Every four years, Liberty offers a forum in which the claims of the Democratic, the Libertarian, and the Republican presidential nominees are presented, along with a case for not voting at all. It’s a testament to the continuing diversity of thought in the libertarian movement, as well as the difficulty and urgency of finding a place in contemporary politics where individual liberty can flourish.
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In the timeless movie The Princess Bride, the villainous Vizzini, having kidnapped a princess on behalf of parties yet unknown, is confronted by the implacable dread pirate Roberts, who devises a battle of wits to determine who shall take the princess, and who shall die. Faced with two goblets, Vizzini attempts to puzzle out which of the two has been poisoned, and even contrives a ruse to pull victory out of evident defeat. But what he hasn’t guessed is that both chalices are poisoned and, ruses be damned, either one will kill him as well as the other.
So also with this election and libertarians. We are well familiar with treating such things in the framework of cost-benefit analysis, trying to ascertain which is the “lesser evil”—TANSTAAFL, after all, or for that matter, a free cup of wine. But how does the analysis shift when either choice assuredly leads to death?
Well, you might prefer to get it over with as quickly as possible, in which case by all means pull the lever for Donald Trump’s GOP. Contrary to much media reporting, Trump didn’t create most of the problems burning up our country, but he certainly has shown a knack for pouring gasoline over top of them. In part, this is because of his absurd waffling over policy: in terms of the COVID crisis alone, his inability to dictate any coherent national strategy for longer than a day or two has resulted in a lockdown economic crash without any of the benefits of actually locking down. But a rather larger part of it is his authoritarian longings, on display now for decades and hardly blunted by four years in charge of a global superpower. His most steadfast allies are not small businessmen, many of whom have been pushed into insolvency by his coronavirus policies, or farmers, who have required massive bailouts in the wake of his haphazard and calamitous trade wars, but rather the police, whom he has encouraged to commit ever more unhinged acts of violence against those they are meant to protect and serve. Their “thin blue line” siege mentality mirrors Trump’s own, who in gangland fashion regards loyalty to himself as the sole civic virtue. In his first term, Trump has succeeded in installing an attorney general as well as a whole slate of judges and justices who see their primary mission as upholding his executive privilege rather than any law of the land. A second term would give him the chance to complete the job and attain what he has seemingly sought for most of his life: the practical elimination of any legal check on his activities. As a man controlled by a selfishness that borders on solipsism, Trump lacks the intelligence or the work ethic to present a coherent dictatorial ethos, but that does not mean libertarianism would survive him, or the party he has remade in his image.
How does the analysis shift when either choice assuredly leads to death?
But turning to the other cup, we see the same death, just watered down and a bit slower to take action. Joe Biden is himself a sort of walking corpse, an empty void upon which has been projected the two most pernicious ruling philosophies of our era: neoconservatism and modern corporate liberalism. The former veep is presented as a throwback to a simpler, better time, as if his time in the Senate were anything other than a roll call of failed programs and interventions, or the Obama era somehow were not the age of corporate bailouts, deportations, drone bombings, and police shootings (these last in cities run almost unilaterally by Democrats). But now that he’s up against Trump, whose perhaps sole virtue is not starting a new foreign war—though he has poured unprecedented trillions into military budgets and boondoggles, with the near-unanimous approval of congressional Dems—Biden can count also on the support of almost the entire George W. Bush policy team, the so-called “Never Trumpers” who want nothing so much as new frontiers for our endless wars, be it Iran, or Ukraine, or Venezuela, or the hot new favorite Azerbaijan. There’s no space for libertarians here either: it’s as unfriendly to personal freedom as the entire government was immediately after 9/11, because it’s all the same people who were running it back then.
And besides, no matter who ends up winning the election (or, what is a different question, who ends up filling the term of office, given the general paranoia about vote counts and interference emanating from both sides), there looms beyond it the specter of the 2024 election, which already looks as if it will be contested by the heirs of these two inherently reactionary political strains, the Trumpified GOP and the uber-establishment never-Trump Dems, their only disagreements being the exact percentages by which military and police budgets will rise year upon year, and incessant squabbling over social issues that neither truly wants to win, lest their base think the job is done and withdraw funding. That is some stony ground on which to sow the seeds of freedom.
Don’t waste a few hours of a perfectly fine Tuesday, or whatever other time you might have spent earlier, on something as poisonous as voting.
There is a temptation, faced with this situation, to take refuge in idealism, to try and keep alive a clearly moribund LP that has lost whatever cultural cachet it might have claimed in previous elections. If that is your choice, Godspeed! But it is a battle that has, for some distance into the future, already been lost: with the Dems abandoning their already-thin commitment to social liberalism, and the GOP casting aside even the pretense of economic liberalism, there is no real electoral home for libertarian ideas, no third cup from which to drink; the two parties have established such an existential play-acted quarrel between themselves as to eliminate any chance of a third-party presence outside of protest votes in states already thoroughly decided. Even if that’s your situation, I can’t see that it’s worth the hassle of whatever mail-in procedure your state allows, or the viral risk of going to stand in line in person—if you’re staring political death in the face, why add in the potential for actual physical death on top of it?
So if death surrounds on all sides, what should you do? Well, first of all, don’t waste a few hours of a perfectly fine Tuesday, or whatever other time you might have spent earlier, on something as poisonous as voting. Instead, make the choice that Vizzini couldn’t, because he had already locked himself into a series of events that ultimately required him to drink from one cup or another: opt out, leave the story entirely. There may yet be a part for libertarianism to play in US electoral politics, but it’s not in this election, nor likely in the next few after. But there’s a whole hell of a lot that needs doing by means other than ballots, and a lot of preparation that’s required if personal freedom is going to survive what’s to come.