Why Libertarians Should Enter Politics as Entrepreneurs
The most important lesson I have learned from my recent campaign for mayor of Bogotá is that politics in Colombia, and surely in other countries, is in dire need of entrepreneurship.
When I looked at the Colombian political scene, I realized that the parties represent very little in ideological terms and that, in general, they fail to appeal to citizens, particularly to the young.
The Liberal Party is hardly liberal, being a member of Socialist International since the 1990s. The Conservative Party, beyond being an amalgamation of regional political chieftains, stands mostly for a series of retrograde social policies. At least three other parties are composed solely of the following of a single caudillo: Democratic Center under former President Álvaro Uribe; National Unity under current President Juan Manuel Santos; and Radical Change under current Vice President German Vargas Lleras.
The statist Democratic Pole and its offshoots once represented opposition to “the establishment,” but after governing Bogotá for 12 years, amid a series of corruption scandals and a perceived general incompetence, frustration with its failures is high.
Only five years ago, the Green Party gathered the support of the young and independents in its bid against Juan Manuel Santos, who then ran for the presidency as the establishment candidate supported by Uribe. But the so-called green wave crashed under its own weight, and its two leaders, Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa, no longer belong to the party.
Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that, according to recent opinion polls (PDF), nearly 80 percent of Colombians disapprove of the political parties. This is a mere 10 percentage points less than the level of disapproval for the FARC guerrillas. It was evident to me, therefore, that Colombian politics desperately needed some sort of renewal. Above all, there was need for an ideological upheaval that turned the political discourse towards greater economic and personal freedom.
These were the thoughts that crossed my mind last January, when I went to Guatemala to participate in the fabulous Antigua Forum “unconference,” a gathering where free marketeers involved in politics in different countries meet entrepreneurs from across the world.
Like all participants, I arrived holding a belief in “the power of human ingenuity and free enterprise” as a means to enhance mankind’s well-being in any nation. But learning from entrepreneurs changed my perspective, which had been shaped more by the political side of things, where caution, petty calculation, and intrigue tend to rule the day.
A sensible person does not have to be involved in politics for long before recognizing the wisdom of King Lear at the end of the play: politics largely consists of poor rogues who “talk of court news … who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out.…” It’s a tiresome game, and it may be far better simply to stand aside and wear out the “packs and sects of great ones, that ebb and flow by the moon.”
But, at Antigua, I realized that this is only the case if you follow politics’ traditional rules, patiently climbing the greasy pole of the state bureaucracy or an established political party. The perfect formula, in other words, for the death of idealism, ingenuity, and the advancement of free enterprise.
The alternative, I thought, might be to treat the Colombian political market as an entrepreneur might treat a commercial market. This involves much greater risk taking and regarding failure as a most valuable experience. It does not involve trying to bring about change from within the system, but rather giving the system itself a good dose of shock therapy.
The best entrepreneurs, I learned, not only improve a particular market with their products. Rather, they completely disrupt the market with innovation so groundbreaking that the very rules of the game are turned upside down.
These thoughts made me reject the advice of experts who argued that the best way for me to proceed was to run for the City Council as a candidate for a traditional, and necessarily statist, political party, a route that is obvious, if not necessarily safe, in terms of the probability of winning. Instead, I decided, along with a close team of like-minded nonconformists, to create a new and independent Libertarian Movement and run for mayor of Colombia’s capital, the second most important political post in the country.
From the outset, the obstacles were considerable: in order to register our candidacy, we were required to hand in at least 50,000 valid signatures of citizens supporting our movement. In practice, this meant obtaining at least 100,000 signatures, since many would not be valid if, for instance, the signatory’s national identification card (cedula) was not previously registered in Bogotá. More burdensome still was the state’s requirement of a US$44,000 (COL$128 million) deposit for an independent candidacy, an amount which is lost if one fails to obtain 4 percent of the total votes cast.
The first insight gained was that Colombian politics is similar to the country’s economy in that cartelization necessarily results from very high barriers to entry into the market. The financial requirement weighed particularly heavily upon us since the US$44,000 sum constituted far more than we expected to spend on the actual campaign. At the same time, we learned that gathering tens of thousands of signatures from citizens on the streets was an extremely tall task for an independent group with no recourse in established political structures.
Somehow, we were able to overcome both of these obstacles after numerous setbacks: for instance, losing my father as a key member of the campaign team after he suffered a heart attack, from which he has thankfully recovered. Once we officially registered our campaign, we were able to compete on the biggest stage with some of the largest political beasts in the land: former Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, former Vice President Francisco Santos, former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo, and former presidential candidate Clara Lopez.
This allowed us to introduce classical liberal/libertarian ideas to the Colombian political debate for the first time since the late 19th century, as EAFIT University professor Luis Guillermo Velez has explained. At the same time, we succeeded in creating a youth movement of sorts, backed by more than 20,000 voters, and in making quite good use of digital technology.
We were the first campaign in Colombia, for instance, to raise funds by means of crowdfunding, which meant that we depended neither on the state nor on large economic interests, but rather on the citizens who made small donations to our cause.
All of which goes to show that the ideas of liberty have a great political potential in the Americas and across the world: a potential that can be met as long as classical liberals and libertarians in the political sphere begin to think less like traditional politicians and more like the entrepreneurs we usually defend so vigorously.