Urban Libertarianism

2002-01-15

Libertarians like to point to the Socialist Party as one model for electoral success in the USA: although the socialists never elected a President or even more than a handful of members of Congress (if that -- I need to check my facts), they garnered enough support for enough years to move the terms of debate in their direction. By skewing the entire political spectrum, they pressured the major parties (especially the Democrats) to begin using socialistic rhetoric and offering socialistic solutions to the nation's problems. The result? Most of the Socialist Party's platform, once considered radical, was eventually passed into law. And so, argue present-day libertarians, could the Libertarian Party do by finding enough success at the polls to transform the terms of debate and thereby pressure the major parties (especially the Republicans) to move in a libertarian direction.

While this argument is seductive, the analogy may be strained. Specifically, it overlooks the fact that while the Socialist Party never won more than 10% (or whatever) of the votes in any national election, it was considerably more successful in certain pockets of the USA. For example, the city of Milwaukee (at the time one of the larger cities in America) was run by socialists for 38 years out of the 20th century. These hotbeds made the Socialist Party seem more significant than it perhaps was, since the mayor of a large city is given much more credence than some state legislator from New Hampshire or Alaska (which is about the highest office so far attained by someone representing the Libertarian Party).

As far as I can see, the LP will remain politically feckless as long as its appeal is primarily rural. Most Americans live in cities, and no city that I know of has a libertarian presence of any kind. What success the LP has experienced has occurred in primarily rural states such as Alaska and New Hampshire. Even then, its success has not happened in Anchorage or Manchester, but in smaller towns.

One can speculate on why that might be the case, but I think it's primarily because libertarians have not appealed to the concerns of city dwellers -- or, perhaps more accurately, because libertarianism itself doesn't appeal to city dwellers. It strikes me that population density and government control go hand-in-hand. Most regulations -- from zoning to gun control -- are stronger in cities. Rural areas are closer to a "state of nature", in which government is weak or absent. It's easier to control people who are in close proximity, and the people themselves seem to prefer it that way. In addition, city dwellers tend to be (or to consider themselves) more sophisticated, more "liberal" if you will, with the result that no major city in the USA can be considered a bastion of conservative thinking (the largest one I can think of is Colorado Springs). One glance at the 2000 county-by-county electoral map tells the story: Al Gore won the cities and George W. Bush won just about everything else.

Now, libertarians (despite all the rhetoric about overcoming the political duality of left vs. right) have appealed primarily to disgruntled conservatives (this is one reason I became uncomfortable in the LP and ultimately quit). So it comes as no surprise that the LP has experienced its strongest success in the boonies. Here in Colorado, the LP is trumpeting the fact that the city council of Leadville is now solidly libertarian. But a victory in Leadville (which is isolated in the middle of the high Rockies and whose elevation is almost four times greater than its population) does not a revolution make. To have any sizable impact on Colorado politics, the LP would need to do well in the major Front Range communities, especially Denver. The same goes for the LP's standing on the national stage. Cities are where the media are, where the people are, where the governments are. Without the cities (or, as per the Socialist Party, some cities), the cause is lost.

Yet it seems to me that libertarians have historically made no appeal to city dwellers, and that they are not making any such appeal now. This despite the fact that certain libertarian positions are more liberal than the positions taken by the Democrats. Educational choice, economic freedom (can you say Jim Crow?), the war on drugs (which overwhelmingly singles out young minority males), expensive handouts for sports stadiums, and other urban issues lend themselves to truly liberal solutions. Yet libertarian voices are silent.

America needs an urban libertarianism. Will someone develop it and thereby challenge the Democratic grip on our cities? We shall see....


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