In his 1973 book, For a New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto, Murray Rothbard rejoiced at the momentum that libertarianism had achieved within just a few short years. After almost a century of dominance by the “progressive” movement (both conservative and liberal), Rothbard sensed that the moment had arrived for a rapid and dramatic sea change in American political thought. As he wrote,
“In particular, we must examine the firm and growing conviction of the present author not only that libertarianism will triumph eventually and in the long run, but also that it will emerge victorious in a remarkably short period of time. For I am convinced that the dark night of tyranny is ending, and that a new dawn of liberty is now at hand.”
By 1989, Rothbard had left the Libertarian Party and sought other vehicles for his ideas. While never one to despair, he certainly must have adjusted his expectations of an imminent “Libertarian Spring” by the time of his death. Despite its repeated failures, the state had managed to maintain its legitimacy in the minds of the people. During the apparently prosperous 1990’s, the widespread belief that government no longer worked had subsided. Electoral success for libertarians had plateaued. The name “libertarian” was no longer in the forefront of popular consciousness and rarely, if ever, mentioned in the mainstream media.
Today, all of that has changed. Beginning with Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, the word “libertarian” can now be heard over the mainstream airwaves again. As the present presidential primary contest gets underway, not only Paul but former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson are openly referred to as “libertarian candidates,” despite the fact that they are seeking the Republican nomination for president. Mainstream media pundits now routinely refer to a significant minority of Republican legislators as “libertarian-leaning.” The “L-word” has been de-stigmatized. Over the next several years, it seems likely that libertarianism is going to get another hearing.
While all of this is great news, it does beg some very important questions. What was the reason for the stigmatization in the first place? More importantly, why has the libertarian movement failed to get off the launch pad after such an auspicious start in the 1970’s?
Certainly the biggest hurdle for libertarianism has been its difficulty for most people to accept. With true liberty comes an enormous amount of personal responsibility. As W. Somerset Maugham wrote, “the path to salvation is narrow, and as difficult to walk as on a razor’s edge.” For an American electorate that has come to expect government to “take care of” so many things for them, rolling back what to libertarians are merely incursions into their liberty seems unworkable. Most people have been taught since childhood that government intervention is necessary and that the slightest reduction in any of it will result in unspeakable horrors.
However, while the task of persuading our fellow citizens to adopt libertarian ideas is difficult, it is apparent that libertarians often compound the difficulty with their approach. Let’s face it, we’re an unforgiving crowd, ready to pounce upon the slightest mistake of logic or deviation from principle with a ferocity that rivals the National Park Police at a Saturday afternoon dance party. Indeed, the most vitriolic attacks made by libertarians are upon other libertarians – for not being libertarian enough.
Yet, we still have plenty left over for those we deem “the usual suspects,” namely government employees, the beneficiaries of government programs, and the military (and this is by no means an exhaustive list). Certainly, there are a plethora of reasons that libertarians might cite to take issue with people in any of these groups. After all, they are actively participating in those activities that are destroying civilized society and robbing us of rights that we are entitled to enjoy. Even those who do not actively participate but who support these institutions with their votes are subject to our unrelenting scorn, typically punctuated by the damning rejoinder “statist.”
Now, these criticisms are almost always well-deserved. In supporting government intervention into our lives here at home and in the affairs of other nations, our opponents are claiming the right to initiate the use of force. Even on domestic issues, these interventions amount to acts of war against us as individuals, for an act of war is nothing other than the initiation of force by one party against another, whether the parties are nations or individuals. It is hard not to respond with sarcasm and contempt when proponents of intervention argue that their opinion is just as valid as ours – the opinion that they have a right to invade the life and property of other people.
Although we have been right on every single issue since the modern libertarian movement was born, it is apparent that our approach hasn’t worked. In terms of national politics, the high-water mark for libertarianism was Harry Browne’s 2000 presidential campaign, which netted less than 1% of the vote. Since then, libertarian candidates have not even done as well.
To use a well-worn cliché of the punditry, much of hardcore libertarians’ rhetoric isn’t resonating. When talking to those just hearing libertarian ideas for the first time, one must be very careful with words like parasite, thief, or murderer. Make no mistake, there is a time and place for calling a spade a spade and there is never an appropriate time to back up on a principle. However, there is an important distinction between vehemently opposing the violation of our rights and denouncing those who (for the most part) unknowingly do so as defective people. The natural reaction of anyone made to feel this way is to reaffirm their self-worth and find any justification – however illogical – for the interventions in question.
This is especially important in dealing with those programs that purport to help the poor. While libertarians should never compromise the principle that money should not be forcibly stolen from taxpayers even for this purpose, we should focus on the theft itself, rather than on those who reap its pitiable rewards. Remember that the perceived necessity for these programs is mostly caused by the myriad other government economic interventions, without which the vast majority of welfare recipients would be gainfully employed. Liberals taking an interest in libertarianism might be open to opposition to these programs based upon the non-aggression principle or the welfare system’s obvious failure. However, they will shut down completely if the argument sounds like the conservative one, which places the blame for the programs on the recipients and their supposed shortcomings.
In addition to eliciting a defensive reaction from those who support government intervention, libertarians have also inspired genuine dislike towards themselves. People who are open to libertarian ideas often conclude, quite understandably, that libertarians themselves are not likeable people. Part of this is rooted in the refusal of libertarians to compromise on their principles, prompting accusations of “extremism.” That is unavoidable without actually compromising – which we shouldn’t do. However, at least some part of this is due to the passion with which libertarians argue their points. When directed at ideas, it is admirable. When directed at people, it can be downright ugly.
As we enter a new era in which libertarianism is again on the table in the mainstream, we should learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past. There is a time for throwing bombs (in the philosophical/literary sense), and no one does that better than my two favorite libertarian columnists, Will Grigg and Karen De Coster. However, there is also a time, when our friends, neighbors, readers, or audiences have expressed an interest in hearing our ideas, to persuade rather than to attack (something Grigg and De Coster also know and practice). It is important to remember that most of the people, most of the time, want to do what is right. However, they have been taught bad ideas about what is right for their entire lives, reinforced ad nauseum by politicians, media, and popular culture. We are fighting deep emotional attachments to many of these ideas, rather than conclusions arrived at through reason. It is crucial to remember this when trying to persuade those who are genuinely interested.
As the Age of Government draws to its inevitable end, libertarianism has another chance to fill the void. Let us never stop opposing the state at every turn. Let us never compromise that great law of nature, the non-aggression principle. However, let us also recognize that our brothers and sisters in this great family called humanity have not been taught this principle – that it has in fact been purposefully kept from them – and tailor our approach accordingly. When we achieve acceptance of some of our ideas, let us be as quick to praise those who have made that great leap as we are to attack those who advocate for the state. And when those same people take a step backwards on another issue, however illogical and inconsistent that step may be, let us remember the words of that great teacher, “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”
If that sounds too religious for your tastes, then Chris Rock put it another way: Hate the game, not the players.
© Thomas Mullen 2011