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On Getting Out of the Political Business

Posted on May 19, 2016 by John Hasnas

Professor Vermeule raises a very interesting question when he asks whether politics is an optional game. I will do my best to respond briefly to his points without sidetracking the conversation too far from its focus on the administrative state.

First, I should clarify terms. Being subject to the political power of the state is not optional. The state will apply its political power to me regardless of what I do. I cannot opt out of that. However, whether I participate in the political process–specifically, the democratic process that decides who will wield the power of the state–is optional. This means that in this respect, I must decide what I should do.

Now, if the reader will forgive my use of philosophical terminology, we can examine this question from a either a consequentialist or a deontological perspective. Let’s take the consequentialist perspective first.

With regard to the political participation game, Professor Vermeule points out that “if someone with values or beliefs or interests antithetical to yours decides to play, you have to play too, or lose.” This is true. But it is a significant observation only under the assumption that if one played there would be a non-negligible possibility of winning. In my opinion, one who believes that peaceful individuals should be free to lead their lives as they see fit has no possibility of winning when the game being played is the struggle for political power. Space is too limited in this format for me to expound on this point at length, so let me just refer the reader to Chapter 10 of The Road to Serfdom entitled Why the Worst Get on Top, or perhaps merely gesture toward the current presidential campaign. In such a case, I believe it is better to work outside the system rather than toil in futility within it.

Now for the deontological perspective. Sometimes one is called upon to do the right thing regardless of consequences. If I am conscripted into a one hundred person firing squad that is going to execute an innocent person, my pulling the trigger or not can have no effect on the outcome. That does not mean that I should pull the trigger, even if everyone else does. If I am told that there is an organization that will extract and spend 30% of the wealth of the United States no matter what I do, and if I am offered a choice as to whether that wealth should be spent building a wall along the Mexican border or throwing sand in the gears of economic growth, the right thing to do may simply be not to participate in the system.

In our business ethics courses at Georgetown, we sometimes explore situations in the global marketplace in which there is no way to compete successfully without engaging in unethical or corrupt practices. Our highly motivated and competitive students often find it difficult to accept that in such situations the right thing to do is to go out of business. I find myself in a similar situation when contemplating participating in the political system.

My apologies for taking the conversation so far from the question of reigning in the administrative state.

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Nah, Libertarians Aren't Ejecting from Politics

Posted on May 18, 2016 by Clyde Wayne Crews

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.

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Recent articles:

Libertarians' Complicated Relationship with Democracy
A Question for John Hasnas
Our Simmering Crisis
It's Better Not to Play the Game at All
What Legitimacy Crisis?

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