Monday, July 27, 2009

Peak Column #7: What is to be Done?

Welcome to the final entry of Rules for Radicals, a Libertarian propaganda column blatantly and unapologetically written with the intent of luring wayward Progressives and Conservatives away from their respective flocks. I’d like to think we’ve picked up a few disillusioned members of each camp over the past few months, thus expanding my readership beyond the five or six other Libertarians on campus, possibly well into the double-digits. This may sound modest, but compared to other Libertarians’ efforts to spread free-market gospel, it really is the journalistic equivalent of a three-minute mile.

Today’s column will take your dogmatic faith in free markets as a given, so that we may focus on a more practical matter: Strategy. If you are a Libertarian, you believe in small government, free markets and individual liberty. Unfortunately, governments in the western world have been systematically abandoning these principles over the past 100 years or so. We need to understand this trend if we are to have any hope of reversing it. Why has the past century been so cruel to us?

Libertarianism is a tough sell because it has nothing to offer its potential converts. Saul Alinksy, patron saint of community organizing, taught that successful organizations always address the self-interest of their supporters. This explains the success of movements that seek to increase the size of government, since the expansion of central authority implies an expansion of the ability of that same central authority to reward its members. Lenin was able to stir up violent, chanting hordes of followers because he advocated for the redistribution of aristocratic wealth to those same hordes. What material benefits await supporters of Libertarian public policy? Subsidies? Corporate welfare? Power over the lives of others? Umm, no. Libertarianism simply can’t offer the kind of corrupt incentives necessary for effective mob politics.

This is why Libertarians are so rare, they would qualify for federally-protected wildlife habitats, while you can’t open your car door on campus without hitting a Progressive. (Conservatives are somewhat less common, but rip a few donuts in convocation mall and I’m sure you’ll connect with a few.) The traditional Right and Left are both supported by a critical mass of self-interested recipients of government-allocated privilege. Libertarianism is an ideology fundamentally opposed to such privilege, so our ability to recruit and retain supporters is limited.

Now we understand why free market policies have been losing favour since the advent of democratic governments. The second question is, can we reverse this trend and actually implement Libertarian policies, despite our failure to draw support from interest groups? Even better, can we do this without resorting to politics by other means, i.e. retired generals, tinted aviators and five o’clock shadows? In keeping with the theme of pilfering our ideological opponents’ catchphrases – “Yes We Can.”

Call me naïve, call me insane, or (even worse) call me a Whig, but I am optimistic about the future of Libertarianism in the Western world, for two reasons.

The first is the rise of China and the other East Asian economies, who are adopting free market policies almost as quickly as the west is abandoning them. One of the main reasons why communism collapsed in the USSR was that the capitalist West existed, and was clearly a much better place to live. This discredited the Soviet government in the eyes of its population. The West of 2009 is not a communist wasteland on par with the late-game USSR. But it is also not the dynamic, innovative world leader that it once was, and the situation is not improving. If free-market reforms continue apace in China, and creeping socialism goes unchecked in the West, a day will come when our voters, intellectuals and politicians will not be able to ignore the superiority of capitalist institutions at generating wealth, prosperity and human dignity across the Pacific Ocean.

The second factor is the rapidly decreasing costs to individuals of finding and verifying information. Any curious, intelligent person with an internet connection can compare Libertarian arguments against their alternatives at no cost. Journalists, authors, academics and politicians are now forced to avoid lying, misleading, or contradicting themselves whenever there’s a camera rolling, lest they wind up the PR equivalent of the Star Wars Kid. Bloggers and columnists can call each other out on factual questions in open forums for all to see. Economic growth statistics of free and unfree countries can be compared with a few clicks. If you believe, as I do, that you are on the side of truth, this is a good thing.