A Plea for Politics

Letters to the Editor
April 21, 2009

Editors’ Note: Cato Unbound occasionally runs contributions from individuals who have particular expertise or a particularly insightful view of the issue at hand. This month we received the following essay by Dan Greenberg. Greenberg is a lawyer, an Arkansas state legislator, and an adjunct professor of law at the Bowen Law School of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Greenberg is also the former communications director of the Cato Institute.

How best to achieve political goals? I can understand the attraction of the Free State Project, Seasteading, cyberlibertarianism, and even Heinleinesque societies in space. I think though that perhaps this forum’s contributors — in their search for the best route to freedom — have overlooked the obvious. I believe that for ideologues generally, the most effective path to achieving their political goals is to support the campaigns of capable, trustworthy, and principled people for public office — a strategy that might include being such a candidate. When I read the first few contributions to this forum, I shook my head in puzzlement: for many libertarians, the notion that the best way to pursue freedom is by means of conventional political action is apparently counterintuitive.

What is an ideologue? Over two decades ago, shortly after I graduated from college, I was struck by the brevity and force of a letter to the editor that appeared in the New York Times, captioned “This Country Needs More Ideologues,” — so much so that I carried it around in my wallet for years. In only a few sentences, the author (Wirt A. Yerger Jr.) makes a persuasive case that the nation needs public officials who embody time-tested, pro-freedom principles: he calls them “ideologues.” Let us accept something like his usage: by “ideologues,” I do not mean people who are out of touch with reality, but rather people whose political goals are informed by moral values and principles which they can represent and defend.

In my state, there are 135 legislators and 1 governor. Those 136 people have an immense amount of influence over the legal structure that governs our state, perhaps more so than anyone else. The reason that the views of public officials routinely appear in the media is not because they are wise or profound. Rather, it is because (within limits) those people have the power to change the rules if they so desire. In my state, if you are interested in changing policy for the better, you might try to be one of those 136 people.

Let me give you an admittedly unlikely example. Suppose there is a state legislator who thinks that exposure to the rays of the moon will increase the capacity of students to learn. The everyday person has little or no power to get such views written into a state’s educational program, but if things break right for the legislator, he can get a pilot education program passed into law and funded that will involve the education of students by moonlight.

Ideologues frequently get frustrated with such outcomes, which they correctly see as capricious. But they do not learn what I think is an obvious lesson. If it is the case that ideas and values become enacted into law not simply because of their merits but (in some essential sense) because a public official is espousing them, why do ideologues spend so much time dissecting faulty ideas but so little time thinking about how they themselves might become situated to write their own views into law? If you have ideas you like more than (say) lunar education, it might be worthwhile to consider how you might plausibly get them written into law.

Perhaps the greatest film about modern American electoral politics is a little-known and underappreciated documentary called Taking on the Kennedys, a documentary so filled with telling details of the way political campaigns really work that it rewards repeated viewings. One such detail is a sign posted in the protagonist-candidate’s office, a sign within his view as he makes one tedious fund raising phone call after another. The sign reads: “Most people are not ideological.” Ideologues tend to forget this simple truth — and, too often, relate to others on an overly ideological basis — which is one reason why they are often such bad political candidates.

More generally, a fundamental fact of the political process is that there is a significant difference in the skill set of a good candidate and that of a good public official. Ideologues typically have an excellent grasp of many of the requirements of being a good public official: being thoughtful, well-educated, well-read, and open-minded, able to make decisions on the basis of principle and reality, having the ability to articulate and explain the connections between theory and practice, and so forth. However, ideologues are typically poorer at campaigning, which requires the ability to appreciate the symbolic and emotional nature of communications with everyday people, to hear and connect with putative constituents directly and via news media, to recruit and work with volunteers and build coalitions, to campaign generally (often a repetitive, undramatic chore), and to figure out how to raise money for the expenses attendant to campaigns. My experience with ideologues who desire political office is that they are often unwilling to make the hard physical and psychological slog that is required to get there. By its nature, the system necessarily selects public officials out of the pool of “good candidates”; by and large, it does not reward eccentricity or even individual authenticity. This may have something to do with one of Ed Crane’s observations, which I hope he will forgive me for paraphrasing: that he typically finds Congressmen “creepy.”

I am generally sympathetic to critiques of “folk activism” — I would simply echo Doherty’s point by noting that the main reason that it takes place is that it’s a lot more fun to spend two hours writing a blog post or having a political argument than to spend two hours knocking on scores of doors asking people you’ve never met before to vote for a sound candidate. But the latter, while often boring and occasionally grueling, is probably more politically effective. And it is only the people who are willing to pay the price of pursuing political office who will be able to exercise political power. (I do not mean here to diminish the importance of academics and other professional policy analysts, whose work has been of tremendous importance to good government.)

Ideologues have a slew of objections to direct participation in the political process. They argue (for instance) that ideologues cannot win, that people are politically ineducable, that it’s immoral to participate — even to vote — in a corrupt system, that there’s a systemic bias towards big government that makes ideological efforts pointless, and that it’s a lot of hard labor for relatively little return. These arguments, in some respects, have force; in other respects, they smell like an excuse for avoiding work.

I don’t have the space to answer all of these concerns, but (very briefly) I will try. It’s a reality in politics, especially legislative politics, that although ideologues will never win all the offices they run for, they can win enough of them to get a place at the table. They can win enough to have their views taken seriously in the political process and to be treated reasonably by the media. They can win enough to have significant freedom of action in resisting the political power of entrenched interest groups. They can win enough to block bad programs and establish good ones; given the right cultural climate, they can make significant ideological advancements. Importantly, sometimes they win in part because of public knowledge of their political views, and sometimes because of public ignorance of them. In short, they can win enough to be more than gadflies, although as an occasional gadfly myself I think people can underestimate the importance of this role. Some ideologues apparently think that anything less than complete victory is complete defeat; I think they are mistaken.

In short, it seems to me that the obvious implication of all this is that any principled person who is dissatisfied with the current political order should seriously consider running for public office — provided that he or she has the time and the other resources required to do so. (See my discussion of the requirements for good candidates and good public officials above.) The prevalence of term limits regularly minimizes some barriers associated with incumbency. Furthermore, it seems to me that any ideological movement that stigmatizes various types of conventional political action, down to and including voting, is harming itself in an almost masochistic way.

Admittedly, the argument that conventional political avenues lead to a lot of hard work for little return is a serious one. (Ideologues who believe the only acceptable result of their political labors is a government under the complete control of like-minded people will find this argument utterly persuasive.) In fact, lowered expectations here are essential. But as the man said when he was asked how he liked being old: consider the alternative! If you really think that we need political change, what serious alternative is there to direct political action?

Seasteading? Really?

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Beyond Folk Activism by Patri Friedman

    In this month’s lead essay, Patri Friedman charges libertarian activists with falling victim to bias: Specifically, they seem to suffer from the belief that advocacy and education are enough to change public policy. Friedman suggests otherwise, and he recommends that much more effort be put into demonstration projects that will show how a libertarian world might work. Not only will these projects do more than mere persuasion toward winning the war of ideas, but they will also allow individual libertarians to live in a much freer society, and they will exert competitive pressure on existing governments to reform themselves. Friedman discusses several such projects, including his own, the Seasteading Institute.

Response Essays

  • The Many Paths to Libertarianism by Brian Doherty

    Brian Doherty argues that Patri Friedman is both right in some ways and wrong in others. He’s right when he argues that incentives and technologies largely determine the shape of government today, and create the problems that libertarians tirelessly point out. He’s wrong, however, to dismiss “folk activism” entirely: Not only has it achieved some clear though incremental good, but it also helps create more libertarians, and at some point, this effort seems likely to bear fruit. Not only that, but seasteading relies on some folk activism itself, in convincing a large number of people that it would be a good idea to try. On the whole, Doherty welcomes seasteading as one of many possible paths to a more libertarian world.

  • Leveraging Institutional Change by Jason Sorens

    Jason Sorens reviews several important historical developments, including the rise of free trade in the nineteenth century and the growth of the welfare state in the twentieth. He concludes that structural change matters, and that incentives play a larger role than ideology in determining the type of government we get. He then considers several of the key challenges of both Seasteading and the Free State Project, as well as a few encouraging developments in recent politics that appear tied to the rise of the Free State movement. He counsels patience, but also proposes several strategies for moving forward.

  • The Education of a Libertarian by Peter Thiel

    Peter Thiel shares the belief that politics is mostly futile, a conclusion he reached after years of activism. In particular, he believes that democratic politics is unlikely to bring about libertarian outcomes. Fortunately, politics is just one sphere of human life, and it’s possible, he argues, to create technologies that minimize its reach. Thiel describes a “deadly race” between politics and technology, in which human freedom is the prize. The goal of libertarian activism should not be to win in politics, he argues, but to escape it.

The Conversation