Saturday, June 11, 2016

Gary Johnson and libertarianism

And so begins the charade of acting as though third party candidates have a chance...  Gary Johnson is, unsurprisingly, the Libertarian Party's nominee for 2016, and RealClearPolitics has even started to include him in its polling averages.  Combine that with widespread dissatisfaction within the Republican Party about Donald Trump, and you have the recipe for this year's version of the old delusion that third parties can do anything other than act as spoilers.  Realistically, a Johnson candidacy can do little more than help Clinton by giving disaffected Republicans a non-Trump option while Democrats unify around HRC, but I want to spend some time today talking about the concept of libertarianism as an ideology.

So let's go back to that piece I keep referencing by Philip Converse-- "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  Converse lesson for today:  ideology is about constraint.  To have an ideology is to be constrained to hold a set of policy positions consistent with that ideology.  To be liberal is to hold liberal beliefs.  To be conservative is to hold conservative beliefs, and to be libertarian is to hold libertarian beliefs.

Here's the thing about constraint, though.  Not all constraints are logical.  There is no single, guiding principle behind any ideology.  Libertarians, though, claim to have one:  small government.  Less government regulation on business, lower taxes, less government regulation of social behavior.  Logical consistency, right?  Perhaps compared to liberalism or conservatism, but if the premise is that the government that governs least is the government that governs best, the logically consistent conclusion is anarchism.  Libertarians will generally carve out an exception for things like the military, but once you start carving out those exceptions, you are no longer logically consistent.

What are the logically consistent ideologies?  Well, anarchism.  Also, totalitarianism.  Anything else is a middle ground, which means concessions, which are always at least somewhat ad hoc.

And yet, actual libertarians are few and far between.  True libertarianism requires abandonment of programs like Medicare, which is exceptionally popular.  Libertarianism has great branding:  "I'm socially liberal, and fiscally conservative."  Sounds great, right?  What does it mean?  Nothing.  "Socially liberal" is modestly defined in terms of abortion and gay marriage, but libertarianism requires the legalization of all narcotics, and few believe in that.  "Fiscally conservative," is about as weakly defined a term as there is.  Does that mean cutting taxes, which is what most self-identified "conservatives" primarily advocate?  Does it mean cutting spending?  If so, on what?  Does it mean balancing the budget?  Even if that means increasing taxes?  The term has no meaning.  Hence, the phrase has no meaning.  Great brand label, though.

So we return, as always, to Phil Converse.  Ideology is about constraint.  Very few voters are "constrained," in ideological terms.  Most voters have a hodgepodge mix of liberal and conservative opinions, very few are truly libertarian, and most voters are just simple-minded partisans anyway.  Which is why the Libertarian Party has this guy, who just wants to free his little bird (see?  I was going somewhere with today's music...)


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