Political movements of all stripes expend lots of mental energy, and even more ink, agonizing over the question: “How can we bring the public around to our side?” Among libertarians, there are groups like the Advocates for Self Government which advise us on rhetorical strategies for the conversion of our friends and neighbors, and give out awards to folks who, for example, get the word “libetarian” mentioned in letters-to-the-editor. Now, I’m a big fan of what the Advocates do, but I’ve begun to think that perhaps the right answer to the question “How do we convert the mass of the public?” is another question: “Why on earth should we care?”
As one of my own recent columns demonstrates, libertarians tend to be skeptical about the supposed virtues of democracy. But we still tend to buy the part of democracy’s press release that claims citizens effectively steer government policy through voting and political agitation, however much we might dislike the direction in which we expect them to steer. Yet perhaps the main point of public choice theory is that, because of pheomena like rational voter ignorance, government is not especially responsive to the popular will. Why, then, would we expect it to make a difference, at least in the near term, if even a very large number of people could be brought around? When you think about it, the greatest (or “greatest”) achievements of our political opponents have been those carried out without a large amount of popular understanding or participation. Maybe they know something we don’t.
Even if we do think it matters what the public at large thinks, there are reasons to believe that the current strategy of trying to convince people to identify with a cluster of ideas branded as “libertarian” is unlikely to succeed. I recently attended a lecture and discussion on evolutionary psychology by the astonishingly brilliant Leda Cosmides. She explained that experiments have shown that the human mind is hard wired to automatically categorize people in terms of in-groups and out-groups, allies and enemies. Not only that, but this filtering is very strongly tied to visual cues– sports jerseys, war paint, uniforms, what have you. This makes a good deal of sense: our hunter gatherer ancestors needed a way to realize the massive gains from cooperation to be had from social organization. But they also needed to be relatively confident that their cooperation would be reciprocated, otherwise free-riders could gain a relative (reproductive) advantage by taking the benefits of cooperation without themselves contributing. Hence, the emergence of deeply ingrained norms of reciprocity. Visual cues were important because people needed a quick way to distinguish in-group from out-group members.
Now think about the current political landscape, and you’ll notice that political orientation is almost never severed from a larger culture, with its own symbolic cues. Conservatives wear little Tucker Carlson bow-ties, anti-globo activists wear either anarchist-black with little punk-buttons, or hand-woven Guatemalan stuff with hippie buttons, and liberals seem to like the sandals-and-khakis thing. If you saw three people dressed that way in a line-up, and were told to match the political orientation to the person, you’d probably do pretty well. But… what if you were told that one of them were, in fact, a libertarian? It could easily be any of them. The disadvantage, at least in terms of politcal cooperation, of hewing to an open-ended and individualistic philosophy is that there’s astonishingly little cultural uniformity among libertarians. We don’t have handy in-group cues.
That’s probably not such a bad thing: I don’t expect libertarians to start dressing alike or listening to the same music anytime soon. It does mean, though, that if we’ve forsaken that source of solidarity, but still deploy the label “libertarian” when we’re talking politics, the only thing we’re likely to do is trigger out-group animosity from most people. When I was a collegiate debater, you’d be astonished how often I’d encounter the argument (in the loosest sense of the word): “Well, what they’re proposing is just a crazy libertarian idea, so we know it won’t work.” In other words, instead of trying to directly address the specific issue of whether minimum wages are bad, or drugs should be legal, or whatever we had proposed that round, they’d attempt to associate the proposition with a despised “other.” Now, debate judges and audiences are generally sharp, educated folks with a lot of training in the rules of logic and good argumentation, so we could usually just make fun of our opponents for pulling that nonsense.
As libertarians seem so often to forget, however, the world is not a debate round, and often identity does trump argumentation. Why, then are we trying to advance our ideas by such self-defeating means as saying: “Here, accept my libertarian solution!” One very good piece of advice the Advocates give is to try and emphasize those portions of an argument most conducive to the values one’s interlocutor already holds. I would go further, though, and say that to do so requires that we stop branding those ideas as libertarian. Instead, we should be saying things like: “The proper progressive position on the minimum wage is to abolish it, because it harms the worst off groups,” and “Good conservatives should be aghast at the way the drug war has produced so much judicial activism in reinterpreting the Fourth Amendment.” This is not just a Machiavellian tactic: both statements are, I think, perfectly true. We like to pitch libertarianism as a complete and consistent political theory. Instead, perhaps we should recognize that, because the left and right are each, in various ways inconsistent, they both contain within themselves the resources for self-revision and transformation that would push adherents of either in a libertarian direction. Probably a unified libertarian identity is useful for what Albert Jay Nock called “the remnant.” In the public sphere, however, perhaps the time has come for libertarianism to wither away.