The modern conservative movement finds it roots in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater, of course, lost by a landslide to Lyndon Baines Johnson. The defeat disillusioned many Goldwater supports who abandoned politics altogether, but it galvanized others who created the organizations and infrastructure necessary to bring the Republican party electoral success. This success was realized with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. The conservatives had won.
What, however, did conservatives win? Ronald Reagan was not the fiscal conservative that he is popularly believed to be. If one abandons the Limbaugh-Hannity rose-colored glasses when analyzing the presidency of Reagan, one finds that the Gipper nearly doubled the size of the federal government, ran monstrous deficits financed by the hidden tax of inflation, and acquiesced to the domestic spending demands of congressional Democrats in exchange for a massive expansion of the military-industrial complex. Yet, this is The Conservative Icon.
Goldwater was rabidly anti-communist and, in his later years, his hostility towards the Religious Right earned him the enmity of the GOP establishment. In 2011, neoconservatives, the philosophical stepchildren of Leon Trotsky, form the intellectual vanguard of conservatism, while social conservatives fill the ranks of its foot soldiers. The movement that Goldwater spawned has become everything Goldwater opposed.
Conservatives won some elections, but they lost the war. Just like the Ringwraiths in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the conservative movement’s covetousness of power destroyed it. None of this should come as a surprise. The conservative movement was created specifically to win elections. Whatever societal changes conservatives wanted to implement were to be imposed from the top down, that is, as a result of government force. In the end, power became the goal in and of itself.
The goal of the libertarian movement is not only much broader than the conservative movement, it is actually the opposite of the conservatism. We seek not to wield political power, but to diminish it. This goal cannot be realized through the electoral process. Although libertarian office holders would certainly attempt to diminish the State, their ability to do so is severely limited. After all, the public currently views the government as a baker whose job is to give everyone a free slice of pie. If you ain’t getting your slice, something is wrong. And woe to him who points out that the pie isn’t really free after all!!
The role that libertarian politicians can play is to use electoral politics as a platform to educate. There are many within our movement who will claim that this statement reveals a great deal of naiveté. These folks, many of whom I count as friends, claim that the critical mass necessary for libertarian ideas to take hold can never be reached, and thus we must seize the levers of power. This attitude ignores a political reality: all governments, no matter how oppressive, ultimately rely on the consent of their citizens to remain in power. Even if a libertarian politician could deceive his way into office by concealing his ideology, he would face major resistance when implementing changes which would diminish the State and enhance individual liberty.
On the other hand, it often seems that education and outreach are overwhelming undertakings. Most Americans have been completely indoctrinated into statism by twelve or more years of government controlled education. The mass media often acts as a fourth branch of the federal government. And once folks are locked into their paradigm, even attempts at questioning that worldview are often met with resistance and sometimes outright hostility. Our task, it seems, is hopeless.
The educational approach, however, seems much more viable if we realize that we don’t need to persuade everyone; we only need to persuade the right people. We never know who these people are until later--the individual who will become the next great activist, or the next great spokesperson, or the next great salesman of liberty.
Personally, I find outreach much more gratifying than electoral politics. While you may never know if you win or lose, i.e. if your subject eventually changes his mind, you don’t face the frustration of trying to compete at a game in which your opponents make the rules, own the venue, and pay the referees.
Unfortunately, with all the noise that surrounds various political and economic issues, we often lose sight of the forest for the trees. The foundation of libertarianism is the concept of self-ownership. Many of us believe that self-ownership is, as the Declaration of Independence states, self-evident. I can attest from personal experience that it is not. When I ask folks “who owns you,” they usually say “I do,” but only after a few moments of deliberation. In many cases, they have never before contemplated that question.
We have become so engrossed with the minutiae of politics that we have forgotten the most fundamental question of all--who owns whom, and therefore who is entitled to control whom. If you own your life, no one else has the right to take that life or any part of it. You acquire property by investing some of your time in that property. If that property is taken from you without your consent, you are losing a part of your life. If you are denied the ability to control your life, if you are deprived of your liberty, you no longer have full dominion over your life. In other words, you no longer own your life. So long as you are living peacefully and your interactions with other individuals are consensual, you should be left alone to live your life as you wish. Even if doing so means that you may make decisions which are harmful to you. Even if doing so means that you are not contributing to the “common good,” whatever that means.
Our natural rights of life, liberty, and property are derived from our ownership of our lives. Only individuals are endowed with these rights. The collective has no more rights than the individuals forming the collective possess themselves. Likewise, an agent acting in our names (or claiming to act in our names) does not somehow acquire rights which we ourselves do not have. You cannot grant something to someone else if you do not possess it to begin with.
The State, therefore, must be held to the same moral standard as the individual. Murder, theft, and fraud are unjust and illegal when perpetrated by private individuals. Nothing changes when those private individuals are replaced by “officials” or “the authorities.”
The mainstream debate about taxation concerns what level of taxes is optimal. This debate is specious. All taxation is unjust because it is based on theft. While we can advocate for programs that will lower taxes, libertarians must always make the point that taxation is immoral and unjust ipso facto. Conscription, whether it is the military draft or “national service,” is unjust. The argument is not for what purpose should the State use your life, but how can the State lay claim to your life or any part of it in the first place?
In other words, not only should we make utilitarian arguments for liberty, we should also make the moral case for liberty. When we make the moral case for liberty, we bring to light the mendacious sophisms upon which collectivism rests. Of course, this strategy is not a magic incantation that will suddenly transform the world into a libertarian paradise, but it is a start. At least we are putting splinters in people’s minds.
An argument can be made that there is no time left for this approach since every day brings us closer to an inevitable economic calamity. While I sympathize with this opinion, the fact is that this crisis will give us our greatest opportunity, but only if the groundwork has previously been built. It is too late to stop it, but we can influence the world which will arise on the other side if we do our work now.
Although conservatives may claim otherwise, the conservative movement failed because whatever principles that conservatives may have had were compromised by their thirst for power. Some claim that the libertarian movement has failed for the opposite reason: our principles have led us to reject political power. This claim is false. Our movement is still small, but it is rapidly growing. It will grow even more quickly as statism continues to bear its poisonous fruits.
We should never forget what our real goal is. Our goal is not, as I’ve heard Tea Party conservatives say, to “take the county back,” meaning to reclaim control of the government. Our goal is not the acquisition and wielding of power.
Our goal is to free as many minds as we can.