- David Bergland, R.I.P.
- The case against the case against the American Revolution Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
- One of the most peculiar aspects of the history of democracy Salih Emre Gercek, Age of Revolutions
- Reason, naturalism, and free will David Potts, Policy of Truth
The elections were pretty decent overall. The GOP actually picked up some seats in the Senate, the Democrats picked up some seats in the House. It was a draw, and now Trump is weaker than he was in 2016 and so are the Democrats. It’s a win-win for libertarians.
Speaking of libertarians, we have a political party here in the States, and it didn’t do too bad in the elections. It looks as if the Libertarian Party has started to run candidates in districts where a representative usually goes unchallenged. So, in heavily Democratic areas like urban Dallas or suburban Denver, or in heavily Republican areas like Wyoming, Libertarians have begun running legitimate campaigns. Jennifer Nakerud won 4% of the vote in suburban Denver, and Shawn Jones got nearly 9% of the vote in urban Dallas. In West Virginia, Rusty Hollen took 4% of the vote in the Senate race. Gary Johnson didn’t do too bad, either, finishing with almost 15% of the vote in New Mexico. He was running for Senate, and he was a very successful governor there, so his losing success was somewhat assured, but still, it’s encouraging. Also encouraging is the re-election of Clint Bolick, a libertarian judge in Arizona (Damon Root reports on Bolick’s victory at Reason, here).
I’ve plowed through a bunch of books recently: Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920), Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (2010), Nicolai Gogol’s Dead Souls (1842), the Three-Body Problem trilogy (2014-2016), and Prador Moon (2006), the first book in a long, 15-part science fiction series. They’ve all been richly rewarding, and I’ll be blogging my thoughts about them sporadically throughout the next few months, so be sure to keep checkin’ in on NOL!
Last week, the Trump administration announced it would be pursuing a federalist approach to cannabis legislation, effectively allowing states to create their own rules about how the drug is classified and sold.
This is a big change in American drug policy. One common opinion of the Obama era is that the federal government took a relaxed approach toward policing states that were decriminalizing marijuana. The 2008-2016 administration shifted the financial language of the drug war from a law-and-order crackdown to a public safety effort, and placed a low priority on intervening in states with medical legality. Real reform was introduced like the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment which prohibited the Department of Justice from policing medical marijuana states with federal funds. However, DEA raids and reconnaissance missions continued — like in my home state, where counter-economizing Californians sold a whopping five times more weed than they consumed (often to states where it is illegal).
Under Obama, it looked like, with a president less enthusiastic about beating up stoners, American drug policy might start to approach the 21st century. Some skepticism was reintroduced when Senator Sessions was appointed Attorney General under President Trump. Jeff “Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana” Sessions is explicit about supreme federal authority for drug laws, and supported overturning Rohrabacher-Farr. This, indeed, would be a return to normalcy. For the last half century, it has not been characteristic of the federal government to stay out of drug use — rather than the Trump administration being a Republican re-installation of the war on drugs, we would be witnessing a general return to the 20th century status quo. However, Trump’s announcement makes it seem like we can finally welcome the unexpected.
Trump’s representatives have positioned this move to give up cannabis regulation to the states in a philosophy of states’ rights. Whether or not Trump cares about dual federalism, the repeal of marijuana prohibition — medical, recreational and federal — sweeping across states the last decade is a big win for individual liberty, and, since neither Party has been particularly friendly to cannabis, would seem to point to mainstream party acceptance of libertarian ideas.
What is the Party’s track record on cannabis? The Libertarian Party explicitly opposed drug laws in its first 1972 national platform. Now, in our present day, drug decriminalization is not a radical stance but something more mainstream. Failed or ex-politicians from either party have made a habit of coming out in support of legalizing marijuana the last few years, and up north, the Canadian Liberal Party may now endorse wide-scale reforms. Just yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he would introduce a bill to directly decriminalize marijuana as a federally classified substance. We’ll see how it goes. But it is now clear that in the same way Libertarians supported gay marriage decades before either partisan establishment now does, one doesn’t have to seek out a minarchist anymore to find someone who opposes drug laws or mass incarceration. (One mainstream policy position that hasn’t budged — war.)
So although we see radically unlibertarian moves nearly every day in Congress and the executive (e.g., FOSTA and Syria), some of the ideas of liberty have spread and reached mainstream status.
This raises some questions about the state of the philosophy and the Party, and more than just drug policy. What does it mean when our more eccentric ideas gain traction in the bigger political world? This question is tied to the purpose of an embedded libertarian political party in the first place.
Economist David Friedman made the point in the postscript to Machinery of Freedom that the purpose of the Libertarian Party is to not have a Libertarian Party. David’s argument is not the same thing as Austin Peterson’s brand slogan, to “Take over government in order to leave people alone.” Instead, David’s argument was built around a public choice understanding of political institutions, but the same conclusion follows from several different premises about the nature of third parties and especially those with a goal of mitigating or eliminating politics.
For American institutional reasons — codified in law and practice — a third party is almost certainly never going to win an election. David thinks, therefore, the purpose of a fringe political party is aspire to the legacy of the Socialist Party of the early 1900s. The Socialist platform in 1928 has succeeded in infiltrating establishment policy, even if the Party last election drew less than a tenth of 1% of the vote. Fringe parties are more successful as beacons of alternative policy than legitimate political competitors. The Party does not pursue political success but influence; hopefully, we will one day not need it to affirm liberty.
So, let’s return to cannabis decriminalization, where we are seeing a libertarian idea achieve mainstream political support.
Legalizing weed is a victory for libertarian ideas and a defeat for the Libertarian Party. Part of the simplistic draw of Libertarianism is “fiscal conservatism and social progressivism,” which, as a one-liner, allows recruitment from both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Now, however, if the progressive leaders, and the Republicans, are co-opting drug decriminalization, there is a lot less draw for social liberals to vote for Party alternatives more aligned with their radical agenda. (I know this, for instance, because drug legalization as an issue first drew me from Democratism to libertarianism in high school.) Hillary Clinton could have partially avoided her image as a crony neoliberal if she adopted more social freedoms, which would only leave her smears on the Left as an imperialist and capitalist.
A recent, rather strange video by AJ+ took aim at libertarianism (read: the Libertarian Party) as “ultra far-right” and spent seconds noting that libertarians are, on the flip side, “anti-NSA, anti-intervention and anti-drug laws.” These are not the only policies that small government people have to offer to the Left if they properly understand themselves. But, as libertarians, we should actually hope this list grows smaller and smaller; the more it shrinks, the more it means that establishment parties are appropriating libertarian positions. Pretty soon, being “anti-drug law” may disappear from the elevator pitch. Subsequently, the “worthwhile aspects” of the Libertarian Party fade to the back, and the draw of the Party (to the left, or the right) decreases until it looks heavily status quo.
So, we could expect that the influence of the Libertarian Party shrinks with the increasing influence of libertarian ideas in general society, as the general electorate pressures establishment politicians to adjust their policy space.
However, a lot of things are being taken for granted here. Do politicians actually respond to the general public consensus and public desire? Is it the case that “libertarian” ideas are spreading to the mainstream, or is it more “progressive” or “traditionalist” ones that are moving it in ostensibly similar directions? Can the ideas alone move policy positions without backing money?
We also know that the power of the Libertarian Party has greatly increased since its humble beginnings (whether or not its reputation has improved). My hypothesis is that the influence of libertarian ideas in society at large pressures the estabishment parties to adjust their positions, which in turn makes the Libertarian Party more irrelevant. This is not disproved by an increase in Libertarian Party power. The ideas, even if libertarian, still need to be seen as “libertarian” for it to hurt the Party. For instance, Chuck Schumer said “Looking at the numbers” guided him toward decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level and cited the ACLU. These “numbers” have been available for decades, from a potpourri of alternative political thinktanks. Citing them from the ACLU will not embed the bill — also faux-embedded in a philosophy of states’ rights — in libertarianism, but in the context of mass incarceration, criminal justice racial disparity and THC research opportunity. These are all good contexts. But the individual freedom element key to libertarianism will be missing, and of course it is, because Schumer says nothing about the other plethora of federal drug laws which prohibit freedom. Recognition of the libertarian aspect of ideas which are libertarian, I think, is essential for them to harm a Party which bases itself around the philosophy.
All of this means that there will be perverse incentives in third-party leadership. Politicians want job security like the next guy, and organizations in some sense want to “survive,” so the interests of libertarianism and the Libertarian Party are in one way opposed (or environmentalism and the Green Party). Liberty is more advanced by incumbent politicians (who are liberty-advancing, of course) than defeated politicians. And the mainstream parties are successful, the fringe parties are not. Thus, liberty is better spread when our ideas take off and get mainstream acceptance, but this will only serve to weaken the Libertarian Party itself, as its attraction as a political outlier fades. This must be obvious: no Libertarian Party candidate is going to claim the White House in our lifetime, and the best hopes of libertarian success are in influencing other parties. So, even when we gain more percent of the vote, the success is in getting people to hear about libertarianism, not in actually convincing people to vote Libertarian.
Conflicting incentives (working in the Party and advancing liberty) means that the Party could be taken over by bad actors like any other political organization, and indeed David predicts this with the increase of political clout. Parties with political power have plenty of favors to dish out, and it only takes a few non-ideological Party members to break ranks. As some of the ideas become more mainstream, this is one possibility. Another is disintegration: there might be no reason for the Libertarian Party to continue, given that its unique draw has suffused into larger bases. A third option is that more radical contingents, like the Mises Caucus, achieve ideological supremacy as the moderate libertarians leave for the newly-libertized Democrat and Republican parties.
In any case, libertarianism faces a conundrum in its Party format. Much of the problems apply to other third parties, but some are unique to libertarianism. One brutal confrontation is the acknowledgement that legalizing cannabis will advance liberty and simultaneously hurt the liberty movement. To this end, Saul Alinsky’s reflection in Rules for Radicals is potent.
The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago is trying to stop the University from bulldozing the black ghetto. The activists issued five demands for the city council, grew in power, and defeated the construction project. Eight months later, the city crafts a new policy on urban renewal to the frustration of the Woodlawn Organization, who barge into Alinsky’s office denouncing the policy statement. But “Through the tirade it never occurred to any of the angry leaders that the city’s new policy granted all the five demands for which the Woodlawn Organization began. Then they were fighting for hamburger; now they wanted filet mignon; so it goes. And why not?”
The solution to one problem creates a new problem, and there are always future problems to work on. Liberty will just have to keep trucking through the victories, and learn from our friends the Socialists of 1928 and Saul Alinsky, who never joined a political party.
John McAfee’s latest political campaign ad is inspiring as it asks voters to vote libertarian. It is an homage to Apple’s “Think Different” ad as well as to individual freedoms, creativity and intellect.
The video shows ‘rebels’ and game-changers who have moved the world forward. You do find Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Peter Thiel, Bradley Manning, Ross Ulbricht, Martin Luther King, Ayn Rand and many more. You even see Bitcoin and crypto-capitalism which is simply another form of libertarian anarchism. Ending with the lift-off of a spaceshuttle, the ad presents a message of hope for libertarians and a message of progress as long as we “let life live”.
The same celebration of human individualism and message of hope was also apparent in McAfee’s earlier campaign ad that was released two weeks ago.
I cast my first vote in 1964, shortly after turning 21, the legal voting age in those days. I voted for Barry Goldwater who, although he described himself as a conservative, didn’t fit that category by today’s standards. He was for free markets but he was not particularly religious and he held a laissez-faire attitude toward alternate lifestyles. He was, unfortunately, a war hawk, so he wouldn’t fit very well into today’s libertarian category, either.
Four years later I voted for Richard Nixon, sad to say. I somehow thought he was for free markets, being a Republican. I was cured of that delusion by a wakeup call at 8:15 AM on Monday, August 16, 1971. That was the moment I saw the headline in the L.A. Times announcing Nixon’s dastardly Sunday evening perfidy: price controls, closing the gold window, and an import tariff surcharge. All of these statist actions very quickly played out disastrously. Their personal import was to cure me of any notion that Republicans were necessarily friends of liberty. I became a libertarian that Monday morning and never looked back.
Of course that decision meant never again voting for a winner. I voted for John Hospers in 1972, and he actually got one electoral vote from a renegade Republican elector, Roger MacBride, who was the LP candidate in 1976. Ed Clark’s 1980 campaign on the Libertarian ticket, generously funded by the Koch brothers, gave me brief hope for the new party, which we all know has come to naught. I’ve “wasted” my vote on Libertarian candidates ever since. Thanks to Proposition 14 in California, I can only vote for Libertarians in the primary elections; minor parties are shut out of the general election. In many races the general election is a contest between two Democrats. I resist any urge to vote for the lesser evil of the two so now I just leave most of my ballot blank and vote against all tax measures.
If we must have voting, I offer a couple of common-sense reforms:
- Raise the voting age to 30. People under that age are clueless.
- Require voters to pass a stiff qualification exam, something far more rigorous than the simple literacy tests of yore.
- Institute a stiff poll tax, at least enough to cover election costs. Why force non-voters to pay?
I’m tempted to throw in land ownership as another criterion, but the foregoing should suffice. Of course this reform would leave many people feeling disenfranchised, but so what? Most people are far too ignorant to judge issues and candidates rationally and should be kept away from voting booths at all costs. Anyway, the system would leave a path open for people to earn enfranchisement by working hard to satisfy the above criteria.
Would I apply for enfranchisement under my proposed system? No way; I have better things to do. Will I vote this year? I suppose so. I have no idea what will be on the ballot, but there will doubtless be some lame-brain propositions to vote against.
Ed Lazear had an outstanding op-ed, “Government Dries Up California’s Water Supply,” in the June 26 Wall Street Journal.
It brings me back to 1982, when I first moved to California from Texas. Less Antman had the California Libertarian Party hire me as research director, and one of the biggest political issues at the time was water. The fight was over a ballot initiative authorizing construction of a Peripheral Canal around the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta to divert more water to Central Valley farmers and southern California. It would have been an enormous, expensive boondoggle that united environmentalist and libertarians in opposition. I ended up not only writing but speaking before all sorts of audiences about the issue. My studies made me quite familiar with the socialist bureaucracy, much of unelected with taxing power, which manages California’s feudalistic water system, severely mispricing and misallocating water.
Fortunately, the Peripheral Canal went down to defeat. But little was done to reform California’s water system, and Lazear provides an excellent survey of the myriad drawbacks still plaguing it today. His solution: “Rather than praying for rain, we should get government out of the water-allocation business.” One noteworthy detail he doesn’t mention is that even in non-drought years, because the system encourages overuse of water, the Central Valley’s ground water continues to get depleted. This ensures that each subsequent drought will generate ever more serious problems. Worst of all, one solution being pushed during the current drought is a jazzed up version of the Peripheral Canal.
Brandon: I stand corrected on the unimportant issue of whether you belong to the Libertarian Party or not. Most of your assertions could come straight out of one of the Libertarian organizations; that’s what misled me. Yet, I confess that you are not a Libertarian but an orthodox libertarian (small “l”).
I think our conversations are fairly useful to the many who are repelled by orthodox libertarians although they have much analysis and many positions in common with them.
The most useful thing you did recently to help this cause is to affirm clearly that we, as a nation, have no responsibility toward the victims of mass massacres in which we could intervene at little cost and at little risk to ourselves. I refer to Rwanda, of course and not to Iraq where there was always much risk.
We have radically different moral compasses. There is an impassable gulf there.
The second problem I have with orthodox libertarians and that you illustrate concerns the use of facts. As you know, in one Republican debate, candidate Ron Paul affirmed, under his own power, with no incitement, that the US armed forces spent twenty billion dollars a year on air-conditioning alone in Iraq and in Afghanistan. No Libertarian and no orthodox libertarian of note took the trouble to question him on this absurd figure.
You too, seem to not pay enough attention to facts that are both important and easy to ascertain. I find this common among followers of severe political or religious doctrines. Here is your latest example.
You take to me to task tersely for something we would agree is very important: not understanding the constitutional provision that places the initiation of war within the province of congressional action. In particular, you insist that I and my readers agree with you that both the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War are illegal, unconstitutional. Here are the relevant facts:
A Joint Resolution of Congress was passed on September 18th 2001. It gave the President authority to use all necessary force against against whoever he determined planned, committed, or aided the attack on 9/11. (Public Law 107-40.) The votes were: 401 – 1 and 98 – 0.
How is that for Congressional authorization?
“Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq” was passed October 16th 2002. (Public Law 107-243.) The votes were 297-133 and 77 – 23. That’s comfortably more than 2/3 majority in both houses.
It’s disconcerting to me that sometimes, you seem to get your information impressionistically only and only from the liberal media.
I am not blameless myself. My statement that “95%” of terrorist acts in the past twenty years were committed by people who called themselves Muslim was a bit overblown. That statement needs correction. See below but let me explain my mistakes.
I did not include much of Columbia in my mental count of terrorist acts because I am under the impression that there have been few intentional homicidal acts committed in Columbia not directed at one chain of command or another (not civilians). In addition, it seems to me that so many homicidal acts there are connected with the drug trade that there is little room left in the numbers for victims of terrorism as conventionally defined.
As for the Tamil Tigers, I have followed their story from their beginnings to their recent end. They were formally classified as a terrorist organization by a large number of governments. Yet I don’t think they committed a large number of terrorist acts defined as deliberate acts of violence against civilians. They were responsible for considerable collateral damage, I think, they were callous, but that’s different.
Thanks to your influence, I have become more conscious of what I mean by terrorism. It includes intentionality and blindness toward the (civilian) victims. Thus, I have revised my concept of terrorism. I will be more precise in the future.
In response to your intervention, I am reducing my estimate of worldwide responsibility for terrorism by people who claim to be Muslims from 95% to 85%. That’s a big reduction of more than 10%. Yet, it has not implications at all with respect to the substance of my argument.
And I repeat that I am not anti-Muslim but that I deplore vigorously the moral blindness of American Muslim organizations. By the way, for readers who are interested, there is a good, thick recent book by a Muslim scholar that both documents and, ironically, illustrates the same blindness: Akbar, Ahmed. 2010. Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam. Brookings: Washington D.C.