The only way to advance liberty for the long-term and maintain our progress is through education. People’s minds must be changed one at a time. There are no shortcuts.
Many libertarians, to use the label broadly, don’t like to hear this because dedication to this strategy requires patience, maybe lifelong patience. They want to believe that they can hijack the political system and change it to their liking. They want to believe that if we simply elect the right president or the right batch of pseudo-libertarian Republicans next congressional term, then liberty will rain down from Washington.
Selling out, often euphemistically referred to as pragmatism, is essential to this political strategy. The average person is afraid of liberty and so no one could ever currently get elected on a platform of principled libertarianism. Libertarian political candidates must toss the core principles of the philosophy to the wayside. Too often they’re commended for this. “He’s not a sellout, he’s pragmatic.” Marijuana decriminalization is fine, but full drug legalization becomes a no-no. You can be against the decade-old and unpopular Iraq and Afghanistan wars (not for any moral reason, or course, but because this is finally a politically feasible position now that no one really cares), but sanctions on Iran are a must – or else the warmongering, bloodthirsty, murderous Republicans might not like you.
“Libertarian” political candidates are largely immune from libertarian criticism. If, or rather when, one of them sells out and trades in a politically unfeasible libertarian position for a much more feasible statist position (often regarding the most important issue of all: war), the political strategist types assure the principled libertarians that the politician, “our inside guy”, is simply “playing the game to get elected” and when it’s safe to do so he’ll unleash libertarianism all over Leviathan!
Much worse, principled libertarians who call out “libertarian” politicians over their statist blunders are often accused of sabotaging this supposed effort for liberty. We’re ruining the “play the games to get elected” Trojan horse strategy. Have they ever considered the fact that this strategy has no record of significant long-term success at all for libertarians?
The game playing never ends. Once the politician is finally in office he then has to keep playing the game in order to get reelected, then he has to play the game to achieve higher office, and so on.
The establishment is aware of this. They hold these possibilities of high office in front of fresh libertarian politicians like a carrot on a stick. The pragmatists urge the principled to just shut up and tolerate the game playing because the carrot is always just within our grasp. Just keep selling out and we’ll get one of our guys into the president’s cabinet, as we’ve been told recently.
Some radical libertarians allege that the “work within the system” dogma came from the system to keep people feeling insignificant and powerless. The political activist trying to change the State is just another cog in a machine surrounded by other cogs who seek to preserve it. I believe there is a lot of truth to this, but another effect of this “work in the system” method is that it seems to very quickly seduce libertarians into becoming advocates of and apologists for the system. There is no shortage of cases where a libertarian goes off to work in D.C. or on a politician’s campaign and quickly develops an elitist, politician-like swagger. If simply being an American produces a nationalist arrogance among most people, I can’t imagine what arrogance must be produced by working within D.C., the capital of the largest, most powerful empire in world history.
It must also be acknowledged that beltway libertarian think tanks who seek to influence the political class, instead of the common person, benefit immensely from the State. If there were to be a libertarian revolution tomorrow, the beltarians would all have to look for new jobs. This means that they have a genuine incentive not only to preserve the State, but even help it grow.
On a smaller scale, individuals who choose to earn their income by working on political campaigns often adopt a much rosier view of working in the system as they are relying on this line of work to pay their bills.
Those who advocate working within the government also often seem to be the kinds of people who themselves desire to run for office one day and have power over others, or at the least have some kind of meaningful influence over another possessor of political power. The outrage they often express when someone belittles the use of the political process is very telling of this. Are they perceiving this criticism of using the political process as an attack on their desire to be a wielder of power one day?
The hard truth libertarians need to hear is that real libertarians will never be permitted to have any influence on Leviathan. Self-preservation is its highest end, followed by constant growth towards its ultimate goal of becoming a total state. All governments desire to be totalitarian and are constantly testing the boundaries of how much oppression they can convince their subjects to tolerate.
We will never be allowed to get close enough to whisper in the emperor’s ear and, even if we were, the emperor is the absolute least likely person in society to listen. One does not become a member of the most powerful criminal gang of oppressors because of his willingness to empathize with the oppressed.
“But what about Ron Paul?!”
Ron Paul is the opposite of a Trojan horse. He’s never played the games. Ron Paul goes on national TV calling taxation theft, calling government nothing but force, and calling the U.S. government an empire. Ron Paul says the South had the right to secede, he supports full drug legalization, supports trading with Cuba, opposes the Civil Rights Act of 1964 due to its invasions on private property rights, and completely opposes all wealth redistribution period. He proudly takes these bold positions and doesn’t care a single bit about the consequences. Ron Paul would rather lose an election than sell out. Ron Paul isn’t in the presidential race to win, he’s in it to give as many speeches and get on TV as much as he can and talk about liberty – planting seeds in millions of people’s minds. Ron Paul is an educator. He just wants to get kids reading Mises and Rothbard.
Ron Paul has indeed been magnificently effective at this, but unfortunately he is also a rarest outlier. He has been performing this role for four decades now and, unlike most other libertarian politicians, has only gotten more radical – even calling himself a “voluntaryist” on national TV, a term Murray Rothbard coined in his book Man, Economy, and State to describe a society where the initiation of force is entirely prohibited and individuals enjoy full self-ownership.
This is what it takes for a position in the political system to genuinely be used for education, if we are to even use it at all. The libertarian politician educator must be completely pure and radical and not worry at all about whether this will result in not getting reelected. The focus should always be on the root, not the branches. Unfortunately, it appears that Ron Paul is the only politician in American history who has been able to resist the aphrodisiac of power so consistently.
It must also be recognized that Ron Paul as a congressman has done basically nothing at all for liberty. His record number of “no” votes never stopped any government expansion. His only bill to ever pass was the Audit the Fed bill, which has had basically no effect at all on the Fed.
The great majority of the good Ron Paul has done has been as a private individual, introducing people to libertarian principles one crowd, one TV audience, and one YouTube viewer at a time.
Political types will be quick to point out that being a congressman and presidential candidate is what has gotten Ron Paul on TV so much. This is true, but Ron Paul is also proof of the effectiveness of not playing the political games and selling out. If playing the game is such a sound strategy, why is Ron Paul so much more popular among regular people than the “small-L” “libertarians”? Why is there no Bob Barr revolution or Gary Johnson revolution?
Now let us ponder the utopian best case scenario for Ron Paul. He goes third party and wins the presidency thanks to his wide appeal among non-Republicans. He pardons all the non-violent offenders from prison. He’s able to get congressional cooperation to abolish the Fed, along with 90% of the federal government. He brings the troops home from everywhere. He stops the impending war with Iran. What long-term good is this if the average person does not understand liberty? Even this absolute best case scenario can only be considered a temporary band-aid. How long will it be before people are demanding the welfare-state again after Ron Paul is out of office? How long will it be before some demagogue politician wins the presidency on a platform of warring with an unpopular nation, kicking the warfare state back into gear?
Now let us consider a slightly more realistic, but still utopian, scenario. Ron Paul wins the presidency. The entire congress is filled with politicians who benefit tremendously from the current system and will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. Nearly half the American population is enjoying some type of tax-funded government handout. More people than ever have government jobs in departments Ron Paul would like to abolish. They will not like Ron Paul. Ron Paul is probably glad he most likely can’t win so he doesn’t have to be put in this position. I believe he is even on recent record saying he doesn’t want to be president.
If Ron Paul can’t make liberty rain down from the top, nobody can. This is an effort that can only come from the ground up. It all comes first from education. People’s minds must be changed one at a time. Reading should be every libertarian’s top priority. Libertarians should focus on keeping the philosophy as pure and principled as possible. It’s all about the ideas. If we sell those out, or never have them figured out to begin with, then all activism of any kind from that point is wasted effort.
As Etienne de la Boettie explains in The Politics of Obedience, all governments rely solely on the consent of their subjects. As more people learn about liberty, the consent of the tax-slaves will vanish along with the State.
This is far from an impossible task and the internet is making it exponentially easier every day.