Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Should Libertarians Become Political?

Tom Woods during a recent episode of his podcast, Ep. 1774 "Maybe Libertarians Have to Be Political After All," had Tho Bishop on as a guest but it was mostly an episode about Tom thinking out loud if it is time for libertarians to get more active in politics.

In the intro to the episode, Tom writes:

I’ve been lethargic about politics for a long time, and I understand who so many people (myself included) have considered it a waste of time. But with one side in particular planning so many evil things, and in the face of the barbaric lockdowns, should I rethink this?

Putting on my mindreaders cap, I suspect that Tom sees what is developing around us and it is causing legitimate great concern. Everything suggests that the COVID-19 lockdown tyranny is only the first act.

From the extreme left, we have social justice warriors pushing their anti-civilization agenda with great success. Biden's vice-presidential running mate Kamala Harris even lists "her pronouns" as part of her Twitter profile. It is a wacky SJW concept that denies biology.

And then we have the global elitists pushing a Great Reset, which appears to be an attempt to bring the masses under control by introducing what would amount to serfdom. Hillary Clinton is now mouthing the Great Reset agenda.

So should libertarians become more political to stop this?

If by political, one means libertarians running for offices, I would say no.

Once someone gets the taste of power, it is very difficult to resist. There are very few Ron Pauls in the world. Political candidates as great freedom hopes are almost always going to be disappointing. 

But this doesn't mean libertarians should abandon the political arena completely.

A model, that is similar to what the leading neoconservatives do, seems to make more sense. That is to gain influence where ever one can, including with politicians rather than run directly for office.

There are some neoconservatives that do run for office, Tom Cotton comes to mind, but the real power of their movement is the behind the scenes machinations where they use politicians and bureaucratic insiders like pieces on a chessboard.

They are masters at co-opting important players.

It is not that libertarians can not run such operations. It has been done in the past.

One example comes from  Janek Wasserman's book  The Marginal Revolutionaries: How Austrian Economists Fought the War of Ideas

In part of the book, he reports on the role of Fritz Machlup (a member of the Mises Circle in Vienna) in the founding of the G30, which is now a major international group of leading financiers, policymakers and academics. I had known of Machlup's role in the formation of the G30 but there is much more detail in the book:

Writing to Haberler and the economists Willy Fellner and Robert Triffin in 1982, [Fritz] Machlup reminisced about the decades-long collaboration on advisory boards: “the four of us were once called ‘the Quartet’...I can assure you I miss the presence of you [at the group of 30 or G30].”  The G30, a powerful consulting group formed in 1978 to address the problems in the global economy, evolved out of a series of conferences on the international monetary system that “the Quartet’ had orchestrated in the early 1960s. Over twenty-seven meetings Machlup and his colleagues reshaped the Bretton Woods landscape, providing the intellectual foundation for the shift from the post-war gold exchange standard to floating exchange rates and financial liberalization. In coordinating elite networks of academics, government officials and financial leaders, the Machlup Group proved as significant to the neoliberal order as Hayek and the MPS or Habereler and GATT. 

Of course, neither Ludwig von Mises nor Murray Rothbard would have supported the anti-gold direction that Machlup took governments, but this is an example of how behind the scenes influence can work.

Also of note, when you have strong arguments that help a person in a direction he wants to go, the person will pay attention, even if the individual doesn't buy everything you are saying.

The great economist Ludwig von Mises experienced this phenomenon early in his career in Vienna, Austria. Jörg Guido Hülsmann wrote in Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism [my emphasis]:
Mises then turned to proposed legislation concerning private
inheritance and donations as well as corporate taxation and corporate
law. He reported on the former topic to a plenary Kammer [Austrian Chamber of Commerce] meeting in early December 1909. Mises pointed out that
the higher taxation and the complicated procedures of the
planned law would hurt business life, and he emphasized again
that the stipulations of the new law would treat the agrarian
population better than urban circles in commerce and industry.
But he also brought more far-reaching considerations into play,
noticing that the legislation would subject Austria’s courts to the
control of the financial administration.
Other young economists also gave reports at the meeting, but
theirs did not have as great an impact on the public or the press.
Mises’s reports set new standards both for analytical scope and
rigor and for their political audacity. The wind of change blew
through the Kammer. Even though Kammer executives did not
always share the views expressed in the reports of their new
employee, they benefited politically from the fact that his
seemingly extreme positions were always backed up with such
thorough research, that the Kammer was able to reach more
favorable compromises in the political process.

So how do we apply these examples in the modern-day in an aggressive manner?

Fortunately, we have something of a manual, left to us by the great libertarian Murray Rothbard, in the form of a memorandum written in July 1961, addressed to F.A. Harper and Geroge Resch, and marked STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL. (It is chapter 1 of  Strictly Confidential: The Private Volker Fund Memos of Murray N. Rothbard, edited by David Gordon).

I consider this memo to be one of Rothbard's most important libertarian activist writings, I have read the memo many times. I have marked up, underlined, written in the margins, placed asterisks and exclamation points on my copy of this memo to a greater degree than any other piece of writing I have ever read.

It is Rothbard explaining to us how to advance liberty.

Rothbard shrewdly takes the framework of Lenin's  revolutionary strategy and uses it to build a strategy for advancing freedom:
Here we stand, then, a “hard core” of libertarian-individualist“revolutionaries,” anxious not only to develop our own understanding of this wonderful system of thought, but also anxious to spread its principles—and its policies—to the rest of society. How do we go about it?
I think that here we can learn a great deal from Lenin and the
Leninists—not too much, of course, because the Leninist goals are
the opposite of ours—but particularly the idea that the Leninist party
is the main, or indeed only, moral principle. We are not interested in
seizing power and governing the State, and we therefore proclaim,
not only adhere to, such values as truth, individual happiness, etc.,
which the Leninists subordinate to their party’s victory.
But from one aspect of Lenin’s theory of strategy we can learn much:
the setting forth of what “revolutionaries” can do to advance their principles,
as opposed to the contrasting “deviations from the correct line,”
which the Leninists have called “left-wing sectarianism” and “rightwing
opportunism.” (In our case, the terminology would be reversed,
perhaps: “left-wing opportunism” and “right-wing sectarianism.”) 
On occasion, I have been called a "sectarian" for my principled stance on liberty. But this is a misunderstanding of what a sectarian is. Rothbard explains:
The sectarian strategists (e.g., the current Trotskyite sects) are
those who pass out leaflets on street corners, state their full ideological
position at all times, and consider any collaboration in halfway
measures as “opportunist,” “selling out the cause,” etc. They are
undoubtedly noble, but almost always ineffective. 
Sectarianism, in other words, is an advocate who demands full simpatico ideological positions from those he associates with on all positions.

This is different from one who is willing to form alliances in popular front activities with those who on specific issues take a position consistent with libertarianism--but such alliances do not mean crossing the line to support non-libertarian positions.

I am in full support of such alliances.

Rothbard called such a position, between sectarianism and opportunism, centrism and wrote:
 The hardcore man is working for his idea on two levels:
in a “popular” or “united” front for limited libertarian goals, and to
try to influence his colleagues as well as the masses in the direction
of the total system. (This is the essence of the much-misunderstood
Leninist theory of “infiltration.”)
The effective centrist avoids the pitfalls of “opportunism” by
keeping the objective firmly in view, and, in particular, by never
acting in a manner, or speaking in a manner, inconsistent with the full
libertarian position.
 To be inconsistent in the name of “practicality” is
to betray the libertarian position itself, and is worthy of the utmost
Charles Murray in his recent call for a universal basic income is an example of a violator for the sake of practicality. In Leninist terms, Charles Murray is a liquidationist.

Rothbard explains:
In the name of practicality, the opportunist not only loses any
chance of advancing others toward the ultimate goal, but he himself
gradually loses sight of that goal—as happens with any “sellout” of
principle. Thus, suppose that one is writing about taxation. It is not
incumbent on the libertarian to always proclaim his full “anarchist”
position in whatever he writes; but it is incumbent upon him in no
way to praise taxation or condone it; he should simply leave this
perhaps glaring vacuum, and wait for the eager reader to begin to
question and perhaps come to you for further enlightenment. But
if the libertarian says, “Of course, some taxes must be levied,” or
something of the sort, he has betrayed the cause.
Examples of “opportunist liquidationists” recently: the host of
so-called “anarchists” who went around telling all their friends that
good old Dick Nixon is “really a libertarian.”
So how does this apply to the current situation? Rothbard in his memo provided a key goal for hardcore libertarians. He was discussing how to approach specific policy issues in populist front activities of the time but the same basic principles can be applied to the climate we have now. He wrote:
[T]he hardcore man, the “militant” libertarian, works to advance not only the total system, but all steps toward that system. In this way, we achieve “unity of theory and practice,” we spurn the pitfalls of base opportunism, while making ourselves much more effective than our brothers, the sectarians... 
(2) In the course of this work, the hardcore libertarian should try
to advance the knowledge of both the masses and his fellow [populist front]
members, toward fuller libertarian ideals. In short, to “push” his
colleagues and others toward the direction of hardcore libertarian
thought itself. (In Communist-Leninist terms, this is called “recruiting
for the Party,” or pushing colleagues at least some way along
this road.) The hardcore man is working for his idea on two levels:
in a “popular” or “united” front for limited libertarian goals, and to
try to influence his colleagues as well as the masses in the direction
of the total system.

In other words, there is very much to do, rather than launching political candidates. Indeed, the potential of forming alliances with certain elected officials can prove fruitful, as is also “recruiting for the Party,” along with intellectually supporting politicians who are already in power on issues where they lean toward liberty.

I have a list of elected officials that might be able to be directed in more libertarian ways. It would not be useful to publicly name them here, but with proper guidance, they may become very useful in different areas. The same with liberty leaning individuals in the many agencies and departments in Washington D.C., in the media, etc.

There is a lot to do. And there is no time more urgent than the present.

So does being political in the sense of running for office make sense? Not really. There is a role for a Libertarian Party as an educational tool but it is very limited. It is time to get aggressive, to jump a few steps, gain access and start influencing. Time is short. The last stretch of the road to serfdom is being paved.



  1. We need to reach those in the business of indoctrinating the children and future teachers, i.e. those connected to government schooling and administration: Teachers, administrators, school boards, school superintendants, university trustees, and the like. Stop the school-to-statist pipeline, so to speak.

    1. This is true on a long-term basis but we also have an immediate emergency that can't wait for a multi-decades project.

  2. Apparently the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul were responsible for bringing many libertarians into the movement. He might have even become the Republican candidate in 2012 if the Iowa caucuses hadn't been stolen from him. But clearly the main benefit of that campaign was the education that it brought to many who would have never heard of libertarianism otherwise.

    If libertarian candidates were to concentrate their attention on those who are the biggest losers in the crony economy and aggressively militarized government with the goal of alerting them to a coherent point of view they've probably never heard, and give up all hopes of winning, then running for office could be an effective conduit for expansion of libertarian ranks. Elections are the only time most Americans think about politics, so get in front of them when they are receptive with a message unlike other candidates, a message about how badly they are being screwed and who is doing the screwing. Never be "Me too" voice on anything. Never approve of any aggression while courting support, such as proposing taxes on marijuana while legalizing it. Expose the ruling elite at every chance. In other words, follow Rothbard's strategic insights and don't be what the LP has become.

  3. There is no more becoming political. There is only being prepared and hunkering down and being clear on your line in the sand.

    You cannot reason with Liberals or Idiocrats. What was America is in death throes and riding it out with a decentralized mindset is your best shot at surviving.