Why Libertarians Keep Failing

If you want to lose libertarian friends, point out to them that they aren’t focusing their political energy on the right issues. Add that they are failing to gain political influence because they unwittingly, or even purposely, ignore the strife of working-class families and people trapped in crime-infested neighborhoods, and you are almost guaranteed to be ostracized for life.

There is no circle of political pundits, policy wonks and assorted intellectuals who is more sure of their own superiority than America’s libertarian elite. There is also no circle of educated men and women that is more easily offended when criticized. Centered primarily along the Tenderfoot Coast from Times Square to Tyson’s Corner, they pride themselves of being part of America’s inner policy circles where they believe they can make a difference.

Or play the role of the approved, appreciated intellectual dissident. The dispenser of refined sophistry whose apparent contrarianism is entertaining to those on the inside of the circles of political power.

Regardless of whether they are on the inside or not, our libertarian thought leaders have failed epically to leave any real footprints in the American political landscape. With yet another election coming and going without a breakthrough, some of the members of the libertarian upper crust are beginning to ask themselves the inevitable question:

Is it actually possible that we might not be doing everything right?

The answer to this question is a deafeningly loud: you bet. If there ever was a time for the libertarian movement to go into ideological introspection, it is now.

Unfortunately, I have no hope for it to produce anything substantial. This introspection did not begin today, November 3, 2020. It began after the 2016 election and has slowly gained momentum since then. Thus far, it hasn’t led to anything of any consequence.

Nor will it. Case in point: Kevin Mahnken of The New Republic. In a November 2 piece, written before the 2020 election results are available, he anticipates correctly that the Libertarian Party will once again perform at marginal levels across the ballot. Based on this insight, he delves into this existential question for the libertarian movement.

His formulation of it is good, appropriately anticipating it already in his headline: The libertarian moment that never comes.

Unfortunately, as soon as the reader gets past the banner, the winds of change die down. You would expect an article under this banner to drill to the very core of the problem with the libertarian movement. Sadly, Mahnken falls as short as every other libertarian voice out there. His diagnosis of the chronic illness plaguing the libertarian movement centers in on the obvious but entirely superficial: brand awareness.

Before he gets there, though, he makes a potentially pivotal observation:

According to a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center, 11 percent of respondents self-identified as libertarians. But just 57 percent accurately associated the term with small government and personal freedom, and there is reason to think that a sizable chunk of the electorate is already favorably disposed toward the blend of social permissiveness and laissez-faire economics that the Libertarian Party champions.

The two key terms, of course, are “small government” and “laissez-faire economics”. At a time when government spends 40 percent of the U.S. economy, when one of the two major-party presidential candidates is promising to push marginal individual income taxes above 60 percent, and when the Federal Reserve is printing historic amounts of money to fund an ever-bigger welfare state, it would be logical for Mahnken to place his analytical spotlight on precisely those two key terms.

He doesn’t. Instead, in a tribute to triviality he wanders off into the usual poli-pundit labyrinth by discussing what demographics are “well suited to libertarian positions”. He suggests secular suburbanites and white college graduates.

By pointing out what demographics he thinks are prone to libertarianism, Mahnken walks straight into the usual trap. He only allows policy issues to be libertarian if they are relevant to his favored constituencies.

The flip side of his coin is that other demographics are not interested in libertarianism. Superficially, this is an astonishing position to take. It makes no sense, of course, to suggest that black college grads and Hispanic blue-collar workers are not interested in libertarian ideas. However, a look behind Mahnken’s rhetorical curtain explains why a libertarian thinker would not even reflect over his selection of demographics (or focus on them in the first place). The issues that he considers to be libertarian have nothing to do with issues that matter to most Americans.

His path to the libertarian policy portfolio runs through the editorial office of Reason Magazine. Explains Mahnken:

Who, exactly, will spearhead the libertarian revolution? Not [Libertarian Party presidential candidate] Jorgensen, it seems. Over at Reason, that most stalwart of libertarian publications, she has failed to win the unanimous support of the staff. Many on staff plan simply to sit this election out; a few shall vote for Joe Biden between gritted teeth.

Doesn’t this paragraph send up a red flag?? If those who produce the “most stalwart of libertarian publications” would rather vote for Joe Biden than Donald Trump, then does anyone really need to ask why libertarianism is a lost cause in American politics?

Joe Biden wants to raise taxes – massively – and he is spearheading a party that is committed to socializing health care, providing tax-paid college for all, creating universal and eventually mandatory pre-school for all kids, and wants to preserve and increase funding for every other entitlement program already in the federal budget. Trump, by contrast, at least has a record of cutting taxes. His party has presented a great plan for restoring market-based health care and is open to expanding school choice.

Trump has led a productive campaign to deregulate the American economy. Biden would take us straight into a stifling regulatory quagmire.

These two candidates represent real differences in the wallets and life choices of Joe and Jane Sixpack. Biden represents an American future as economically stagnant as in Europe, where youth unemployment has been above 20 percent for a decade and generation after generation depend on government handouts for their own survival. His economic advisors want to implement Mad Monetary Theory, which would lead us straight into Venezuelan hyperinflation.

Trump represents an economy where working-class Americans again have a shot at improving their lives and building a better future for themselves without government running interference every step of the way.

You would think that the nation’s most stalwart libertarian thinkers harbored some sort of appreciation for this fundamental difference. But no: not only do the Reason editorial crowd prefer high taxes and socialized health care over a return to free markets and limited taxes, but Mahnken, the diagnosing libertarian writer, doesn’t even blink as he delivers his reference to these absurd libertarian candidate preferences.

Instead of taking note of the momentous economic difference between the major-party offerings, Mahnken defines key libertarian issues as drug use, gay rights and “growing revulsion with mass incarceration and militarized policing”.

Why not? Once the libertarian demographic has been narrowed down to secular suburbanites and white college grads, these issues make perfect sense. These are groups that live far away from the communities that have been devastated by drug liberalization; as far as I know, few coast-dwelling libertarian elitists have bothered to visit Pueblo, CO, where their legalized pot idea has wreaked havoc on an entire city.

The demographics that Mahnken favors live far from the urban landscapes where the police is the thin line guaranteeing that struggling parents can send their kids to school in tenuous safety. Our libertarian thought leaders never set their tender feet in neighborhoods where police downsizing would replace faint hope of a better life with social breakdown under gang violence and chaos.

What America needs is not what libertarians offer. America needs low taxes; libertarians have no clue how to downsize government to a point where low taxes can be fiscally guaranteed. America needs private health care far away from the heavy hand of government; libertarians who prefer Biden to Trump are marching in the opposite direction.

America needs school choice driven by local entrepreneurs; the libertarian intellectual upper crust spends more time proselytizing drug legalization than the right of every parent to choose the school they want for their kids.

America needs private retirement-security options where young families on low incomes can see, dollar for dollar, the difference between good and bad life choices.

Sure, government should get out of the marriage issue, and it is senseless to punish first-time non-violent offenders harsher than those who repeatedly commit violent crimes. But to many people in poor neighborhoods it is more important to get the drug dealers off their streets and away from their kids, than whether or not Mike and Mark can tie the knot.

I need only look at my own family history. What allowed our journey out of poverty was not that my parents, uncles and aunts were allowed to smoke pot. (They weren’t.) What allowed the rise out of miserable poverty was iron-clad work ethic, seizing even the limited educational opportunities that existed, and teaching your kids the difference between right and wrong.

In other words: taxes that don’t confiscating people’s paychecks; at least a modicum of school choice; and property rights. The Sweden my parents grew up in still offered some of that. With more, they could have accomplished more. With less, they would have been trapped in abject poverty.

The American libertarian movement has completely lost sight of Main Street. Not only do they prefer Joe Biden over Donald Trump (and the Reason editorial room is not the only libertarian constituency with such ridiculous preferences) but they keep touting unilateral free trade as some kind of policy that should benefit America. Having learned absolutely nothing from the Rust Belt and the flight of jobs in behind the Great Chinese Wall of trade protectionism, they once again give away their indifference – perhaps even contempt – for the lives of working-class Americans.

Right here is the reason why the libertarian movement will never become relevant in American politics. It is a movement for an elite of intellectuals whose concept of accomplishment is centered around social connections, not the advancement of liberty.

If libertarians want to become relevant, they need to develop a comprehensive reform agenda for the American welfare state. They need to explain why American families living on $40,000 a year would be better off with privatized retirement savings, free-market health care, privatized K-12 education and private protection against the loss of income.

And most of all, they need to show how America would be better under those reforms.

They will never do it. In a movement that can’t see the difference between Biden the welfare-state socialist and Trump the moderate capitalist, there simply is no hope left to look for. It is time for those of us who truly are libertarians to forget the Libertarian Party and the crop of self-proclaimed libertarian pundits and think tankers. It is time for us to re-invent libertarianism as the ideology that truly carries the principles, the values and the policy practices of America’s Founding Fathers.

Who is with me?

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