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In the Internet we see our greatest hope for freedom and for the continual progress of humanity. In the Internet we see the anachronistic and obsolete institutions of society being pushed aside for a new dawn of better things. ~ Eric Garris, 2005.
1 - Your Own Personal Bailout
A thought experiment for libertarians: Imagine that circumstance has left you heavily exposed to one of the high profile business implosions we're seeing every day. Maybe a few years ago you put a good chunk of change in Bank of America bonds, when they were AAA rated and looked as secure as cash. Maybe you've spent decades as an engineer at GM, and your salary and investment portfolio are heavily tied to the fate of that company. Maybe you were inspired as a teen by the "money is the root of all good" speech in Atlas Shrugged, you moved to New York to be among the skyscrapers, and climbed the ladders of finance until you landed a job at Bear Stearns or Lehman.
What would you do when the bailout train came rolling your way?
Extend the experiment a bit further. You married your high school sweetheart. You bought a house. You had kids. They are counting on you to bring home the paycheck, especially now that times are tough and there are no jobs to be had. If your company goes under, your family will be ruined.
The economy is tanking all around you. You're watching as all sorts of people are getting handouts of taxpayer money. You need for Bank of America to get a bailout or else you will lose your shirt on those bonds. You need GM to get an "emergency loan" or else you are out of a job.
But you're a libertarian. You understand just how destructive these bailouts are. You know they are morally reprehensible. They are against everything you think you stand for.
Maybe you tell your friends that you don't want any bailout money. But what do you secretly want in your heart? Do you really wish the government would leave your company to fail? Do you really want to be denied your own bailout?
To all libertarians, I now pose the dilemma of Your Own Personal Bailout: If you could vote for or against a nice big government check written specifically for you, on a secret ballot, knowing full well that every day people all around you are voting to take large chunks of taxpayer change for themselves, what would you do?
This, in a nutshell, is the problem with democracy. It is also why we advocates of liberty will never bring about lasting change via electoral politics.
2 - The Real Digital Revolution
Amazon and eBay, plane tickets and stocks, Facebook, iTunes, Wikipedia, Google, Smart Phones, Telecommuting, and a whole lotta free porn -- in the beginning (1993) we knew that the Internet's growth from a military tool to a worldwide mass communication device was revolutionary. Here we are. The revolution has arrived.
While the business schools and Thomas Friedmans of the world see the digital revolution in terms of changing methods of business and communication, those who look at a higher level, at how the digital revolution has changed our very ideas and thoughts, are all reaching the same conclusion. The Internet is making society much more libertarian. Again from Eric Garris in 2005:
Whereas the establishment media echoed the administration line about weapons of mass destruction during the run-up to the Iraq war, the Internet was bursting with dissent and exposure of the lies. Whereas the imbedded establishment media are dependent upon the good graces of the emperor and his cabinet, the Internet is saturated with independent thought and criticism....And the truth is winning, and the Internet is winning in the market of information and news media.
The history of modern libertarianism in America can be neatly divided into two parts: before and after the Internet. Before the Internet, libertarians communicated in newsletters and mail order catalogs, they gathered infrequently in select locations, and their most effective tool for getting the word out was the Libertarian Party. Now, in the post-Internet age, libertarian views are expressed on websites with extraordinarily wide readerships, libertarians form social networks on the web, they dominate the political debate in the blogosphere.
That last part is most important. The Internet is the world's decentralized way of organizing all its information, and because it is market driven, the best, most useful information rises to the top.
At one time, libertarian thought was so shut out of the mainstream that wealthy businessmen tried to form a network of free market think tanks so there would at least be something to counter the leftists who owned all of academia and the media.
Now, thanks to the Internet, it is readily clear to all thinking Americans that the Federal Reserve is the primary cause of our current financial crisis, that the War in Iraq is based on lies, that the War on Drugs is a monumental failure. As of this writing, Meltdown by Tom Woods is #12 on the NY Times Bestseller List and sales of Atlas Shrugged are through the roof. Rick Santelli's libertarian rant from the floor of the Chicago Exchange not only happened on national television, but went viral on the Internet.
The sheer act of going onto the Internet and writing down our ideas for others to see, of participating in a debate from which we were excluded before the Internet, has caused an explosive growth in the libertarian movement. From an article last fall in Reason :
In 1970, the Harris Poll asked Americans, 'Regardless of how you may vote, what do you usually consider yourself'a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or some other party?' Fully 49 percent of respondents chose Democrat, and 31 percent called themselves Republicans. In 2007, the latest year for which data is available, those figures were 35 percent for Democrats and 26 percent for Republicans. The only real growth market in politics is voters who decline political affiliation, and the only political adjective seemingly gaining in popularity is'libertarian.
One would think that the strength of libertarianism online would translate into more libertarianism in our politics.
It hasn't. While anonymous individuals of the libertarian persuasion continue to crush ideological opponents in comment threads and message boards all over the web, libertarian ideas continue to get crushed in Washington . Why is that? 3 - How did you answer the personal bailout question?
For decades, the mantra throughout the libertarian movement has been "educate the people." Libertarians believed that change would come when enough people had seen the light, and our primary job was simply to spread the word. A critical mass would come about, and Americans would elect politicians who worked to reduce government and protect our freedoms.
In a 2006 Zogby poll, 59% of voters identified themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. 44% were willing to describe their views as libertarian. Earlier this month, a Fox News poll found that the majority of Americans think the federal government is too big today, and by a 20 percentage point margin, Americans would rather pay lower taxes and have a smaller government rather than pay higher taxes for larger government.
Is the problem that Americans still don't understand the power of free markets? Six in ten Americans opposed the first auto bailout, but it passed. Americans were strongly opposed to the first $700 billion bailout and called their Congressmen in unprecedented numbers to oppose it, but it passed. A majority of Americans are unhappy with the wars in the Middle East , and elected Obama in large part out of that opposition. Since his election, he has increased troop levels in Afghanistan and increased funding to Israel for their own war effort in Gaza .
We've reached a critical juncture in the history of libertarianism. That Holy Grail of libertarianism, educate the people, has been happening to great effect, but our government is growing faster than ever! Sure, the dinosaurs still herd together in places like DailyKos, universities, and Massachusetts , but their numbers are rapidly shrinking relative to ours. The Internet has blown open the debate and in just a few years libertarians have torn down centuries of bad ideas and outright lies, leaving the plain truth available for anyone to see, and it is quite clear that people do see it. It is quite clear that people want to elect politicians to achieve it.
But even when America votes for a smaller government, they get a larger one. Even when millions of us call our representatives and demand they vote for smaller government, they vote for larger government.
Throughout the land, large and growing numbers of people from all demographics now understand the value of freedom and free markets. What they don't understand is that voting is not going to get them there. This simple insight goes against everything they've been taught since childhood. It asks people to step entirely outside of the political debate and question whether there is anything to debate at all. It asks an ordinary, socially acceptable Constitutionalist to become a free market radical.
4 - How Do We Get From Here To There
I have for you a rare but real sliver of optimism in these dark times. Yes, government is growing faster than ever. Yes, Congress and the Federal Reserve are growing more destructive every day. Yes, it feels like we libertarians have accomplished nothing.
But we're actually quite close, and the Internet has given us the tools we need to finish what we've started.
No, I'm not about to take you on a "crypto anarchist" rant. From Jim Bell's "Assassination Politics" to John Perry Barlow's "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," I am aware I am just the latest in a long line of libertarians claiming the Internet can save us.
Via the Patriot Act and other legislation, the government has effectively put off the day when strong encryption allows us all to conduct our business in private and bring about our dream society. What I see libertarians doing to great effect is just the opposite. Instead of rabidly seeking out privacy (one of our favorite words), libertarians are using the Internet to turn up the volume on their message. As explained above, the message is getting out there. The only reason it hasn't worked yet is that we are shouting at Washington , and Washington is incapable of listening.
But in the midst of all that shouting, we've accomplished an important first step. Even though libertarians are losing in the public policy arena, they are winning the public policy debate. A rapidly expanding number of Americans want and understand the need for smaller government. Change will happen when those Americans understand that they cannot shrink the government at the ballot box.
In 2008, libertarians showed they are capable of causing a real stir. The Ron Paul campaign, with its record fundraising, its widespread and spontaneous grass-roots support, the huge, enthusiastic turnout at rallies around the country, was unlike anything I've ever seen in libertarian activism.
Yes, it all fizzled out when it came time to vote in the primaries, and that's precisely the point. How could Ron Paul possibly get anywhere telling voters in Iowa that he was opposed to agricultural subsidies, telling old people in New Hampshire that the entitlements were bankrupt, telling autoworkers in Michigan and Ohio that he was in favor of free trade?
Even people who understand that liberty is best cannot resist the lure of their own personal bailout.
That is why libertarians must stop making the case that we need our politicians to shrink the government, and must start making the case that our government is a hopeless enterprise that cannot be reformed until it is first abandoned.
I can hear some of you now...I make this case all the time, I've been making this case for years, you say.
Make it more! And leave the philosophical arguments for later. The non-voting libertarians won the ethical debate years ago, but the voting libertarians are still more numerous and visible because they want to get out there and do something. We need to share the difficult truth with these people that their efforts in the political arena are hopeless. We need to remind them that libertarians have already won the hearts and minds of America and still Washington grows. We need to explain to Libertarian Party types that the most powerful force in a democracy is not the will of the people, it is the phenomenon of your own personal bailout.
Imagine if the energy, organization, and money behind the 2008 Ron Paul campaign were instead focused on an educational effort about why government can never do anything except grow, about why it truly doesn't matter if it's McCain or Obama or Palin or Clinton or Republican or Democrat, about how even the most intelligent, principled man in Washington must insert earmarks into every bill to hold onto his seat. Imagine a blimp flying across the country bearing the message "Don't Vote."
These are efforts that would move us toward a free society, and we're much closer than we've ever been. The financial crisis has put tens of millions of Americans in a desperate place, where they now understand that the way we've been doing things is severely flawed. Washington's response, with tens of trillions of new debt, trillions more in new money being printed, bailouts for bankrupt megacorporations and witch hunts when the executives take the money, all the while, nary a word about the entitlements bomb that lurks in the distance -- these things are undermining the stability of our society, and in response, we are witnessing the rise of an increasingly authoritarian state.
Americans are baffled by this, thinking they elected Obama precisely to halt the creeping fascism they saw under Bush. Some of us know that the government grows and our freedoms shrink not because some devious man is orchestrating his own dictatorship, but because it is the nature of government to grow, period.
When the rest of the world understands this too, maybe then we can finally figure out how to get off our current road to ruin, and give no one else the chance to vote for their own personal bailout.