July 19, 2004

Libertarian Isolation

Why is it that libertarianism is so rare? In America, polls show that 2% of the country identifies as libertarian and as a whole 16% of the country, after taking the World's Smallest Political Quiz, is ideologically libertarian. Libertarian parties in the world are all extremely rare yet commonplace at the fringe. Virtually all Western countries have some libertarian party or organization, they just tend to be less than irrelevant.

Of course, there are exceptions. Costa Rica elected a half-dozen members to its national legislature with just under 10% of the vote. The party ACT New Zealand also elected a small minority of MPs in that country. And of course, the US Libertarian Party still has more elected officials than all other third parties combined. But none of these parties are serious contenders for world or even national political power, and in the near future none will be the heads of state or government for their countries.

There are plenty of classical liberals in the world, or so it would seem. This is essentially a more moderate form of libertarian (or more accurately: libertarian is the extreme or strenghtened form of classical liberalism) and since it's closer to the center in every country it stands to reason there'd be more of them.

But even classical liberals are hard to find in the world. In England, they're more positivist than classical, but the classicals are a sizable wing of the party, but the Liberal Democrats are clearly the third party. In Germany the Free Democrats are very Jeffersonian classical liberals, and they more or less never break 10% of the vote. In Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party is largely a coalition of centrists and conservatives with some classical liberal elements, but the more stridently classical liberal party is the Liberals, which has more or less been voted down to a dozen legislators out of 727 (in both chambers combined).

Why is it like this? Why are classical liberals and libertarians relatively rare everywhere? Simple, because there are few groups advertising reduction of government on all levels.

Unions have their own bent, often supporting socialist, social democratic and labor parties. Farmers often historicall supported parties named liberal, but this was always for more populist or social reasons than support for reduction of government. Agrarians tend to be socially moderate to conservative and economically moderate to left, supporting subsidies and controls for farmers. Aristocrats usually pick old-style conservatives, who are not classical liberals or libertarians, and in America the very rich often side with the center-left. Fascists and Communists typically draw support from the middle class and lower middle class, usually in crisis situations or following wars. Who supports classical liberalism?

Usually a special part of the middle class that does not feel so insecure as to push it into supporting state economic intervention nor so in control that it wants to push state social control. This segment of the middle class wants to be alone to rise and fall, succeed and fail, to own businesses and property, to thrive and live as it wishes. These are the people who push liberalism, whether it's Locke (who was a Puritan, stereotypically English middle class), the generation of 1776 (which was overwhelmingly middle class, especially in New England) or any of the countless other examples in history.

The middle class is traditionally the closest thing to a demographic base for libertarianism and classical liberal thought. And historically this has been very difficult to maintain.

In order to reach beyond the middle class (or for other demographics to reach INTO the middle clss) the typical strategy is to appeal to the middle class with liberal policies (balanced budgets, targeted tax cuts, free trade, fight inflation, economic liberalism, free markets, etc.) and we've seen that lately. The left is breaking into Third Way center-left politics as the radicals grow up to have mortgages and real jobs. They realize that central economies fail or stagnate and that free markets thrive, but they maintain the old values. So they poach on classical liberal territory.

The conservatives also do this, to a lesser degree, by playing to the security concerns of the middle class with regard to crime, immigration, foreign policy and perhaps even to general 'social order.' So that's why crime is a big issue in so many countries, and why the GOP makes such a huge case of foreign policy (and in almost every foreign policy matchup the Republicans smash Democrats). This is also why we see the FMA, an attempt to pursue social order (the status quo) without being blatantly bigoted or radical. The conservatives poach on classical liberal territory all the time, and since most conservatives can easily portray their economic views as liberal (they usually aren't, not truly) they can really break into the middle class as well.

So even though the middle class is growing around the world, we're not seeing a rise in classical liberal parties, only a move toward classical liberalism from the anti-liberty parties.

Add in historical problems, the tradition of monarchy and aristocracy in most countries, traditional ethnic or social or religious sympathies and it can more than explain why most countries have very limited classical liberal parties and why libertarians are a footnote outside a handful of legislatures.

The one good thing is that the left and right have to play to our ideas because as markets and freedoms expand, so does the middle class (by and large, it's not a perfect relation because there are so many other factors) and as the middle class expands, so does the popular support for its ideas. The only thing now is for classical liberals to realize the uniqueness of their ideas and to form and strengthen the liberal parties instead of working for the left-liberalism and right-liberalism they are today.

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