Why Do Libertarians Fail? Because They Don't Understand Human Nature
Libertarians Have Failed
Libertarians have been trying since the 1970s to carve out a separate political identity for themselves. They have failed. The Libertarian Party is as weak and ineffectual now as it was back in the 1980s when I worked ballot access, gathering petition signatures for Ron Paul, the first time he ran as the Libertarian presidential candidate.
Surveys regularly report some 15 to 20% of the population has strong libertarian leanings. But libertarians cannot coalesce as a political force. Why not? 20% is not much smaller than the number who identify as liberal, but Democrats have no problem getting out the vote for a lot more than their 25%. How do they rally so many more than their true believers, when libertarians can't even get theirs to vote?
Conservatives and liberals both have attractive philosophies, with broad appeal. In every major election, both have at least the potential to capture majorities of the vote. Their insights are understandable to just about everyone, even those who are bitterly opposed.
Libertarians don't. They claim reason and logic, and deploy plenty of forceful arguments, which attract few outside their core. Regardless of whether the libertarians are right or not, they are not convincing. Their arguments do not touch us emotionally. Or if they do, it is in a negative way.
This is rooted in the failure of libertarians to understand basic human nature. It is a failure of empathy.
Cats And Dogs Living Together In One Mind
Cats and Dogs Live In Our Minds
(The above funny was taken from this source. I included it mainly because it is cute and clever, and it leads into my next section, even if it isn't really relevant.)
All normal people have two relevant emotional forces that drive them in opposite directions. I use the cat and dog caricatures to illustrate this. Popularly, dogs are the loyal companions, obedient to their masters, friendly, loving and protective. Cats are independent, looking after themselves, living with humans only to satisfy their own needs and for their own purposes.
These are only stereotypes. Cat people know that cats can be generous, bringing gifts of freshly slain creatures to their owners. Dogs will cheerfully bolt for any open door and run wild given the slightest opportunity. Still, the stereotypes work, if more to describe humans than actual dogs and cats.
All of us, except maybe sociopaths, are some blend of these two personality types, working at cross purposes. Very few people are so superior, so perfect in intellect and physique that they can't admire other people. Most of us have some desire to follow and obey our superiors.
This is our dog mind, and is just as true for liberals as conservatives, even when we express it differently. Marxists called these superior beings the 'vanguard'. Sometimes these people are politicians (witness people fainting at Obama rallies), or great thinkers. For the proletariat it is any beautiful, talented or famous person, a Kim Kardashian or Michael Jordan.
This desire to follow and obey our leaders is rooted in our tribal past, when small groups of closely related people fought a hostile environment to survive. The strongest or wisest person was looked up to and obeyed. Too much independence of thought and action could easily have led to starvation and death for the tribe. Wild youngsters had to be restrained for the good of everyone.
Young men like to fight. Properly controlled and motivated, this was to the tribe's advantage. Taught and directed by experienced adults, they could defend against other tribes, drive off predators, or go to war and steal their neighbor's land and goods. The tribe would flourish. Uncontrolled, they would fight amongst themselves, weakening the tribe, or go out in small groups to fight their neighbors, bringing retribution down on the whole tribe.
A successful tribe was one that controlled and motivated its youth towards what was best for all. Proper respect for the tribe's leaders and adulation for its heroes were necessary elements.
This is the dog element in us, ground in by millions of years of evolution. It is the basic substrate of our social being.
But what about our cat nature? The cat is our independent streak. Our not caring what our 'betters' think, our 'do your own thing' ideal. It's what pushed humans out of Africa and across the entire world. Very few humans can match the charitable selflessness of a saint, living purely for the good of our fellows. We try dangerous things, break traditions, leave home for distant countries, marry outside our race, go against the wishes of our parents and the elite of society.
Without this individualist impulse, we would still be animals. Has any sheep ever had an original idea? If one has, so what? Sheep live now just as their ancestors did a million years ago. Smarter animals like chimps and monkeys can have original ideas, and pass them on to their children. They can invent new ways of finding food, and the whole tribe eventually benefits.
In human history this was the wild young man who disobeys his mother, goes out, and finds a new, fertile valley for his tribe to expand into. Or who goes and lives with the weird people across the river, and comes home with the girl who has figured out a better way to weave cloth. Having a few rule-breakers in society can lead to positive change. Society needs its cats.
Rule-bound dogs see only the damage and destruction this causes. Old industries die and people lose their jobs. Potentially dangerous strangers move into the neighborhood bringing weird-smelling food and unpleasant music.
The positive results are harder to see. The traditional American culture was essentially a lucky blend of British political thought and German culture, with enrichment from other European and eventually world-wide culture. Italian immigration was once terribly controversial. They were Mediterraneans! Catholics! Dark-complected foreigners with violent tendencies!
Funny how that all worked out. Italians now run our major industries, get elected to high office, and make great food.
Everyone, liberals, conservatives and libertarians, is mentally a blend of these two emotional forces. Conservatives claim to be in favor of a well-ordered society of people who follow traditional rules. This is basically true. Liberals claim to be for independence of thought, and freedom. Again, basically true, but not the whole story for either side.
In reality neither is really 'for' either of these, but both are for a clotted-up mishmash of following whom we like and being independent of whom we don't. Both support a weird form oｆ state-capitalism, where favored industries are backed by the government.
President Jimmy Carter bailed out a big car company, and President Obama bailed out two of them. Are they conservatives? Democrats supporting old, traditional industries rather than letting free people choose which companies live or die by how well they serve us, is liberal? Republicans were willing in both cases to let them die, but are happy enough to use government power to support industries they favor.
This is not ideology, but raw tribal emotion, on both sides. Both use government power to support insiders and punish outsiders. This just feels right, to our tribal, primitive selves, and we justify it later with ideology-tainted reason. Anyone across the political spectrum can get on board and ride that train to a political victory.
Republicans, supposed defenders of tradition, had no problem understanding why Democrats wanted to save the car companies. It was for money, power, and control of society. Auto unions favor Democrats, so Democrats favor the unions. Tribes are always incestuous.
Republicans wanted the unions to die, and were willing to sacrifice a few big companies to get it done. Tribal politics. The few die to protect the pack. There is no ideological reason it could not have gone the opposite way, with Republicans fighting to save traditional jobs in the auto companies, and Democrats fighting to kill them.
Democrats and Republicans are both 'dog' parties. Both encourage rule-following in their members, and hero-adulation of their leaders. Bill Clinton is practically a living god, to read what Democrats write of him, and what they say of Barack Obama is even wilder. Remember all those hilarious posters of Obama riding a unicorn?. Ronald Reagan is the Republican foil.
Looking at their respective records as leaders, neither was a paragon of the virtues the parties claim to represent. Reagan ran up a huge deficit. Clinton sharply cut welfare programs for the poor. None of that matters, to their tribes of followers. They won, they kicked their enemies' butts. For the tribal partisan, it doesn't really matter how.
Why Libertarians Fail
Libertarians are cats. In libertarians, the drive for freedom, personal control of one's own life and destiny is paramount, and the tribe is secondary.
Most people feel this drive to some extent. We don't like to be told what to do, we want to spend our money for the things we like, and we don't like that money to be taken and spent by others with different values. Libertarians take this to its logical extreme. (But libertarians are not anarchists, who take it to its illogical extreme.)
Opponents of libertarianism like to cast stones, build up straw man and knock them down. Libertarians make this easy. For example, both conservatives and liberals like to claim that libertarians believe in atomistic individualism. This is a straw man because it is basically untrue for the great majority of libertarians. Libertarians are not sociopaths. They believe in mutual, voluntary association, not no association. Libertarians are for private charitable organizations, for example, but completely against public charity. This puts them against many conservatives and nearly all liberals.
Liberals tend to believe (liberals, please correct me if I am wrong or exaggerating here) that private charity may be nice, but it can never be great enough or reliable enough to take care of the huge needs of the less fortunate. Greedy rich, personal prejudice or shortsightedness would inevitably result in many people with real needs being left to starve.
Conservatives also generally believe there should be at least some sort of safety net supplied by the government to prevent acute poverty, if not the more extensive welfare endorsed by liberals. All three groups agree on the need. Liberals and conservatives mostly agree on the means, a government-supplied system bolstered by private action. Libertarians disagree only on the means, and advocate a purely private charity system.
This has little attraction for the average person. Private charity doesn't allow for the clash of rival gangs, the political parties. It has no heroes of the faith, like politics. There would be no Reagan or Clinton or Obama to give stirring speeches about the evils of their opponents.
Why not? Because, in a private system, there are no human opponents to poverty. (Hell, everyone hates poverty!) There are only poor people to be helped. It doesn't appeal to the human drive to idolize our heroes and demonize our enemies. Where would Obama be today without those wicked Republicans conspiring to starve poor blacks or push grandma off that cliff? What words could he use to rouse the masses to hysteria, if the fight were just against poor schools, or unemployment?
Without the Republicans, President Obama would still be a community organizer in Chicago, working out of a dirty office on the South Side. Without the Democrats, Mitt Romney would be nothing but another successful businessman. It is the fight that rouses our tribal instincts, not the cause of the fight. If poverty were conquered, we would find something else.
Libertarians will never appeal to a broad class of Americans, for the simple reason that libertarianism is too cat-like, too individualistic. Our bedrock human nature is the dog. The cat is a later, weaker graft. Packs of dogs can always kill any number of cats. Libertarianism can never succeed as a mass movement until it finds popular leaders and creates visible, human enemies to fight. We argue in favor of freedom, individualism, capitalism, and against fascism and socialism. All those 'isms'.
People need human enemies, and human heroes to make a political party. Sorry libertarians, Ron Paul doesn't quite fit the bill.