The Challenge Libertarians Face to Win American Hearts

In California, the root cause of government waste, failed programs, high taxes, debt and deficits, regulatory abuse, civil rights abuse, and even corporate cronyism is public sector unions. Their agenda is intrinsically in conflict with the public at large because any government program, any government regulation, any tax and any new debt, benefits them regardless of the cost or benefit to society.

In California, public sector unions collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year in dues. Their combined political spending and lobbying easily exceeds a half-billion per two-year election cycle. They are by far the most powerful special interest in California. Businesses embrace cronyism because they have no choice. The unions rule. Businesses either make a deal with the unions who run the state and local agencies, so they can get a subsidy or favorable regulation, or they can fight an irresistible machine.

If you accept this premise, powerful allies are hard to find.

When searching for help in the cause of public sector union reform, one staunch and rising group are those individuals and organizations who characterize themselves as “free market.” Nearly all of them embrace libertarian ideology. Libertarian and fiscal conservative political agendas align insofar as they both want government to operate in a financially sustainable mode that is efficient and accountable.

When a liberal examines the libertarian agenda, however, their support typically peaks on the issues of civil liberties and then falls off the cliff on the economic issues. Good government liberals know something is wrong. They know the economy is rigged by cronyism. They know the government is corrupted by government unions. They want answers. Libertarians have an opportunity to provide those answers, but it won’t be easy.

Google any relevant term, “free market,” or “libertarian ideology,” and you’ll find endless discussions of libertarian principles. But if you don’t already believe in these principles, you aren’t likely to be converted. Here is an attempt at posing some questions – small, then larger – that libertarians have to answer with more than high-minded academic platitudes, if they want their movement to gain a wider following:

(1)  People working for large retail operations are not paid enough to survive on part-time work. So they have to take on two or more part-time jobs to support themselves and their families. But it is common now for large employers to use automated scheduling optimization programs that vary a worker’s part-time schedule from week to week. This makes it impossible for them to hold more than one job. Should any policy solution attempt to address this?

(2)  Automation is making it possible to remove increasing numbers of people from the workforce. Within a few decades, retail clerks, professional drivers, farmworkers – and a host of other jobs and professions ranging all the way to local sports and routine financial reporting – will be fully automated. Is the current wave of technology, one that has the potential to literally replace 50% or more of current jobs with machines, any different from past disruptions?

(3)  For the first time in history, the “population pyramid” of humanity is shifting from a population of primarily young people to one where the elderly constitute the largest percentage of individuals. One would think that automation displacing jobs would be good, since so many people will want to be retired. But what sort of market mechanism will enable all these retirees to survive with dignity?

There are endless permutations of these questions. Libertarians and conservatives are getting better at pointing out the difference between crony capitalism and competitive capitalism, or between engaging in casino finance and providing genuine financial services. They’re right that private enterprise almost always does a better job than government to provide cost-effective services. They’ve been explaining that the conventional notions of extreme left and extreme right are actually both authoritarian nightmares, and people are starting to listen. They need to emphasize more fully the win-win that is realized when businesses are permitted to compete to develop resources of land, water and energy, in order to lower the cost of living for everyone. But they don’t have all the answers. At least not yet.

Thrashing into the weeds of reality may not appeal to orthodox libertarians any more than it appeals to die-hard leftists. But that is the challenge that beckons, in order to debunk and defeat the rhetoric of the ruling class – the government unions and their crony capitalist allies – and to nurture the hopes and assuage the anxieties of millions of part-time workers, displaced workers, and aging workers.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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