Is There Hope for Liberty in Our Lifetime?
by Jacob H. Huebert
You meet people who call themselves libertarians everywhere. And, sure, some of them don't necessarily understand what that means, but it's remarkable that they even know the word "libertarianism." And what's really remarkable is how many of them do know what it means. I've done some speaking at law schools across the country over the past year, and I've been surprised by students who come up to me and start telling me that they read LewRockwell.com every day, that they're reading books about Austrian economics by Murray Rothbard from the Mises Institute. Even when I was in law school less than a decade ago, this was unheard of.
There are two big factors that have contributed to this, and each has built on the other: one is the Internet, and the other is Ron Paul.
When Ron Paul ran for president in 2008, the mainstream media almost entirely ignored him, but a hard core of supporters got his name out on the Internet, and people learned about him that way. Eventually his growing group of supporters raised enough money for him on the Internet to bring him to the mainstream media's attention, and now it seems like we see Ron Paul on national television almost every day. So people started listening to Ron Paul, and Ron Paul sent them back to the Internet to learn more about the ideas he was espousing related to Austrian economics and liberty. Specifically, he directed people to the Mises Institute, which had been promoting these ideas consistently – particularly those related to war and the Federal Reserve – in a way that no other institution has, and which was ready with a massive library of educational material online.
Again, to anyone who's been around the libertarian movement for more than a few years, this is all amazing – something that, even five years ago, I couldn't have imagined.
So when you look at this explosion of growth that we've had as a movement, and when you look at the growing antigovernment sentiment that many people seem to have, it's tempting to think that we really have a shot at seeing a more libertarian society here in the United States in our lifetimes.
But there's a quote from Ayn Rand that is relevant here: "It's earlier than you think." In other words, even though it seems like we've come a long way in the struggle for liberty, and even though it seems like it should be obvious to the world that they should cast off the state that's oppressing them, in fact there's a whole lot more to be done, and it may be a very long time before we see success – if we ever do.
How will we get from here to there? What can we do to get there as fast as possible? Let's consider a couple of things that some people think we should do that I believe won't work, and then we'll look at what does work.
Americans Aren't Libertarians
Some people think electoral politics is the way to go.
And there's one way in which electoral politics certainly can be helpful to the cause: as an educational platform. Murray Rothbard favored the creation of the Libertarian Party because he thought, quite reasonably, that it would be a good way to spread the libertarian message to people who only pay attention to political ideas every four years when there's a presidential election. And the Libertarian Party has done that with varying degrees of success over its history. And of course Ron Paul did that with great success in 2008. That's fine.
What's not fine for advancing liberty is trying to run candidates for major offices with the idea of actually winning the Presidency or seats in Congress – because you're not going to win any elections with a libertarian message. You can point to Ron Paul winning a seat in Congress, but Ron Paul is the exception to a great many rules. As Lew Rockwell says, "There is only one Ron Paul."
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people in America, and in every state and every city, are not libertarians and aren't even close to being libertarians.
David Kirby and David Boaz of the Cato Institute have published research in which they use polling data to estimate that 14 percent of voters are libertarians. Unfortunately, that number is far too high. If you look at the questions they asked in their polling to determine whether someone is a libertarian, they're just a few very broad questions about people's attitudes toward government and the market.
There's nothing in the questions that would give you any idea of where those people stand on some of the most important issues of our time, such as war, the police state, and the Federal Reserve, to name just a few things that aren't covered. If the poll had asked about those things and defined "libertarian" more like members of the libertarian movement define it, we'd see that the percentage of the population we could reasonably count as libertarian is much lower.
The Tea Party Isn't Libertarian
But what about the tea party? One might think there's cause for hope there because, even though most tea partiers might not be pure libertarians, they seem to be talking about some of the right things, and they sometimes seem to have a healthy us-versus-them attitude toward Washington. In fact, some big names in the libertarian movement have seen the tea party movement gaining momentum and have tried to latch onto it and fund it, thinking that this might finally be a chance to get smaller government.
Without question, there are some true libertarians in the tea party movement, and I'm sure that some of them are able to use the tea party to introduce others to libertarian ideas. I started out as a conservative who liked Reagan's limited-government rhetoric, and if I could come around, I'm sure some of the younger, more open-minded people in the tea party can come around.
But if you look at the tea party by the numbers, you realize that if liberty's going to be achieved in the United States, it's not going to be brought about by these people.
Consider some figures from an April 2010 CBS/New York Times poll of tea party supporters. It asked tea partiers to identify the political figures they admire most. Who was number one? If you guessed Ron Paul, I appreciate your optimism, but you're way off. It's Newt Gingrich – who's known for, among many other things, advocating the death penalty for drug dealers, pushing for war with Iran, and praising the New Deal.
Number two? Sarah Palin. Make of this what you will. Number three is a tie between Mitt Romney – the progenitor of ObamaCare – and that noted enthusiast for smaller government and a "humble foreign policy," George W. Bush. Then at number four we have another tie, this one between George H.W. Bush (who gave us the mandatory low-flush toilets we enjoy today), Mike Huckabee (who, as far as I've noticed, doesn't even pretend to favor liberty), John McCain, and, finally, yes, Ron Paul.
So add up all those people who admire ("Admire"! Think of it! George Bush? Sarah Palin?) someone other than Ron Paul, then compare that to the number of people who admire Ron Paul – which was 3 percent of all tea-party supporters – and you have a pretty clear idea of how likely the tea party is to advance liberty.
Those figures I just gave are a little old; they were from a year ago. You might be tempted to think that the tea party has become more radical since then. After all, government's only gotten bigger – more spending, more war – so maybe they're more radically opposed to the government now?
I'm afraid not.
Back in September, a Pew poll found that 47 percent of tea partiers said they were angry with the federal government. That seems kind of low, considering that the media is constantly telling us how angry tea partiers are, and if you're really antigovernment, you do have a lot to be angry about.
But if they weren't that angry before, maybe they're really angry now. After all, they put in all that work to elect a new Congress, and that Congress hasn't done anything at all to reduce government – and almost all of the tea-party Republican freshmen in Congress voted to renew the PATRIOT Act without any changes and with almost no debate. They must be really mad about that – being betrayed by the people they elected!
But no – in fact, the opposite is true. The Pew poll found that now only 28 percent of tea partiers say they're angry with the federal government. And that's after a couple months of a Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Imagine how not-angry they would be if the Republicans captured the Senate and the White House, too. If that happens, these people – led by the same talk radio hosts who led many of them to the tea party – will be right back where they were during the Bush years.
And all of this is to say nothing of the troubling anti-immigrant, virulently anti-Islam, and pro-war views that many tea partiers have been espousing right alongside their "limited government" talk.
Incidentally, here are the top three 2012 presidential picks of tea partiers from a Pew poll taken in March: #1, Mitt Romney; #2, Mike Huckabee, #3, Newt Gingrich. In fairness, however, that was back in March. Now, the results might be different. Now, they might replace one of these names with Donald Trump.
So I don't think it's an especially encouraging sign that the tea party came along and adopted some of the rhetoric and strategies of the Ron Paul movement. And I think the people who are trying to fund that movement and its candidates are wasting their money – if their goal is to advance liberty...