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22 April 2013

Cascade Liberty Summit 2013: We Are the 1%

or, Thoughts on a Libertarian Party Convention

The Libertarian Party of Washington State (LP-WA) held their party convention in Bellingham this Saturday, 20 April 2013. On a lark—me being a fan of liberty and the event being free if you didn't want food—I decided to go. An afternoon of short speaker presentations followed. This being an event by libertarians, for libertarians, I was treated to a collection of mostly-similar messages; nevertheless, I was intrigued by the nuanced differences embedded in that homogeneity.

The first speaker presented a short film (unfortunately not yet public on YouTube), one of many forthcoming projects, he said, that would transmit the libertarian message over social media. Messaging is the albatross overhanging the Libertarian Party, which for 40 years has never been able to muster even 2% of the national vote for its candidates. This, despite insisting that the vast majority of Americans are libertarian, or at least libertarian-sympathizers.

The film depicts a (perhaps implausible) Socratic dialogue between a male philosophy(?) student and his female physics student interlocutor. The guy apparently got kicked out of class for asserting, in tried-and-true libertarian fashion, that his professor must lack all social principles, since the professor apparently justified stealing "in certain cases." Just like walking into Mordor, one does not simply lay principles out on a case-by-case basis.

The two students follow up on this backstory with a question-and-answer session straight out of The Republic, which helps establish the following unequivocally true statements:
  • Initiation of force, or theft of property, is always and everywhere wrong. (That is, if Alice steals from Bob, or gets Carl to steal for her, then everyone loses.)
  • Politicians are, in effect, middleman-thieves.
Aside from toying with the Tytler calumny by suggesting that people only vote for the person who promises to give them (read: steal for them) the most stuff—note the implication that government cannot produce anything ever—this Socratic dialogue also successfully highlights one of the chief failures of libertarians everywhere: insufficient premises. For all their laser-focus (or fetishization) of economic principles, they forget that incessant mantra of economics: ceteris paribus. At just a first pass, these "rock-solid" principles leave out the empirical fact that people have differential valuation of goods. Or, in plain talk, some people like stuff more than other people. Here's an example: Johnny Millionaire buys more food than he could possibly eat. Joe Poverty has no food at all. In this case, while Johnny Millionaire would certainly not like it if some of his food were taken from him, Joe Poverty would be much better off with that food. In some sense, that extra food is better off with Joe Poverty than with Johnny Millionaire. (This applies to money, too: rich people value their additional bucks less than do poor people.) So, putting away the better arguments for government taxation, like forcing everyone to pay for the positive externalities of civilization, it's simply not true that taking something from A and giving it to B will always decrease the total utility.

This message-blindness provided a fascinating contrast in the speakers who followed. They were most on-point, ironically enough, when they talked about strategies and issues that were not unique to the Libertarian Party! In particular, Robin Koerner's talk about single-but-broadly-applicable-issue campaigning, and Judge Jim Gray's talk about opening up the Presidential debates (for all third parties, not just the LP), resonated with me.

I also awoke to a large, hidden rift in the "liberty movement." I suppose you could frame it in the classic dichotomy: "freedom to" against "freedom from." But really it's what you might call "progressive libertarians" (though everyone seemed to decry the word "progressivism") against "traditional libertarians." A progressive libertarian would, as LP-WA has done, endorse such measures as marriage equality and marijuana decriminalization. They are socially progressive. But lurking among these probably more reasonable liberty-lovers are a pack of mostly-white, mostly-old, mostly-male, mostly-Christian traditionalists. You can often spot them by their insistence that we "return to liberty," as if there was a mythical past where everyone was free and nobody initiated force. I see their "libertarianism" as implicit statism, a tacit collective sigh: "why can't it be like the good old days when every man knew his place, so we didn't need many laws?" This is "liberty" under an invisible cage of social norms, none of which were agreed to, but which had their enforcers who marched under the pretense of their "natural origin."

It is in the former, not the latter, where the liberty movement can find its mass appeal.

(Oh, and in a bit of soul-searching in regard to competition versus property as the sacred idol of libertarianism.)

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