By now, you’ve probably heard that Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch from Reason magazine have a new book out called The Declaration of Independents.
I say you’ve probably heard this already because they’ve engaged in an insane amount of promotion, with daily posts at Hit&Run, appearances on television shows, and a national book tour (I’m going to try to catch this one). They’ve even stooped to sending free review copies of the book to third-rate libertarian bloggers.
(Disclaimer: They sent me a free copy of the book.)
I’ll start right off by saying that I have a problem with the title of the book. Actually, two problems. First, the title Declaration of Independents seems intentionally designed to confuse Google. Go ahead, start typing it in a search box. The first thing you’ll see is that Google keeps trying to auto-complete it to “declaration of independence.” Next, when you type the whole title, Google first lists the Declaration of Independents site dedicated to independent pro wrestling. It’s like Nick and Matt were trying to hide this thing from the web.
My second issue is with the book’s full title, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America. The problem is the word “politics.” I don’t think politics can fix anything. The word conjures up images of glad-handing candidates trying to appeal to interest groups by promising something for everybody without standing for anything. I believe that much of what’s wrong with this country could be fixed by libertarian policies, but I don’t think much will be fixed by politics. Not even libertarian politics. (And certainly not Libertarian politics!) Politics is how we got here.
Gillespie and Welch seem to agree when they make the point in their prologue that politics is an annoying and unproductive activity, more dedicated to convincing us to take sides in a dirty fight than in improving anybody’s life. That’s why most people aren’t really interested in politics. They are interested in improving their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. The original American Declaration of Independence called this “the pursuit of happiness,” and it’s something we should all be doing. Unfortunately, say the authors, the way things are right now, we’re all probably going to have to tackle some political problems before we get back to working on happiness.
Which brings me to Part 1 of Declaration of Independents, which is titled “The End Of The World As You Know It.” That sounds pretty grim, but Gillespie and Welch mean it in a good way: No matter how bad things seem right now, the world can change. We know this because the world has changed. When I was in school, the standard student complaint about history classes was that they were all about the past and nothing in them mattered anymore. As it turns out, the students were onto something: One of the lessons of history is that history is created pretty fast. Yesterday’s big deal is today’s history factoid.
Remember when AOL Time Warner was a behemoth poised to take over all of media? It broke up into little pieces. Remember when the Japanese industrial system was going to conquer all the world’s markets? Never happened. Remember when the Soviet Union appeared poised to conquer the whole free world? Now there’s no such thing as the Soviet Union.
A particularly instructive example is Kodak, who used to rule the giant market in photographic film. They’re not the top dog any more. But as Nick and Matt remind us, Kodak did not succumb to its biggest competitor, the Japanese manufacturer Fuji. Rather Kodak and Fuji were both overthrown by their own narrow understanding of their market. They built their business as if their customers wanted film, but what their customers wanted was pictures. Kodak and Fuji were forcing them to buy roll after roll of film just to get a few good pictures, and as soon as digital photography made it possible to get good pictures without having to use rolls of film, most of the market for film went away.
Similarly, IBM was the name in business computing at the start of the 1970’s. Perhaps it would eventually have been overthrown by one of its competitors — Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC, Honeywell — none of them ever had the chance because in the 1970’s something called a minicomputer entered the market. Built by companies like DEC and Data General (and later Sun), these computers weren’t as powerful as IBM’s mainframes, but they also weren’t nearly as expensive, and they began to eat away at the low end of IBM’s market.
But they didn’t overthrow IBM either, because yet another new kind of computer entered the market: The microcomputer. Built by companies such as Osborne and Commodore and Apple, these computers were so cheap that for the first time ever, computers could be owned and operated by individuals instead of companies. IBM made an influential contribution to this market, but they were swamped by the arrival of many, many competitors.
Just as Kodak learned the hard way that photographers wanted pictures and not film, IBM and its competitors learned that that people didn’t want computers, they wanted software. Any computer would do, as long as it ran the software they wanted. And a little company named Microsoft was willing to write operating systems that helped software run on an incredible variety of computers.
Recent history is filled with these kinds of examples, where market leaders are overthrown in a seeming instant, often taken completely by surprise, and often overthrown in a way that takes out the entire market segment and replaces it with something else. The big-box bookstores are losing to Amazon, and the record industry is losing to digital music. History has seen plenty of examples of the overthrow not just of leaders, but of entire systems.
There is, however, one area of our life that has not shown this level of vibrancy and dynamism, and that’s government. The revolutions that have overtaken books and music and computers have done little to make government more efficient. A Rip van Winkle from the 1970’s would have no trouble understanding a modern Post Office or Department of Motor Vehicles. And Congress is still Congress.
Still, in the first part Declaration of Independents, Gillespie and Welch try to offer us hope by pointing to the rapid fall of so many former communist states and other repressive governments. Their argument is that the leviathan of government may not be as strong as it appears. The government of Czechoslovakia fell very rapidly, for example, once citizens began to communicate freely and everyone discovered that everyone else hated the communist government too.
Democratic governments like ours are less susceptible to such illusions of strength, but things can happen pretty fast here as well. How many people remember that when George W. Bush and a tide of Republicans swept into office in 2000, Republican pundits actually began talking about something called a “permanent Republican majority”? That “permanent” majority was completely replaced by a Democratic majority only eight years later. And that was broken up two years later by something called a “Tea Party.”
This may seem like the familiar Republican/Democrat duopoly, but something else has changed: Fewer and fewer people are identifying themselves with either party.
In 1970, the Harris Poll asked Americans, “Regardless of how you may vote, what do you usually consider yourself — a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or some other party?” Fully 49 percent of respondents chose Democrat, and 31 percent called themselves Republicans. In 2009, those figures were 36 percent for Democrats and 26 percent for Republicans. The only real growth market in politics is voters who decline political affiliation, with independents increasing from 20 percent of respondents to 31 percent. These findings are fully consistent with Gallup surveys as well. In January 2011, Gallup released its latest study on the question of political affiliation and reported that the Democrats were at their lowest point in twenty-two years (31 percent) , while the GOP remained stuck below the one-third mark at 29 percent. The affiliation now with the highest marks? Independent, at 38 percent and growing.
— page 11
That’s an astonishing change, but the authors think they know why it happened. It’s partially because the major parties just suck. Obama came to power on the anti-war vote and promised to reduce executive power, yet not only are we still in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ve decided to take on Libya as well. Many people (myself included) hoped that a Democratic president would go easier on social issues, scaling back the drug war and supporting gay rights. Progress on the latter issue has been slow at best, and the War on Drugs is still going strong.
The Republicans haven’t done any better with their small-government agenda when they’ve been in charge. Rumors of deregulation are a myth — see Sarbanes-Oxley for example — and Bush launched Medicare Part D, one of the largest new entitlement programs in decades.
Despite the programs of the major parties — or perhaps in reaction to them — Americans have been moving the other way. Polls indicate that more and more Americans say they want a smaller government. At the same time, Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with alternative lifestyles, from pot smoking to gay marriage.
Gillespie and Welch theorize that part of the reason for this divergence is that Americans have become used to the abundant variety of the modern marketplace and they’ve started to expect it in other parts of our lives. We can customize our desktops, our screen savers, our Facebook pages, and our ringtones. We’ve got thirty movies at the shopping mall, a hundred channels on the television, and millions of songs at our fingertips. The grocery store down the block has several types of lettuce, twenty types of meat, and fifty types of toothpaste. Even 24-hour convenience stores are likely offer a dozen types of soda, fruit juices, beer, wine, milk, cheese, candy, ice cream, magazines, and medication. We can go online to order custom T-shirts or custom suits. There’s every type of porn you can possibly imagine (and many types you never would’ve imagined). You can configure a new computer thousands of ways and have it painted any color you want. You can load thousands of apps to your phone. Why would Americans who have grown used to this level of variety and customization be willing to settle for just two boring political parties?
In a world increasingly characterized by hyperpersonalized service and money-back guarantees, Democrats and Republicans still insist that you sign up for a bundle package that even the most truculent cable operators would be embarrassed to foist on captive customers. Like Kodak and Fujifilm forcing customers to develop twenty-four picture to get the one or two shots they want, the major parties insist that partisans buy the whole megillah. There is no necessary connection between ostensibly Democratic causes such as artistic freedom and higher marginal tax rates or between Republican causes such as free trade and anti-flag-burning amendments. The whole point of party ideology is to make a ragtag bunch of beliefs appear to be seamlessly integrated. Shortly after the 2010 midterms, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) actually said that it was impossible to be “a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative,” which was news to large numbers of gay Republicans who supported tax cuts and opposed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
— page 29
The way Gillespie and Welch see it, all of this is building up to a revolution of sorts, in which the American people get fed up with politics and begin to change the system. As proof that such a revolution is possible, they draw a frightening parallel between the present and the darkest parts of the 1970’s:
A divisive first-term president who drives his political opponents into some dark conspiratorial corners while earning a reputation for running an insular White House faces an emboldened opposition party after the midterm elections. The president’s approval rating six weeks after his party took a “shellacking” (his word) sits near 50 percent, victim in part to a recession that has sent unemployment to its highest level in years. To combat the economic crisis, the president and an activist Democratic Congress push through what is routinely described as the most sweeping new economic intervention since the New Deal. With it goes the broadest and deepest new regulatory push in four decades. Frantic attempts to boost home ownership rates through federalizing housing finance fail to change the reality that two-thirds of American families own their homes. On the foreign front, the public is growing ever more fatigued by a war the president inherited, campaigned against, and then escalated, including new bombing incursions into a neighboring country. A whistle-blower from within the defense establishment helps leak to the press many thousands of pages of classified documents on the war effort, and the administration reacts with furious charges of treason and terrorism against both the leaker and the primary publisher of his documents.
It’s not that Richard Nixon and Barack Obama are similar: Aside from their both being fiercely proud, unapologetically ambitious, self-made lawyers who could write a bit, the personal commonalities really do run out in a hurry. If anything, the opposite is the point. Two men as fundamentally dissimilar as Richard Milhous Nixon and Barack Hussein Obama have, through the responsibility and temptation of power, the reductionism of our modern politics, and the shocking narrowness of what is considered acceptable government action, managed to steer Washington policy through the same well-worn ruts.
— page 43
(Although we’ve seen some seriously anti-free-market economic policies lately — the massive bailout of the banks, the near-nationalization of the Detroit automakers, and whatever’s going on with healthcare reform — neither Bush nor Obama has produced policies that come anywhere near the galactic stupidity of Nixon’s freeze on wages and prices.)
Now, if someone looked you in the eye in the early 1970’s and said, “Man, you know what? We’re about to get a whole lot freer,” you might reasonably have concluded that he had gone mad from taking too much LSD and staring directly into the sun.
— page 45
Yet the revolution had already begun.
Generally increased access to the good things in life, from higher education to consumer electronics to designer clothes, gave the broad middle class the tools and the confidence to experiment with a thousand different lifestyles, giving us everything from gay liberation to encounter groups, from back-to-the-garden communes to back-to-the-old-ways fundamentalist churches, from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to Looking Out for #1. In 1968 the technohippies at the Whole Earth Catalog announced, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
— page 47
Soon enough, the war ended, government regulation of the economy was scaled way back, and people began to enjoy a standard of living better than they ever had before.
Gillespie and Welch argue that this is all about to happen again, that we live on the brink of a “libertarian moment.” They aren’t talking about the Libertarian party, or even the traditional libertarian philosophy of government. They are staking out a claim on nearly everyone who isn’t happy with the current two-party system, and to do that they are defining libertarianism as broadly as possible:
At it’s root, libertarianism is about a default preference for the freedom to peaceably pursue happiness as we define it without interference from government. It’s the belief that the burden of proof should rest not on the individual who wants to sell lemonade, paint his or her house purple, hop on an airplane, ingest intoxicants, or marry someone from the same sex (though preferably not in that order) but on any government seeking to thwart or control such victimless activities. Like the magazine we write for, we agitate for the aspirational goal of “free minds and free markets,” celebrating a world of expanding choice — in lifestyles, identities, goods, work arrangements, and more — and exploring the institutions, policies, and attitudes necessary for maximizing their proliferation. We are happy warriors against busybodies, elites, and gatekeepers who insist on dictating how other people should live their lives. Like John Stuart Mill, we’re big on “experiments in living.” Within the broadest possible parameters, we believe that you should be able to think what you want, live where you want, trade for what you want, eat what you want, smoke what you want, and wed whom you want. You should also be willing to shoulder the responsibilities entailed by your actions. Those general guidelines don’t explain everything, and they certainly don’t mean that there aren’t hard choices to make, but as basic principles, they go a hell of a long way to creating a world that is tolerant, free, prosperous, vibrant, and interesting.
— page 52
That might be the single best description of the libertarian mindset that I have ever read. It’s exactly why I choose to call myself a libertarian. It’s not about Ayn Rand or anti-communism or big business or hard money or even non-coercion. It’s because I want us all to live in a world that is “tolerant, free, prosperous, vibrant, and interesting.”
At least in it’s first part, Declaration of Independents is a different kind of libertarian book. Most libertarian writing is about the evils of a large and intrusive government. Radley Balko writes about bad cops and prosecutors, Jennifer Abel rails against the TSA, and Reason tells daily tails of woe. We do the same here at Nobody’s Business and at our other blogs. Libertarian writing is usually the telling of horror stories.
Yet Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch are doing something different. Instead of writing about horrors of big government, they’re writing about the joys of independence from government and the associated politics. So far, Declaration of Independents appears to be something unusual in libertarian writing. It appears to be hopeful.
Update: Part 2 is up.
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.