The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America
By Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch
PublicAffairs, 288 pp., $25.99
For budding libertarians, certain issues of urgency in the libertarian world may seem esoteric: opposition to the Federal Reserve, proposals to allow young people to opt out of social security, and calls to end the income tax, for instance, may bewilder the neophyte. Fortunately, The Declaration of Independents, by Reason editors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, explains with strong, accessible arguments how the government is messing up America.
On the book’s back cover, Gillespie and Welch ask, “Why we do have more choices at the local coffee shop than we do at the ballot box? If you’re one of the growing number of Americans alienated by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, the left and the right, welcome home.”
The duo weaves a story about the wages of excessive government regulation, noting that the officious government can’t even support itself. Both Republicans and Democrats have done poor jobs running the country, and subsequently the ranks of independent voters are now on the rise. Polling across various regions and demographic groups reveals them to be the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate. Although many self-professed “independents” nonetheless vote consistently for one of the two parties, the authors think their disaffection with the political duopoly heralds a “libertarian moment.”
Gillespie and Welch present readers with easily digestible nuggets of information about the expansion of freedom and choice, using illustrative analogies and examples from pop culture: air travel, rock music, General Motors, Kodak and Macy’s are just a few examples. The pair even pepper in references to Star Trek, Spiderman’s Peter Parker and Slip ‘n Slides.
With Kodak, the authors take us back to the duopoly of Eastman Kodak and Fuji Photo Film, which had strong sales for two decades together. In their prime, people could not fathom a world without them, but when digital cameras came along people quickly moved on, decimating Kodak’s stock value in a burst of creative destruction. The government, by contrast, never has to face consumers choosing to leave because it holds forced monopolies, like K-12 education, or heavily regulates markets, like healthcare.
As for General Motors, the authors explain that before the government bought out the rusting corporation, GM was synonymous with capitalism in America. But when GM finally failed—due to “backward-management combined with plush union contracts. . . . [that created] what is widely recognized as a pension fund that happens to produce some automobiles”—the government illegally bailed out GM via funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. This was another example of the government overstepping its powers, and GM’s customers were no longer regular people, but Washington bureaucrats.
On the whole, however, it is an optimistic book; one of its overarching points is that the country is moving toward libertarian ideals: “The cultural and political moment that we live in is robustly libertarian: Most parts of our lives are based on the notion that individuals will and should have always-increasing power and autonomy over the things that matter most to them. Current politics simply don’t allow for that; indeed, they are premised on the exact opposite,” the authors write. “But only by insisting on the same kind of control over our tax dollars that we insist on having over every other bit and byte of the rest of our lives will we ensure that our own children can pursue happiness the old-fashioned way—far the hell away from politics.”
Over the past 50 years, they observe, the American quality of life has been getting better and better. They point to the proliferation of finely crafted artisan beers, and to the deregulation of the airline industry, which has made it possible to travel cross-country not only cheaply, but quickly and comfortably. These aren’t just enjoyable commodities, but more importantly signal a weakening of the once ironclad bond between big government and big business that fosters crony capitalism:
“Deregulation isn’t the friend of big business; it’s the enemy of corporatism-addicted incumbents. . . . Antiauthoritarianism, government decontrol, and entrepreneurial initiative made people more prosperous and free, and in the process, upset the apple cart of corporate-government stability that had long made the country artificially expensive and boring.”
Since its summer release, the book has received widespread praise. A Kirkus review called it “an enthusiastic, entertaining libertarian critique of American politics, brimming with derision for the status quo and optimism for the future and confident of the right direction.” Tyler Cowen shared similar plaudits in a review on his blog Marginal Revolution:
“This book is a[n] excellent 2011 statement of what libertarianism should be. . . . It’s well written throughout, smart to focus on the areas where libertarianism is strongest, and remarkably for an ‘ideological’ book it never ventures into the absurd or makes indefensible claims. . . . This is the up-to-date statement of libertarianism. Not warmed-over right-wing politics, but real, true-blooded libertarianism in the sense of loving liberty and wanting to find a new path toward human flourishing.”
Conversation surrounding the book has been more interesting than a chorus of applause, however. A representative critical review on FutureofCapitalism .com notes that certain chapters relied heavily on references that were too unfamiliar to younger readers. (For instance, the cultural significance of Cold War Eastern European music such as the Velvet Underground and The Plastic People of the Universe could be lost on them.) Some were unsatisfied with the book’s triumphal conclusion that libertarianism will ultimately trump other political thought systems simply because the socialism and big-government present in today’s America is unaffordable. For others, the book simply did not go into enough detail into how dismantling certain systems, like Medicare and Medicaid, would solve the underlying problems at hand.
While an entertaining and well-written book, The Declaration of Independents sometimes speaks more to an older audience, namely those who grew up during the 1970s and 1980s—the authors’ own generation. Moreover, Libertarianism is a multi-faceted ideology, with some libertarians leaning more towards the left or right, with some calling themselves “Christian Libertarians” and others, like Welch and Gillespie, leaning more toward the cosmopolitan and culturally liberal side of the movement. They don’t acknowledge these differences, but rather take it as a given that their brand is the best incarnation of libertarianism on offer.
Ultimately, while containing some commentary that was dense, and at times went on a few pages too long, The Declaration of Independents is a refreshing and useful primer on how Libertarianism can fix some of America’s more pressing problems, particularly for those less versed in, but intrigued by, libertarian ideals.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin