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Libertarianism's glass ceiling

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted September 8, 2008

There's some reason to believe that libertarianism is going to be the coming thing this century. Contrast the fortunes of Ron Paul in his 1988 Libertarian Party presidential run with his fortunes in this year's Republican race for the nomination. Although he didn't swing the numbers that Huckabee and Romney did, he still bested Rudolph Giuliani and Fred Thompson. The U.S. Libertarian Party is no longer relying upon the likes of a career academic, a minor (if loved) politician or a popular investment writer as Presidential candidates. The current head of the national Libertarian ticket is Bob Barr.

Libertarians have come a long way from the days when the movement was little more than a rogue academicians' club or the flavor of the month. Nevertheless, there is a definite barrier that the libertarian movement still faces; there's something about the movement that's still off-putting to the typical voter. Below is a list of some obstacles that keep libertarianism from being a mostly-tolerated mainstream's mascot to becoming a real alternative:

"Thieves!? Are you serious?"

The academic roots of libertarianism show most definitely in the claim that all government funds are the proceeds of theft or fraud. In capsule form, it goes like so: all non-borrowed government funds are the result of confiscation from the citizenry, because no-one can freely refuse to pay taxes or opt out of currency debasement. Borrowed funds reduce, in the final analysis, to future taxes or inflation. Since those funds were obtained through coercion, they are the proceeds of theft (or of fraud, in the case of inflation.)

This kind of argument is well-suited for the intellectualist. An intellectually-minded person, upon reading it and not flinching, would be likely to accept it with a demur. "Well yes, the argument you make does hold up; I can see how the conclusion is reached. I can accept it as provisionally true, although it may very well have an elision or two. That's because the taxpayers I know don't act like they've been robbed or defrauded."

Only a small minority of voters, though, are intellectualists. Moralists, or people who are moved by moral arguments, are far more numerous. Using a morally-charged word like "thief" to describe an institution that's all-but synonymous with the nation itself is likely to make the morals-driven person look goggle-eyed at you. "Kid, thieves are people who grab from others and hide. They're always on the run. They live in fear of getting caught. They hide; they disguise themselves. They don't go out in the open. Are you seriously telling me that the government is like that? How can you be so out of it?"

"Why are you people always nagging everybody?"

The most popular approach of libertarians is to assume that the root of Big Government is the welfare state. Consequently, one of the standard arguments of libertarians is the need to abjure government help. In a way, it's a sensible strategy, as it acknowledges the fact that the current political system is largely complaint-driven. In addition, it seems an easy sell because the intent of the welfare state is to aid the downtrodden – and most people do want to better themselves monetarily.

Unfortunately, this part of libertarianism tends to get a little preachy. It's a highly ‘liberal' element, because it does assume that people are benighted by ignorance and would change their ways once fully informed. As many libertarians have found out to their sorrow, though, this part is also ‘liberal' in the sense that it tends to devolve into the teller telling the tellee what's good for the tellee. It takes a lot of social skills to avoid being pegged as insufferable when telling people that they should mend their ways. Even an embedded hint of it tends to grate.

"That's all well and good, but why should I be the gull?"

This point tends to off-put what would otherwise be a potential supporter. Part and parcel of the exhort-the-people element of libertarianism is advising to stop drawing on government help as much as possible: "Bend over backwards to avoid falling into the welfare circuit. Try using a private school, or homeschooling, rather than braving the increasingly decrepit public school. Cultivate the habit of independence from the government by turning down subsidies. Only use government-provided services when there's no alterative. Don't take a government job that directly involves coercion. Don't ask for anything from the government."

To the young person yearning to breathe the air of liberty, this sounds like a plan. To the person who thinks that government can be drained from below, it sounds exciting and even feasible. Unfortunately, to the average taxpayer, this sounds a lot like "for the sake of Liberty, don't sully yourself by trying to get back what you paid in taxes. Please be a sucker."

If any libertarian insists that (s)he is not asking others to be gulls, the typical street voter is going to wonder:

"What is this, the Sinn Fein of the black market?"

Yep, there are people who still think that – especially if the libertarians they're talking to walk right into it.

"Well, if it's not voluntary, it might as well be."

The economic school of thought that's the backbone of the libertarian movement is the Austrian School of Economics.  Central to Austrian welfare economics, and the supposed "killer argument" against government involvement in the economy period, is the theorem that individual valuations are incommensurable and unquantifiable. Because they are, it is impossible to say that there are mutual gains from any exchange unless said exchange is voluntary on both sides. There's no other way to verify that people consider themselves to be better off through an exchange, because we can't mind-read. Thus, no government aid to the economy can help the general economy because all government transactions have coercion embedded in them.

It's a neat argument, but the rub comes from the kernel of the theory. If valuations are unquantifiable, who's to say that government's permeation of the economy is little more than a mild irritant? After all, if demonstrated preference is the touch-stone of welfare economics, then surely people would show it if the government were rotten. "If libertarianism was so true, then why isn't everyone demonstrating or even rioting? If government were as bad as you say it is, they would – and I don't see it."


It's nice to content oneself with the belief that the "sheeple" are statists at heart, even if doing so tends to make one more self-absorbed or clannish than one otherwise would be. Trouble is, there are other reasons to get shrugged off. Having a consistent theory is enough to satisfy the theory-bound: to the more practical-minded sort, it sounds glib.

Another, though related, communication gap comes with the way that the libertarian door-knocker shows due respect to the canvassee. I'm sure all libertarian activists know that due respect has to be paid: the trouble comes with the kind of respect shown. Relating a fact you hear to libertarian theory in your response is seen as paying attention…if the person telling you said fact is a libertarian-oriented teacher or professor. To anyone else, especially anyone who's not that interested in the academic life, it smacks of poor listening skills.

"Even if you guys get anywhere, how do I know you're not going to really hurt everyone by monkeying around?"

Let's face it: the dream of whittling down the State through an enticing repeal is libertarian's answer to the "Magic Law." The "Magic Law" is one that sounds simple and straightforward, but is so difficult to implement that it requires tens of thousands of pages' worth of supplementary regulations to make it non-disruptively enforceable. Price controls are a classic example.

The "Magic Repeal" also sounds simple and straightforward. Abolish the central bank; restore the gold standard; end welfare as anyone knows it; end corporate welfare; abolish the income tax; abolish drug prohibition; abolish the minimum wage – there are many of them.

Being intellectualists, libertarians tend to be analytical. To pro-libertarians, these repeals sound sensible enough when considered in isolation…sensible enough to lead them to suspect that any opposer must have some sort of vested interest somewhere. Although true in some cases, it's far from being exhaustive, as this list sketches out:

  1. Abolishing the central bank would wreck the system of money and credit we have now – one whose workings most everyone takes for granted. In terms of adaptation, it would be a great leap into the unknown for many.
  2. Restoring the gold standard without a corresponding 100% reserve system would leave the monetary system vulnerable to another deflationary collapse.
  3. Restoring the gold standard with a corresponding 100% reserve system would result in a money-and-credit system that would be so alien that no banking professional would quite know how to do business in it. Enacting it would be tantamount to erasing every banker's experience-informed judgment criteria. It would make even the most experienced banking professional a newbie again.
  4. Abolishing the income tax, leaving aside what will happen to income-tax professionals, would leave open the question of how to make up for the revenue shortfall. I need hardly point out that cutting spending correspondingly will bump into the usual near-impossibilities.
  5. Abolishing welfare will not only put a new financial burden on private charities, but will also put the burden of picking and choosing which recipients are worthy of help – not to mention what kind of help. As long as government is synonymous with authority, its offerings will tend to be settled for with a held tongue. A "merely private" charity will end up facing a lot of loosened tongues…unless pre-empted, probably through moralizing.   
  6. Tracking down what is corporate welfare will prove to eye-openingly instructive about what the term "dual use" can cover. 
  7. Abolishing drug prohibition is (in my estimation) the most feasible of the lot, but only because the War on Drugs is eating into traditional civil liberties. The underlying assumption for my estimation is that a government program has to be scary to plain folks before it has a real chance of being unwound. Said plain folks have to be scared for their own reasons, as it's easy to blame the messenger if not already predisposed towards the message.
  8. Abolishing the minimum wage will reveal how many people don't mind working for a pittance because their food and board have been met through either welfare or private charity. Soon afterwards, it will also reveal how many people do mind being put on an equal footing with "Welfare Kid" in the labor market.

This bullet list of devil's advocacies is not meant to convince anyone that rollback of the State is impossible – but it is meant to show that the dirty work involved will be both complex and delicate. It's almost certain that there'll be a lot of nipping and tucking needed. Which brings me to…

"But we already have laissez-faire, and…"

This one could be considered a bait for the debate-minded. Yes, it's an easy counterargument to bat out of the park in a debate, simply through showing how many laws and regulations there are.

Sad to say, though, answering this objection/observation with a debating point might win one the fool's-gold medal. What is called laissez-faire is indicative of what part of the libertarian program has enough appeal to be co-opted, even if said co-optations tend not to trickle down to some others. What differentiates the co-optation from the real stuff makes for a warning sign, indicating what part of the libertarian program is considered treacherous or even impassible by experienced politicos.


The above points, themselves far from exhaustive or even fully informed, illustrate the difficulties of bringing a new political philosophy into the political arena. They're all specific to libertarianism; I've left out, except suggestively, the ones that are common to all minor parties that wish to bust into the majors.

Overall, libertarianism is afflicted with a condition similar to the "Dutch disease." Because it's an academic movement at heart, libertarians find it easy to confound a correct answer to a tough exam question with a gain of hearts and minds. Libertarianism has yet to completely escape from the dissertation-defense room. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.

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