The Prospect Before Us

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It’s hard to write this. Like most of the country, I’m still in shock. But we need to face the fact that on January 20 either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will become president. According to recent public opinion polls, it will be Trump. He and Clinton are neck and neck, but he underpolls to a very significant degree.

Nevertheless, libertarians have a choice. I don’t mean the choice of whether to vote Libertarian. Go ahead and do that if you want. It makes no difference, except for whether you want to hurt Clinton more than Trump, or Trump more than Clinton; and right now it isn’t clear which one would be hurt more by an LP vote. The real choice has to do with how libertarians are going to work for liberty in the new environment of 2017.

I say “new” because I think that either a Clinton or a Trump administration would pose problems that libertarians haven’t thought much about, at least lately.

Clinton:

If Clinton is elected, it will be because she squeezed the last ounce of support from the only groups that actually support her: some ethnic minorities, some feminists, most academics, and all of the newer labor unions, mainly those representing government employees. She will try to pack the courts with judges who favor the extreme demands of pressure groups claiming to speak for these voters.

“So what’s new?” you say. “Obama has been doing that forever.”

But that’s the problem. Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to. Until Trump came along, many young people had never heard a national figure defying the political correctness that many of them assume has existed forever. The Obama ideology has been swallowed whole by a large segment of the “educated” population, preparing the way for Sanders and his crew, now including Clinton, to demand that the promises of this ideology be fulfilled — make college “free” and totally “correct,” bankrupt the prosperous, cripple the banks, sue firearms manufacturers for “gun violence” (thereby destroying the manufacture of guns), escalate the government take-over of healthcare, and so on. If Clinton is elected, libertarians will have the hard job of showing that this ideology is simply nonsense and that it has never before been part of American ideals.

Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to.

That task may be as formidable, and as interesting, as the task performed by the libertarians of the 1950s and 1960s, who had to argue hard for what should have been virtually self-evident propositions: America was historically anti-imperialist, and should return to being that way; conscription was rare in American history and should never have been continued after World War II; lower taxes have always strengthened, not weakened, the economy; and so on. Libertarians must now argue harder, for even more no-longer-self-evident ideas. To do so, they will need to review their own concepts and make them more accessible to other Americans.

Trump:

If Trump is elected, libertarians will have to spend a lot of effort disentangling good and popular ideas about the incompetence of the current government and the evils of political correctness from bad, yet popular, ideas about free trade, taxation, and (above all) the use of utilitarian, as opposed to moral, standards for the assessment of political action. This will be a mess, because the American exceptionalism, and even the American nationalism, with which Trump is associated have strong associations with the libertarian core of American history and with the utilitarian, yet true, idea that liberty has enormous practical benefits.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up, and the work of understanding American history better than the Trumpetorians do. You may think, “That won’t be hard,” but if so, you may be overestimating the amount of historical knowledge that most libertarians have been getting along with.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up

Now, in dealing with Trump or Clinton, libertarians will have strong support from members of the defeated political party and the defeated segments of the winning party. (And after all, there are plenty of libertarians in both the major parties; I am writing to them as much as to the LP libertarians.) But libertarians must be alert to the danger of being swept up in the emotions, the bad ideas, and the phony rhetoric of these new allies.

Can we do it? If we can’t, 2017 will be a very bad year. And, to be candid, even if we can, it will still be bad — though getting better.

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