By Abigail Hall • Saturday August 1, 2015 5:35 AM PDT •
Last week I published a piece on Rand Paul. In particular, I argued that Paul or any other “libertarian” political figure would not generate the changes desired by those who value liberty.
The responses to this post have been numerous. Many people agree with me. For others, it’s as though I backhanded their mothers in suggesting that Rand Paul isn’t the savior of America or its politics.
I’d like to offer some additional reflections on a possible “President Paul” or any other libertarian or free market candidate and address some of the more frequent comments and questions regarding the piece.
Some have said that I am too critical of Paul and his political activities in my original piece. “He has to introduce bills to encourage freedom,” “He’s voted against military activity, etc. etc.” I think Paul’s voting record and the content of the bills he’s introduced speak for themselves. What constitutes a “freedom-friendly” policy is at least somewhat subjective, so I’ll leave that issue alone and discuss what is more substantive.
People claimed I advised libertarians abstain from all political participation. Further, they read my article as suggesting that the optimal amount of resources to devote to political activities is zero.
However, nowhere does my argument imply that those who are inclined to political activity should stop. If one feels a desire to work in the political arena, or has a notion of civic duty when it comes to voting, etc., by all means continue.
Moreover, the piece does not say that all political actions are moot. Indeed, they are not. The policies enacted by government absolutely have an impact on citizens. Just look at rent controls, minimum wage laws, and any U.S. foreign policy. There is no doubt that political actions influence on our daily lives. Sometimes, good policies lead to good outcomes—but I’d argue this has little to nothing to do with the personal convictions of the political actors making these decisions and everything to do with the incentives they face.
What I am saying is that a theoretical President Paul would not be a champion of liberty. In fact, I will make the stronger claim that no politician in the American political system will be a true champion of personal freedom.
Why? The reasons I argue this point are those I mentioned in the original post—the ideas brought forth by Nobel laureates F.A. Hayek and James M. Buchanan. As Hayek pointed out, the “right politicians” elected by populace won’t actually be good. In “Why the Worst Get on Top” Hayek discusses how an “American socialism” would not be meaningfully different than Russian socialism. His core argument is still relevant when discussing the American political system. Add to this Buchanan’s point that political actors respond to incentives based on their personal preferences and the constraints they face.
What Hayek and Buchanan are pointing to, and what I hope to convey here, is that there is a bigger problem when it comes to trying to achieve change through politics. That is, it’s the institutional structure of the political system that’s the problem and not the people involved. One of the comments I came across on several occasions stated something to the effect of, “we [those who value liberty] have to play with the hand we’re dealt,” “you come to the table or you’re served for dinner,” or, “we have to play the game.” What all of these comments suggest is that, even though we might not like it, it is necessary to support libertarian(ish) political candidates in order to achieve meaningful reforms.
What I am saying, drawing from Hayek and Buchanan is that a public actor’s political stripes doesn’t mean much at all. It’s not the players that are the problem; it’s the game they are playing. Without changes in the rules governing the political process, swapping out Democrats for Republicans, Republicans for Libertarians, or any other party makes no substantive difference. Look at the trends in government policy over the past several decades. Regardless of who was in power, we’ve experienced continuous growth in the scale and scope of government and the further erosion of our freedoms.
Not all, but many Paul supporters seem to neglect or downplay this idea. They will use the rhetoric of freedom and say that the system is broken, but don’t seem to realize that Paul is a political actor just like all the rest. As I tried to point out, he’s a public official making decisions based on his own self-interest. The fervor displayed by many Paul supporters is the same type of political tunnel vision we see in supporters of Obama, Clinton, and Donald Trump. They are quick to criticize the political process, but trust it to be solution to the problem. These positions are in direct conflict.
So what do we do? If I claim that politics isn’t a fruitful avenue, can I suggest anything productive? First, I’d say that our battleground is one of ideas, not politics. As I’ve written elsewhere, ideas matter. I would also suggest one of the most important things we can do is recognize and point out that it’s government that’s the problem. There are other ways for individuals to coordinate their behavior than relying on an inherently flawed political system. How else do we bring about change? If the rules of the game are the problem, how to do we change the rules? For that, I cannot claim to have an answer (if I did, I’d collect my Nobel prize and retire.) In fact, the entire field of Constitutional Political Economy has been wrestling with this question of rules for decades. How we change these rules is unclear. What is clear, however, is that we cannot rely on the current system to be the genesis of these changes.