Wisdom vs. reality

Libertarian ‘wisdom’ vs. ‘real’ politics

“Of course the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you –
if you don’t play, you can’t win
.” (Robert Heinlein)

Libertarians are very passionate people. We’re often called weirdoes (we have our share) and fanatics (bless’em all), a characterization we embrace with pride, believing “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

As with most “revolutionary” movements, libertarians have formulated some basic tenets or wisdom we, more or less, accept without question: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Politicians lie. Government doesn’t work. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Taxation is theft.

Unfortunately, as with all too many revolutionary movements, this devotion, dedication and adherence to our tenets sometimes ignores reality.

One of the leading examples of this is the belief that “most people are libertarian but don’t know it yet.”

Reality is somewhat less appealing. Libertarians who’ve been involved with any municipal planning or zoning process know “it ain’t so.” The reality is that, in the United States, in the 21st Century, “most people” have come to expect government to do certain things.

Most people expect local government to pick up the garbage, maintain the streets, provide water and sewer services and police and fire protection. They expect zoning regulations and local ordinances to prevent their neighbor from building a 24-hour convenience store in his back yard.

Most people don’t think government, especially local government, is totally evil, even if they don’t like something the government is doing. Nor do the loath “The State.”

This is not to say the people don’t have problems with government or are not opened to the idea of liberty. It is just that they have become accustomed to the reality of government. Nor is this an indictment of people as “sheeple,” an expression I personally dislike. It pains me to hear libertarians speak of the people with such disdainful phrases.

I’m an adherent of the view that “all politics is local.” Politics means being on the side “of the people,” as Marxist-turned-neocon David Horowitz has observed. Much of the success the Libertarian Party has had has been at the local level, even when our candidates don’t win.

These libertarian candidates have one thing in common. They’re engaged in political reality at their local level, serving on appointed advisory boards, working in civic groups and setting an example of how liberty and responsibility can work in their community.

People don’t grasp theory – they need to see practical solutions. They ask like: What’s in it for me? How will it affect me and my family? Will my taxes go up?

It may be distressing to libertarians to hear this, but people have come to see government not as a necessary evil but as simply a fact. In many case, the people see no other way to get things done. Libertarians view this as a sad commentary on the legacy of our nation’s Founders, but it is the modern reality.

This is a key point. People have come to expect government to do certain things because they have never been exposed to a better way. Libertarians engaged in the local community must show then that freedom works.

Government exists whether we libertarians like it or not. If we are to have any success in restoring liberty to our nation, we need to live with and operate in this reality. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, we need to demonstrate to the people that the libertarian way has not been tried and found wanting, it has found to be hard and left untried.

Another belief Libertarians are adamant about is the concept of self-government. Many libertarians, especially our radicals, take this to mean that the individual should be total master of him or her self, than any limit or infringement on individual liberty by anyone or any thing in any form is tyranny.

Self-government, however, may have another meaning if you consider that man is a social animal. While rugged individualism is an American ideal, and has and does exist in our society, most people also need and seek community. Even in the “frontier days,” when a man was striking out on his own, family in tow, other individuals came together in voluntary association to help him build his barn.

In other words, wherever two or three are gathered, there will be government in the midst.

Individualism and community may be concepts in tension at times, but tension is good. One compliments the other.

David Boaz once said that libertarians will tolerate the existence of a socialist community, but socialists can’t tolerate a libertarian community. We need to apply that same spirit. Libertarians must learn to accept and tolerate the people’s expectations of government, while at the same time working to change them

Some may call this idea “practical libertarianism,” “incremental libertarianism” or “reform libertarianism.” I reject hyphenated labels. In fact, I find the eternal debate between the radical and reform libertarian factions distracting, wasteful, largely meaningless … and rather annoying.

The radicals quote Hazlitt and Misses, when they should be quoting Jefferson and Madison. The reformers talk about “dumbing-down the platform” when they should be developing practical libertarian solutions to local issues.

Neither side gets it. We need you both. The Libertarian Party and the libertarian movement needs both radicals and reformers because you compliment one another. The reality is idealists can achieve nothing without pragmatists running interference for them.