Essays from a talk delivered at the 1986 convention of theLibertarian Party of Florida by Harry Reid
Some of you remember me from the 1984 state convention where I spoke mainly of techniques of communication with nonlibertarians. This was looking outward, trying to see out from libertarianism to see things through the eyes of others and understand their feelings. This time is different. This time we will be looking inward, subjecting libertarianism itself to scrutiny from different perspectives and examining some aspects that, I hope, you will find useful or at least entertaining.
I will begin with my own perspective on what internal disagreement I have observed within the ranks of the libertarian movement. I give you two images. First, arguing amongst ourselves about the difference between little government and no government is like arguing about the right amount of bilge water for a boat while the boat is sinking under the waves. Perhaps a little bilge water does no harm, perhaps not. Right now let us realize our mutual interest in staying afloat and bail. Second image: arguing about the right amount of government society needs is like arguing about whether you need a fire in your house to keep warm while the house is burning down around you. Again, let us work together to bring the government under some kind of control. Until we have a small government it will be impossible to know the effects of reducing it further. Unless we make the government smaller, it may become impossible for us to continue to exist on this planet at all.
Close your eyes and envision an iceberg. See the whiteness, the waves, perhaps birds flying about. How many envisioned the part that was below the waterline, even though you knew that was most of it? This is how I perceive the Libertarian Party, the tip of the iceberg. It's only a small part of a big movement but it's the only part most people see, indeed the only part most people can see. What I will talk about is largely the part underwater. Not just the large number of silent sympathizers out there but the inner workings of the ideology itself. The libertarianism between your ears.
The rest of us
The problem of government actions can often be seen as the problem of the rest of us. When the Apple Macintosh computer was first advertised they used the slogan "The computer for the rest of us." The slogan applies to libertarians in some ways. Many envision government supported health care as a good thing for all concerned and I have no quarrel with their joining forces and doing it among themselves. But what about the rest of us, who may disagree, we're forced to pay for it anyway. The media find it easy to cover the people with the plans and schemes for solving everybody's problems, but they find it very hard to cover the rest of us. Wanting to control your neighbor's life is news, living your own life independently is not news. Failing to cope is news, coping isn't.
Folks tell me of their visions of society and how the world could change and be a better place. I try not to oppose these visions, instead I ask if there is some way to achieve them without violence. This is one of the bottom lines, the pivot point between our friends and enemies. If someone has a plan for society, no matter how regimented, and wants to bring it forth completely without violence or the threat of violence, we do not oppose that. Libertarians are the only ones, in fact, who can be absolutely relied upon to permit any nonviolent social experiment. Most idealists abhor the violence in their vision of society, so most will agree with you in rejecting it. Work with that agreement, and stress that this is the only objection you have to their vision. Show them ways the government obstructs their goals, describe likely future obstructions. Remind them how horribly wrong many visions have gone when implemented by the government and how well others have turned out when implemented voluntarily. People should not have to abandon their visions to become libertarian sympathizers and even supporters. All they have to do is believe that their vision stands a better chance with us than with the republicans or democrats.
One of the reasons I feel optimistic about our movement in the long run is that we are entering the information age. As more information becomes available in more useful form to everyone, it will become clearer that government works badly, if at all, as a means to achieve social ends. This process has already begun. A good friend of mine pointed out a significant long term trend in movies. When was the last time you saw a movie where the government was portrayed as the good guys? Even on cop shows the heroes are generally either somewhat independent of the politicians or working past them and in spite of them. In the sixties though, it was still possible for politicians to be heroes, not any more, and never again.
Information is also a useful viewpoint on the question of property vs politics as an allocation of decision making power in a society. If the allocation is based on property, a person can make almost any decisions about certain things and within a certain area. Outside this area when dealing with others they are limited by the need for the agreement with the owners. When decision making power is allocated by political process, the decisions you make touch thousands of people throughout the society and their decisions touch you. You control by threat the lives of people you will never meet and they control your life by threat also. Since the process is not individual there is a need for some elaborate protocol for generating or pretending to generate agreement. Which approach will result in the highest quality decisions? In the property case your decisions are all concerning the things nearest and dearest to you. The consequences of good or bad decisions come quickly and naturally to you and increase or decrease your influence by increasing or decreasing your property. These are optimum conditions for intelligent decision making and fast learning. With political process you are making decisions based on hearsay, through an elaborate agreement generating protocol, concerning the lives and lifestyles of people you will never meet. How much easier it is to make bad decisions and never know the consequences of them.