Previously I have written about the need for libertarians, classical liberals and like-minded folk to focus efforts on “low hanging fruit” when discussing and promoting policy. That advice has largely be aimed at the Liberty & Democracy Party, whose members are sometimes given to arguing to death issues which the mainstream don’t give a rats about. While I am now considering joining the LDP, I think more thought still needs to be paid to this issue.
Now I’d like to present a related metaphor to picking low-hanging fruit; it is climbing the tree. Essentially libertarians are apt to give a lot of time and thought to developing models of ideal worlds, then measuring the real world against them. I know economists do this too, but libertarians like Murray Rothbard – more accurately he was an anarcho-capitalist – built quite detailed descriptions of how everything was meant to hang together ethically, not just economically. The contrast with present practice is stark. Stark and — this is the key thing — highly motivating to a certain sort of mind.
In 1946 a stalwart libertarian called Leonard E. Read said in a speech that if there were a button on his podium that would immediately abolish all controls and regulations on the U.S. economy, he would push it. This is heroic and it swells the chest, but it doesn’t really account for the fact that no such button exists; and if it did, very few voters would let libertarians go anywhere near it.
So we need to look at things a different way. The low-hanging fruit analogy is about going to the mainstream with policies which are simple, which have a large impact, and which are closer to any given libertarian ideal world than our present. This approach relies on identifying big-ticket policies which are more likely to succeed, before proceeding to contentious policies that would delay the overall program. More to the point, it aims to defuse the media’s insatiable appetite for controversy by focusing on areas where consensus is broadly reachable. It also imports a principle of philosophical conservatism that changes should be enacted with patience — that only a few planks should be changed at a time. In software engineering we could call this “refactoring”, the key point of which is that the final outcome may not be visible from the starting point. It is the journey of improvement which leads to the discovery of good solutions, not the hope that it can all be solved up-front.
The tree climbing strategy builds on the low-hanging fruit principle with this simple rule of thumb:
People at the bottom of the tree are there for a reason.
Now by “bottom of the tree” I don’t mean to draw parallels with the rhetoric of “us vs them”; of rich vs poor. Instead I am referring to people who have come to rely on things as they are. It is very common for libertarians to sort of demonise these people a bit: they are ‘tax eaters’, those who benefit from the forceful appropriation from others. But telling people that they are evil just makes them angry. Pride is an important human emotion: why pretend it gets left outside the ballot booth?
Instead libertarians might look at it this way: these are rational and decent people making decisions against an irrational background. They made choices based on what was sensible. We should not punish them for failing to deny their own reckoning of what best served their own interest. After all, we expect the market to rely on this behaviour to produce good outcomes; why would people behave any differently towards the Family Tax Rebate?
So we may need to swallow our pride and accept transitory positions. Jason Soon has brought this up at Catallaxy in respect to ownership of roads. In the ideal libertarian world all roads are privately owned. In the real world they aren’t, and it wouldn’t be possible to make them otherwise without careful consideration of the mechanics of private roads. If we’ve learnt anything over the years, it’s that privatisation is actually quite tricky. We don’t know what the proper market “should” have been. If we did know for certain we wouldn’t need a market, making mockery of Mises. So we guess, and sometimes quite wrongly. The privatisation of Telstra by share issue instead of the auction of its infrastructure is one such potential example.
There is no magic button. But there is the tree. The trick is to pluck the low-hanging fruit without cutting branches from other people. Let them climb without falling too hard first, and they might just agree to come along.