Politically Homeless

2005-12-16

I'm politically homeless -- part of what Arnold Kling calls the long tail of politics. Although my political philosophy is generally libertarian or Jeffersonian ("that government governs best which governs least"), I stopped supporting the Libertarian Party several years ago because it is a feckless, corrupt organization. Yet the issues that are important to me -- reforming eminent domain, ending the War on Drugs, eliminating corporate welfare and trade barriers (especially with the so-called Third World), maintaining reasonably open immigration, encouraging greater cooperation within the Anglosphere (e.g., sojourner status for citizens of the English-speaking nations), freeing education by giving the schools to the teachers, ending occupational licensing and other restrictions on making a living, safeguarding the right to self-defense, pushing as much power as possible down to the local level, etc. -- are not important to the Republicans or Democrats. These days I tend to follow Kling's advice to vote against incumbents, though I doubt that does much good. Better, I think, to support organizations that are focused on particular issues (e.g., the Castle Coalition on eminent domain reform). Too many people associate politics with electoral politics, which is a hopeless arena because of gerrymandering and the sheer size of electoral districts. I hold out more hope for initiatives, referenda, and judicial activism (cf. the Institute for Justice). While I think it would help to split electoral jurisdictions into smaller, more manageable units (along the lines of Jefferson's call to divide the counties into wards, Kling suggests local governments would best represent at most 3,000 people), even that reform would be limited in its effectiveness without a change in how we fund government (now, if those local governments collected all the taxes and fed them up the line to regional, state, and federal governments, we might get somewhere).

Further, as I mentioned the other day, most places get the government they deserve. Translation: culture drives politics, not the other way around. Which implies that if you really want to change the political scene, fundamentally you need to change the culture. I happen to think that part of changing the culture is finding common ground among those in the Long Tail and supporting political changes that will change behavior in healthy ways (e.g., strengthening civil society, encouraging volunteerism, reducing dependency on government programs). But such changes are not always (or even are seldom) palatable to the general public (and certainly not to politicians), thus the need to change underlying cultural attitudes as well.

I tend to think of it this way. Progressives love the slogan "If you want peace, work for justice." But what is justice? Progressives think of it as so-called social justice: redistribution of wealth and such. Those in the Jeffersonian tradition tend to think of it as freedom of opportunity, equality before the law, etc. So back in my salad days as a libertarian I used to add a second slogan: "If you want justice, work for freedom." Catchy, eh? But what's it mean? Doesn't that just reduce you to what Ayn Rand called a "hippy of the right"? I think I stopped being committed to the Libertarian Party the first time I saw a television advertisement for Harry Browne, whose campaign slogan was "Freedom Now!". How petulant! How adolescent! That's no better than the damn labor unions chanting "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" out on the picket line, or the multiculturalists with their cries of "Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!"

So my old friends the Randians would supplement my second slogan with a third and a fourth: "If you want freedom, work for individualism." and "If you want individualism, work for reason." (since Rand and her followers reduce everything to philosophy and by god we've got to get everything down to metaphysics and epistemology or we're just not being radical enough, always in the good sense of focusing on root causes of course). Yet the more history I read the more I see that philosophy is not the cause of everything, or even of much. Consider some of the most significant transitions in history: human beings did not change from hunter-gatherers to farmers because of a philosophy of "agriculturalism", from farmers to engineers and factory workers because of a philosophy of "industrialism", from oral to literate because of a philosophy of "chirographism", from the written world to the printed word because of a philosophy of "typographism", from the printed word to the electronic word because of a philosophy of "digitalism", etc. These developments were long-term secular trends -- driven not only or primarily by ideology (religion and philosophy) but by a wide range of environmental, intellectual, technological, military, political, economic, and social factors -- what we can broadly call cultural factors. Thus I'd agree with my old Randian friends that "If you want freedom, work for cultural change" -- but I no longer think that cultural change is a monolithic process rooted in philosophical-religious ideas. The reality of human history is much more complex than that.

I liked being a Randian and a libertarian. If social psychology teaches us anything, it is this: it's comfortable and comforting to belong to a group. It's much easier to be a member of a group (even a group of individualists!) than it is to stand alone. Many people are happy to identify with groups as amorphous as Republicans or Democrats, as if that were the extent of the political spectrum. Others define themselves as members of smaller groups within the Long Tail (Greens, libertarians, socialists, Trotskyites, or what have you). Yet if you remain true to your own uniqueness, you will find that you have similarities to (and differences from) most of those groups, that you can work together with their members on certain issues and part ways on others, and that the opinion that matters most is not that of some arbitrary amalgamation but the one small voice of your own conscience.

Repeat after me: "I am an individual." :-)


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