This election cycle, more than any other, should serve as a reminder of what happens when compromise is made for the lesser of two evils. A century of unprincipled nominees constantly outbidding each other to see who can use the State to do the most to accomplish their goals has played right into the hands of so-called Progressives. Their ideology is one built around incrementalism, every small victory and gain in government strength is a win from their perspective. It’s no surprise, then, that the epitome of the compromising, backroom deal-making politician is represented from the left, this time, around, Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, we have a candidate in Donald Trump who rides the wave of angry populism- of a group of the voting population who are tired of being ignored and shushed by a Republican establishment more interested in solidifying their own political careers rather than standing on any real or imagined “conservative” principle.
The creators of South Park called out the sorry state of presidential politics in the United States in 2004 with their own episode on elections, hilariously highlighting that oftentimes the choice is between a “giant douche” or a “turd sandwich.” In this episode, the students are unwillingly divided against each other as they pick which candidate is least bad to suffer through. In a choice between two (in South Park’s case literally) terrible options, sometimes it’s better not to participate at all, or at the very least, use the opportunity that an election presents to spread a coherent message to finally break the population at large out of their false dichotomy. It would seem, in this election above all others, with candidates whose disapproval ratings rival their approval ratings, that the time would be ripe for a candidate from a third party, perhaps, with the title “Libertarian” to sweep in and claim the day, winning hearts and minds left and right. Alas, that train has gone off the rails.
The reason Progressivism has had its way, even while supposed “conservatives” have been in office, is because the ideology is fundamentally one of political gain and distribution. There will always be an injured party left out to pander to. The only issue is orchestrating which special interest gets their scraps at which time. For decades, the Democrats have championed growth in government domestically, while Republicans have been spreading the same scare tactics and drumming up the need to bomb democracy into any country they can. Together, through the welfare and warfare state, the government has grown and used its main cash engine, the Federal Reserve, to inflate the costs into future generations- all the while distorting markets and blaming the private sector for the inevitable costly results of government failure. Both Democrats and Republicans have been progressives: slowly growing the size and scope of the government to accomplish its goals. Whenever a new election rolls around, voters are often convinced, by one mainstream news outlet or the other, to simply roll with the one who could do the least damage. Eventually, the growth of the least bad becomes intolerable at any level, and society is left with no choice but between South Park’s applicable metaphor. Instead of looking for new ways to solve their problems, voters toe the party line hoping that it’ll be their turn to eat the leftovers from the King’s table. The thought never occurs to them that the issue is the King himself.
This is where the Libertarian Party has gone wrong. They’ve sacrificed principle for percentages. They’ve nominated a ticket of the lesser of three evils, determined to get into the presidential debates to combat the dastardly ideologies of Interventionism and Mercantilism with one of some Frankenstein’s monster answer to how the government should run our lives. Instead of standing up for private property rights, Gary Johnson would force you to bake the cake. Instead of standing up for free trade and the removal of barriers to entry, the ticket would vote for the TPP, an international monopoly privilege license, patent squat writ-large, and cronyist managed trade agreement. Instead of ending the Unholy American Empire, when pressed, Bill Weld would vote for Hillary, who has never seen a war she didn’t like. Instead of trying to change the paradigm of the American voter, the LP has sought a top-down method of changing the culture of a country- through the political system.
Libertarianism as a philosophy was never a political ideology, it has always been an anti-political ideology. As Franz Oppenheimer puts it, the “economic means” are the market means of satisfying human uneasiness. In this sphere exists the free market and voluntary transactions; that is, humans coming together peacefully to help each other for mutual gain. The “political means” are the means of force, of aggressing onto another’s property or person against their will and forcibly taking what was owned. The political means and the economic means are incompatible fields. As an ideology of nonaggression, of “don’t tread on me,” trying to compromise with the Progressives at their own game incrementally but eventually leads to a loss of liberty, and a conditioning of a population to seek a victory in the political, rather than the entrepreneurial, sphere.
The only way we, as libertarians, can achieve our victory is by changing hearts and minds. We have to change the game. If our goal is to get elected into political office at all, it should be to disrupt the game. Whether on the campaign trail or in office, the LP should seize upon the opportunities to contrast the ideology of peace and free markets with that of interventionist policies, not some kind of one-off middle of the road voter grab. Ron Paul proved this on his two presidential campaigns. The goal was never poll numbers, or TV commercials, or recognition for party chairmen. The goal was changing hearts and minds. In a game of completely sub-optimal outcomes, Ron Paul changed the rules and started a movement. In the face of tough questions, he stood by principles. Instead of trying to pander to alienated demographics for things they already liked by softening a message, he stood firm and introduced an entire generation to the philosophy of Liberty. He almost single-handedly revived interest in what the Federal Reserve was doing, ending the red-Keynesian/blue-Keynesian stranglehold on monetary policy.
It’s rather sad, then, to watch a party with the name of an ideology attached to it not stand by the principles of that ideology. Instead of taking this one golden opportunity to send a well-read, passionate, and excellent communicator of the anti-political philosophy, the party nominated a man who admits he has never read any Murray Rothbard.
But perhaps that’s what the party wants. Some “libertarians,” eager either for cultural approval or just a seat at the King’s table, seem frothing at the mouth to denounce those they deem too “uncompromising.” Rather than try to influence the cultural dog that wags the tail of politics, they’d rather grab it by the tail and try the levers of power for themselves. Instead of standing with conservatives or social liberals on single issues, they’ve taken the umbrella approach, muddle the philosophy enough to attract an entire range of misfits (at this point, an entire non-populist conservative movement). It seems like the party establishment would rather not spend time discussing the ideas of liberty themselves and actually changing minds, instead the LP finds themselves waking up giddy in the mornings excited that finally there are two candidates just bad enough for the swing voters to throw a pity bone to at the ballot booth. In both the case of left-libertarians seeking academic or cultural “acceptance,” and the tea-party wing wandering to the LP for this election in between Bushes, the LP has tried to sweep the intellectual and philosophical giants of Mises and Rothbard under the rug. Seriously, though, who’s better to fit the conservatarian ideal (and left-wing straw man) as a republican with a bong than Gary Johnson?
In recent weeks, some libertarians make it clear that they believe Rothbard and his followers are holding the party back. Well, if the goal of the party is the top-down approach of using government to solve the world’s ills, I’d say that’s the right thing to do. You can tell the narrow-mindedness from which even these “libertarians” seem only to think of things in terms of percentages or success in the political sphere, and mainly then on the national stage (where votes mean even less, statistically). Instead, they argue for us to adopt Milton Friedman, who appeals to left libertarians when advocating for the use of force for school vouchers, and the meandering right-wingers who occasionally come out in force against the minimum wage. In their eyes, Friedman has had a much bigger impact on policy than Rothbard, and therefore obviously much more success. Yet, the numbing effect of the withholding tax that he championed (and later rebuked), as well as becoming the reincarnation of Irving Fisher before the housing crash with his dreadfully wrong predictions of perpetual monetary prosperity, Milton Friedman might have done more damage to classical liberal thought than he contributed. He has become the perfect punching bag: put on a pedestal by some “libertarians” only to be knocked down by his own faults with ease. Friedman, while being a good debater and having worthwhile YouTube soundbites, doesn’t belong on the Mt. Rushmore of classical liberal heroes. Instead he is our own day’s Adam Smith- he’s good on most price controls, but comes with a time bomb ready to blow up in our own faces (in Smith’s case, the labor theory of value; in Friedman’s, the Chicago School’s disastrous track record on central banking).
In seeking acceptance and the golden ticket of political prestige, the LP has gone off the rails. Instead of firing up a movement, it has watered down a coherent philosophy for the sake of nuance. Its insiders and champions vehemently and venomously attack principled libertarians as “purists,” “utopists,” and “whiners.” Party members routinely call for a purge of the radicals. If Horton’s law is true, the way to attack each ideology is from its own principles, that is, the right from the right, the left from the left, and the libertarians (a completely separate ideology) from the perspective of liberty itself. Nobody likes being beaten at their own theory, and compromisitarians are no different. The LP had a golden moment to deliver the goods in this election by spreading a message and changing hearts and minds, instead, they’ve chosen the political route. They’ve chosen to play an entirely anti-libertarian game by the Progressives’ rules. Instead of fighting the ideologies of the giant douche and turd sandwich, the LP has taken a good healthy mix of both parties, and laid a giant turd.