Nah, Libertarians Aren’t Ejecting from Politics

In preceding replies, Adrian Vermeule and Philip Wallach questioned libertarians over their relationship to democracy and their presumed withdrawal from politics. Before another post on the administrative state’s legitimacy or lack thereof (because we still seem not to be getting to the essence of what government may not do, whether administrators or Congress do it), I wanted to address that just a bit.

I very much appreciated when Wallach discussed “[f]iguring out how government can be a beneficial (or at least a benign) agent of social cohesion, and do so while retaining legitimacy.” I agree with him that it’s “the inevitable central question.”

He and I come at this from different perspectives, but I was saying the same in my first essay when I argued that, in a complex society of free individuals, the true task of the “experts” managing a limited administrative state apparatus is to make what was public business into private, not to try to expertly run things.

Yet while I do believe there are areas to remove from public life altogether, I do not believe “[T]he only good choice is to stop playing the game of politics entirely.” We can’t. And I don’t think either libertarians or Libertarians, little “l” or big “L,” are withdrawn; quite the opposite. I can see why some might think that, since I myself have cycled in and out of the “abstain” or “none of the above” mindset in frustration. But that’s transitory, not defining for the activist bent in the movement as a whole.

There is of course most obviously the political party with former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson as its presidential nominee in the past cycle; and there are local party operatives. Almost upon my own introduction to market liberal ideas in college, I became a candidate for state senate in South Carolina (and like all Libertarians, got a pitiful share of the vote!).

In any event, small-“l” libertarians often are what they are because they want to see change.  Often they are activists. Even if they are not in electoral politics, policy groups are involved in coalitions, regulatory filings, testimony, and so forth. Even when I say that I’d like to see areas of life removed from public policy, I think that has to be done via politics in the sense of legislators willing to roll back the state and the bureaucracy they spawned (we also seem to be having a non-argument over culpability for the administrative state; yes: Congress created it). Just as, alas, to remove an administrative state rule, one must go through the notice and comment cycle that adding a rule (allegedly, but does not) go through, Congress must act to roll back over-reach, and that still requires elections. Or convulsions like an Article V convention or even Charles Murray’s civil disobedience.

Practically, we don’t elect libertarians. But what does happen through activism, policy marketing, and outreach is that (some) policies libertarians support get adopted by one of the major parties. Libertarians favored school choice, something easily grabbed by Republicans, and long ago we championed Social Security reforms and privatization. But now it’s in the Republican platform. There is much overlap in activist work on left and right on issues like privacy and encryption and civil liberties.

I earlier jibed Wallach about being a tad elitist, and he cleverly turned that back on libertarians, stating that libertarians impart the “sense that we need to get a massive departure from the status quo… and that it isn’t terribly important who supports such a change.”

I do think it is “terribly important who supports such a change.” Those supposedly silent voices are making noises, and partly at issue is whether they have been getting heard. There were elements of grassroots libertarianism in the Tea Party (and that name came from somewhere, after all), and in the past election cycles that handed power to congressional Republicans, and in the current presidential cycle in which mainstream, establishment (pick your term) Republicans have been rejected by that public (the delegate count seemed to be a different tale there for a while.) So in my kind of libertarianism, I most certainly do appreciate those voices. They’re the folks I come from, too.

(On the other hand, the presidential campaign has demonstrated that a very large swath of young people are interested in and seduced by socialism, which cuts against my optimism, and given the decades of work by my beloved Cato, it alarms me!)

Libertarians, just like other political and/or party persuasions, aren’t withdrawing from democracy. This matters a lot given the topic of this forum. We libertarians surely must not be charged with reluctance to play the democracy game by advocates of a massive administrative state, populated by the unelected and the unaccountable, as untethered as anything can be from democracy.

Wallach rightly says that “Not all instantiations of the administrative state are equally offensive to liberty, the rule of law, or the Constitution.” But some are, and part of what we need to do yet is to better distinguish between them, not just insist upon or deny a blanket legitimacy. It is again statements like that one that make me see much overlap between Wallach and libertarians. We’re getting there.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Farewell to the Administrative State? by Philip Wallach

    Philip Wallach describes rising skepticism about the administrative state in our representative government. But what can be done about it? Populists promise to return the government to the people, and yet effective government in the modern world to a high degree requires technical expertise. Libertarians have a telling diagnosis of the problem, says Wallach, but few workable solutions. If Congress is to regain control of the sprawling administrative state, it will have to demonstrate that it is willing and able to govern instead.

Response Essays

  • The Administrative State’s Irredeemable Devotion to Central Power by Clyde Wayne Crews

    Clyde Wayne Crews finds much to agree with in Philip Wallach’s diagnosis of administrative sprawl. But then he asks: Why not rein it in? Other countries have done so, and we have even taken some important and bipartisan steps in that direction before. The bureaucratic pretense of expertise has never been so clearly exposed as it is today, and we should take the opportunity to improve the regulatory environment before incipient technologies, like autonomous cars and commercial drone transport, are caught in the regulatory web.

  • What Legitimacy Crisis? by Adrian Vermeule

    Adrian Vermeule openly doubts that the administrative state faces a legitimacy crisis. He observes that Congress itself created the administrative state, and that it remains firmly in control of its creature. Moreover, the public appears fairly content with the administrative state that we have, and certainly shows no inclination to scrap the whole thing. Both these observations should count, he suggests, in any consideration of the administrative state’s legitimacy. In short, there is no crisis here, and no radical solutions are warranted.

  • It’s Better Not to Play the Game at All by John Hasnas

    John Hasnas does not think that the administrative state can be reformed. But it can be outpaced. This, he says, offers hope for libertarians, whereas politics does not. The administrative state is inherently slow to adjust to new social developments, and liberty will always exist just a few steps ahead of it.

The Conversation