Why Libertarians Lose

Libertarianism has been around for a long time, and yet it’s always had a niche audience. Not only does libertarianism not have mass appeal, it also doesn’t have appeal within elite powerful circles. Some cooky billionaires notwithstanding, libertarians have virtually no influence in media, academia, or any of our sense-making institutions. Their arguments carry little weight in societal discourse, and their power seems to be diminishing overtime. Even though the U.S. government overall is bigger and more bloated than ever before, libertarian ideas are still becoming increasingly irrelevant to people on both sides of the aisle. 

What gives? Why do libertarians keep losing?

First off, they’re selling a bad product. The problem with libertarianism is not that people haven’t heard about it; it’s that people have heard about it, and they still don’t want it.

Why don’t they want it? Because libertarianism doesn’t solve core problems people have. It doesn’t bring anything new to the table; it just takes stuff off the table without any substitution. It doesn't fill someone's needs; it just tells them the thing they're filling their needs with (i.e. government) is bad. And that's never going to be compelling. 

Libertarianism offers them nothing, while there are other people out there who can print literally as much money as they want offering them the world. “We’ll leave you alone” is just not going to appeal to the masses. “Live and let live” is just not that inspiring as a rallying cry. (“Win and help win” is, to quote Balaji). The problem of libertarianism is that its ideas are only appealing to libertarians, who are destined to be just a tiny percentage of the population.

As it turns out, per HL Mencken, “The average man does not want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.” We want to be safe because, given the option between limiting downside or obtaining upside, we often opt for limiting downside. The threat of asymmetric downside often overpowers the opportunity of asymmetric upside.

So when libertarians spread this message, they’re pitching some vague reward combined with this very concrete risk — because by reducing or removing government, they’re taking away their safety net, and that’s not going to go over well.

A key principle of marketing is that if people aren't buying your product, it's not their problem. It's your problem for selling the wrong thing. Libertarians are selling the wrong product; they’re selling what they themselves want to buy, not what everybody else wants to buy.

And they have this product problem because they fundamentally misunderstand human nature. Libertarians see people as rational individuals that make decisions primarily based on reason and logic and their own individual conviction. But humans don’t only act as individuals, they also act in groups, and if you strip away all group memberships, they’ll find new axes by which to form groups. That’s the lesson the New Atheists should have taken from what happened following the decline of Mainline Protestantism: Individuals don’t stay individuals for long.

Fulfilling all your needs by yourself is taxing. Most people don’t want to choose their path from scratch, they want to be led. If you give them the opportunity to lead themselves by selling them freedom, they're going to immediately sell it to the highest bidder who will give them a lollipop

So if you remove the government, the vast majority of your neighbors are just going to do the exact same thing they're doing now. They're going to give all of their power to a political party (or dictator) who promises to protect them and look out for them.

But libertarians don’t just have a product problem, they also have a sales problem--namely that they’re not interested in sales. They’re interested in marketing pamphlets, but they’re not interested in doing what it takes to actually sell. They’re not interested in power, because they think power is inherently corrupt. Libertarians structurally avoid power because they have a problem with the concept itself, and they naively hope they can convince other people of that too. But if libertarianism doesn’t want power, what good are its ideas? They're never going to come to pass, and even if they do, libertarians would be seen as hypocrites in the process.

Libertarians have an impulse to assume the world is like a blank slate on which each of us gets the opportunity to paint our own picture of what we want the world to be. They think it's just a matter of trying to convince enough other people to paint the same picture they want to paint. But we don’t live in a blank-slate beginning of time. We live in the middle of time. We already have a system with rules that everyone plays by. Even if we lived in a hypothetical reality where one could snap their fingers and suddenly everybody's magically a libertarian, that’s not what a libertarian would do. They would say, “Well, no, I can't force my ideology on these people — that’s wrong.” 

Indeed: The structural problem with the libertarian ideology is that the means by which one would bring about such a society violate libertarian principles. There are no means to achieve the ends that would be consistent with its end-state philosophy. 

The problem is that the rest of the world doesn't operate according to libertarian principles. So believing in libertarian principles doesn’t make them any more likely to go mainstream; actually, it’s just the opposite. When the libertarian operates according to their principles, they get wiped out. And then there's fewer people to preach the libertarians gospel as a result.

For example, libertarians believe in the power of debate. Well, trying to debate isn't going to get you anywhere if you’re debating with people who fundamentally don't believe in debate. Especially people who, once they know you believe in debate, will happily bait you into a debate so they can use your own limitations against you.

Indeed, one reason libertarians lose is because they hold themselves to standards their enemies weaponize against them. Every time libertarians use force, their ideology is used against them by people who don't play by the same rules — they get accused of hypocrisy every time they want to fight back. Freedom of association/speech isn’t held across the board. If you’re a libertarian, it's given to your enemies, but it's denied to you.

Libertarians swear by the free market and yet still complain about the results when things don’t go their way. As one example, if if governance was left up to the free market, most people would probably prefer some state to no state. You could say it’s because people have been brainwashed, but where are your brainwashing facilities then? Oh, you don’t want to build them? Why? What market share do libertarians have again? Oh, just 1%? That makes sense.

Consider how confused the libertarian strategy is: They want to use a political party to tell people they don't need political parties. They’re occupying a position of hypocrisy, trying to use democratic means to save a democratic system, while using a message that democracy is a failure and fundamentally doesn't work. As an effort, it’s dead on arrival.

This is the paradox: If you act like a libertarian, you won't bring about libertarianism. Libertarian means don’t bring about libertarian ends. And so there’s a trade-off: if you have so much conviction in your ends, but your means are constantly losing, do you even care that much about the ends in the first place?

In effect, if your principles lead to you repeatedly losing, then impact-wise you’re no different from the people who hate your principles, because you’re both committed to acting in ways that make your principles irrelevant.

Here’s perhaps the biggest libertarian blindspot: they fail to realize that governments can be effective. Just because you’ve seen bad governments doesn’t mean they’re all bad. It’d be as if you worked at dysfunctional companies with dysfunctional leadership and then decided every company should run without leadership.  It’s not power itself that corrupts our political & economic institutions; it’s unaccountable power. So by leaning in on how much they despise political power, libertarians miss the point. Perhaps if their focus was on corruption instead of power they’d be more successful in their pursuit.

Tyler Cowen’s idea of State Capacity Libertarianism is a step in the right direction, as it asserts that you can’t abolish authority: If you abolish authority, you abolish hierarchy, which leads to chaos, and power consolidated somewhere else, since power abhors a vacuum.

In conclusion: Libertarians play in their own little sandbox, but there's an entire playground they’re missing out on. They pretend that the larger playground doesn't exist, or that playing in it would be a waste of time, so they’d rather be king of the sandbox than an average Joe on the playground. As a result, they’re playing status games in their own little echo chamber in their own little ecosystem while having no impact whatsoever on the outside world. 

And that’s because their product isn’t what people want to buy, they’re not doing what it takes to sell it, and their underlying assumptions are hypocritical when put to the test. Libertarians misunderstand how power and human nature work - and they’ll need to better understand both if they ever want their valuable intellectual contributions (e.g. public choice theory, special interests) to take hold.


Until next week,

Erik