The political terrain could not be clearer. Despite our best efforts, America is a center-left nation. Libertarians constitute no more than 5 percent of the public. And if a Republican manages to win the White House in 2016, the recent erosion in the public support for more government will almost certainly reverse.
How can we best move a libertarian policy agenda given this desultory landscape?
(1) Temper our Policy Expectations. Until some political tectonic plate shift occurs, radical libertarian policy change is not in the cards. Repealing the Great Society, much less the New Deal, is unlikely. Business regulation of some sort is not going away. The EPA, FCC, SEC, etc. will not be abolished.
Less radical improvements in public policy are possible. But to do that, we need to stop making “the better” the enemy of “the best” and cease complaining that the former commits the unpardonable sin of “compromising on principle.” By definition, advocating anything short of the night watchman state “compromises on principle,” and the night watchman state—for now anyway—is a fantasy.
(2) Consequentialist arguments > Ideological arguments. We are sometimes tempted to make “the moral case” for this or that policy initiative. While those arguments are tremendously appealing to libertarians, libertarian moralizing often leaves non-libertarians cold … and non-libertarians outnumber libertarians at least 20-1.
The overwhelming majority of Americans have no coherent ideology. They embrace what seems to work. Selling the practical merits of our policy ideas gives us the best chance of success.
(3) Forwarding causes popular with the Left is likely to pay off. There are plenty of important libertarian causes that are popular within America’s present center-left consensus; e.g., drug decriminalization, civil liberties in the “war on terror,” immigration, reigning in the police, skepticism about military engagements, more sensible military spending, gay rights, opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing, etc. Policy investments in those arenas are more likely to pay off than investments in alternative arenas.
Resources are limited. We can best spend our time in fertile, not stony, policy fields.
(4) Investments in Washington are more promising than investments in the grassroots. Mobilizing the libertarian grassroots is problematic because there is hardly any libertarian grass to mobilize. Mobilizing conservative activists who embrace some libertarian economic ideas mobilizes activists who fiercely oppose libertarian objectives in other arenas. Consequently, there is no clear net gain for liberty.
Libertarian policy ideas have a better chance of getting a fair hearing in Washington than in, say, Dubuque. That’s because, at least when it comes to domestic issues, political elites are more libertarian than the voters and public opinion does not constrain Washington as much as many think.
Terrain dictates tactics.