This letter is addressed to any person who supports the universality of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). By “universality” I mean that this principal should apply as equally to government as to individuals and voluntary groups. The target audience for this letter are those who agree with that universality; I encourage those who are not yet convinced of it to research the extensive libertarian body of knowledge.
— Mark Maresca, August 2018
The purpose of this letter is two-fold: to persuade libertarians to refrain from political participation; and to offer a profoundly superior alternative.
I hope to make the case that political participation is both morally wrong and impractical for the goal of achieving permanent change or spreading the ideas of freedom. My second point arises from observing that most libertarian political participants see politics as the best and perhaps only powerful forum to spread the ideas of freedom. I hope to present a compelling alternative: that libertarians can fill an enormous and empty intellectual niche as the advocates of the common man, in his private voluntary social interactions.
Eliminating political participation
Morally and pragmatically, political participation is difficult to justify. The moral argument is the clearer of the two. The universality of the NAP makes political activities wrong. Participation in a system of force is chosen by free will, thus at minimum sanctions and legitimizes that system. And those who achieve actual political positions hold coercive power over others. The one moral argument offered in defense of participation, self-defense, fails as a direct contradiction to the NAP: response to unprovoked force is justified only against the primary causes of an aggression. We have no natural right to respond against the innocent, yet our political participation affects all.
The pragmatic argument for participation has an uphill struggle. Libertarian participants generally fall into one of two camps. Some wish to achieve smaller, specific or incremental changes. But an ever-increasing majority see the political forum more as a practical and powerful way to spread libertarian ideas.
I would ask all libertarians who support political activities to consider applying the broken window fallacy, as it is known in economics, to political efforts.
We see an immediate goal that we hope to achieve for liberty, or may have been achieved. We see what appears to be free advertising reaching a wide audience. We may indeed see ourselves, perhaps at the Ron Paul moment, attracted and ultimately brought over to libertarian ideas. And indeed, in our activities with the like-minded, we see personal friendships, intellectual and moral support, and a chance to be open about our opinions without judgement.
But we do not reflect on how easily a short-term victory can be undone at the next election. We do not see what the toxic environment of politics, by its nature, does to the communicating of libertarian ideas. We do not see what it does to the character of libertarian candidates and participants alike. We do not see the impression the politically distorted message leaves on the uninitiated. We do not account for the time, effort and resources spent in politics and consider how that time might have been used to advance liberty in the free market of ideas, where we would likely have exceedingly greater control and success.
For each person we see persuaded by these ideas via politics, we do not see the hundreds or thousands turned off, perhaps permanently, by the misrepresentation that politics causes. In general, we do not measure the unseen effects against the positives we more readily see. And psychologically, our positive outlook tends to cause us to disregard the impact of even the obvious and blatant negatives (hyperbole; party in-fighting; false accusations; group-think; distorted perceptions). We do not see how these interfere with and corrupt the spreading of our ideas.
We place our ideas into the sewer lines of politics, and do not attend to what comes out the other end.
We should consider the clear reasons that, as a movement of principled ideas, libertarianism is at a permanent disadvantage in politics, because their natures are incompatible:
- Libertarianism is grounded in philosophy and reason; politics is based on perceptions and emotions.
- Libertarians oppose force. Politics regards force as the means and method of organizing humans.
- Libertarians urge people to think as individuals. Politics requires people think as groups with conflicting interests.
- Libertarians believe in the supremacy of individual freedom of choice. Politics is all-or-nothing: the outcome applies to all people regardless of individual preferences.
- Libertarians promote the clear and consistent connection between a person’s actions and their responsibility for those actions. But politics produces delusion: voters feel pride in meeting a social responsibility which in fact achieves nothing. And it produces contradiction: they renounce that same responsibility in the act of voting, since they now expect government to solve their problems.
Finally, there is the unspoken argument rarely posited to the political libertarian strategist. And sooner or later, it will be posed to a libertarian by a perceptive opponent, before a wide public audience: the true goal of the libertarian in politics is to eventually dispense with government altogether. Their very act of running for office will be portrayed as a hypocritical attempt to gain power for a hidden agenda. If a day comes when a national libertarian candidate’s prospects for success gains traction, this single argument could result in the worst damage ever done to the movement. The integrity of all libertarians, including those who disfavor politics, will be called into question for years. But it is only political participation that would have made this possible.
Libertarians largely choose politics based on lack of a viable alternative. I believe a true alternative is there, open and unseen. A profoundly empty philosophical niche is waiting to be filled, and the libertarian message is tailor-made to fill it. It can replace political efforts entirely, because it is the true home of the ideas of liberty.
Libertarians can evolve into the accepted intellectual representatives of the common man.
In their private lives, everyone (except criminals) already tacitly agrees with and lives by the libertarian’s most fundamental principle, non-aggression. Peaceful coexistence is the simple, moral and practical day-to-day behavior of virtually all human beings; behavior that practices non-aggression to the letter. This is so universal that even a thief feels imposed upon if the money he stole is in turn stolen from him. It is important for libertarians to appreciate that in this respect, they do not have to persuade others to agree with something they already believe.
Consider a common feature of virtually every social movement in history: there is something wrong with what people are doing. Every movement has asked people to change their behavior. Every election, every proposal, every public service announcement, in one way or another has said that people are not good enough the way they are, and should think or act differently.
No significant movement to date has explicitly declared that the common man, in the context of his private voluntary interactions, is fine exactly the way he is. None have said that in dealing with others without coercion and in peace, the average person lives a life of basic morality. Further, that this behavior itself is the very foundation of our security and prosperity.
None have made themselves the intellectual advocates of the idea that in doing so, people are right. (To be clear, it does not mean all choices are wise or sound; it means voluntary interactions are fundamentally moral)
Another use of the broken window fallacy is worth noting, as it pertains to the enormous unseen majority who do not vote. In general, within the minds of this increasing majority, politics is either ignored, or seen as irrelevant, or a crooked con game. These impressions have worked their way through the fabric of our culture; they are “in the air”. Nothing politics has to offer can draw that majority in, while the freedom we do have offers them far more preferential choices. The world is racing ahead and this trend will continue. Therefore libertarians who continue to practice politics are placing themselves squarely in a group that is classified by the majority as wasting their time. It is difficult to conceive of worse advertising for libertarianism.
Instead, by focusing on both the morality of voluntary social interactions, and the standard of living this achieves, libertarianism can clearly distinguish itself from other movements. Politics however gives the public the impression that libertarianism is like all other movements: accusing people of being wrong-headed, admonishing them to change their thinking. But by publicly shunning politics, the movement can position itself on the side of the common man, as advocates of normal peaceful behavior.
While the world of politics gives libertarians the permanent status of an invisible or failed fringe movement, the world outside of politics offers them the opportunity to take their place as major spokespeople for the majority.
If it was not clear in decades past, surely it must be clear by now: politics is the least accommodating means of achieving a dynamic goal. It squashes individuality, asking participants to think alike. It leads to endless debates over the one right way. Its fear of alienating voters kills the spirit of innovation.
Perhaps the best evidence for non-participation is found in the libertarian experience itself. The ongoing success of libertarians in the non-political arena presents us with a dramatic contrast to their political results. The second decade of this century has seen an explosive and creative use of the Internet and social media to promote liberty. Liberty-minded thinkers influence social discussion at all levels.
The temptation of using politics to communicate our ideas is a deal with the devil, so to speak. It offers the illusion of quick riches, at little cost. Admittedly, we are all impatient to see society reach true freedom. But a healthy growth of the movement, outside of politics, offers both a safer and more secure path. It may take longer, but then it may not.
Rather than joining the masses of history in the failed project of politics, libertarians should focus on the growing universe of voluntary methods of communication, each reflecting their own individual preferences. In doing so they would live by the morality they preach. If the energies and expenses libertarians currently direct to politics were redirected, the successes already enjoyed in the non-political world are sure to accelerate.
“…a new broom sweeps clean…”
— William Lloyd Garrison
I will spend the remainder of this letter attempting to address common responses.
“The Ron Paul revolution proves politics must be employed to spread ideas.”
Ron Paul’s impact was caused by his message, skill and character, as delivered in a political context. He brought many new libertarians into the fold, and it is true the ubiquity of politics made his audience larger than had he worked outside of politics. But this is not measured: how many people heard a distorted message, due to that political context. How many are permanently turned off to these ideas? How many were influenced by the misunderstandings of libertarianism; the corruption of the message by political media; the harsh infighting of the Libertarian Party? All these outcomes are caused or severely exacerbated precisely because the message was framed politically. Naturally these outcomes are possible outside of politics; but it is politics alone that infects and corrupts the message beyond anything possible in the free world of ideas.
Libertarians remembering the Ron Paul moment often hope to recreate the experience. But the path to how we get to a place is merely a path, with its own twists and turns. Life plays out along such paths, but it is we who prosper in the end. Nothing requires we forge a twisted path ahead.
We also, in a way, insult ourselves when we assume that absent Ron Paul, we would never have arrived at the ideas of freedom. Yes, he was the spark for many. But it is unfair to our open-minded character and our own curiosity to assume that, but for that moment, we would have never found these ideas. We should take pride in our own part in accepting the ideas of liberty, regardless of how we were exposed to them.
“It took political participation to abolish slavery.”
Emancipation did happen in the political realm, but by political decree and not participation. And indeed government solved the slavery problem as it solves most problems: poorly and incompletely. Only freedom from others-ownership was achieved and not freedom from government coercion. Laws supporting segregation, laws against minority gun ownership, minimum wage laws, and so on, hampered the progress and freedom of minorities.
Indeed government, as always, was behind the curve. Years before actual emancipation, there was a sense in the culture that the freedom of the slaves would be inevitable. Political participation had no meaningful part in that trend. Slavery started to be understood as unjust, and slaveholders acquired an increasingly negative image. This was bad advertising for the institution and was part of its downfall. The culture had largely accepted that whites should not own blacks; the political system, only after an extended time, followed.
“Libertarians must accept the compromise of politics because non-aggression fails in lifeboat situations.”
No social system ever conceived handles lifeboat challenges very well. Liberty cannot be condemned simply because it fails to answer lifeboat scenarios to everyone’s satisfaction. Rather than spend time on extreme and unrealistic lifeboat scenarios, libertarians should focus on how well liberty handles normal life situations.
Non-aggression is not supposed to produce utopia. Instead it provides an excellent basis for analyzing social interactions, and moreover is already practiced by most people. This latter point should be the emphasis of libertarian discussion, and not how non-aggression struggles in a lifeboat. Further, they should bring home the point that in every (non-lifeboat) action of government, non-aggression is violated.
“No single strategy can work.”
I agree. But this does not mean all strategies are equal. Some are more effective and others less so. The libertarian experiment in politics has proven itself utterly ineffective. I therefore point to the practical conclusion that it is a strategy that needs to be replaced with better ones. I also offer my alternative as an open-source idea. Libertarians can employ it or not, innovating as they see fit.
“How is a transition to liberty supposed to work, if not politically?”
It is arguable the transition is already underway. But in any case it will not be planned. Although that answer can be less than satisfying, it squares well with the history of major human advances. No one planned how the printing press would lead to the Enlightenment. No one planned how the Internet has transformed commerce. Looking ahead, no one will plan how market and technology will continue to replace and crowd-out government in the areas of money, education, medicine, etc.
Some predict the possibility of violence in that transition. This is, I believe, too dramatic a prediction for what is likely to be a slow, and largely silent, evolutionary process. Moreover, we too often focus on the sum of power held by government, and forget that individually, each member of the state holds relatively little. During the transition not one in a hundred will understand the trend to liberty. The few who do, will remain what they are today: not powerful men, but spineless bullies, who scurry like rats when threatened. While violence is always a possibility, it becomes ever less likely as the culture trends toward liberty.
“We see what our fathers did not see; we know what they did not know.”
— William Lloyd Garrison