totalitarianism marched across the globe, neither should we.

But we should get to work. We must start by understanding that there are no quick fixes or easy answers. There are no new political processes or other gimmicks that will give us what we want. We can change the election rules or redistrict the electorate, but we cannot make our fellow Americans love liberty rather than statism.

We can present them with the truth, however. We can state things forcefully and in a principled manner.

I take heart from a group of traditional Catholics I know here in Orange County. Their predicament within their own church is similar to the predicament libertarians face within our own culture. The American Catholic Church has become dominated by liberals who despise its true teachings, and who are subverting every thing from the sacraments to architecture. We live under leaders who despise the true teachings of the founders. Our new leaders hate liberty, and are doing every thing they can to turn us into slaves. (It’s a pretty good analogy, but not perfect, so spare me the emails on the subject.)

My Catholic friends aren’t trying to jigger the rules or organize to get rid of their corrupt bishops. They are spreading the truth, explaining to anyone who will listen what has happened to the church and building a grassroots love of its teachings. If enough Catholics learn about what is going on in the dioceses, and rededicate themselves to their faith, my friends believe that a groundswell will occur that will shake things up and foment a return to Christ and His teachings. It’s a bottom-up model that is better to emulate than the political-action model that is the first-reach approach of many of our allies. My Catholic friends understand — as should libertarians — that this is a long and painful process, one that will yield as many setbacks as victories. But they are on to something.

To that end, Web sites such as this one are an invaluable service. Without first building the intellectual case for liberty, the practical effects will never take place. Without making the unabashed case for liberty, liberty will never triumph. I’m not of the mindset that eschews politics.

We can ignore politics, but it won’t ignore us. I just don’t think it should be our prime focus. Even political changes that really shake things up have unforeseen consequences. In California, Prop. 13 was a shot across the bow of the political establishment. It imposed real limits on property taxation and saved people from being taxed out of their homes. But 26 years later, the results are mixed. Property taxes remain low, but government has exploited redevelopment law to keep their coffers filled to the brim.

Cities mainly shifted their focus to securing sales taxes instead of property taxes, and as a result abuse eminent domain to take homes and businesses and churches and replace them with big-box stores that provide sales tax bonanzas.

The best thing we can do is change the climate of debate, influence our friends and neighbors, and build a grassroots movement that advances liberty.

People do change their thinking, by the way. In my newspaper work, I often write in defense of individual people’s property rights and freedoms. But I never skip the chance to give the people I defend a lecture: "You see how important this issue is to you. Now, you need to care about the rights of other people in other predicaments."

It works, sometimes. People do change their minds, they do shift their thinking, even if they are reluctant to change their affiliations. I have a "left-wing" friend who agrees with me about war, regulation, many areas of freedom. I have "right-wing" friends who agree with me also. Who really cares what they call themselves?

In China, the nation is moving in a capitalist direction while still calling it communism. In America, we are moving toward a communist system while calling it freedom. I am not saying I would rather live in China, given how unfree that country still remains. But I would rather live in a "communist" country that is free than a "free" country that is communist.

I’m really not sure how we can stop the slide toward statism. There are no easy answers. But that’s the point. This is a long road and there are no shortcuts.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Orange County Register.

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