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Going for the zeitgest

I rarely write articles about ongoing discussions in the comment sections of Samizdata.net, but I think this is an appropriate continuation of the discourse.

Whilst I find being referred to as ‘dear leader’ a bit disconcerting, Frank McGahon does ask the questions which have vexed me for quite a long time. I refer to myself as a ‘social individualist’, as does Gabriel Syme. I also have no problem with ‘minarchist’. Others tend to call me a ‘libertarian’. Whatever… the general thrust of what I think is no secret to any regular reader of this blog. I see the state as at best a necessary evil and generally just an evil; I see constrained democracy as a tool to secure liberty, not an end in and of itself; I am all for free markets and ‘Austrian’ economics; I regard several property as the key underpinning of any civilization worth having; I see individual liberty as first amongst many virtues. Label all that as you wish.

So how does a person with such views, i.e. someone who is profoundly at odds with the system of regulatory democratic governance that prevails in the First World, and who regards so much of underpins everyday life in a legal sense as essentially illegitimate, act to advance his or her objectives? Or more particularly, how does one take action without legitimising what they regard as nothing less than threat-backed theft? How does one act without either fatally compromising one’s beliefs or alternatively retreating into intellectually pure ineffectiveness?

This is a question I keep kicking around… over and over again. The problem with voting Tory (or in many states in the USA, voting Republican) is that it rewards both outright lying when they describe themselves as ‘the party of free trade’ and does little more than slow the rot of regulatory statism rather than reverse it. If they know you will just hold your nose and vote for them regardless just to keep Labour out (or the Democrats out), what possible motivation do they have to actually pander to your views in any meaningful way? I am inclined to see things more Julian Morrison’s way, at least somewhat: go for control of the zeitgeist and wait for the politics to follow. In this at least the internet in particular is a very ‘liberty friendly’ medium. Sure, pro-totalitarians like Stormfront and Indymedia can be found on the net, but for every one of them are a vastly greater number of genuine pro-liberty sites. We are actually voices in the on-line mainstream. That is by no means the same thing as ‘the mainstream’ within the broader context but it is a brave man who is willing to bet that 10 years from now that the net is not going to be the medium. Our early and heavy colonisation of the virtual world may give us a prominence that may well surprise people looking at how things are today. The culture war is by no means over plus we have the advantage of economic reality on our side. Only time will tell if that proves to be the case but that is certainly what I think.

And yet… we do not just live for the long term. In the here-and-now we have to continue to live and act with things as they are. So the question is ‘does one participate in The System’ or does one find other ways to resist right now?

The way I see it, generally voting for the lesser evil just encourages the lesser evil to remain evil. After all, if the Tory party (or Republican party in the USA), which is often The Party of Lesser Evil (but by no means always so), has little motivation to adopt more radical policies of cutting core functions of the state rather than just moderating the rate of real growth, if they know full well that true free market, pro-liberty voters will just hold their nose and vote for them because the other guys are ever worse. In such situations a vote for none-of-the-above or even an electorally hopeless third party (such as the Libertarian Party in the USA) is the only vote to case.

So if one is not going to vote, what then? In my case, I set up Samizdata.net provide a pace where the Samizdatistas try to suggest that there is another way to look at the world which you will rarely see mentioned in the New York Times or the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph. About 7000 people per day read this blog, some who agree with what is written and some who do not… which in the over all scheme of things may not be much, but I like to think it is not a waste of effort and certainly the intermittent donations via PayPal we receive and the e-mails we get and suggest enough other people agree with that notion. To be honest I would probably do this even if we only have 7 people per day reading us but it is nice to know there are rather more than that.

All that said, although many of the things I have written in the past seem to suggest otherwise, I would never rule out voting under any conditions. If I end up in New Hampshire with the Free State Project, I will almost certainly be voting, at least locally. Likewise I would vote if it seemed to make sense because a genuine reformer was on offer by a major party (as if) or if the alternatives were between slow rot and utter evil.

Yet the reality is that whilst some of the trends are very alarming indeed, we do not live in a police state in Britain or in the United States or anywhere in the EU, so that is not the choice we (currently) have to make. This is also why, when looking for alternative ways to resist the system of democratic regulatory statism, it is preposterous to think in terms of violence: it may (or may not) be too late to play within the system, but it is certainly not time to start chucking Molotov cocktails or sticking bombs under some people’s cars. If you live in a place like Belarus, Burma, North Korea, Tibet, China, Iran or Syria, it is well past time to say ‘sic semper tyranis’ and meet violence with violence, but the idea that things are so bad that this approach is the way ahead right now anywhere in the First World is a notion best left to purveyors of tinfoil millinery.

The questions of ‘what to do?’ and ‘do I vote?’ are difficult ones, but they are not going to go away anytime soon either.

59 comments to Going for the zeitgest

  • zmollusc

    Well, before the next round of elections, how about forming a ‘libertarian’ manifesto. Then on or by election night we can canvas our friends and co-workers and report how many people would have voted for a party sporting such a manifesto. This would show any interested parties how many votes they are likely to grab if they adopt a more libertarian stance.

  • Andy Duncan

    Hi Perry,

    You probably know it, but for anyone who hasn’t read it, I always find the following very helpful when deciding how much to get involved in politics:

    Uncle Murray’s “Strategy for Liberty”

    Though Uncle Hoppe’s policy of just uninvolving oneself from any part of the state machine, as much as reasonably possible, a sort of limited version of Ms Rand’s ‘Strike’, also holds much appeal! :-)

    Rgds,
    AndyD

  • But you only have to vote once every four or five years, Perry. No one’s asking you to stuff leaflets or go out campaigning.

  • toolkien

    Police State? I guess it’s all on how people define a Police State. Is it dark, trench coated forces whisking people off to concentration camps or gulags, smashing printing presses, putting up road blocks, and machine gun nests? Or is it a country (like the US) with prisons inhabited by people who didn’t harm or threaten to harm anyones’ property (drug offenses etc). Is it trying to set a central data base on all citizens in the ‘war on terror’? Is it setting up cameras to ‘catch speeders’ now moving into facial ID technology? Is it mandatory ID cards? Is it confiscating 50% in taxes (at all levels of gov’t here in the States, especially the State I live in (WI)), with additional business taxes buried in commodities I buy, even more with deficit spending (a deferred tax), and then a liberal helping of quasi-taxes in the form of regulation? Step out of line on any of these and gentlemen with shiny badges and sidearms will come knocking on your door at some point.

    Police States under the traditional modes of thought arise when resistance shows itself. The greater the resistance, the more ‘raw’ the force. When I have over half of my property taken by the government as is, another portion already allocated, and a thick ledger filled with things I must do with the money they leave with me, and that is only the beginning, it will be interesting to see how people’s attitudes will be when the State inevitably comes for more, and how much resistance these people use. We’ll see a police state in its more traditionally conceived form I don’t doubt.

    Which of course is a shame. Liberty here in the West is slowly being wrung out and we are letting it happen. People here in the US are now accustomed to paying 15-20% in income taxes plus 15 % FICA to the Feds, 5-8% to State, and 3% to local, with crumbling infrastructure, lackadaisical policing when property is actually harmed (cracking down on speech instead), and an endless list of Good not yet done (and the systematic confiscation to pay for it). So do I see this Police State like to the standard conception? Maybe not fully, and not as yet as raw, but then I haven’t resisted fully yet, and when the State comes collecting for more, I just might. It depends on how much ‘force’ I am willing to use (i.e. take back from what I have allocated to the State) in defending my property and liberty will likely be the measure of their response. We’ll see then what form the Police State takes.

  • Tedd McHenry

    I’ve struggled with this dilemma for years, so I’m very interested in the discussion and I hope there are lots more thoughtful comments.

    If there were a libertarian party campaigning in my area I would probably vote for them, but at the moment there isn’t. In the last (provincial) election I voted for the Marijuana Party, a more-or-less single issue party (legalization of marijuana) but with a generally libertarian leaning. Not that they had any hope of winning, nor did I really want them to, necessarily, but the outcome in my riding was never in doubt, so it seemed an opportune time to make a symbolic vote.

    If the Libertarians get their act together and have a condidate in my riding I will vote Libertarian, even if the candidate is an over-ripe avacado. But it’s unlikely I’ll even have that good of a choice. No, I’m not yet prepared to run, myself.

  • What voting comes down to is a choice. This person or that person. Saying that candidate X is preferable to candidate Y doesn’t say anything about X’s merits in absolute terms. The only reasons to avoid choosing are

    a) Either X or Y can be assured of victory no matter what way you vote.

    or

    b) There is likely to be the same outcome whether X or Y are elected.

    Spoiling one’s vote, voting for “protest” candidates, or minority parties with no prospect of power are pointless activities. There are much more effective ways of “sending a message” such as this blog.

    There remain significant liberties in western democracies, by design and by accident (through oversight or lax enforcement), but these liberties which permit an individual’s detached relationship with the state persist in spite of, and not because of, that individuals’s detachment from the political process

  • Andy Wood

    Either X or Y can be assured of victory no matter what way you vote.

    This is nearly always the case. I’ve never had the opportunity to vote in an election where changing my vote would have changed the outcome. You have to have a rather small electorate for this to be a reasonable possibility.

    On the subject of choosing the lesser of two evils, here’s an essay by Steven Landsburg about President Bush Snr, interesting for its final paragraph:

    The alternatives to Mr. Bush do not seem promising, and he might very well be the least pernicious of the three. He still should be defeated. A president who has fallen below minimum acceptable standards ought not be reelected, even if the alternatives are worse.

    I’m not sure whether I agree, but I think it’s interesting that someone can argue that sometimes it might be better to choose the greater of two evils.

  • limberwulf

    ‘Spoiling one’s vote, voting for “protest” candidates, or minority parties with no prospect of power are pointless activities.’

    Not sure I agree with that. Enough voters leaning to “protest” candidates could certainly send a message. For instance, candidate X gets %40 of the vote, candidate Y gets %35. The remaining %25 is split between 4 other parties. That would really rock the boat in the US. The big parties would realize they were losing ground fast, and might be more apt to listen. Or if not, more voeters would recognize that the other options existed, and perhaps we could get something done. Granted, candidate X is still running the country for the next 4 years, but the change will have to be made at some point. The sooner we can establish and start building support for a new party, the better. If we can educate the people with things like this blog, there will come a time to move past education, and if groundwork has been laid for a libertarian or at least a truly eco-conservative, small-government party, then the necessary spotlight will already be in place when the people are ready to vote for it.

  • Andy Wood

    Enough voters leaning to “protest” candidates could certainly send a message.

    But that’s irrelevant when I’m considering whether I should vote.

    Suppose 5 million people vote for a protest candidate that I like. If I raise his vote to 5 million and one, it will have negligible impact on the message sent.

  • The nice thing about New Hampshire is that there are Libertarian candidates to vote for in major elections. (There are in Maine as well, but not as often.) I suspect that the Free State Project selected New Hampshire because they would not have to start from nil. NH has a strong libertarian tradition (just look at their motto) and the message does seem to have resonance there.

    I go to vote every time I am suppose to go. I do not however always vote in all races. If there are no candidates who I find appropriate they I do not vote. (I have never voted for Sen Susan Collins for example.) Sometimes I resort to my father’s tactic of writing in my mother’s name as a write-in candidate. I am told that at least one person voted for me in the Wisconsin primaries a few days ago.

    I think it is wrong not to go to vote, even if you don’t actually vote. It demostrates that you are willing to vote, just not for any of the losers on offer.

  • I tend very much to agree with Perry’s views on this matter. However twelve years ago when I was younger and much more naive I stood for parliament in a general election. The whole enterprise was generally a misuse of effort – I got 125 votes and lost my deposit. However there were some advantages. The sitting Conservative MP in whose marginal seat I was standing was so rattled that he invited me to his office to plead with me to withdraw my candidature, I didn’t but I certainly had his attention while I let him know what I thought about things. I also was give a slot in the local paper to write an article each week during the election campaign and I was invited to a meeting of the League Against Cruel Sports, along with all the other candidates, to express our opinions on fox and stag hunting. All the other candidates said something feeble and emollient; I, however, told them that they were utterly wrong in their objection to these great British sports and there were few sights more majestic than seeing a mightly stag hunted down. Needless to say I became the centre of debate and managed to give these imbeciles a good intellectual beating. Of course my object was not so much to win votes but to speak truth to power.

    Since then I have never bothered to vote and now spoil my ballot paper by writing ‘Neither Brussels nor Westminster but international anarcho-libertarianism’. The candidates and their agents all must read and check every ‘spoiled’ paper on election night.

  • Andy,

    Could I paraphrase Landsburg as “Better the greater of two evils you don’t know than the lesser of two evils you do know!”?

  • I am always personally very vexed by the entire question of voting, as I have never been able to in my adult life.

    Between turning 18 and the next Presidential election I lost the franchise (in most States) by being convicted of selling LSD at a Dead Show. Whether you agree that that non-toxic chemical is a religious sacrament or not, I certainly legitimately did at the time, my first trip that previous year having pulled me out of the tailspin of serious, clinical, suicidal depression, all at one stroke.

    So I and other Drug War casualties can’t vote, can’t defend ourselves with weapons, can’t hold most regulated professions (medical, legal and others), can’t receive many public programs yet are still subject to all of the same taxes. And ‘drugs’ being treated by almost all of the world’s governments as just as evil as violent acts in your record due to the international norms established by the US since the War on Drugs began, I can’t even emmigrate anywhere or be considered a legitimate asylum seeker.

    All for the sin of selling a non-toxic chemical to my fellow electro-chemical beings. Everything we consume is a chemical, and they all effect our thoughts directly or indirectly. What chemicals are available determine what thoughts you are physically ABLE to think. Restriction of choice of chemical intake is, ergo, thought control.

    So my politics have by necessity been out on one radical edge or another in the intervening 14 years.

    Being damned by one’s civilization for finding literal salvation in a chemical will cause one to squint rather harder at the assumptions underpining the systems that most around you benefit from.

    All of which did nothing but boost my already fairly intense youthful enthusiasm for wholesale exploitation of Space. My own personal hopes of liberty depend on either one of two things for which there is scant hope in my lifetime, the end of the Drug War with a general amnesty, or colonization of space.

    I’m not holding my breath for either.

    Oh, and without open ballots a la the recent CA recall, any democracy is merely an elected oligarchy at best, for as a machine politician once said “let me control the nominating and I don’t care who does the electing.” If the rest of you sods they let vote to sop your conscience and obtain your consent want your vote to mean anything, push for open ballots. Then you might just have a chance of some actual Citizens standing for office, not just mere Pols.

    So as a disenfranchised computer programmer, I’ll have to just do my part by helping develope the tools for crypto-anarchy, and keep agitating online and educating folks one on one in person.

    Praise Bob!

  • “So how does a person with such views, i.e. someone who is profoundly at odds with the system of regulatory democratic governance that prevails in the First World, and who regards so much of underpins everyday life in a legal sense as essentially illegitimate, act to advance his or her objectives?”

    By fighting and winning the battle of ideas. That’s what Cobden and the free traders did with the Corn Laws in the 1830s, and it’s what Barry Goldwater did in the 1960s; who would dare suggest a 60% marginal tax rate after Reagan?

  • Andy Wood

    Frank,

    I’m not sure whether that paraphrasing fits Landsburg’s logic. I suspect he reasons that the threat of losing to an even worse candidate should provide some incentive for a president to follow good policies.

    David,

    Sorry to hear about your misfortune.

    I’ve just read Project Orion by George Dyson, about the spaceship that was to be propelled by nuclear explosions. It may interest you that in A Space Traveler’s Manifesto, Freeman Dyson wrote:

    It is in the long run essential to the growth of any new and high civilization that small groups of men can escape from their neighbours and from their governments, to go and live as they please in the wilderness. A truly isolated, small and creative society will never again be possible on this planet.

    So, although the space program has been funded mostly by governments, it appears that at least some of its pioneers had libertarian goals.

  • Henry Kaye

    I’m not sure that I agree with the notion that voting for a small “principled” party is a wasted vote. Large oaks from small acorns grow. I cannot bring myself to vote for any of the “big three” because I am fervently Eurosceptic and so I vote UKIP if there is a candidate. UKIP polled 400,00 votes at the last election and I would think a lot more people might have voted for them if they didn’t share Frank’s thinking about “wasting ” the vote. It might take a couple more elections but if the UKIP vote got up to, say, a couple of million, the major parties might starrt thinking.

  • Andy, I’ve been meaning to read Project Orion for a while, shame it got cancelled and we got Apollo and Shuttle instead.

    There is indeed no where left for free thinkers to forge new societies on a blank slate. Space truly is the final frontier.

    I must admit that a part of my psyche does bask in my involuntary political pariah status. Putting peoples’ noses in some of the unpleasant truths about The State and their complicity in it’s actions is about the only form of participation I have available. If they get uncomfortable, I can always reply “hey, YOU’RE the one who ejected me from your society and pushed me into being the prophet screaming from the wilderness.”

    Voting in the industrialized world as currently constituted is a sham, whether it’s the US system with it’s high barriers to the ballot, or the various and sundry parliamentary democracies where the party has even more power in the nominating process.

    None of this would have surprised Plato or Aristotle, which I suppose is a good part of the reason why they don’t teach them in the schools anymore.

    I tend to agree with toolkein above that while we’re not living in overt police states as in the nasty places Peter and he list, we are far farther down the garden path towards it than Peter perhaps realizes. As he can only theorize about the worst abuses of the State in the West (he’s obviously managed to keep his nose clean enough for them to let him keep his guns), I’d suggest that it is actually far worse than he imagines when seen from the other side of the jackboots.

    Remember, TV and cheap beer on every corner remove the need for much overt thuggery.

  • Bombadil

    It is important to distinguish between theoretical approaches and practical ones.

    Saying that you plan on ringing your house with barbed wire and shooting the tax collector when he comes by isn’t really helpful. In some larger theoretical sense, you may be within your natural rights to respond that way, but it doesn’t advance the cause of liberty.

    Andy Wood wrote:Suppose 5 million people vote for a protest candidate that I like. If I raise his vote to 5 million and one, it will have negligible impact on the message sent.

    Your voice is given the same weight as all the others. Look at it this way – what if 100 million people vote libertarian, except for the 99 million who decide that their one vote amongst the others doesn’t carry any weight? In a popular election, numbers are strength. Libertarians are scarce enough in the real world without abstainers.

    So vote. Write in Mickey Mouse; spoil your ballot; vote for the lesser evil or the greater, but unless you have a practical plan for the overthrow of the government, rather than a romantic scheme for individual martyrdom, voting is the method of change available to us.

  • Nick Timms

    The US Libertarian Party may be an electoral no hoper at present but not voting for them because it won’t make any difference is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Every single person who decides to vote for an alternative makes a difference.

    If we had a Libertarian Party in the UK I would vote for their candidate if there was one in my constituency. I would even consider moving to be in the right constituency (I run my businesses from home). I would also offer my time to help a fledgling Libertarian Party get going in the UK. I may not see any real change in my lifetime but not starting at all ensures my children will not see any change either.

    And it doesn’t matter if the fledgling Libertarian Party does not exactly match your cocktail of minarchism, libertariansim etc etc. Any LP is likely to be a hell of a lot better than the present different flavours of statism.

    Nick Timms

  • Bernie Greene

    The idea that it is pointless to vote for the Libertarian Party in the US or of forming one in the UK because they wouldn’t get elected is nonsense. Their getting elected isn’t the only reason for having them stand.

    I can think of two good reasons for having and voting for a Libertarian Party.

    The first is to send a message. But not to those who already have power but to the population to let them know there is another way. The Party Political Broadcasts would be tremendous fun. Can you imagine? They would consist of actual policy rather than an attempt at winning votes by not saying anything disagreeable. They would stand out as unique for that reason alone.

    The second is for a rallying point for like minded people. If we knew the level of support that actually exists we could develop effective co ordinated political actions that could have an impact on the current scene. The party would not have to be elected for the movement to win. We could form a Union of Traders as opposed to a Trade Union.

  • Abiola Lapite: yes, agreed. That is, more or less, what I am trying to do in my own way.

  • Any bitterness I may have vented above aside, Perry does indeed have the right idea. We’ll change the world not by providing new answers, but by choosing the questions.

  • Spoiling one’s vote, voting for “protest” candidates, or minority parties with no prospect of power are pointless activities. There are much more effective ways of “sending a message” such as this blog.

    The Socialist Party in the US never won a significant election, but its ideas have spread to inhabit both major political parties. The things the leader of the ‘Party of Small Government’ (GWB) proposes on a regular basis today would have been laughed at by most people back when the Socialist Party were seen as a bunch of impotent radicals, but are now firmly in the ‘zeitgeist’ of polical culture today.

    The vote for the Libertarian Party is not a wasted vote (anymore than a vote for the Republican Party is).

    There remain significant liberties in western democracies, by design and by accident (through oversight or lax enforcement), but these liberties which permit an individual’s detached relationship with the state persist in spite of, and not because of, that individuals’s detachment from the political process

    And yet, the significant loss of liberty exists because of individuals’ involvement with the political process.

    It’ll take many more decades for most people to realize, but politics itself is the problem. The only moral and effective thing to do is not vote.

  • Brock

    Until now I thought that a protest vote was a waste of time – but look at the Democratic party. In 2000 Ralph Nader arguable lost Al Gore the election, and presto! the Dems moved Left.

    If by a vote for the LP I can get the Republican’s attention, great. If I don’t get their attention, they will lose to the Democrats.

    Having a Dem in the White House would be pretty awful (judging strictly by the current crop – there’s always hope for the future I suppose), but maybe that would mean that in 4 years the Reps would actually listen to us.

    Here’s hoping, anyway. Thanks for the revelation.

    Brock

  • Andy Wood

    Your voice is given the same weight as all the others. Look at it this way – what if 100 million people vote libertarian, except for the 99 million who decide that their one vote amongst the others doesn’t carry any weight? In a popular election, numbers are strength. Libertarians are scarce enough in the real world without abstainers.

    But I don’t control how 100 million other people vote. I only control how I vote.

    If 100 million people vote for my prefered candidate, my vote will make it 100 million and one and will not change the outcome. If 100 people vote, my vote will make it 101, and it still won’t change the outcome.

    I certainly think it would be a good thing if as many people as possible voted for my preferred candidate, but I don’t think you’ve given me a good reason why I should bother.

  • Henry, Bernie and Nick:

    The point is to think critically.There shouldn’t be any place for hollow, rhetorical politics in critical rationalism. There are many more effective ways to “send a message” than to elect – or worse, fail to elect – lame ducks. This blog is a very good example of how to spread the word. Articles written here and the consequent debates linger in the mind. Who cares, even two weeks later, what precise percentage of the vote Candidate X received?

    Like it or not, the ugly truth is that a party such as the UKIP or a UK Libertarian party has a greater chance of success as a pressure group within the Tories than as an independent party, likewise the US libertarian party. For illustration consider the contrasting fortunes of Labour breakaway party, the SDP in the 1980s and Labour faction, “New” Labour in the 1990s.

  • Doug Collins

    In the US, with our primary election systems, most of the selection is actually done fairly early and by relatively small numbers of voters. The choices in the general election are mostly already constrained by the outcomes of the primaries. I suppose this makes voting in the primary elections important and voting in the general elections less so.

    Long ago when I was an idealistic young larva working for Barry Goldwater, I attended a small invitational meeting in which a speaker who appeared to be politically experienced and adept said that most elections are decided by about 8% of the electorate who are doctrinaire on one side versus about 8% who are doctrinaire on the opposing side. Most of the rest of the electorate splits fairly evenly in most elections. So the key to winning is to get as many of your 8% to vote as possible. I have no idea if this is correct, but the relative closeness of many elections makes me think that often it is.

    If it is true, a small disciplined and reliable group of perhaps 2% of the electorate could be very effective if they can be a swing group, not to be taken for granted by either of the main parties. To do this, they would have to be willing to support either side when it was willing to cooperate with the agenda of the swing group. They would never get their own people in office, but would have a great deal of influence on those elected, particularly if their support was conditioned on continued cooperation by the office holders.

    For a libertarian group, this would mean finding libertarian positions and ends that Tony Blair could be induced to support, and others that the Tories would be willing to support. (I am assuming that there would be few, if any positions that would be supported by both.) You would get what you could from one and then, later, see what could be extracted from the other.

    One of the virtues of this approach would be that it would strongly influence the incumbents between elections. Obviously what they say to get elected has little to do with what they do once in office. Even if they did not support some libertarian postions, (for example Tories might not be very enthusiastic about drug legalization), they might go a little easy on the opposite policies out of fear of alienating you.

    This would require the formation of a party of people who are willing to consistently follow this policy in unison. That, obviously, is where libertarians are weak. At the least, they would need to all understand and agree to the basic idea. They would also need to understand that half a loaf now is preferable to the whole loaf “someday”.

  • Brock,

    Your own example undermines your thesis. A left-ward move by the Dems may not necessarily stave off a Nader candidacy but it will certainly return a Republican Whitehouse. Nobody who voted for Nader wanted Bush elected, yet that was the eminently predictable consequence of their actions.

    Jonathan,

    Abstinence from voting may be “moral” to the purist, but I cannot see how it is “effective”. If anything it is counter-effective. Pretending that the political process doesn’t exist will hardly hasten its demise

  • toolkien

    The Socialist Party in the US never won a significant election, but its ideas have spread to inhabit both major political parties. The things the leader of the ‘Party of Small Government’ (GWB) proposes on a regular basis today would have been laughed at by most people back when the Socialist Party were seen as a bunch of impotent radicals, but are now firmly in the ‘zeitgeist’ of polical culture today.

    But they did this by being united and occupying the bureaucracies of government and its spawn (e.g. universities etc) changing what people saw and heard. That seems to be the opposite of what libertarianism is all about. That is the problem in a nut shell; how can a diverse and dispersed group of individuals hope to combat the various united fronts vying for control of the State? Adopting their methods makes you what you are fighting and isn’t a palatable solution (at least to me). Choosing the least evil of the bunch only seems to be putting off the inevitable confrontation between individuals and the State. That is the conundrum. How do uncoordinated forces defeat coordinated forces without becoming the enemy in a new form? Communism had its ‘dictatorship of the proletartiat’ solution as to how to undo the State and birth a communal Nirvana, which is laughably specious, and I fear that only something along the same lines logically would serve here; take over the State and disperse the power. But once control is taken, it isn’t likely to be given up. New fears will arise and reasons will be found to keep the center held.

    In the end, I agree that control of the zeitgest is a must, and every little bit helps, but I wonder how far it can really go in making a change. My experience has told me that everyone thinks their system, if only understood and implemented, would lead to simplicity and freedom. They have a basic platform and outlook but need to subsume it to one of the two major parties and hold their nose to the rest that they may not agree with (or conveniently ignore the unpleasant parts). But this begets more of the problem, that the far removed central command is being run by operatives from two huge, far removed parties, with ultimately their own agendas in mind, and a deluded mass who faithfully leap into the arms of one or the other party. These masses, though simple and ‘individualistic, at least to some extent in their own minds, will ultimately turn to these established powers and not here the Individualist’s message, or it won’t register that their aims will not flourish by appealing to the State. And all the while, the central command grows stronger and stronger, and the individual gets smaller and smaller. Then the only answer may be violence, and associations based on martial structures versus civil structures to overthrow the State, leading to despotism of one kind or another.

  • John Harrison

    Well, before the next round of elections, how about forming a ‘libertarian’ manifesto.

    Why not send it to each of the parliamentary candidates in your consituency and ask which of the points on it they will publicly sign up to and which they will not and inform them that whichever candidate signs up to the libertarian manifesto to the greatest extent will get your vote. Publish the responses on Samizdata and we’ll get a laugh out of it if nothing else.

  • Steve

    If you and/or I wind up in New Hampshire because of the Free State Project there are going to be times when we vote for the lesser of two evils in order to advance the new state.

    We cannot possibly hope to develop and cultivate ideal candidates in all instances. That means supported candidates will fall within the definition of “lesser of two evils.” They will advance some but not all of our ideas. That is not a realistic expectation, especially in the beginning.

    Otherwise I would agree that it’s really quite pointless to choose the “lesser of two evils” if the two candidates, for example, are Bush and Kerry. Besides, it virtually impossible to determine which is the “lesser” in any case. ;)

    Off topic: I still wish the choice had been Wyoming as there’s nothing quite like the smell of sage in the early morn or end of day and that’s quite condusive to independent thinking. ;)

  • Doug Collins

    In my previous comment and in comments by toolkien and others, there was a leitmotif that libertarians were at a great disadvantage in matters of political action by virtue of their individualism and fractiousness, which make disciplined concerted action difficult or impossible.

    Okay. How about a little libertarian theorizing on some sort of free market principle applied to political pressure? After all, our preferred approachs to other social problems take advantage of the strengths of variation and individual ideas, yet in this area we are apeing the collectivists.

    Ideas anyone?

  • Bombadil

    But I don’t control how 100 million other people vote. I only control how I vote.

    If 100 million people vote for my prefered candidate, my vote will make it 100 million and one and will not change the outcome. If 100 people vote, my vote will make it 101, and it still won’t change the outcome.

    I certainly think it would be a good thing if as many people as possible voted for my preferred candidate, but I don’t think you’ve given me a good reason why I should bother.

    Hmm, perhaps we are talking at cross purposes. I am saying that a “my vote doesn’t matter” strategy does have an effect if it is generally accepted; you seem to be asking whether or not you, Andy Wood, will personally get to decide an election all by your lonesome.

    Voting is a cellular exercise – it is the cumulative effect of many “insignificant” votes that becomes significant. In my previous post I was referring to a cellular approach – each person votes, and together the individual “cells” become a massive “body”.

    But I will concede that, so long as you are not advocating it as a general strategy to be followed, it really doesn’t make a profound difference whether or not you, Andy Wood, vote. Are you saying that everyone else should vote but that there’s no reason for you to do so? It seemed to me that you were saying that there was no reason for anyone to vote.

    I can lose a skin cell or two million and still be ok. If I lose all of them or even a tenth of them all of a sudden, I am going to have some trouble.

    If I throw a quart of used motor oil into the river, it probably won’t make a lot of difference. If a lot of people do it, the river will be damaged.

    It’s a fallacy to say that since no individual quart of oil will damage the river, everyone can individually throw in their oil without worrying about it.

  • Jacob

    This debate is too damn serious.

    Libertarians and Samizdatistas love life, and love fun.
    Not all activities are super serious. Like football (in all it’s versions), hunting, shooting, travelling, etc.
    I’m sure the purpose of this blog isn’t only to save the world and make it see the light. You do it (and we read it) because we enjoy it.

    Take the same approach to voting. It’s no good to be infernally serious about it because, as was pointed out, any individual vote isn’t terribly influencial and neither would be 7000 votes, en-block, of all samizdata readers.

    Vote for some candidate when you feel like it, when you feel good with it, when he is a nice guy/gal, whether from a big party or a small one. Vote against some candidate (vote for the other guy) when you hate him profoundly.
    And, if the above reasons are absent, skip the voting and do something else that you enjoy. Don’t feel a “duty” to vote. There cannot be a duty to do things you don’t like.

  • Abstinence from voting may be “moral” to the purist, but I cannot see how it is “effective”. If anything it is counter-effective. Pretending that the political process doesn’t exist will hardly hasten its demise

    I disagree. All political power comes from the belief among the general population in its validity. When most people don’t believe in its validity, change comes quickly. See Velvet Revolution. Acting as if it doesn’t exist is the first step in destroying its validity.

  • Bombadil

    Libertarians, in my limited experience, seem very poor strategists. We want allies who agree with us right down the line – or else we spurn them.

    A Republican who is in favor of tax cuts? Ah, but he doesn’t support the immediate abolition of drug laws – Can’t vote for that scoundrel!

    A Democrat who supports (at least) liberalizing drug laws? She also supports gun control …

    Even a libertarian candidate won’t fulfill everyone’s wish list – which is why a libertarian manifesto will be problematic at best. Consider these issues:

    Should the state maintain a police force to keep the peace? Who should pay for it? Should the indigent be afforded police protection?

    Does a woman’s right to sovereignty over her body supersede an unborn infant/fetus’/whatevers right not to be killed? At what point during the pregnancy does this occur? At conception? At 8 months?

    Is the right to possess weapons absolute? Can I possess a mayonnaise jar full of anthrax, toss it around in my yard like a football, etc? How about 5 kilos of TNT in my 10-story apartment building?

    Capital punishment?

    Paper money? Government-issued currency?

    Should courts be run by the government or should they be privatized? How do the poor get justice in a privatized court system? If the courts are public, who pays for them?

    Etc etc. My point is that we (the generally classical-liberal leaning group known collectively as ‘libertarians’) may need to make strategic compromises if we are ever to make any progress in the political sphere. This does not preclude simultaneously working to change the zeitgeist, nor does it preclude the (IMO extremely slim) possibility of armed revolution. It means playing the game like big kids instead of small ones – negotiating and winning battles we can win instead of taking our ball and going home in a pout.

  • Fernando

    Perry, that was a very interesting post. I am all in favor of reducing the size of the state, and agree that the battle is mainly in the field of ideas. Personal responsibility vs entitlements, liberty vs serfdom, individualism vs groupthink.

    Some ideas on how to advance the libertarian agenda:

    1) You want to advance the libertarian ideas to make people’s lives better, don’t you? Then, start by not thinking that people are fools. Or if you think they are, don’t show it. A tone of smug condescension is a turnoff for 99.999% of the population. (The other 0.001%… they probably vote Labor anyway.)

    2) Those magnificent anarcho-capitalist utopias described in lovingly detail on a 700-page tome by some Deep Thinker or other… lose them.

    3) Modern Democracy (I grew up under a dictatorship, so allow me the capital ‘D’) is, like Hayek’s market, “a complex array of institutions and behavioural norms, which have evolved and endure because they work.” Do you want to convince people to throw away all this hard-earned organization to replace it with the abovementioned anarchistic utopia? I didn’t think so.

    4) The “government steals your money” line is not likely to gain much support, if you ask me. People tolerate more taxes now because they are richer than before. Also, they think they are buying some degree of protection from the state. I think it’s more important to remind people that they are not getting their money’s worth.

    Keep up the good work!

    Fernando

  • Jacob, the purpose of this blog is serious. We just choose fun sometimes to advance it.

  • Andy Wood

    But I will concede that, so long as you are not advocating it as a general strategy to be followed, it really doesn’t make a profound difference whether or not you, Andy Wood, vote. Are you saying that everyone else should vote but that there’s no reason for you to do so? It seemed to me that you were saying that there was no reason for anyone to vote.

    I don’t think I’m making an argument about what everyone else should or should not do. I’m not very good at moral philosophy. I’m rather making an observation which is relevant to the effectiveness of exhorting millions of people to vote for one candidate or another.

    Each one of those millions of voters can make exactly the same argument I have made about the influence of his own vote and conclude, correctly, that it is negligible. Pointing out that good things will happen if lots of people vote for a particular candidate is as irrelevant to their conclusions as it is to mine. To persuade them to vote, you either have to persuade them to believe a falsehood, or give them some other reason.

    However, I think mass voter ignorance is a far more fundamental problem than the handful of libertarians not voting. How much better do you think we would be governed if most people understood, say, Ricardo’s Principle of Comparative Advantage?

  • Julian Morrison

    Can’t win with electoral politics. Libertarians getting elected is the finish line, not the starter’s gun. Until such time as we’ve aready almost won, party politics is just expensive inefficient advertising.

    Thinking about what Fernando says above… the 700 page ancap utopia isn’t as useless as he thinks. I see those tomes as idea-hatcheries. Fledged ideas will migrate out of them into practical use. Plus they are proofs of concept — that it is possible to concieve of a functioning, normal workaday society that just happens to be ancap. Anarchy needn’t equal Mad Max.

    I think that one of the main ways that current social systems have evolved, related to Fernando’s point 4, is that they get out of the way. That is to say, low “citizen participation” is an evolutionarily successful trait in governments. The ordinary guy has a job to do, and doesn’t want to waste his time faffing around being a “good citizen”. Representative government might be better named “somebody else’s business government”. People throw money into taxes rather than throw time into doing stuff themselves. This is the reason why interesting ordinary folk in politics has always been impossible, and why simple libertarian proselytizing gets nowhere.

    To succeed, libertarianism needs to cut deeper than politics, becoming a new social moral norm. Norms are what ordinary people follow when they think they’re obeying common sense. Leftism has gotten so far because it has become a norm. Likewise democracy.

    That’s what I meant by zeitgeist.

  • Bombadil

    Each one of those millions of voters can make exactly the same argument I have made about the influence of his own vote and conclude, correctly, that it is negligible.

    The crux of the argument.

    Restated: since my vote (by itself) has a negligible effect on the election, and your vote (by itself) has a negligible effect on the election, 10 million votes all have a negligible effect on the election.

    The statement “I personally don’t vote because my vote doesn’t carry enough weight” is fundamentally different from “Nobody should vote since their votes don’t carry enough weight.” One strategy swings a single vote and could reasonably be true (thought its validity is entirely subjective – a single vote could decide the election); the other strategy swings a million votes and is objectively false.

    Again, by your argument, since a quart of oil isn’t much oil, it won’t hurt to pour it into the river. If you think pouring oil into the river hurts, you have to convince individuals that their quart of oil will cause harm.

    Your observation would only be true in the general case if there was an individual out there who got to case a large number of votes by himself; then there might be some validity to the general idea that votes don’t count.

  • Guy Herbert

    Fernando: Hear, hear. When did anyone hear Blair describing the goals of his policies in any but the vaguest terms? There’s a pattern to be observed, but it is never, ever explicitly outlined.

    Bombadil: Agreed; however there is a specific tactical issue in the British system that almost all the votes that are exercised are wasted.

    I live in Camden & St Pancras. Frank Dobson will be my MP till I return to civilization or he chokes on his own beard or, whatever I do. I used to live in Kensington & Chelsea, so my MP was chosen by Shireen Ritchie and a handful of others.

    This is an opportunity, but also a problem. Parties have huge influence in Britain, and it is potentially easier to change a party than the populace directly. But parties also demand enormous patience and energy to make them change: they are bodies of people who are strongly committed (and, in many cases, ought to be). There won’t be sudden conversion of the activists. Look at New Labour, which took more than a decade to build by people who were already insiders, and has since delivered its supporters more power and more socialist change than any previous government. It is still hated by a significant group of lifelong Labourites as an imposition on their culture.

  • Andy Wood

    you have to convince individuals that their quart of oil will cause harm.

    I don’t think that is sufficient. It should be obvious to everyone that his individual vote carries little weight. But it should be equally obvious that lots of people voting for the good candidate should produce good results.

    The problem really is that wise voting carries substantial costs – time and effort educating oneself about what constitutes a good policy. But almost none of the benefits of wise voting are returned to the person bearing those costs – they are thinly distributed over the whole electorate.

    You really need to provide people with an incentive not to free ride on other people’s efforts.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    For any young folk who might be reading this – go into journalism. I think we have to ape Gramisci’s idea of capturing institutions. Half a dozen libertarians burrowing into the BBC or the Times can be enormously effective since the very fact of them being there means that the kind of news stories that get covered will change, even if only so subtly.
    There are now quite a few Libertarian Alliance folk I know of who have worked in the media in some capacity.

  • Kit Taylor

    To make the libbo message more palatable to the people, how about advancing
    geolibertarianism, as derived from the works of Henry George and Thomas Paine?

    Henry George was a hero amongst progressives a hundred years ago, even though he said this

    “We differ from the socialists in our diagnosis of the evil and we differ from them as to remedies. We have no fear of capital, regarding it as the natural handmaiden of labor; we look on interest in itself as natural and just; we would set no limit to accumulation, nor impose on the rich any burden that is not equally placed on the poor; we see no evil in competition, but deem unrestricted competition to be as necessary to the health of the industrial and social organism as the free circulation of the blood is to the health of the bodily organism–to be the agency whereby the fullest cooperation is to be secured”

    and this

    “For my part, I would put not limit on acquisition. No matter how many millions any man can get by methods which do not involve the robbery of others–they are his: let him have them. I would not even ask for charity, or have it dinned into his ears that it is his duty to help the poor. That is his own affair. Let him do as he pleases with his own, without restriction and without suggestion. If he gets without taking from others, and uses without hurting others, what he does with his wealth is his own business and his own responsibility.”

    He also called Karl Marx “the prince of muddleheads.”

  • Paul C,

    Just as a matter of interest, back on your 1980′s electoral stump did you gain any overall impression of popular awareness of Libertarianism? And do you judge the zeitgest to have moved in this direction during the intervening years.

    My hunch would be those far-off, more radical and Freedmanesque times might have been more amenable to new ideas. But it would be interesting to know how you guage it.

  • mad dog

    All those nasty people in the government are probably evil, whereas he who shall not be named “dear leader” is free from all original sin and is one of the few who can show us the promised land…

    (…it says here in the small print).

    Personally, I am always worried about “heads on spikes fetishists” claiming to know how things should be done. But what would I know…since Homer Simpson seems have taken over Anglosphere foreign policy – anything could be true.

  • “How about a little libertarian theorizing on some sort of free market principle applied to political pressure?”

    It’s already been done in quite some detail. Look up “Public Choice Theory”. One of its conclusions is that, essentially, Perry de Havilland is right – it makes no sense for the average person to vote.

    On a more constructive note, I’d say that the key is, as Jonathan Pearce suggested, to take over influential institutions from within. A small cadre (ugh!) of highly dedicated individuals can take over even the biggest institutions if they systematically set their minds to it – another conclusion of public choice theory, by the way.

  • Perry, I think the only way to make a real difference is to enter the Party of Lesser Evil, join or build a platform, gain momentum and dissolve the statist tendencies from within. You will get tainted in the process, maybe even corrupted slightly, but hey, that’s politics.

    Standing aside, street preaching won’t do.

  • totally bonkers dog

    Yes, mad dog, what a terrible thing it is people thinking they might have ideas on how things are done. Ban all opinions, I say

  • Abiola and Thomas,

    This is really the point of my original post, people acting within institutions will be a lot more effective than any amount of rhetorical posturing. The point about Flavour Encapsulation is that, provided they keep a clear focus on the aim of shrinking the government, you may not need as many “nuts” as you first think to achieve success.

  • Julian Morrison

    Kit Taylor: “geolibertarianism” isn’t libertarian, isn’t valid, isn’t moral, isn’t sensible. Next question?

  • Jacob

    Kit Taylor:
    Can we have that “libbo” word ?
    It’s just what we were missing since “liberal” has been hijacked. I hereby declare myself a libbo.

    Note to admin: put it in the glossary.

  • Jacob

    Another guiding principle for voting might be this: Vote agains the incumbent.

    If you don’t have some strong preference for one of the candidates – vote for the fresh one. Frequent turnover in politics is better that having entrenched incumbents. You also get some satisfaction whenever one of the pols is defeated and humiliated.

  • Another thing we libertarians have is that we’re absolutely useless at taking care of our own. More likely than not we either eat our own or do less than our level best to help them. (Samizdata is a big exception to this rule.)

    Quite often it because of the aforementioned “libertarian perfection” problem. This candidate is not a viable libertarian because of x,y and/or z reasons. This is especially in a state where there is no official (legal) Libertarian Party. Libertarians have been known not to vote for a Republican who is a libertarian because he is still part of the “machine”. Despite the fact this machine has a better chance of getting him in than a rag-tag lot of LP types.

    My experience with libertarians cattiness is over my book Statism Sucks! Ver 2.0. Can I get any of the libertarian book sellers to stock it? No a bloody chance. Have any of them attempted to help me flog it? Nope. Why? The excuses range from my being an unknown author to my Young Republican past to trouble over the title. Yes, that’s right… libertarians getting bitchy about the word sucks.

    I mean Dr Madsen Pirie, Ted Nugent (who made me his “blood brother” because of it), and Johnathan Pearce like the bloody thing. It can’t be that bad… can it?

    If we libertarians want to win the battle of ideas we got to start helping each other. Yes, we believe in individualism, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t band together to spread the word.

  • Guessedworker,

    You ask:

    back on your 1980′s electoral stump did you gain any overall impression of popular awareness of Libertarianism? And do you judge the zeitgest to have moved in this direction during the intervening years.

    Well the election I stood in was the 1992 general election. There was no popular awareness of libertarianism then and I can’t say I detect much now. When I was at university in the Thatcher era I was chairman of the Conservative Association at my university and there was much talk about libertarisnism then among conservative students (see Tim Evan’s book ‘Conservative Radicalism) but since Major took over the whole thing seemed to run out of steam.

    When I stood for parliament I was one of several libertarians standing under the ‘Anti-Federalist’ label explicitly opposing the Maastricht treaty. This organisation, which was even then never fully and explicitly libertarian, changed it’s name to become what is now known as UKIP. I and most of the other libertarians melted away and lost interest in it. This was mainly because we thought it was not an effective use of time effort and money, not for any explicit ideological reasons. I might vote UKIP if there was a candidate in my constituency since I still think that opposing the EU is as important as ever, but opposition to the EU is only one part of libertarian strategy.

  • Why I vote for the lesser evil:

    To buy time.

    Changing the zeitgeist is the only way to make it less evil, but if we let the greater evil win we may be so busy trying to survive that we’ve got no energy left to improve things. So “slow the rot” by all means, we need all the time we can get to win the battle of ideas.

  • Nick Timms

    Andrew Ian Dodge makes a very valid point: “If we libertarians want to win the battle of ideas we got to start helping each other. Yes, we believe in individualism, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t band together to spread the word”.

    To my mind the whole basis of civilization should be like-minded individuals cooperating with each other. This does not mean I have to cast off my Libertarian ideals. I do not have to cease to be an individual in order to work together with other individuals. Nor does my antipathy towards politicians and unnecessary government preclude me from taking advantage of the system to attempt to influence the thinking of others.

    I find the idea that a real libertarian would be betraying his ideals if he got actively involved with politics to be quite bizarre. We are all political – we are human (possible exception being some labour party drones). I want to be able to influence others through reasoned argument. I am just against any form of coercion. Right now we have very little choice and if we want choice we are going to have to make it happen.

    Yes we could and should try to influence a change in the zeitgeist from within all sorts of institutions but we should also be actively promoting our libertarian ideals through concerted action. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    It is possible for individuals, who disagree on detail, to work together on the broader concepts.

    Nick Timms

  • Thank you Nick for the kind words. As I have said many a time, including in my book…the only decent thing LBJ ever said was that it is better “to be pissing out of the tent than pissing in…”

    I believe in undermining (to the wets and the authoritarians) the Tory/Republican Party from within rather than throwing stones from the side. I was turfed out of being the YR Chairman for Maine because of my book SS Ver. 2.0 There is nothing wrong with someone writing libertarian minded pieces while participating with soft-libertarians in the Republican or Tory Party.

    Despite the protestations of my mates in the UK, I believe that the Tory Party is more fertile ground (in toto) than the Republican Party. There are parts of the US that will take a long time to take to the libertarian message, mainly in the South and mid-West.

    We, as libertarians, can debate theory as much as we want but ultimately we need to stick together whether libertarians or Libertarians. This is something the LP is the US and sometimes (though less so) in UK should not forget.