Political Coalitions and the Tea Party Movement
By David Henderson
Like co-blogger Arnold, I enjoyed reading the discussion among Brink Lindsey, Jonah Goldberg, and Matt Kibbe about the Tea Party Movement and whom libertarians should ally with. All three made good points but none of the three addressed a key issue: what’s the context.
But first, I’m glad that Brink Lindsey has turned against the Iraq war; I always thought it was a major mistake, not just in foreign policy terms, but also in undercutting the small-government movement in domestic policy. And I love his expression “it’s-always-1938-somewhere jingoism.”
Second, like Lindsey, I have been frustrated by many of the anti-freedom views and just plain ignorance of many people in the TPM. What’s interesting, though, is that those seem to differ from community to community. At the APEE meetings in Las Vegas in April, I was venting about their ignorance to a fellow economist from North Carolina. His story was very different. When he had been speaking about health care to TPM audiences in North Carolina, people would ask questions about specific parts of the health care bill that showed that they had actually read those parts.
Third, I’m with Matt Kibbe in thinking that when a large group rises from the grass roots and advocates some big worthwhile things, you ally with them on those things. That’s why I just don’t see the sense in what Lindsey seems to be advocating: that libertarians have nothing to do with Republicans or conservatives or the TPM.
That brings me to context. What’s the particular decision you have to make and when do you make it? I’ve allied with conservatives locally to fight tax increases. But I’m also the co-chair of the local Libertarians for Peace chapter and I’m that chapter’s representative to the Peace Coalition of Monterey County. Our chapter is the only non-left member of that large coalition that has over 20 organizations. So we ally with them on war and peace. Depressingly, by the way, since Obama was elected, our organization has been more outspoken on the wars, both the ones he’s putting into high gear in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the Iraq war, than most other members of the coalition.
The point is that we make a sequence of choices depending on the issue. We don’t have to say that we will or won’t ever work with a particular group. My metaphor for my political activism is that my brain and body are a crowbar and that I’m looking around for doors that are locked but slightly open [when the door is open, that’s freedom] so that I can put my crowbar in and try to open it more. Every once in a while, there’s a door that’s wide open and I’ll walk through that. The TPM is not typically a wide-open door. But, partly because of them, the crack is a little more open than it was a year and a half ago. And I want to help open it more. If my brothers and sisters in the peace movement start getting more active in pushing for the end of empire, I’ll try to help open that door too. Similarly with the drug legalization movement.
One of the commenters on Arnold’s post said, “Libertarians are too small in number to have any impact on either side.” I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that libertarians were huge, for example, in helping end the draft: that’s certainly the most pro-freedom thing achieved in the 20th century. Nevertheless, the commenter could be right for any given specific issue. But if that’s true, then there’s no point in being active at all.
But here’s the thing and here’s what I ask myself when I get discouraged. Let’s say I get to the end of my life and I look back and I never fought for any of my political values. I never wrote a ballot argument, I never wrote an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal, I never gave a speech at a rally, I never carried a sign, I never wrote a letter to the editor defending the rights of someone who was picked on by a power-hungry judge. How would I feel about my life? I think I would feel disappointed and I would wonder if I could have made a difference by doing some of those things I hadn’t done. That’s what keeps me going in that part of my life.
But because most of my political activism doesn’t pay me money, I need to get something else out of it. After all, in trying to get freedom, I’m involved with many others in producing a public good. So I look for things, ceteris paribus, that I enjoy. Writing is one; speaking is another; being around fun and interesting people is another. When those things don’t exist or, even worse, when someone is toxic to be around [I’m thinking of a local TPM person], I leave. But I don’t disown the TPM. I work more informally with some of its members whom I do like to be around.