I guess it’s about time I wrote the final part of my review of Declaration of Independents. Part 1 and Part 2 — covering their respective parts of the book — are already up, but I’ve been holding off on the third and final part of my review, mostly because I held off on reading the third and final part of the book. And that’s because I knew the it would disappoint me.
That’s no reflection on Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch’s book. It is, rather, the fault of my unrealistic expectations. The first part of the book was about the advantages of freedom, the second part was five good stories of freedom, and the third part, entitled “Operationalize It, Baby!”, is about how to put these great ideas to work to solve our current problems.
But not in the sense that I was hoping for. You see, what I wanted was to be taken to Libertarian World Headquarters. To walk up the ancient marble steps, past the inevitable statues of Ayn Rand and F. A. Hayek, and down the long memorial hall dedicated to victims of the War on Drugs (including the lovely Peter McWilliams memorial zen garden). I’d take the elevator to the basement situation room, where Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch would be standing around a giant tabletop map of the earth. Virginia Postrel and Radley Balko would both be present on giant video screens, as Gary Johnson and Ron Paul chatted quietly in the corner with a shadowy figure who had to be one of the Koch Brothers.
“Mark. Glad you could make it,” Nick would say, looking me in the eye, leather jacket gleaming under the halogen lights. “Now let me tell you how we’re going to win…”
But Declaration of Independents isn’t that kind of book. It’s not really written for people like me–I’m already one of the converted. As Matt Welch recently pointed out, Reason magazine focuses on outreach, and Declaration of Independents is an act of evangelism. So the final section isn’t telling us libertarians how we’re going to win. It’s about how a more libertarian world would be a win for everyone.
The final section is also where the book takes a dark turn into more traditional libertarian writing, starting with a chapter titled “We are So Out Of Money” in which the authors argue that the era of big government will come to an end at least in part because we simply can’t afford it any more.
I’m not convinced.
As Gillespie and Welch themselves discuss in their book, by 2010 the city of Cincinnati had been losing population for years and was millions of dollars in debt, in a state that had the second-worst job loss numbers in the country. So what did the city’s leaders come up with so save it? Did they finally accept their situation and sit down to do the hard work of cutting expenses?
No, of course not. Instead they came up with a crazy plan to revitalize the city by spending $128 million on…wait for it…a streetcar. Somehow the people in charge of saving the city had latched onto the insane idea that a streetcar system would somehow tie the inner city together in a way that would magically generate millions or even billions of dollars in economic development. And since they can get the money to do that without having to do anything productive to earn it, there’s nothing to stop them in their mad scheme.
Cincinnati is hardly the worst example of political leaders who ignore economic reality. I have on my desk a banknote in the amount of $100 trillion dollars. Unfortunately for me, it’s in Zimbabwe dollars. This is even more unfortunate for the entire population of Zimbabwe. When President Robert Mugabe came to power, the Zimbabwean economy was far worse than ours is now. Yet that did not prevent Mugabe from making Zimbabwe a much, much more terrible place. He did not let a little thing like running out of money stop him from doing whatever he wanted to do.
Being so out of money is not part of the solution. It’s part of the problem. The people who run our government don’t have to earn the money they’re spending, not when they can just steal it from us. The have already built a huge standing army of law enforcement officers in the name of fighting wars on drugs and terror. It’s not much of a stretch to think they’ll use this police-state apparatus to enforce grueling levels of taxation. So while I’m sure Gillespie and Welch are right to think that the current situation has to end, it doesn’t have to come to a good end. It could end with us turning into Zimbabwe.
The second chapter is a brief overview of the libertarian solutions to the problems in three extremely important areas of our lives that are totally screwed up: Education, healthcare, and retirement. It’s a somewhat wonkish chapter, and most libertarian readers will already be familiar with the ideas, so I’m not going to try to summarize it. However, attentive readers of my review series will not be surprised to learn that free markets are involved.
The third chapter is called “The Permanent Nongoverning Minority,” and it’s about the way libertarian political movements can arise seemingly out of nowhere. That is, it’s about the Tea Party.
I know, I know, but remember that the Tea Party movement did not arise — as its enemies on the left would have you believe — out of racist hatred of an Obama presidency. The Tea Party actually has its roots in the right-wing reaction to President George W. Bush’s decision to bail out Wall Street. To some extent, by undermining support for McCain — who backed the bailouts — they helped Obama win. Of course, since Obama continued the bailout of banks and followed it up with a bailout for auto makers, Tea Partiers aren’t happy with him either.
Although the Tea Party does have some libertarian leanings (and they helped Rand Paul win, which will probably advance libertarian ideas a little), Gillespie and Welch see the Tea Party as part of a recent trend of substantial political movements that arise out of nowhere in response to a small set of issues. The Ron Paul Revolution in the 2008 election season was another example of this, as was, to some extent, the rapid rise of Barack Obama within the Democratic party.
The original template seems to have been Howard Dean’s sudden and surprising early success in the 2004 election season. Dean was not a favorite of Democratic insiders, but he was able to use the new media of the internet to connect with lots of other people who opposed the war in Iraq. That was a libertarian moment, not just because most libertarians also opposed the war in Iraq, but because to some extent Dean’s candidacy was the result of anti-war Democrats being able to find each other and work together toward a common goal. In a sense, just as we can customize almost everything else these days, they had customized part of the political system.
That’s pretty much the whole book, except for an epilog in which Nick and Matt talk a bit about how they grew up and how they came to believe in a bright libertarian future. And to borrow a line from the X-Files, I want to believe. I’d like to live in a bright libertarian future. But I’ve lived through the same decades as Gillespie and Welch, and they’ve left out an important part of the picture.
In particular, they’ve mostly left out the national security police state. I can remember when getting on an airplane meant passing through a metal detector and that was it. You didn’t even have to show your driver’s license. Nowadays, we may be able to fly on deregulated airlines, but only after the TSA thugs have looked through all our possessions, seen us nude, and fondled our genitalia. Worse than that, the TSA is metastasizing by expanding their operation to the rails and highways. There was a time when you didn’t have to show your papers to fly a plane or buy nasal decongestant. There was a time when banks didn’t have to report every large cash transaction to the government. There was a time when you didn’t have to prove your citizenship to get a job. There was a time when the government did not imprison 1 in every 100 adult Americans.
I’m not wishing for a return to some mythical libertarian America that never existed, but I think that before our libertarian moment is complete, we’re going to have to find a way to end the war on drugs, shut down the surveillance state, and get the government to stand down the army of law enforcement officers that spend way too much effort fighting consensual crimes and suppressing freedoms that are none of their business.
I want that bright future that Nick and Matt are talking about. But lets not forget that the original Declaration of Independence was followed by years of bloody war. I hope that we don’t have to fight so fiercely this time in order to get a world that is “tolerant, free, prosperous, vibrant, and interesting.”
Mark is a computer programmer, website builder, photographer, and sometimes journalist in Chicago, where he also writes the long-running Windypundit blog.