For libertarians, the quest to reduce (and, eventually, eliminate) many functions of government can appear to be a Sisyphean task. Even the laughably timid federal budget sequester generated a level of outrage and opposition wholly disproportionate to the spending “cuts.” At the same time, if the goal of libertarians is to dramatically shrink the size of the state (fun fact: it is), the question remains: how?
Some libertarians argue that proponents of small government should stand on principle and fight only for the sort of radical change that would quickly and dramatically reduce the size of government. These folks believe that we need to “End the Fed” now, not tomorrow, or next month, or in 2025. These folks believe that we need to end the “Ponzi scheme” of Social Security today, not gradually over time. And they argue that incrementalism is statist and counter-productive.
Other libertarians argue for “fusion” politics, allying either with the Democrats or Republicans to form a coalition that could work within the two-party system to build a movement for economic freedom, civil liberties, or both.
Both approaches are misguided.
Policy change is a messy process; one that happens in fits and starts in response to a combination of factors. Libertarianism is all about resisting central control, so why do some libertarians believe that policy change can be centrally planned through pre-ordained political alliances? We should work with anyone who is in favor of advancing policies that will lead to more freedom. We should not allow ourselves to be “brought into the fold” of a political party.
Take the “War on Drugs,” for example. Forty years after being declared, “the war” is still raging, but public opinion of marijuana legalization has never been higher. Since California legalized medical marijuana, those in favor of marijuana legalization (not just medical) have increased from one-quarter of respondents to one-half.
How did this shift happen? Why did it neatly correspond with the rise of medical marijuana at the state level?
First, advocates for medical marijuana made a pointed and limited case for allowing citizens with cancer, glaucoma, and other illnesses to use cannabis products to alleviate their suffering. This was not about letting people get high; this was about giving doctors the option to prescribe cannabis products to sick patients.
Once voters see that “normal” people can consume cannabis while still holding jobs, raising kids, and being upstanding members of the community, the argument for prohibition begins to lose force. And, once the medical marijuana industry developed better products, more convenient service, and safe delivery of “the goods,” the incremental step of legalization for all adults seems less extreme.
We see the success of incremental policy change in more mundane areas, as well. For my friends who are unfortunate enough to have to drive into Washington, D.C. from Virginia, the I-95 Express Lanes are a perfect example.
When the Interstate Highway System was built, the federal government instituted a temporary gas tax to pay for construction. The idea was that once the roads were built, the tax would be eliminated. Unfortunately, it has not worked out that way. Highways need constant maintenance, new roads need to be built, and money has been siphoned off to pay for expensive transit projects.
The perfect libertarian solution to our nation’s infrastructure problem would be to privatize all of the nation’s roads, allowing the private sector to build, maintain, and charge for usage. This is not going to happen overnight.
The I-95 Express Lanes were new lanes built by a private consortium on government-owned property on I-95. The private operator, Transurban, is required by the concession agreement to maintain the road, and they are limited in their ability to raise tolls. Drivers still have the option to ride in the “free” lanes, but they now have a new choice to pay for a less congested HOT (High-Occupancy Toll) lane, or to carpool and ride for free.
Over time, as commuters become more and more comfortable with the idea of tolled lanes, the political opposition to privately operated roads will decrease. In time, we will move incrementally closer to a fully private road network, which will lead to the private sector competing to more quickly and less expensively get drivers from Point A to Point B. If we had tried to simply go from all government roads to all private roads overnight, the political opposition and inexperience of the private sector would make this policy change impossible.
In football, most teams do not throw a “Hail Mary” on every down. The play is low-percentage; more interceptions are thrown using this play call than touchdowns. Similarly, in the policy environment, supporters of the free market need to accept the fact that not everyone is as intelligent, rational, and policy-savvy. Incremental change allows the market to constantly self-correct as we move towards a freer market. It allows citizens the opportunity to slowly change their habits to reflect changes in law and society. And—most importantly—it is a political philosophy that can, and has, been the most successful in delivering policy change.
Preston Cornish is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Referee image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire