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Chris Magyar

Another Damn Political Rant


So I've been Libertarian -- on the streets and in the voting booth -- since my 18th birthday. I switched for one Presidential election in 2004 when the Libs nominated obvious opportunistic Republican turncoat Bob Barr and the Dems nominated a decent human being who just happened to also be intelligent, but that's another story. The real story is, I have believed since coming of age that people are good and kind, so let's not create laws that assume otherwise. Also, I'm just one of those white guys, I guess. Can't really explain why this philosophy attracts so many white guys. I hope it's nothing awful.

Anyway, as I get older, I'm reconsidering my party affiliation.

I'm not reconsidering because I've met assholes or "seen the folly of my ways" but because I think the Libertarian Party has embraced its marginal identity by refusing to allow for a moderate wing to develop. I know the term "moderate Libertarian" might sound like an oxymoron, but it's actually what most good-hearted Republicans are, and what the Californian Republican party has essentially been for forty years. Problem is, the Republicans are very busy, especially these days, pushing social agendas that make all Libertarians ... well, so mad that they formed a Libertarian Party.

Here's the thing, though. The economic and social policies of strict libertarianism -- sometimes defined as strict Constitutionalism, other times defined as something just a skosh more organized than anarchy -- do not create a one-size-fits-all solution. It needn't be hypocritical to want to abolish the federal income tax and still make a solid case for income taxation in New York City. It needn't be hypocritical to rally against federal gun control laws while supporting gun licensing regulations in Texas. And it needn't be hypocritical to be pro-choice and anti-Roe v. Wade.

The issue is one of scale. Some things -- military defense, interstate commerce, currency -- are uncontroversially better handled at the federal level. The argument most Libertarians make is that a vast proportion of the other things are better handled as close to home as possible. Sometimes this is expressed as "let the market handle it" -- and I guess, sometimes that's the right answer -- but I wish we spent more time assuring independent voters that "let the state governments handle it" or "let the city councils handle it" are also in our wheelhouse. Because they ought to be.

Why not be a Libertarian about federal power, a Republican about your state budget, and a Democrat about your city's social needs?

Truth is, freedom is rooted in decentralized power. The more that power is shared, the more people have power. The more people have power, the more freedom they enjoy. There's nothing inherently less corrupt about a city council than a federal department -- but we get to vote in city council elections, and it takes far fewer votes (and far less egregious offenses) for a population to ditch a bad city council than a bad federal administration.

"But nobody pays attention to local elections," the straw man says.

Maybe that's because not enough power is vested in local institutions? People turn out quite healthily for local elections when a serious issue is at stake. I wish more serious issues were decided at that level.

"But concentrating power more locally will lead to more inequality between localities," the straw man continues.

True. Absolutely true. And 1) so what? Have you seen the cost of living differential between New York City and West Virginia? And isn't West Virginia still a better place to live than Haiti? Also 2) it's all temporary. Cities rise and fall, often within a generation. You cannot legislate equality, but you can carefully regulate and manage reasonable inequality such that it turns over from time to time. 50 years ago, St. Louis and Cleveland were cultural and economic powerhouses. 50 years from now, Austin and Portland will be depressed backwaters. All places get a turn at the Ferris wheel. The important thing is to allow enough freedom of movement that endemic poverty doesn't set roots.

So I don't mind if Austin wants to try a bag ban. Sure, it's a pure nanny state move, but let's admit that some of these nanny state regulations have led to more life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (looking at seat belt laws and regulations against smoking in bars). Others turn out to be oppressive and regulatory nightmares. Cities are a great incubator for this kind of experimentation. A Libertarian should encourage this, because local experimentation is way more preferable than federal fiat.

But the stereotype of a Libertarian is rooted in Ted Nugentism, in which "get off my lawn" rings more loudly than "neighbors know best." From a pure optics standpoint, I think the Libertarian Party needs to become the party of active local charity, active local civic engagement, and active do-it-yourself social work. Less Ron Swanson, more Johnny Appleseed. We need to cultivate bleeding heart libertarians, who can appeal to the goodness and kindness we assume in others. Some of us want to cut federal programs so that charities and local governments can be less influenced by Washington policy (and lobbying) and more free to experiment with localized solutions to thorny problems. Some of us would rather send $500 to the county sheriff than $50 to the FBI. Some of us are only asking for a say that has more impact than a watered-down electoral-colleged stab at reshaping the policies of an unknowable bureaucracy.

There is one stereotype about Libertarians that's pretty true, though. They say we like to rant. So I guess, yeah, I'm still in this camp, whether I think my party knows what it's doing or not.


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