The Real Sweet Spot for a New Political Party
The year was 2002. The day and the city were beautiful. City-County plaza was a small collection of artistic small skyscrapers built in the 1920s. In front was a lawn, suitable for civic events. Assorted hippies lay placidly smoking their favorite herb. Before them assorted mediocre bands sang the praises of King Cannabis. Between songs, legalization advocates took to the microphone. Such was Hempstock, Asheville, North Carolina.
Into this environ I went, voter registration forms in hand, attempting to find new Libertarians. Keep in mind that this was North Carolina, a very difficult ballot access state. The Libertarian Party was the only third party on the ballot. We were the Party of Pot. This was a pot legalization rally.
I got plenty of people to register to vote, but none would check the “Libertarian” box. Many wanted to register as Green. When told this was not an option, they chose Unaffiliated. When asked why, they voiced concern over corporate power, concentration of wealth, and the environment.
They agreed with the Libertarian Party on social issues, and on peace issues, but that was not enough. Such positioning won few hearts.
Why take the heat for being in favor of drug legalization when the druggies won’t support you? And is it politically viable to focus on the social issues in order to win the Left? Perhaps the LP slogan could be, “Yes, we favor drugs and prostitution, but at least we’re unpatriotic.”
That evening, I had an epiphany. I realized that the Libertarian Party needed to do something different in order to win the hearts of the libertarian-leaning Left.
“I’m worried about big corporations and the environment.”
Or, as Bill Clinton said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Economic issues trump social issues.
“Big corporations, the rich, the environment…”
I finally listened. They did not say “I want more government programs.” They did not say, “I want more government control of the economy.” Those are but proposed solutions by the social democrats. Their underlying values were economic equality and a cleaner environment.
The Nolan Chart does an excellent job of describing conservatism, and the difference between conservatism and libertarianism. The Nolan Chart does a much poorer job of describing liberals. In fact, the Nolan Chart is not really two-dimensional. Both dimensions are different aspects of a value of concern to libertarians: the amount of government. It says little about what government should do with its power in the various domains.
Once upon a time it was the Left that called for smaller government. The classical liberals were liberals. Even Murray Rothbard understood this—kind of.
Listen to the Left. What do they think of themselves? What do they accuse the Right of being?
This is how the Left views the Left-Right spectrum. It is also the way the mainstream generally views the spectrum. It is historically correct as well; the original Right sat on the right of the king. Size of government has nothing to do with this spectrum. For that, we need another axis.
Amount of government is a separate issue from egalitarianism vs. elitism. In spirit, at least, the two axes can be treated as orthogonal.
In practice, there is coupling. Some combinations of freedom/equality or lack thereof are impossible to attain. Put too much power in a big central government and you create an environment for inequality as the Stalin regime proved. It is good to be the king—or the commissar. Even the more successful attempts at complete equality lead to constraints, as anyone who has lived in a commune has experienced. Such constraints can be by the group as a whole, vs. a leader, but they are constraints nonetheless.
Meanwhile, the condition of maximal liberty is also at odds with a large wealth gap! The greater the wealth gap, the greater the calls for socialism. Small government with a large wealth gap requires constraints on the democratic process (which the U.S. had in the past through such mechanisms as property requirements and poll taxes). And with such restraints on democracy, you have a pull towards police state conditions from the rich, in order to protect their wealth from the envious masses. Such was Europe before the modern era. The U.S. had elements of such as well. Prison conditions have been brutal throughout much of U.S. history, despite the existence of the Bill of Rights. Throw in the conditions on the slave ships and treatment of the Indians, and the Bush Administration doesn’t look so bad by comparison.
The conditions for minimal government/maximal liberty are somewhere to the left of our current economic situation. Despite this, many libertarians place themselves on the right, economically. The result is political failure.
Look at the upper left quadrant on the chart above. The area close to the center (the U.S. status quo) is ill served by either major party. This is a market niche begging to be filled. And until that niche is filled, the U.S. will continue to move towards bigger government and a bigger gap between rich and poor.
A third political party could fill this niche, and be on the road to becoming a new major political party.
It could have been the Libertarian Party. Libertarians could create a very lefty agenda by getting rid of the many subsidies for investors (deficit spending, the Social Security payroll tax, etc.), corporate executives (restrictions on the capital market which squeeze smalltime entrepreneurs), and natural resource hoarders/exploiters (implement Henry George’s tax theories). Many libertarians end up on the Right because they overlook the differences between land (and other natural resources) and capital. A more complete view of economics and natural rights moves a libertarian to the left, with a generous dollop of environmentalism thrown in.
Or it could be the Green Party. The Green Party could move up and a tad to the right and fill this niche. Ecology and economics are similar disciplines. They borrow from each other. Darwin drew much inspiration from Adam Smith, and many modern economists draw much inspiration from nature. Free market economics and efficiency go hand in hand. It is possible to put together a very green small government agenda by getting the government to tax certain externalities, get rid of various wasteful subsidies, and then step back and let the market do its thing.
But I doubt either party will seize this opportunity. The LP is still dominated by Rothbardians, who cannot abide by treating any value as primary other than cutting the initiation of force by government. And close behind the Rothbardians they have the Objectivists, who worship the rich and have contempt for nature and the needy.
So, I now believe the time is ripe for a completely new political party. I have already done focus group testing. A program of smaller government coupled with a smaller wealth gap is very appealing. It passes the friends and family test. It passes the stranger test. This is a huge market; it thus passes Rule 1. Such a party could also pass Rule 2; while we are talking about two or more values, we still have a definition for our new party. We also pass Rule 3, since the upper left agenda is equally different from both the Democratic and Republican agendas. Finally, the hardcore activists running the major parties do not like the upper-left agenda. We can expect to continue to pass Rule 3; we need not worry about a major party stealing our agenda.
The upper-left market is potentially bigger than either the Democratic or Republican markets! It isn’t there yet as most voters don’t even realize that such an agenda is possible. But once informed, there is great interest. It is simply a matter of voter education. (Not voter indoctrination. There is a difference, as I will cover later.) The situation is similar to the introduction of movies or radio. There was no great demand for such products at first, because people didn’t know such were possible. But once introduced to the market, these products were incredibly popular.