This article was published in the Spring 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Elections, Libertarians, and State Power
If we want to gain powerto dismantle the state
we must start by workingfor good in our communities
by Calvin Stacy Powers

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If there's one thing a libertarian can't stand and won't tolerate, it's philosophical inconsistency. They don't tolerate it in other people and they don't tolerate it in themselves. So often critics charge the libertarians with hypocrisy and ask, "Why do you run for office if you don't believe that using the coercive power of the state is moral?" Most libertarians are hard pressed to produce an adequate answer to the charge. But the libertarians' trouble in answering the question lies not in an inherent hypocrisy, but in their narrow view of the role elected officials play in our society. This myopic view is also, in my opinion, the fundamental reason that libertarians haven't had any credible success in electoral politics.

Libertarians tend to approach elections as simply a mass policy debate. Whoever has the best ideas is supposed to win. Whoever can defend their position most rationally, most consistently, and most abstractly, is supposed to win. As 20 years of libertarian campaigns have proven over and again, this is absurd. But it hasn't yet dawned on the libertarian movement as a whole that the reason they aren't winning elections has nothing to do with their ideas and rhetoric. It's because the other candidates know that a politician is more than a policy analyst, much more.

A politician is a representative of the people who elect him. And by "representative" I do not simply mean someone who casts votes on behalf of his constituents. I mean someone who represents an idealized version of what the majority of people in the politician's district want to project to the world. The electorate doesn't just elect people based on their policy positions. In fact the overwhelming majority of people don't vote for politicians based on their policy positions at all. People vote on the virtues of the candidate. They vote on image. They vote on credibility. They vote on community standing. Electoral politics is a popularity contest, not a policy debate. Policy debates happen after an election, not before it. And the elected politician's role in policy debate is more as a moderator of the debate, on the behalf of the people he represents, than as an active participant.

Whoever becomes the closest approximation to the community's idealized vision of the perfect citizen wins the election. That's why so many elections turn into mudslinging fights where the candidates try to ruin their opponent's credibility as much as possible. Winning an election takes, literally, years. It means becoming a pillar of your community. It means actually participating in all those wonderful institutions we claim are so important to replacing the state. It means volunteering at the local Red Cross. It means participating in the local neighborhood watch. It means serving as an officer in your local PTA. It means doing your fair share of the work at the local charity mission. It means participating in Church community projects. In short, winning an election doesn't mean boning up on the latest statistics from your favorite Think Tank. Winning an election means establishing your credibility among as many people in your community as possible through blood, sweat, and tears. And it has to be more than just a shallow ploy to earn name recognition at election time; people can smell that sort of dishonesty from miles away. You have to be seriously committed to building your community. In short, libertarians have to practice the philosophy they preach. It's how everyone else wins elections. Libertarians will have to do that too. Typically libertarians are never heard of in their community until it comes time to file for the elections. Then they creep out of the woodwork and enter the race. Nobody has ever heard of them before so nobody, except the few percent who share their skewed view of politics as policy debate, votes for them.

But the question remains. "What does a libertarian do, once elected, to reestablish voluntary, civil institutions to replace the coercive power of the state?" Simple. He does the same things that get people elected in the first place. And this is where libertarians and other politicians will part company. After earning the respect of their neighbors and colleagues, through participating in all those community-based organizations, after receiving the blessing of the community by being elected, after being handed the mantle of "Community Leader" by the electorate, the typical elected official will suddenly change tactics and start using the power of the state where they before depended on voluntary means and voluntary institutions. The elected libertarian wouldn't. The elected libertarian would instead use the authority vested in him or her by the electorate to focus on the voluntary community organizations as the proper means for solving problems in the community.

By practicing what they preach, both before and after the election, libertarians can build communities based on voluntary, civil institutions. And when they have proven that it is possible, when they have reawakened the libertarian spirit in their constituents, the community will have no tolerance for other politicians using the ugly, coercive power of the state. D


Stacy Powers lives in Cary, NC and runs The Soapbox, a free online information resource for libertarian activists. The Soapbox can be reached at (919) 387-1152 with most communications software programs.

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