As libertarians, we’re used to a sort of goofy sectional squabbling between self-styled "purists" and "realists," which often manifests itself as an argument about whether to pursue attainable changes now, or to deride that as "selling out" and remain focused on the long-run goal. Murray Rothbard pretty much had this one dead to rights years ago: the libertarian can, in good conscience, support anything that advances the libertarian cause without deviating even one iota from libertarian principle. So it’s fine for libertarians to go to bat for tax cuts or regulatory relief, so long as they aren’t packaged with something evil also.
So there’s lovely. That’s not really what we’re here to talk about today. I’m here to consider whether or not libertarian involvement in politics has been a fool’s game from the get-go; whether or not it’s all been a massive redirection of energy into a solidly negative direction. To put it as provocatively as possible: was Ron Paul a net negative for the liberty movement?
Of course, I don’t impugn Dr. Paul’s libertarian credentials, and it cannot be denied that Dr. Paul’s work reached countless people both in the United States and abroad and introduced them to the concepts of liberty. There’s surely nothing to be said against that. The trouble is that Dr. Paul also cemented in the public imagination the idea that the libertarian society could be created at the ballot box; a fantasy the Libertarian Party has made its money selling to people since 1972. The amount of time and money that’s been wasted on ballot access drives and attempts to elect city councilmen with an "L" next to their names is staggering, and it cannot bear any fruit, because while libertarians have wasted their time fighting over the scraps from the electoral table, we have comprehensively lost the culture war.
Imagine for the moment that the libertarian electoral miracle did come true. I don’t even mean some goofball like Gary Johnson — imagine an actual libertarian president. Also assume that libertarians have swept into power in congress, and somehow in the agencies as well. Time for some change we can believe in! Now riddle me this: would the country accept that?
We live in a nation currently in the grip of Nazi fever. As much as we like to make fun of these people — and they richly deserve it — a huge proportion of the population, hysterical "Nazi" rhetoric aside, sincerely believes that deviation from popular social democratic rhetoric is an existential threat to be met with violence. To these people, "liberty" and "freedom" are code-words for nailing all women, gays, and minorities to fences and then setting them on fire. How do you suppose these people would react to the magical libertarian government? They have been rioting ceaselessly for a year over the election of a president whose policies differ from what they want by approximately 1%. They are still attempting to undo his election through raw bureaucratic force. We’re expected to believe that these people will just roll over and accept the loss of their special "rights" under a libertarian regime?
This is what libertarians missed while we were squabbling over the correct policy positions to advocate. The socialist left completely captured the culture, and the culture bounds what can be accomplished politically. The problem has accelerated drastically over even just the last five years — roving gangs of urban thugs were not beating "Nazis" with bike locks in 2014, for pity’s sake — but it goes much farther back than that. The state socialists have been busily wrapping their tendrils around the American people for a hundred years, gulling them with bread and circuses, establishing the permissible range of thought in the kept media and schools, and creating a nearly impenetrable web of dependency.
It’s simple enough to declare that you want government spending cut in the abstract, but how many people can sincerely propose cutting the very largesse they live on? Never mind the direct employees of government at every level — then there are the recipients of every kind of government transfer payment, the people who benefit from government subsidies or trade restrictions, the people who benefit from crony monopsonist deals, and every other kind of person who gets some kind of tangible benefit. Just as Frederic Bastiat told us all those years ago, this is a classic example of the "seen" benefit of the government money as against the "unseen" benefits that would accrue without the state. it’s difficult for Team Unseen to win that battle.
So what is to be done? Redouble our efforts, of course, but point our guns downrange for a change; we need to stop wasting time, wasting money, and wasting effort on politics when politics is not currently positioned to yield us any fruit. Instead, we need to focus on the culture. We need to change the culture of the nation such that it can accept a libertarian path instead of insisting on yet more social democracy. Because the American people will get precisely the government they desire. That’s exactly how we got in this predicament.