Michael Munger: Libertarians -- What Are We For?

Friends, it's great to be here, today. I know a lot of you already, and I hope to get a chance to talk with the rest of you soon. I look around this room, and I see a lot of friendly faces, a real sense of shared purpose. It's exciting.

Unfortunately, the reason that so many of us feel that spark of purpose is that we're having hard times. This administration in Washington is a really great recruiter for our party. Everywhere I go, people are disgusted.

They glance around, to make sure no one is listening, and then tell me, "You know, I never considered voting Libertarian before. But when I see the Patriot Act, when I see the casualties in the war in Iraq and the war on drugs, then I start to think Libertarian."

The government is not providing the basic services that our more optimistic fellow citizens have come to expect. When I talk to people in the cities, Latinos and African-Americans, people who send their children to schools that look like war zones, schools that may be the single most disastrous examples of the failure of statist social engineering, I hear it: "I'm starting to think Libertarian."

Of course, some folks also ask me, "Why don't Libertarians care about real people? The Democrats and Republicans are interested in real people."

I answer, yes, Democrats and Republicans are interested in real people. And fleas are interested in real dogs. We don't elect them mayor.

Why would you think that if I care about you, I should want to run your life? Or, if I don't want to run you life, why would you think I don't care?

As I said, this year is a great opportunity for Libertarians, for an alternative. The humorist PJ O'Rourke was researching farm subsidies, a remarkably expensive program with essentially no real benefits. While O'Rourke was doing research, he visited a farmer, who was going to artificially inseminate a cow. While the farmer was doing what he needed to do to inseminate the cow, at the cow's hind end, he asked PJ to hold the cow's head. The farmer, of course, was manipulating a two-foot-long plastic turkey baster, in the part of the cow where it needed to go. PJ, holding the head, said that he would never forget the look on that cow's face.

But that look was familiar. And then PJ recognized it, and you recognize it, too. Millions of taxpayers have the same expression that cow had, every April 15th. And for the same reason!

That same reason, for taxes, for failures in foreign policy, and for disastrous corruption at every level of government, is the reason that people are starting to think Libertarian.

If people are presented with a better choice, then they will make a choice. And a lot of those people in America today are thinking of making a Libertarian choice.

But what will our message be? How will we present that "better choice?" What are the ideas that we want to communicate to all those voters, to all those people who never even considered voting for us before. Friends, we stand at a crossroads. We have an opportunity we may never have again. Our message has to come down to the answer to one question, the response to four simple words. Those four words -- you've all heard them. Those four words -- .we often stumble over our answer.

The question -- .the four words we have to face -- .it all comes down to this: What are we for?

What are you for?

Our success, our very future as a party, is going to depend on how we answer those four words in the next five months.

The simplest and best answer I can think of is this. Libertarians are for the American dream. For everyone, all over the whole world.

The American dream is simple, at its core. If you work hard, you will succeed. And hard work multiplied by merit will bring you success beyond your wildest dreams. In spite of all its flaws, all its taxes and regulations, America itself is still, still, the greatest human invention for producing wealth that the world has ever seen.

In the America that I am for, that I work toward as a Libertarian, no one can tell you what to work on, and no one can take away the fruits of your success.

Now, when you present this message, when you tell people what we are for, you will have a problem. You have to accept that we are confronting the accumulated nonwisdom of decades of a state-controlled educational machine.

And you will get questions. You all know the questions: Who will take care of us? Who will organize the society? We need the government to tell us what to do -- .

This message, of needing a government to tell people what to do, seems to have permeated the very souls of our nation. Even if we are advising people in developing nations, you can see it. Remember, these poor folks are desperate to become free and prosperous, to have enough liberty to raise their children and enough money to support them.

What do we tell them, when they ask about the American dream? That they need the rule of law? That they need to guarantee private property? That they need honest judges and a system for adjudicating disputes that is fair and predictable. And a private banking system, to mediate complex financial transactions and provide the loans and liquidity necessary for growth?

No. Our leaders tell developing nations that what they need to copy, the first thing they need to do is -- .have elections! Sweet fancy Moses! Look how well that works for us!

We tell developing nations to adopt the worst, most dysfunctional part of our system, our electoral system, and expect them to climb that stairway to the American dream. Just have elections! You'll be rich in no time.

As is all too evident in daily news, this path has led them not toward the dream we all prize but toward the nightmare we all fear. Nations that have tried to develop by adopting majority rule institutions have nearly always failed unless they have already put in place the other institutions necessary to guarantee liberty.

Why? Because, by itself, without judges and rule of law, majority rule is always two wolves and a sheep deciding what is for lunch.

Libertarians are not "for" majority rule, as any kind of moral principle. In a democracy, we are sometimes forced to use majority rule as a way to decide things. But it is not the core of our system. Majority rule can be a protection against tyranny by an elite, but it creates another danger that may be greater. There is no moral force in the majority; it is just what most people happen to think. This cannot be the bedrock for a party that wants to stand for what is truly American.

Then, what are we for? What is the system that we think other nations should look to, and adopt? It's democracy, not majority rule. What do I mean by democracy? Let me tell you a brief story. Examples of this story, almost exactly the same facts, have happened all over the world, over and over again.

In the late 1990's, a number of people were living in a town called "Niono," in the west African nation of Mali. A number of Peace Corps and other aid agencies worked to help the 50,000 residents of Niono. One problem they faced was the control of water. There was a large drainage ditch that didn't really drain anywhere. But it was a huge collector of animal carcasses, human waste, and mosquito larvae.

A Dutch group installed a pump, and it made a huge difference in the quality of life in the village. Waste water was cleaned up, malaria and other diseases were greatly reduced, and when rain water did collect in this ditch it could be pumped out for irrigation for crops. After the pump was installed, the drinking water supply was no longer fouled by floods of waste.

The aid agencies, one by one, moved on to other projects, other villages, maybe even other parts of the world. They left the care and maintenance of the Niono pump up to the local government officials.

When one of the Peace Corps workers returned to the village, five years later, things looked pretty much the same. Same streets, same trees. But the pump had broken, years ago. And the agent of the government had made no move to fix it, preferring to keep the taxes for himself.

All the pump needed to work again, and solve the problem, was a machined part that cost less than $100. But because no one fixed the pump, 10 percent of the town contracted malaria every year. That's every year, mind you. New cases.

The returning Peace Corps worker asked why no one had fixed the pump. The people of the town said that they were waiting for the government to do it. And they were very angry, because they were sick and weak, because no one would help them. Far from lifting them up, the help of the NGOs had only left them more dependent on government, less able to care for themselves.

You see, once a society comes to believe that no one has the power to fix things, and that we have to wait on the government, we all become sick and angry. Those people in Niono, they could have worked together, pooled their resources, and fixed that pump. But they have no sense of private, personal empowerment. They have been taught since birth, since their grandparents' birth, to think of themselves as children in a family headed by the state.

The well-intentioned help of the Peace Core volunteers only made this worse. The towns-people sat around waiting in vain for the government to save them, dying of malaria. If when the pump had been installed the Peace Corps workers could also have talked about self-reliance and liberty, many lives would have been saved. Once started, that process is self-perpetuating. Once I can use my own money, my own ingenuity, rather than waiting for the government -- well, that is the stairway to the American dream.

In 1831 a Frenchman, named Alexis de Tocqueville published a memoir of his travels in the U.S. It was called, called "Democracy in America," but it could have been called, "How Americans Get Things Done." Tocqueville marveled at how Americans worked together privately to solve civic problems.

Now, Tocqueville was no fan of majority rule. The problem with political democracy, he said, is that citizens are isolated and feeble. They can do hardly anything by themselves, and they can't force others to help them. He admired the American solution to this problem: organize into private groups, and leave government out of it.

I'm quoting now: "They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. If men living in democratic countries had no right and no inclination to associate for political purposes, their independence would be in great jeopardy (pause to restate: nations have to defend themselves from external aggression), but they might long preserve their wealth and their cultivation: whereas if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered."

Translation: TO HELL WITH POLITICS, AND VOTING! Equating democracy with majority rule misses the point completely. Private voluntary associations are the essence, the very essence, of liberty, and hence of authentic American society. Citizens freely associating promote liberty, protect liberty, and provide increased welfare for everyone.

And that is what we are for -- and why we joined a party dedicated to liberty. If you want to go out and persuade some people to work with you, and all voluntarily work for the benefit of each, then that is libertarian democracy. If someone wants to drop out, and form a different association, then they are free to do so.

Tocqueville criticizes his countrymen in France. He had seen, in the legacy of the French Revolution, the damage that political democracy and a reliance on majority rule could do.

But when I read his critique today, I get a sick feeling. His criticism on France in 1831 is an even more scathing indictment of American society today. We have become a political democracy, where voting is the extent of civic action, where interest group lobbying for power and wealth is the only route open to solve civic problems.

Tocqueville said that the mistake the French made was to believe this: The more enfeebled and incompetent the citizens become, the active government ought to be, so that the state can do what individuals can no longer do for themselves.

Friends, that has become the very core argument of American politics. It was false in 1831, and it is absurdly false today. But it sounds like a Presidential campaign speech, for any of the major candidates.

The truth is that, if we accept the lie that people are weak and useless, and that only government can help us, we end up like those forlorn townspeople in Niono, Mali. We are waiting for the government to come save us. And we are fooled into believing that the bigger the problem, the more money we take out of private hands and give to government, so we get help faster.

What happened in Mali was extreme, but you recognize it also in the U.S. In fact, it's typical: No one solves the problem and the money the government has received goes to produce more ineffective government, and even more enfeebled citizens.

The real answer is not more, but less, government. Given the freedom to do so, and the responsibility to act, citizens organize to solve problems. Look, after Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people tried to help. They organized mountains of contributions of food and supplies, they donated money to rent trucks, and they gave their time to drive those loaded trucks towards New Orleans. And they were turned away. Turned away! Instead of keeping order inside the ruined city, the one job government really does have, the one thing it can do, federal troops "kept order" by turning away relief supplies at the borders. That's not in Mali, that's in America.

The depth of the conceit that Tocqueville punctures is remarkable. Many of you know the political economist John Stuart Mill, a sometimes libertarian thinker. But he had a blind spot about things the government had to do for citizens. In 1850, he wrote that it was obvious, just as if OF COURSE, the state had to provide lighthouses for navigation. He just sat in his study and wrote that, because looking out his window, by himself, he became convinced that no private person could collect fees from the ships as they pass the lighthouse. That meant that no lighthouse keeper could charge the fees needed to live, even though everyone valued the service.

At the time that Mill wrote that, take a guess, what proportion of lighthouses were privately owned? 5%? 10%? Try 75%! Fully three quarters of the lighthouses in England were privately owned and operated. By what miracle was this accomplished? By private, voluntary organization, a subscription service run in cooperation with the provisioning concession in local ports.

Many academics, even today, still point to Mill's admission that government was required to produce lighthouse services. But Mill was mistaken! It was not true, and it is not true now. Voluntary private organizations are better for nearly every purpose than coercive government organizations.

Imagine a group of shipowners, losing ships on the rocks in the foggy airs off the English seacoast. They are losing money, losing time, and losing ships. They figured out a way to raise money for lighthouses. Sure, some ships that didn't pay ALSO benefitted, but it is always that way with voluntary solutions. There's more to go around, for everyone! Small voluntary groups are more flexible, and better solve Olson's "collective action" problem, than large government "solutions," no matter how well-intentioned.

That's what we are for, ladies and gentlemen. We are for the kind of private organizations that arise, in all their profusion and richness and complexity, in the absence of government decree. Churches, not-for-profits, for-profit firms, clubs, partnerships -- the list goes on and on. That's what we are for.

I talked about this in a lecture at one of our universities this semester, because I think the comparison is so striking: The man who said lighthouses couldn't be private lived in a country where three quarters of the lighthouses were, in fact, private!

A student in the audience raised her hand and said, "But that is really a government solution, isn't it? Anything that involves more than one person is the government. Libertarians just believe that we should all be by ourselves, as individuals, right?"

As a college professor, as you can imagine, this was a proud moment for me. We are turning out graduates who have no frame of reference on the nature of the state. How could it be, how could anyone believe, that the spontaneous, voluntary organization of a group for mutual benefit, is identical to coercion, to taking by force?

They are as different as night and day. And, exactly as Tocqueville said, the more we come to depend on government, more we become dysfunctional, and the less we are able to organize ourselves to solve local problems.

The spirit of America does not allow for sitting back and waiting for the state do it. If you are my neighbor, I'll help you. And you'll help me. We have a direct, powerful voluntary connection. Reciprocal obligations, complex organizations, relationships voluntarily negotiated and ended.

Government crowds those out. If the government is supposed to take care of all of us, then I have no moral obligation to pitch in, to help out. I see you attacked, and I look up and down the street and cluck to myself, "Why don't the police do something?" If I see a bad school, I wonder why the state doesn't improve it. If I see a broken pump, I wait with my neighbors, and we watch our children die of malaria.

The great Murray Rothbard diagnosed the problem perfectly when he said that leaping from the necessity of social connection (that's real; we need that), to claims about the necessity of state action is the world's greatest non sequitur. It does not follow. It is false. Yet it is accepted in our schools, and in the halls of our government, as if this lie were self-evidently true. Not just true, mind you. Self-evidently true.

Well, back to the main question: What are we for? Libertarians are for voluntary action, always. It is because we are for society, a vibrant, active society that we resist the expansion of state power.

It is because we are for giving people a chance to reach their full potential that we doubt the motives and effectiveness of government. Political coercion corrupts the human spirit; political leaders tell us they take our wealth for our own good, and straitjackets independent thought -- the essence of liberty.  

We are for individuals, working together in complex, interconnected organizations that they have designed, trying to solve problems. We are for liberty, for celebrating the infinite and infinitely varied capacities of the human mind.

Libertarians are for a limitless sense of the possible, for the idea that for a society of truly free and responsible citizens, nothing is impossible.

Now, when we all go back to our home states, people are going to disagree with us. Hell, we disagree with each other! But as David Nolan said last night: There are NO enemies in this room. We are all for smaller government, personal autonomy, and groups of people working together as equals, as partners. And we are the only party that is for those things.

The Republicans and Democrats are the ones who are (as our own Michael Cloud puts it) tied up in their own nots. Our opponents are all knotted up.

They think we should NOT be able to ride a motorcycle with a helmet. Not just a helmet; an approved helmet. We cannot ingest, or even possess, plants that grow wild in nature.

We can't start a business, hire whom we want, produce what we think is a good product. They will not let us run our own schools, live our lives. They will not let us sell our property, and they may even take our property to transfer it to some other person or group, NOT caring at all about the so-called doctrine of "public purpose."

In short, it is the actually the positions of our opponents that can be reduced to lots and lots of nots.

Libertarians are for the rights of individuals. As Thomas Jefferson said, "It is to secure our rights that we resort to government at all." Not establish, not create: "Secure." Government, if it is to be legitimate, must secure our rights to our persons, our property, and our consciences. As Tocqueville argues, and the experience in Mali proves so painfully, any government that tries to do more than that paradoxically does less. A government that tries to engineer a society always destroys society, because the constitution of society and the nature of the state are antithetical.

So, when your neighbors back home say that they disagree with one or another of the things Libertarians are for, agree with them. Understand their position. As the great Harry Browne put it, of course we disagree on some things. No two people agree on everything. But you, and I, and our neighbors back home, do agree on something, something very fundamental. We agree on what we are for.

We are for a Libertarian society, where a couple wakes up, in their own home, on land that they control, on property that they can defend. This couple formed a bond, by mutual consent, without needing the license or endorsement of any outside agency. They send their children to school that they have chosen, whose curriculum they endorse. When they go out to their car, they don't take an I.D. It's no one's business who they are, or where they are, so long as they initiate no violence and break no laws.

They work in jobs they have trained for, and they enjoy the full fruits of that labor. They contribute to charities or work for causes they believe, and are not forced at gunpoint to support causes they loathe.

What do these schools, these jobs, these causes, look like? What will people do? I have no idea! Isn't it arrogant to think that I could know? Wouldn't it be despotic to think that I have to know?

We are for each American. We are for families, and for groups of people working together to solve problems, serving their consciences and their own goals. We are for responsibility, and choices. We are for a government small enough to fit inside the Constitution. And only the Libertarians can give America back that sacred gift- liberty.

Friends, thank you, and think Libertarian. Think Libertarian.