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.

  • Akston

    Another reality that people often miss: Freedom is one of the main reasons why we’re one of the only remaining superpowers in the world. We benefit from a history of the freedom to produce, unhindered by as much forceful redistribution of wealth as commonly found in other cultures.

    Sadly, even this last great bastion of capitalism seems to be falling prey to Fascism’s Sweet Song. “Just give us more of your liberties, and we’ll make you safe.”

    That “eternal vigilance” thing is much harder than just voting for perceived safety.

  • Ben

    Excellent post Doug. I think this was one of the problems with Ron Paul’s campaign.

    I love hearing/learning/debating monetary theory and complex explanations for problems where the speaker doesn’t treat me like I’m 5 years old, but sadly most voters are too stupid and ignorant for that tract to have any sucess. I agree with you in your assesment that many voters vote based upon the things you list, although I think you are too kind and that many of them simply can’t comprehend much else.

    (Disclaimer so that I am not attacked by fanatical Paulistians: I donated to Ron Paul’s campaign, I became a Republican to vote for Ron Paul in the primaries, and I am an all around fan of Ron Paul.)

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis


    I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to call most . voters stupid. I just think that most people vote based on issues rather than ideas and I think it’s been that way for a very long time.

    Libertarians spend a lot of time talking about ethics and natural rights and all that stuff. And I think it’s important.

    But, if winning elections and changing the political system is what you’re after, you aren’t going to accomplish it by running your campaign like it’s a meeting of the Ayn Rand Society or the Murray Rothbard Appreciation Club.

    Frankly, I think the problem isn’t that voters are stupid as much as it is that libertarians don’t understand how to sell their message to average people.

  • uhm

    I came across a book today called “The Underground History of American Education.” I’m not sure how much of it is accurate or not but it is very interesting regardless. If it is true then the reason Americans can’t be reasoned with is that compulsory education is intended to indoctrinate and break the libertarian and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans. After 12 years in school learning their neighbors are dumb, cruel and unfit for self government they aren’t going to support liberty. Then after learning about environmentalist causes through 13 years of indoctrination how could it be possible to reach them? All they know is propaganda.

    The author has posted the book freely online: