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Libertarians Need to Get Real

By: Nick Zaiac - @NickZaiac - Oct 6, 2015, 12:26 pm
Rand Paul's "libertarian moment" has come and gone, if it ever existed at all.
Senator Paul’s “libertarian moment” has come and gone, if it ever existed at all. (Capital Factory)

Rand Paul is no longer a viable presidential candidate.

The man has faltered at every turn, despite inheriting one of the most powerful anti-establishment donor and activist networks built in the modern era. Long seen as harbinger of a “Libertarian Moment,” as the New York Times famously called it, he has run only to find barely a populist leg to stand on.

There has not been, nor will there ever be, any kind of libertarian populism in our lifetimes. This is the premise of my former boss Jerry Taylor’s piece, published over at Fox News on Friday.

Jerry’s article seems to be meant as unpalatable medicine for a libertarian movement that has overdosed on its own ideology. Since founding his own policy shop, he has become an outspoken critic of libertarian orthodoxy. Underlying much of the man’s loud rhetoric is a keen understanding of political trends, a grounding in reality that, at least on political science, is sobering.

We are not winning hearts and minds at any rate that can translate into the broad-based political change that libertarians seek.

Jerry is right to point out that the “libertarian bundle” is simply too large. The reasons for this are myriad, but it does, in part, stem from political apathy. The median voter is far from libertarian. More importantly, most voters don’t really give a damn about broad, esoteric politics.

Their views are contradictory; they want low taxes, without spending cuts that hurt anything or anyone they interact with. Doubt me? Go to Republican-heartland small-town America and ask whether teachers are paid too much, or whether road-improvement spending is too high, or what specific environmental red tape should be cut. Not a peep? Of course not.

Voters have effectively zero basic understanding of public policy, and how the unknowable number of different pieces interact with each other. There is nothing holistic to the voting public; politics is cobbled together from experience and conversation, not long nights of meditation. They don’t want anything like a “libertopia”; they just want things to get better for them and those they know in tangible ways.

And all of this is exogenous. It’s out of anyone’s control. Politicos might motivate a couple extra percent to vote one way or another, but big swings are exceptions, not the rule. So what is someone who believes in sound public policy to do? The answer is to stop thinking about the grassroots at all.

Sure, their whims matter, but you’re fooling yourself to think you’re the difference between “nothing” and “policy change.” Just as it was exogenous factors like low oil prices and smaller-than-expected fields that temporarily halted Shell’s Arctic oil drilling, and not Greenpeace activists, libertarians aren’t going to change the world by shouting about the Fed to relatives and students, or by pointing out philosophical inconsistency among opposing scholars.

No, they win by advancing sound, often orthodox “good governance” public policy, especially at the state level. They may not be particularly common, but there are a few good examples of these reforms happening in recent years that are worth note.

One that I’ve watched closely has been the rising prominence of blue-state Republican Larry Hogan. The man was elected on a wave of taxpayer outrage, whose chances seemed so slim that polling stopped weeks before his election. Yet, instead of fighting with his legislature, he’s pushed reasonable, centrist, good-governance reforms.

State fees have been lowered, advice has been sought for regulatory reform, and he’s formed a committee to seek the rationalization of electoral districts in a state that’s a textbook example of gerrymandering.

Notably absent from the governor’s rhetoric: talk of culture war issues, which motivate electoral bases left and right. When one of the most controversial things a governor does is kill an expensive transit line and the next is veto a law decriminalizing drug paraphernalia, that’s a sign of a true good-governance politician. Is it any wonder that new polling has has seen his approval jump 18 percent since February?

In New York, we’ve seen a similar story on the political “left.” Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo won praise, and even an award, last year for work to fix an overly burdensome and complex corporate-tax system. In Colorado, John Hickenlooper’s Department of Transportation has continued to be a national leader in the expansion of the private investment in highway infrastructure.

Even in solid-blue Rhode Island, steps have been taken to rationalize public-sector pensions. While these politicians may periodically rattle sabers, there seems to be an increasing realization that the tax-and spend status quo cannot persist forever.

While far from enough data to point to a trend, my feeling is that this form of political pragmatism is on the rise. While the populist urge to “do anything” will always be there, we’re seeing politicians “left” and “right” reconsider their hierarchy of policy priorities.

This leaves an opening for libertarian types to step in with sound, reasonable, single-issue proposals to reign in the state on particularly damaging parts of public policy. Pushing libertarianism as a holistic ideology does little to change public policy. It may feel good, but making more libertarians is not the same as making the world a more free place.

Thankfully, it seems as though times are changing. The Libertarian Moment may be dead, but policy change … we’re just getting started with that.

Editor’s note: Nick Zaiac has released a follow-up blog post, “Wait, There’s Totally a Case for Libertarian Grassroots.”

Nick Zaiac Nick Zaiac

Nick Zaiac is a public-policy researcher in Washington, DC. He also serves as a policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His column, The DC Leviathan focuses on the often-ignored bureaucratic agencies, from the Department of the Interior to the General Services Administration. He has been published in the Baltimore Sun, City AM, CapX, and other outlets. Follow @NickZaiac.