How should libertarians interact with politics?

Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. His research interests include constitutional law, civil and criminal law, legal and political philosophy, and legal history. His work has appeared in the Vermont Law Review, the Syracuse Law Review, and the Jurist, as well as the Washington Times, Huffington Post, and the Daily Caller. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a JD from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Recent momentous events at Cato have dredged up some age‐​old questions about libertarianism and politics: how should libertarians interact with politics and political candidates? Should libertarians compromise “full freedom” by promoting half‐​measures in the form of less‐​than‐​perfect candidates who are better than the alternatives on some matters but perhaps worse on others?

Many of the most long‐​standing divisions within libertarianism are partially a result of different answers to these questions. Some regard all interactions with politics and politicians as inherently corrupting and a tacit endorsement of governmental oppression. Others feel that a refusal to engage in politics is a one‐​way‐​ticket to irrelevancy that ultimately guarantees a less‐​free society. They claim that while utopian dreams of a political discourse built on ideas and bereft of partisanship are fine, political change happens through politics and politicians, and to deny this is to be obstinate.

I believe both methodologies are needed. In an age of increasing politicization it becomes more and more necessary to “win” libertarian goals through politics. It is crucial, however, that concessions to politics do not compromise the libertarian message that political choice must be limited in its reach. If we only focus on the next election, this message may be lost and politics will take over, perhaps forever.

“Liberty” is not the ideology of an interest group; it is the baseline of the human experience. But encroachments on liberty will inevitably manufacture interest groups that seek out compromises in order to preserve liberty in limited areas. Thus, a city considering licensing cab drivers creates an interest group that fights to maintain a free market in taxis. After licensing is instilled, the interest group lives on, fighting new regulations, passing their own regulations, and defending certain interests of cab drivers.

As more and more areas of life are politicized, this type of politically oriented behavior becomes increasingly necessary. We move so far away from the baseline of liberty that political mobilization is required in nearly every area of our lives: to marry who we want to marry, to get the medical treatment that may save our life or relieve our constant pain, to choose a health‐​care plan that does not violate our conscience, or even to drink raw milk. In the process, the struggle to preserve the baseline of the human dignity—human liberty—are sub‐​divided into battles over the mundane—such as the freedom for children to start a lemonade stand. This is how the fight for human dignity is trivialized and advocates for liberty are balkanized. This is how politics takes over the fight for liberty.

I do not blame anyone who fights for liberty through politics. In fact, I encourage it when it is needed. If your honest business is threatened with extinction due to a new prohibition or regulation, then any politicians pushing the rule should be opposed in the political arena.

But while such fights are perhaps the frontline of the fight for liberty, they are not the baseline. Those fighting for the baseline should constantly remind us that political squabbles over taxi licenses are second‐​best solutions to a problem that is far more pervasive than licensing: the increasing politicization of human life and the compromising of human dignity that results from that politicization. When there are no more zones where political control is forbidden—your mind, your body, your family, your property, etc.—then there will be no liberty.

The fight for liberty has both a short and a long game and, just like football, both should be part of the strategy. But, unlike other political persuasions, focusing too much on the short game actually undermines some of our core principles: that there should be little or no political involvement in certain areas of life. Above all else, libertarians should have long memories that can point out how political concessions of the past paved the way for crises in the present, and we should also be able to show that we made this argument in the past, but no one listened to us. Otherwise, if our past is filled with political concessions, then our message will be substantially weakened, if not totally lost.