Charlotte Gore has written an insightful post about the challenge of taking libertarian political ideas, and the Libertarian Party, mainstream. As she points out, libertarianism is still more popular online than out in the ‘real world.’ There are a number of reasons for this, but she flags up two rather important ones: first, it can seem intellectually exclusive, given the complex character of libertarian literature; second, the online libertarian community consists largely of self-selecting, not to put too fine a point on it, geeks.
The combination of these factors can often result in accusations that libertarians act both superior and selfish, and in a perception that the community is either anti-social or misanthropic.
She uses DK’s election to the leadership of LPUK as an example of this:
So Chris Mounsey’s election to leader of the Libertarian Party is fantastic news for fellow “evil nerds”, but can Chris reach out to a more broad audience? Chris runs the infamous and fantastically sweary Devil’s Kitchen blog, and because he’s one of the naughtiest geeks (second only to the incredibly, incredibly naughty Guido Fawkes) he’s right at the top of the evil dork hierarchy.
Sadly political change doesn’t come from a small hardcore niche of political obsessives though – at least, it doesn’t end there. It starts there (and you can argue that the internet has made that easier) – but movements either go mainstream or they remain in the shadows like mental state socialist and communist groups of old.
So the challenge for Chris – and all libertarians – is to find a way to communicate a libertarian message to non-geeks, to ‘normal’ people. I know I’m stumped on this, and have been for some time – but still doesn’t change the fact it needs doing.
Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is an incomplete, and slightly inaccurate, view.
During the course of my time here in the UK, I have met any number of libertarians, some of whom are members of LPUK, some of whom are bloggers – and some of whom are one or the other or neither. And with rare exception, they are friendly, sociable, articulate, and down-to-earth. There is nothing inaccessible about them. They are fine people, and perfectly ‘normal’ in that they go about living their lives with as much practicality, robust good sense, and everyday concerns as anybody else. Libertarians are not freaks.
Chris is no different. As anybody who has listened to him speak, watched him on 18 Doughty Street back in the day, or met him in person knows, he is not a raving, swearing lunatic. The Devil’s Kitchen is a persona, the kind of irreverent ranting we do inside our heads but rarely share – and the fact that most of us have a Devil’s Kitchen version of ourselves in there does much to explain why his blog is so popular. It doesn’t mean that’s how we, or Chris, conduct ourselves in the usual course of things.
In saying all of that, I mean that libertarians (and Libertarians) are both ‘normal’ and entirely capable of reaching a broader audience of other ‘normal’ people. How to accomplish this was a topic of much discussion at the AGM last weekend. The problem is not the messengers; it’s the message.
And that’s because most people live in constant, low-grade fear of any kind of risk. The power and largesse of the state allow them to pool that risk, to shuffle it off onto others, to deny (usually quite legitimately) their own responsibility for the big things that go wrong and to absolve themselves of blame and the consequences whenever little things go wrong. The state is their protection from risk: because it is big, because it is distant and complicated and unfathomable, because ‘smart’ people are running it, but most of all because it has the power of compulsion. It can force people to help you when you fuck up, even if they don’t want to, and that means the state protects you from the biggest risk of all: trusting in the basic humanity of other people.
Because we all know people are assholes, right? A couple of weeks ago, DK was giving a talk at the ASI about friendly societies. There was a Tory chap there whom I was chatting with afterwards, and he said he thought it was a nice idea but it wouldn’t work – especially the charitable aspect – because people wouldn’t use their money to help others.
I found this hard to believe – people give to charity now, even though they have a lot less money in their pockets than they would do if the state didn’t take so much of it away – and asked him if he would voluntarily donate to help people in the absence of expensive state welfare. He thought for a moment and said, ‘No, I don’t think I would.’
This is not meant to bash Tories – I’m not suggesting this particular guy was in any way representative of that party as a whole – but to illustrate that even people who are sympathetic to the economic case for libertarianism don’t trust in their own basic humanity. I fear for libertarianism specifically, and the world in general, if what that guy believes about himself, and others, is true. Because it would mean that people want to avoid responsibility for their right acts as well as their wrong ones. That not only do they need the state to stop them from being evil, they need the state to force them to be good.
This suggests there is a profound flaw in the moral code of our society, wherein the highest social virtue is not doing what is good, but doing what is safe. As long as this flaw persists, no amount of personable, ‘normal’ libertarianism is going to sell the message.