What’s Right vs. What Works

In an article in the July issue of Reason about libertarian responses to environmental issues, Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute makes this interesting point:

We believe that if we just go out and talk to everybody for a few hours they’ll become libertarians. That’s not a wisely thought-through process, and it misses the whole point. Most people are—have to be—rationally ignorant. Our challenge is to make them understand that for their values, freedom is better than coercion.

Smith makes a point here that I think is applicable to libertarian political strategy in general. When libertarians talk amongst ourselves, the truth of libertarian ideas is so self-evident that I think we lose sight of what it takes to win arguments in the political sphere.

The vast majority of Americans, and, in some cases, even politically aware and active libertarians, don’t spend their days and nights thinking about how some minute point of libertarian theory applies to some even-more-minute public policy issue (I mean, seriously, is there really a libertarian position on sanitary sewer maintenance ? I’m sure the anarcho-capitalists will say there is), and, when they walk into the voting booth, they aren’t worrying about the non-aggression principle or whether A is A.

The average American cares about their family, their job, and their pocketbook. Often, in that order.

Politicians who succeed understand that, and, more often than not, pander to it. Libertarian politicians who spend their time talking about monetary theory aren’t going to impress people like that much, if at all.

If libertarian ideas are going to succeed, it’s not going to be because of some Constantine-like conversion on the part of the public, it’s going to be because libertarian-oriented politicians have crafted a message that convinces the public of the one very simple idea:

Freedom works.

When that starts to happen, then libertarians — whether they belong to the Libertarian Party, the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party — will start to win elections.

Until then, I think, we’re all just going to be engaging in the political equivalent of arguing over how many angels dance on the head of a pin.