(The dynamics of Political change)
In the April 18th issue of the Economist, there is an article about Putin’s Russia and another about Hungary and its governing Party, FIDESZ.
On the 29thof April, it hit the news (Bloomberg, Reuters, The Guardian, BBC, ABC, etc.) that Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister wants to reopen the debate about the death penalty.
The European media is in shock. The articles point out that this is a response to the advances of Jobbik, a cleverly named far right party. (the name means ‘the better one’ and/or the ‘righter one’)
Putin wants to shore up his popularity going nationalist, Orbán is turning right to keep those on the right fringes of his party from defecting to what they see as the real deal. We could dismiss both as typical political opportunism but I think there are more important lessons to learn here.
UKIP, with only a few seats at this point is pushing the whole of British politics to the right. Read about it here and here.
In Canada, there are rumours about a possible Liberal-NDP merger. While I do not think that it will happen, the suggestion shows the liberals are ready to move further to the left.
Milton Friedman said that “Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
The examples above seem to contradict Milton Friedman. Political landscapes can change.
In all of the above mentioned cases, parties that are on the edge, are influencing the centre to move slightly in their direction. He is right, however, about the importance of the ideas lying around.
The challenge of the Libertarian party, and the whole movement is to get the right kind of attention with the right kind of ideas. We have to offer ideas that are so appealing that even mainstream parties would have to pay attention. The question is how to do that while also staying true to all of our libertarian principles?
I know no other political movement with the theoretical depth of libertarianism. We have all the answers and all of those answers have logic, morality and evidence behind them. Still, very few people are willing to consider the logic, understand its morality or look at the evidence.
Let me quickly go through the three most important ones, the three that most libertarian policy idea can be derived from:
The non-aggression principle
Although this is the most fundamental libertarian idea, the most obvious and logical, it is fascinating to realize how difficult it is to get it across to people with fixed ideas in their minds. People have absolutely no problem with aggression if it is done in the name of ‘the greater good’.
Most people would use the implied consent view of democracy saying that if the majority agreed to it then, since you accepted the basic premise of democratic decisions making, you must as well. If you do not, compelling you is justifiable aggression.
The reason I make this point is to show why this is not an easy idea to sell. You need to have a fairly good grasp of libertarianism to understand that democracy is not a good thing. Questioning the moral legitimacy of democracy is not an easy thing to start a conversation with.
This is probably the most misunderstood and misrepresented Libertarian principle.
While we consider self-ownership as the most important application of the principle and the origin of all other property rights, our opponents frame it as a greedy desire to own and control material stuff, a selfish support for capitalism, the evil system of exploitation and consumerism. The moment we entered this argument, we are on the defensive. People may be a little more sympathetic to the self-ownership concept (it’s my body, it’s my life, I should be allowed to do with it how I please) than to its economic aspect.
Choice may be the most approachable of the libertarian ideas, it is only rejected completely by the hard-line statists who would feel their power threatened by it. Choice is also the most ‘flexible’, and the one that is the furthest away from radical changes.
Choice can change everything without changing anything.
Many people find freedom threatening and would not want to be thrown into a world which they perceive as one where they have to fend for themselves. Choice is the policy design principle that can lessen that fear but only if it is non-threatening. People don’t like it if they think that they will be forced to make choices. The first step toward liberty is offering alternatives. School choice, private options in health care, open shop unions, etc.
As long as you are not compelled to make a choice it is difficult to argue why it shouldn’t be offered to you.
The libertarian idea is a hard sell because the statist reality around us is too deeply ingrained. Even as libertarianism is slowly gaining popularity, we have to find better strategies to present the libertarian message and to introduce it into practical politics.
Libertarian strategy should be the creation of policy ideas that can capture the imagination of the voting public, something that could turn into an expectation they have for other parties as well.
Libertarians need to change the perception that they are naysayers and contrarians. The message shouldn’t be how to dismantle the state but how to improve its working. Not hiding for a second what the ultimate aim is, we could even say that we wish to improve the state into irrelevance through choice. Freedom is just another word for choice.
Government services never work the way intended and promised. The practical libertarian aim should be to capitalize on this shortcoming, to expose it and to offer freedom oriented alternatives.
Big ideas do not translate into political advantages, only appealing and practical policy suggestions do.
Let me offer you a few that could easily be turned into marketable campaigns with our banner flying over them.
When a politician takes a bribe that is petty corruption. The real corruption, however, is always systemic, it is always the kind that people do not even consider corruption. The most corrupting aspect of government services is lack of information about the real cost of the services provided. We do not know how much we are paying and what we are getting for the money. Libertarians could start a movement demanding the exposure of the cost of everything. A detailed accounting for every service the government does. I want everybody to know how much the health care procedure they underwent cost, what was the cost of education for this particular student in that particular school; I want to see on each public transport ticket the amount of subsidy that went into it. The list is endless and its purpose would be to expose the inefficiencies of government services.
Transparency is the other side of accountability. When politicians talk about transparency they mean that they will not do thing behind our back, that we will always know what our politicians are doing. They do not make such promises about the bureaucracies then further obfuscate the money trail through a complex web of transfers, cross payments and subsidies. There is no transparency in the way our tax dollars are raised and spent. Libertarians could become the champions of demanding such transparency.
Politicians hardly ever have to face the responsibility for their decisions no matter how bad they are. Some could argue that since in politics failure is success, they even get rewarded for it. Libertarians should advocate the need for hard controls.
Hilary Clinton at some point said that she takes full responsibility for Benghazi. I still hope to find out what that actually means. Politicians learned very well that all they need to do is saying the word and then some magic will happen and they will be left alone. We should advocate policies using automatic consequences if certain conditions are met.
“Your budget has an “X” percent overrun? Thank you for your service, but you can never work for the government again.” Screw ups should be one shot deals. Especially for bureaucrats, not just politicians.
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These are just examples, of course, but they are hard to argue against. They can easily get attention and if they are implemented, they would all push our politics toward a little more freedom by exposing waste and incompetence.
None of them mean that we need to give up our principles or in any way hide our ultimate goals: a truly free society.
The libertarian message is a fundamentally positive one. The aim of the party should be to ensure that it is seen as such. In politics, it is said, the rule is ‘define, or be defined’.
Our opposition to the state should be defined not as a demand for what should be rightfully ours, but as a concern for the whole of society. The state is a bad deal for everybody even for most of those who think that they are benefitting from it.
Our liberty should be defined as a direction, as a step by step process toward more freedom ensuring that nobody is dragged there against their will. Freedom will prove itself, if we could just give it some risk free chance.
P.S.: I do not claim that the above is “THE ANSWER.” It is just one of a possible few. This is a conversation piece, treat it as such.