A month ago, I answered a question about reconciling the absence of libertarian societies with the supposed superiority of libertarian principles.
I gave an uncharacteristically optimistic response, arguing that the world in many ways has become more free thanks to libertarian policies (or, to be more accurate, a decline in statism).
This led to several follow-up questions, mostly premised on the notion that I must be smoking crack to think government has become less of a burden. My defense would be that the world is more free than it was 40 years ago, but probably less free than it was 10 years ago, so it depends on your benchmark. And I definitely agree that the world is trending toward less freedom (with these charts being a very sobering example).
But the question that caught my eye, and makes for a good follow-up, comes from a reader in Missouri: “Why aren’t libertarians more persuasive?”
To elaborate, the question assumes that libertarianism is the right approach and that the evidence supports libertarian policies, so another way of phrasing the question is: “What is wrong with libertarians that they can’t sell libertarian ideas?”
The easy and simple answer is to say the problem is that the people are too susceptible to being bribed by politicians. As illustrated by the chart, more and more Americans are getting hooked on the heroin of government dependency.
And as more Americans adopt the moocher mindset found in Vermont, libertarians have a hard time developing a winning message.
But I think the reader is really asking whether the problem with libertarianism is…well, libertarians.
This is a fair question. Having given hundreds of speeches and engaged in thousands of conversation, I can say that many people make the following assumptions about libertarians.
1. On economic policy, libertarians don’t care about the poor. Since I work on fiscal issues, this is the one I deal with all the time. I try to explain – ad nauseam – that we want smaller government and more economic freedom because faster growth is the only effective way to lower poverty and help the poor. But a lot of people think we’re defending the status quo.
2. On social policy, libertarians are libertines, embracing and endorsing hedonism. This is probably the most common stereotype, and there definitely are libertarians who are motivated by a desire to get rid of laws that impinge on their freedom to do things like smoke pot. But the libertarian position is not that pot is good, but rather that prohibition is bad.
3. On foreign policy, libertarians are oblivious to external threats such as al Qaeda. I’ve had several people, for instance, complain about Ron Paul opposing the killing of Osama bin Laden, and they assume that means libertarians are somehow the modern-day equivalent of Soviet appeasers. Yet our message is that we favor national defense, but that we think we’ll have far less need to defend ourselves if we stop intervening in ways that have nothing to do with national security.
4. And in general, libertarians are ultra-individualists who reject concepts such as community, family, and nation. While it’s true that libertarians are motivated by individual freedom, opposition to government coercion does not imply that people can’t be good neighbors or good parents. Indeed, we would argue that a free society promotes private virtue. And there’s nothing inconsistent with patriotism and libertarianism, as illustrated by this t-shirt.
Looking at what I’ve written, I realize I haven’t answered the question. All I’ve done is identified some stereotypes and explained why they’re not accurate.
So I’ll simply conclude by making a rather unremarkable observation that overcoming these perceptions is a big challenge for libertarians – assuming that we want to make greater inroads with the masses.
P.S. I got nagged by several readers for not posting a “Question of the Week” last weekend. What can I say, I’m old and forgetful. But you can always peruse previous versions if you’re somehow suffering.
But I’ll try to compensate for my oversight with some humor. Since this post is about the supposed shortcoming of libertarians, here’s some self-mocking humor. We’ll start with a video portraying Somalia as a libertarian paradise, followed by cartoons on libertarian ice fishing and libertarian lifeguards, then an info-graphic showing 24 types of libertarians, and close with a poster showing how the world sees libertarians.