Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Libertarianism... Quick, Watch Your Six!

One of the reasons I didn’t like Nader was that when on the Daily Show, he repeated several times that he was the only presidential candidate to have opposed the Iraq war. Once you include all the small parties out there, this is clearly not true. For all that voting for him was supposedly a blow at the arrogant two parties who consider themselves the only political game in town and fairness for all, he was just as arrogant in never acknowledging the existence of anyone smaller than him (perhaps more arrogant, since the Dems and Reps have practical reasons to believe in their duopoly at least) and seemed to have no structural desire beyond changing a two party system into a three party system. I feel that libertarians easily fall into the same trap, perception wise, but with much worse consequences.

Quantitatively speaking, libertarianism is combining the anti-government social policies of the left and the anti-government economic policies of the right. (Qualitatively speaking, libertarianism is much more varied since everyone seems to have different ideas about how society works without coercive influence and what the end goal and qualitative decisions of a libertarian government should be). It is not a brilliant “third way” that transcends currently political perspectives and is alone in it’s intellectual purity (ie, this is not a world where there is just the left, the right, and the libertarians) but libertarians often view themselves this way.

The dark mirror of libertarianism would be pro-government social policies and pro-government economic policies. Authoritarianism, or populism. And as libertarianism tries to rise in influence as a distinct political voice, I think they should worry that so will populism. (I think the old school libertarian voices, such as the Economist recognize this best, as they frequently must report on the populist conditions in poor countries). There are libertarian politicians (say, Schwarzenegger) out there, but there are also populist ones (McCain being the most popular in my mind). Libertarians keep pushing to end the duopoly in political thought, but we’re more likely to become a 4 party system than a 3 party system. And what’s the scary part? There are almost certainly a lot more populist-inclined folk (poor, religious, raised to believe Father knows best) than there is fertile ground for libertarians (who tend to be over represented among elites because of intelligence and affluence).

Why do we here so much more about libertarians then over populists (I’m sure any reader of this blog can name Badnarik or CATO, but wouldn’t know their avowedly populist counterpart)? Their over-representation among the elites means they are more likely to fund think tanks, organize a political party on their own, identify their distinct philosophy (especially in eloquent qualitative terms). And they’re more likely to be internet users, so now they’ve got blogs, bulletin boards, ad campaigns, and all other sorts of political power. (Also the mantra that leaves the powerful in this country more powerful, guarantees some self-centered support [ie, tax cut advocacy generates more donations]).

Populists are yet the sleeping giant. Churches and unions (the pro-government branches and foot soldiers of their respective parties) dutifully help serve their political party leaders, getting crumbs in return (relative to their numbers). One day union workers and blacks will want to stop grimacing at the Democrat’s embrace of homosexual rights, and James Dobson will stop thinking it’s more important to ram a tax cut through Congress than various quasi-bans on abortion. The Ohioan steel worker probably is pulled apart enough, not knowing to vote the way his union leader tells him to vote, or the way his pastor wants him to. He wants to put his kids through college, and he also wants them to stop teaching about sex in school. Arguments about the Laffer Curve and the inefficient cost of the War on Drugs are not going to convince him once there is a candidate that directly meets all his populist needs.

So far the elite and leaders of such a populist movement have been rare, siphoned off into either political party, or thrown into extreme fringes (Neo-Nazi’s and Black Panthers). But they say the information age is changing everything. Probably the next big step in the internet is moving from how it’s changed the everyday life of the well connected and educated, to doing that for every American, rural or poor. And political movements are often born from new means of communication.

Don’t really know what a good libertarian could do about this. Stop yelling about the duopoly for one. But also try to actually identify the populist politicians, the ones who seem to think government can always be used as an answer (Bush once said he looks on America “like a parent loves their child”. Yipes!), even if they suit your agenda sometimes, don’t support them goshdarnit.


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