A Primer on Compromise for Libertarians

By Robin Koerner
Our America Initiative Advisory Council Member for Liberty Coalition Partners

"If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” – Mark 3:25
“Politics at its purest is philosophy in action” – Margaret Thatcher
“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.” – Thomas Jefferson

Whereas to many outside the liberty movement, including the mainstream media, politicians like Rand Paul seem quite libertarian, many Americans who actually call themselves “libertarians” seem to despise Rand Paul for not being libertarian enough in various areas, and so they call him a “neo-con” or a “shill” or similar. 

To other libertarians, Rand Paul is exciting not only because he’s standing up for important pro-liberty and pro-Constitutional positions but also because he’s getting significant parts of the libertarian message into the mainstream, and doing it in a way that isn’t making everyone roll their eyes and marginalize him as some kind of a kook. The latter may be his most important work because culture drives politics, and cultural change is what makes political change stick.

Among the latter subset of liberty-lovers, there is some frustration in the perception that as a movement, we actively refuse to make the best of every opportunity (and goodness knows we have so few of them) to move the dials of the cultural and political mainstream toward liberty.

Like it or not, it is almost impossible to discuss political effectiveness without an understanding of the nature of compromise. Speaking as an insider of the liberty movement, I believe we have a particularly uncomfortable relationship with it, which we must examine if we are going to cease to be political outsiders.

A good way in to the topic is to consider the sentiment, felt by so many of us who realize that both sides of the political duopoly (or monopoly disguised as a duopoly) are responsible for the destruction of our liberty: “I’m sick of supporting the lesser of two evils.”

What does that really mean? For a libertarian, liberty is the direction of the Good, and tyranny is the direction of evil. In a complex society of competing interests, and especially in politics, you almost never get to move directly toward where you want to go (your version of the Good).  Imagine it on a diagram. Draw a line from where we are to where we want to be: we are moving in the right direction when we move not more than 90 degrees from the direction of that line.

On our political spectrum of evil (tyranny) to good (liberty) stand those who would actually make things worse than they now are. They want more Patriot Act, more state killing without due process, more NDAA, more curtailments of speech, more invasions of privacy, more welfarism – especially corporate , and more militarism.  In 2012, Romney and Obama both fitted that description. In other words, they stood between where we are and the “evil” end of our spectrum. To support either was to move more than 90 degrees away from the line to the good that we are seeking to follow.

And indeed, if you thought one was less bad than the other, then you could accurately call him the “lesser of two evils”.

I wonder if, though, in its passion, the liberty movement sometimes mistakes the lesser of two goods for an evil? For consider another situation. Consider two imperfect candidates (the word “imperfect” is redundant, of course: people are not perfect). One that stands between where we are as a nation and the Good (liberty) cannot be said to be “the lesser of two evils”. At worst, he is the “lesser of two Goods” - since should he take office, we’d have moved in the direction we are seeking to go, even if not as far as we would wish, and even if not along that direct line to the Good.

Let’s say you like the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson on nearly everything; you like the Libertarian Party because it’s unapologetically libertarian. And let’s say you like Rand on civil rights and due process, but think he’s as bad as Obama on everything else. (I don’t think this is reasonable, but there are plenty of Libertarians who say this, so let’s go with it for the sake of argument.)

If that’s what you think, then don’t call Rand the lesser of two evils. Call him the lesser of two Goods. If you don’t actively support Rand because you have a more libertarian alternative, that is great, but take great care before standing against those who support him - for one simple reason. If he were running the country, in important respects, we’d have shifted closer to your ultimate destination … not just politically, but, more importantly, because one of the greatest media platforms in the land would be in the control of someone who promotes – and normalizes - many libertarian ideas, rather than in the hands of someone who promotes – and normalizes - statist ones.

“That’s all very well”, say some libertarians, “but even if I like him on some issues, look at how he’s sold out on others, and on his endorsements”. This is worth considering because someone’s consistency speaks to their integrity and you can only really tell the value of someone’s principles when you see the price he’s prepared to pay to defend them.

To stick with Rand Paul as an example, when he endorsed Romney in 2012, I felt physically sick for most of the day.  I campaigned against Romney fervently - as fervently as I campaigned against Obama, and as fervently as I had campaigned for Ron Paul. I did so out of principle. Which begs the question, does that mean that Rand’s endorsement of Romney necessarily violated the principles on which my campaigning against Romney was based – or worse, was an act of selling out?  Put simply, how could a person who campaigned against Romney on principle support a man on the same principle, who campaigned for him Romney?

When Rand ran for Senate in Kentucky, he made a deal to gain the support of the Republican party, which he calculated he needed to be able to win the Senate seat, if and only if he supported the eventual presidential nominee of the party in 2012. So in 2012, Rand kept his word. What did he get for keeping his word and doing that (literally) nauseating thing of endorsing Romney? Simply, he got the platform that has enabled everything he has done since.  Now we might say, “but he didn’t have to: he could have won in KY without selling out”. Perhaps. But that is a hypothetical and necessarily uncertain.  Rand had to make an actual decision to maximize his capacity to achieve a specific purpose.   What we know is that he made that decision for a reason and he got the result he played for.

So that endorsement, when seen in its full context, has moved the dial toward liberty inasmuch as Rand has, since making it, stood against the NSA, against drone killing of Americans without trial, against militarization of the police, against unconstitutional declaration of war, and all the other things Rand and his staff have stood for since he’s been in the US Senate. Did the endorsement make me sick? Absolutely. Does that mean I stand in judgment against of it from a libertarian position? Based on the analysis above, of whether the net effect of his actions was to nudge the culture toward liberty or away from it, I cannot – because principles are made valuable when they are acted upon.

As the liberty movement comes of age, it will have to understand that, whereas some endorsements and other political moves are made purely out of principle, some are made – and must be made – strategically to better place a principled politician to act on his principles. Usually, those of us on the outside of the game cannot see, or even guess, the factors that a politician must consider in the strategic calculation at the time he must make it – and we cannot see the outcome until much later.

When Rand endorsed McConnell a few months ago, what was the calculation then? More libertarians were sickened. McConnell is a partisan, after all – and a partisan man of a party that has undoubtedly promulgated anti-libertarian after anti-libertarian policy. Was Rand’s endorsement of him a compromise of principle or a means to gain something that will enable him to get support for a practical change in the direction of some principle in the future?

A fair answer must consider this: is it better to make an unprincipled declaration to be able to make positive principled change – or better to make only principled declarations and thereby be excluded from being able to make that principled change?

Even more important is this question: is it better to go along with a bad state of affairs when you believe that your overt support cannot make it worse if it enables you subsequently to do good – or is it better to state one’s opposition to that current state of affairs from the get-go but in so doing reduce your chance of being able to put your principles into practice and change it with great effect later?

Clearly, good and principled people can and do answer both of those questions differently. But the differences in answers are not necessarily themselves differences of principle: they are just as likely to follow from differences of beliefs about method or strategy.

All this means that a political act cannot be judged in isolation from the context in which it is made – both situational, and personal. When it comes to the horse-trading of politics, we, the public, are very far removed from the game. We have no idea, say, of what was given or taken for that endorsement of McConnell. Does the fact that McConnell’s victory speech stakes out for the first time ever a non-interventionist foreign policy indicate that Rand’s strategic concessions are bringing concessions from the Republican party on philosophy? I don’t know, but if so, great - because that’s exactly how you want to make those trades: make concessions that make nothing worse, to win concessions on that actually make things better.  (Consider the political equivalent of exchanging Federal Reserve Notes for gold.)

But we still haven’t gotten to the most radical challenge of political compromise for principled citizens: we are often too quick to label as “compromises of principle” decisions that not only aren’t compromises of principle at all, but are their very opposite - principled compromises. For example, if a statement or endorsement is not going to actually make a practical difference to anyone’s liberty in the short-run, but has a significant chance of enabling the person who makes it make a material difference to our liberty in the long-run, then at the level of principle, the statement or endorsement is not a compromise at all: it is actually principled act inasmuch as it is a step toward the practical manifestation of principle.

While the unapologetic statement of principles is a critical component of cultural and political change, principles that never become more than statements are worthless. Libertarians have been purely stating their principles for a long time – and look at where we are.  Let’s at least allow that playing to win is a reasonable approach for a libertarian and/or Constitutionalist politician who wants to be in a position where his principles can have a practical and long-lasting impact.

Winning means being in the game. It also means collecting enough good cards throughout the game to be able to play a strong hand for liberty when the opportunity to make actual change arises.

If you can’t stomach that game, then don’t play it. But if you are of the “no good can come of politics” mindset, please be careful of taking a position whose logical consequence is that all who fight for liberty within the political process are irredeemably compromised - for that position is denied by history time and time again. Throughout a thousand years of Anglo history, the established political process, with all its flaws, has been the arena in which the hard-fought improvements in liberty, won by the People, moved first in the culture, have been secured for future generations. In times and places where it hasn’t been, change has typically been violent (think of the Russian revolution, or the French revolution), and less successful in securing liberty at all.

Indeed, fighting for liberty “in the system” vs. “outside the system” is an entirely false dichotomy: history and common sense both say that when real society-wide change happens, it reflects attitudinal changes outside of politics that are eventually realized in the political establishment.

One of my favorite examples is that of Thomas Clarkson, a student of my alma mater, who in 1786 wrote a thesis on the “slavery and commerce of the human species”. He spent two years travelling on a horse around England, interviewing people, collecting information, sharing information, talking about the issue of slavery, publishing engravings of instruments used on slave ships etc. He wrote another tract in 1788, “Essay on the Impolicy of the African Slave Trade”. There were myriad currents and reasons that explain the shift in Britain against slavery, some to do with the economics of empire, others to do with the loss of the American colonies. But none of that marked the actual beginning of the end of the slave trade: that came because of a principled politician, but a politician nonetheless, called William Wilberforce, who directly incorporated Clarkson’s work in a speech in Parliament in 1789 that resulted in the vote to end slavery.   It may not have been able to have been done without Clarkson. But it certainly could not have been done without Wilberforce – or someone else playing the game of politics, as committed as he was to advance the one libertarian issue the country was ready for, compromising as necessary as he, and his supporters, went.

I campaigned against Romney for president, on principle. The organization with which I am associated campaigned against him fervently, supporting Gary Johnson, also on principle.  But I don’t get to sit in judgment of Rand on principle - because my context was not, and is not, his. Rand was operating in a world where such a compromise may enable him to do more for liberty than I can do. In other words, a compromise that for me would definitely have been one of principle, for him may, have been just methodological.

That the same principle can result in different decisions in different contexts has profound implications for political strategy. Once we admit that we never can fully know the context in which others operate in, the humility gained should help us not divide our small libertarian house against itself.

I wonder if there are a few Libertarian Party supporters, or Independents, who are reading this, and caring about liberty as I do, can’t imagine voting for Rand for president if Gary Johnson was also running. Just as I endorsed Johnson in 2012, I’d be delighted to see him run again in 2016. But remember this. If Johnson becomes the Libertarian nominee for president in 2016, and there is every sign that he shall, it will be because of the compromise he made to run and win as a Republican for Governor of New Mexico, in which capacity he did more for liberty – and especially economic liberty - in his state than any Libertarian or unaffiliated governor has ever done.

That’s unfair because there hasn’t been a Libertarian or unaffiliated Governor? Well, exactly.

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that soon, libertarians and Constitutionalists may have the opportunity in a Presidential election to choose between a very small chance of moving the country a long way toward liberty (say by a vote for a Libertarian Johnson for President) or a much larger chance of moving it toward liberty but less far (say by a vote for a Republican Rand for President).  Good libertarians can make that call differently, but none can claim without arrogance that those who decide differently are choosing the lesser of two evils: in this case, they’ll be deciding between two goods. That is a fundamentally different thing, especially when you consider that even the lesser of two goods on paper might become the greater of the two if it is better placed to do the Good it wants to do.

This is emphatically not an article written to endorse Rand Paul or Johnson or any other politician. Rather, it is a plea for libertarians who put more weight on moving the dial toward liberty at all and libertarians who put more weight on the need to turn the dial a long way, to recognize that we are not opponents.  It’s the very fact that each of us is using liberty as the primary metric for choosing whom to support  - that, in other words, we are all seeking to move to the Good - that puts us on the same side.

Of course, there are those who just hate all parties and the electoral process, on principle.  And that is a perfectly defensible position too. But the problem is the same, because the measure of Good is not just what you stand for; it’s what you deliver.   (That is a truth that all libertarians see clearly when it comes to Republicans who talk about small government and individual rights and deliver none of it, or even its opposite. Consistency demands we apply it to ourselves.)

I, too, am a purist by instinct. At Thomas Clarkson’s university, I studied physics and the philosophy of science. For purists, I recommend these subjects heartily.

But now I’m doing politics - and political purism, alas, is a contradiction in terms.

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