In Washington, there is a lot of pretense about who does politics and who does not. Frequently, politics is seen as icky–Ted Cruz! Hillary Clinton! Eww!–whereas lawyers, judges, think tankers, civil servants, journalists and an array of other trades see themselves as doing something other than politics. Being a policy wonk, or even an ideologue, is seen as better than being a politico.
Libertarians, in particular, blanche at the idea of doing politics, and tell themselves that although they are trying to positively affect public policy, they are doing so in a way that is not doing politics.
But there is no way to do public policy work effectively without doing politics. In his critique of liberalism, the conservative German (and later in life, Nazi) political theorist Carl Schmitt observed that liberalism:
never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics. As a result, there exists a liberal policy in the form of a polemical antithesis against the state, church, or other institutions that restrict individual freedom. There exists a liberal policy of trade, church, and education, but absolutely no liberal politics, only a liberal critique of politics.
For Schmitt, politics was all about the distinction between friend and enemy, and liberalism’s rejection of that framework made liberalism into his greatest enemy.
In the midst of a presidential election where it seems easy to staple the friend-enemy motif onto the Trump-Clinton-whoever race, it is important not to. Even Schmitt would have found this extreme. But as a question about mass politics, it does point to the question: What is liberalism, or libertarianism, against?
It is easy to figure out what the Democratic Party is against: rival institutions to the state, white Southern Christians and guns. Similarly, it is easy to figure out what the Republicans are against: cities, abortion, climate scientists, most foreigners, and at times, the federal government.
As Schmitt points out, liberals/libertarians are against the state, but not entirely against it. They are against it in a wonky way, in a way that accepts its existence as vital and legitimate, but wants it to be more restrained.
But what would this mean as a mass political force? One of libertarianism’s strengths is its limits. One can be a Catholic, or a wiccan, or a Jew, or an atheist and be a libertarian. Libertarianism is a theory of man’s relationship to the state, which leaves many questions unanswered.
But that strength also poses problems: Such a diverse array of people who might be drawn to libertarianism’s policy views rarely coalesce into a mass political coalition. They do not share a vision of the good life, of what it means to be a good, or a bad, person. Some, like authors at Reason magazine, have tried to reduce efforts to measure libertarianism’s success or failure to the direction of the cultural zeitgeist, insisting that political outcomes do not bear strongly on the movement’s success or failure. While this would make political setbacks more palatable, it reduces libertarianism to an idiosyncratic left-wing position in the culture war.
I ask these questions not as a knock on libertarianism. I don’t have great answers myself. But if libertarianism is a movement whose success can be measured, it seems that political outcomes should be a big, if not the main, yardstick with which to measure it. There have been clear political victories for libertarianism in the form of the legalization of marijuana in many states and municipalities, the breaking down of onerous licensing regulations, and of the government’s ability to seize private property. But there have been a good number of setbacks as well.
The broader question remains: What symbols, what heroes, and yes, what enemies could pull together such a fractious and diverse group as libertarians and make it into a relevant force in politics?
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