The Radical Case for Pragmatic Libertarianism
Matthew La Corte is the former chairman of SFL’s North American Executive Board and an Alumni For Liberty member. He currently works as a Research Associate at theNiskanen Center, a D.C.-based libertarian think-tank.
The United States will not establish an open-borders immigration policy in the foreseeable future. But Congress may expand the number of high-skilled immigrant visas allocated per year. Drugs are not going to be legalized in the United States anytime soon. But Naloxone programs to reduce deaths from overdose have been expanded by many state legislatures. The USA PATRIOT Act appears to be here to stay. But revoking some powers of the NSA would enhance civil liberties in the United States. The government is not about to privatize marriage. But at least all Americans are now allowed to participate in the institution. In short, there is a compelling case for pragmatic libertarianism.
Libertarianism is a radical political ideology when its tenets and ideas are taken to their furthest extent. But being radical does not beget policy change, at least in the short-term. Libertarians should recognize the value in making change at the margins of public policy. As we increase our engagement with policymakers and other stakeholders to advance politically feasible reform, we’ll enact more libertarian-friendly policies and regulations, improving the lives and prospects of real people. Most advocacy organizations place heavy emphasis on changing public opinion through grassroots activism or student outreach. However, as a solid academic literature suggests, public opinion has limited influence on policy. Public opinion is malleable, shallow, fickle, often contradictory, and subject to human biases.
While we don’t often like to admit it, most libertarians oppose many policies embraced by large majorities of Americans. If public opinion truly dictated policy, then trade would be more restricted, the minimum wage would be significantly higher, and corporations would be regulated and taxed much more. Public opinion is far from irrelevant, but the policymaking process is more layered than most think. While lawmakers are somewhat constrained by public opinion, it is often the case that policy elites influence public opinion more than public opinion influences them. In fact, politicians control public opinion more than libertarians want to acknowledge. John Zallerfamously argues that elite cues shape public opinion more than anything.
Many libertarians, in recognizing the important lessons of Public Choice economics, argue that influencing legislators is only possible through the use of carrots and sticks: campaign contributions to reward good behavior and vocal activism to preempt or punish bad behavior. But politicians, like the rest of us, are not motivated solely in the way Public Choice suggests. There’s real opportunity for policy advocates to influence the formation of policy. If public opinion matters less than most people think and politicians are motivated by more than simply election concerns, it is clear that engagement with policymakers, politicians, and bureaucrats can produce better returns on investments than grassroots activism aimed at moving the needle of public opinion. While public opinion and activism can be effective at stopping policy changes perceived as negative, it is wholly inadequate at the task of furthering positive policy change.
Some libertarians argue that policy compromises are “selling out” fundamental principles to the government machine. But we libertarians will never pass pro-liberty legislation without assembling larger coalitions or without working toward small gains within the machine itself. Like it or not, politics is compromise, and an unwillingness to engage in politics in pursuit of a libertarian policy agenda is to tacitly accept the status quo. Public support for libertarian ideas is certainly helpful, but it’s not critical to our success. Obviously, pro-liberty lawmakers would make it easier to pass our ideal legislation through Congress. But there aren’t many pro-liberty lawmakers. There are, however, thousands of mainstream Republicans and Democrats who are inclined to support specific liberty-friendly ideas on a range of issues.
Many young people discover libertarianism through their inchoate feeling that the political system is broken. Libertarianism offers a new narrative, seemingly unique, revolutionary, and focused on improving the lives of all people. However, most pro-liberty success, including the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage and the legalization of cannabis in a handful of states, falls short of the revolutionary political change many yearn for. Also, it should be stated that both those victories are the result of intense, strategic political engagement. But that does not mean that liberty is not increasing or the state of humanity is not improving. Seemingly small policy changes really can dramatically improve peoples’ lives.
Preventing 15,000 opiate overdoses through harm-reduction is not selling out libertarian ideals. It’s merely recognizing that a full end to the drug war is not plausible right now but that there is still plenty of room in the short term for policies that reduce the harm the drug war causes. By focusing on actionable policy improvements given the reality of the current political terrain, libertarians can achieve real change. True, launching a new guest-worker program in agriculture may not abolish the borders, but it will dramatically improve the lives of a few thousand Haitian immigrants. There’s beauty in that small step forward.
Libertarians can also look at historical examples of pragmatic libertarianism. During the Carter Administration, a diverse ideological coalition came together to deregulate the airline and trucking industry. The solution was not perfect. But it resulted in abolishing the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Interstate Commerce Commission. Abolishing government agencies is a huge victory for libertarianism, and one that would not have been possible without sustained and strategic political engagement. “Pure” libertarian orthodoxy should not dictate political strategy. Libertarian-friendly legislation and regulation are entirely plausible and desirable. Young libertarians should avoid rigid devotion to utopian outcomes at the expense of incremental policy improvements.
While most of us acknowledge the value of a let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom strategy, the overwhelming balance of resources devoted to the libertarian movement is geared towards changing, educating, and inspiring public opinion. We as a movement continue to underinvest in making incremental changes to public policy through engagement with the people and institutions that actually dictate the pace and direction of policy change. There is a clear case for a pragmatic libertarianism with a desirable influence in the halls of Congress. By directly engaging in the policymaking process, libertarians can have a real influence on our country, which means more liberty in our lifetime.
For more on the political science literature discussed in this post, read Jerry Taylor at the Niskanen Center’s political-science blog, The First Principle.