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Breaking the Intellectual Isolation of Libertarianism

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At the Texas Students for Liberty conference I heard a lot of speakers. One of the issues several of them touched on was the intellectual origins of the libertarianism, pointing out quite correctly that it is an intellectual movement on the political right which balances out the intellectual left which generally has a much higher profile. Nigel Ashford from the Institute for Humane Studies was particularly effective in conveying the relationship between intellectualism and libertarianism in the context of the work of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman.

What became clear during Ashford's very enjoyable speech and from the questions which followed is that libertarians, including the young activists at this conference, really do think of themselves as intellectuals and identify with the intellectual elite. What also became clear was that they are utterly oblivious to the fact that they suffer from exactly the same liabilities as the leftist elite, particularly intellectual insularity and the ineffectiveness as a political movement which comes from being so focused on ideology and operating outside of the system that they are incapable of effectively acting on their beliefs or accomplishing anything in the political arena.

The long-time libertarian activists who made up maybe a third of the audience were eager to stand up and talk proudly about their token political campaigns where they spent no money but got their name mentioned in the local newspaper when they won 3% of the vote. Ashford led them on by asking what they would do if they had $10 million to spend on whatever they wanted, which produced a variety of unrealistic pipe-dreams and schemes to flush money down a rat-hole. What he should have said as a conclusion was that so long as they keep themselves splendidly isolated from mainstream politics no one will ever give them $10 million because the money would be wasted on achieving nothing and certainly do very little to grow liberty in the nation.

It's heartening to see the growth of interest in liberty and bringing our government under control, but it's enormously frustrating to see so much of this enthusiasm misdirected into the political dead end and do-nothingism which still characterizes the Libertarian Party. The truth is that the pissed-off non-intellectuals of the Tea Party movement who come to libertarianism out of expediency rather than intellect have already accomplished more real political change in a year than the Libertarian Party has accomplished in more than 30 years.

I suppose that in the academic environment where Students for Liberty operates, the over-intellectualization of libertarianism is inevitable. The members are students, many are graduate students or even professors, and they have already made the decision to live in the ivory tower of academia. This predisposes them to the fallacy of intellectual elitism and the belief that if you think about liberty enough and perhaps write monographs and blog about how society could be perfect you are actually achieving something. What they don't seem to grasp is that there has already been plenty of writing about liberty and how great it is. Hayek, Friedman, Rothbard and scores of others have already produced an excellent body of libertarian thought. What we really need now is people who understand practical politics and can figure out ways to actually address the reality of out of control government.

The young libertarians of SFL are on the fast-track towards a think tank fellowship and a career sucking on the teat of the Koch Foundation. Very few of them will ever break out of that mold. They are thinking of politics and economics as pursuits of the intellect and don't understand that real change only happens in the world of deeds and actions. Even the most activist among them just don't know where to begin to get involved in politics in a realistic way. The answer is not to take put on your ideological purity like armor and launch a Quixotic campaign for congress when you've never served in public office or even worked for a real politician. The purity of your beliefs doesn't actually make you qualified to hold public office and the voters and the groups which endorse candidates and get them elected are looking for practical experience.

If I had Ashford's $10 million or the power to effect real change, I'd take these young libertarians and get them the hell out of academia and away from the environment of intellectual quilting bees and abstract theory. They need to spend time working on actual political campaigns or on Capitol Hill. Even if they're working for politicians they don't necessarily agree with, they'd learn more that's practically useful in advancing liberty from a summer internship in DC than they are going to learn in a pointless lifetime of books and lectures and conferences. They need the practical experience to transform their ideas and beliefs into practical reality and they need to access a different kind of learning.

With some of that practical experience and immersion in the political system, they might learn that the political process isn't really closed to them and that the isolation they find among the libertarian intellectuals is largely self-imposed. Politicians don't listen to libertarians because the libertarians have not learned to explain their ideas in terms of real world. If the liberty message were presented in terms of utility and specific applications then libertarian intellectuals might be surprised to discover that there are real opportunities to influence established leaders and build alliances that will advance their ideas much more effectively than they can ever do in their ideological isolation.

So give me a bucket of money and I'll start a college internship program and put young libertarians to work in the salt mines of Washington. Give them three months or even better a year answering constituent letters or researching legislation or making fundraising calls and I guarantee that they will see countless opportunities to advance liberty in real ways that they could never even have imagined in the isolation of academia and the community of the intellectual elite. Give me the money and I'll give you a generation of libertarians who know how to lead and who know how to create change, not just talk about it.

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • STM

    Not at Panwa you won’t 🙂

  • At this point, if I’m to take both of your advice to heart, we’ll be relaxing on the beach wearing chastity belts instead of bathers…


  • STM

    Yeah, but most people wouldn’t have arced up thinking they were getting a geography lesson … they just would have joined in the conversation, which was about pointing Doc in the right direction when he goes to Phuket, not about you or me.

  • pablo

    STM 33 and 35

    “The southern tip of the island is free of that insanity Pablo.”

    You could have fooled me STM, it sure seemed like you were addressing moi with that statement.

  • STM

    When you get to Cape Panwa, Doc, tell ’em I sent you. Then you’ll be run out of town. Seriously, if you are going, let me know and I’ll ask someone here to make sure they look after you.

  • STM

    Dave: “Did it involve tranny boys with drugs on their nipples, Stan?”

    No, but when you weigh everything up, even that doesn’t sound very bizarre in Thailand. That’s just another night in Bangkok. Anything goes. And conspiracy abounds. No wonder Pablo moved there.

    Sorry Dave, can’t even give you a clue …

  • Thanks for the info and advice, Pablo and Stan.

    We’ll be going on a two-week group tour of Cambodia and (mostly northern) Thailand first, then delaying our flight home by a few days because my wife (she’s in her early 30s, BTW – quite a way yet from being middle-aged!) wanted to relax and lie on a beach.

    We’ve read and heard about Patong and aren’t looking to stay in or near there, although we’ll probably swing by for an hour or two just to see what’s what.

    Stan, you’re definitely selling me on the Cape Panwa. I looked it up on Expedia last night and it works for me – reasonable prices, great setting, good location. I’ll show your comments to Mrs Dreadful tonight and try to convince her!

    Thanks again, guys.

  • Did it involve tranny boys with drugs on their nipples, Stan?

    Note: Most of my knowledge of Thailand comes from tales told by friends in the USN.


  • STM

    Lol. So true Glenn.

    I could tell you a great story about Pattaya from back in the ’80s.

    I just can’t tell it here 🙂

    It was seriously one of the most bizarre episodes of my life, and I’ve had a few.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Clavos –

    I know what you mean – never been to Phuket, but when it comes to R&R, Pattaya can’t have been much different. The most memorable moments I had in Pattaya are wading ashore (there was no pier at the time, so local speedboats got us up close), and selling a small case of Zippo lighters off the ship to a local vendor at a profit (and using the profit to buy a black star amethyst ring for the then-soon-to-be ex-wife). And then there was the new housing development a half mile from the beach – all the advertisement signs were in German(!).

    Funny how a man can enjoy a place so much, yet hopes his sons never go there….

  • When I was in Thailand with my wife, we spent a couple of days in Bangkok, about 10 days, including over Christmas, in a beautiful hotel resort spot called Rim Pae in Rayong and celebrated New Year in Pattaya.

    Bangkok and Pattaya were both exotic and wild, with just enough of a flavour of danger to be exciting but not so much as to be terrifying.

    Rayong was stunningly beautiful; the hotel was in large beautiful gardens that ran out on to the beach and we went on a variety of day trips including scuba diving, out to the island of Ko Samet and down towards the Cambodian border to a gemstone mining town called Chanthaburri. Happy days!

  • STM


    It’s not about you – this is about how Doc, who is travelling to Phuket, can avoid the crowds at Patong and Karon and why he probably shouldn’t go to Koh Lanta, since he actually isn’t.

    You came in through the grouter on the conversation.

    And you’re not the only one on here who knows their way around the place.

  • pablo

    Thanks for the geography lesson STM, I only lived on Phuket for a year.

  • STM

    The southern tip of the island is free of that insanity Pablo.

    It’s confined mostly to the area around Patong, which is why I only go there to shop (and even then under sufferance). Even then, I reckon Phuket Town is better for markets than Patong as the Thais tend not to run after you hassling you, which is what happens in Patong where a lot of the stallholders aren’t Thais.

    About 30 minutes’ drive south, away from the madness, it’s very serene and peaceful and a great place for a break.

    Your right about Koh Lanta. It’s one of the best places in Thailand, but if you’re looking for a decent hotel, it ain’t cheap either. Plus, you’ve got the added cost of getting there and once there, you’re stuck on a real island.

    And without a boat at your beck and call, if you want to head back to Krabi, for instance, let’s say for a day out and maybe a night away from the island, it’s a drama lining up for that ferry.

  • pablo

    I just want to offer you my two cents worth on Phuket Dread, as I have lived in Thailand for over 5 years before, and lived in Phuket as well. Please don’t take this post the wrong way.

    If I had a wife/partner that was middle aged as I am, I would not dream of taking her to Phuket. Aside from Pattaya, Phuket is the second largest outdoor brothel in the world. It is a nice place and scenic too, however there are many other places in Thailand that you might prefer to see that do not have that sort of environment for you and your partner.

    Ko Chang, or Ko Lanta come to my mind first, both are lovely, nice beaches, cheap hotels, and do not have the sort of debauchery that Phuket has. For a single guy looking to get laid, Phuket is great, but I would not dream of taking my partner there. Have a great trip in Thailand Dred.

  • STM

    Forgot to mention the pavilion down on the beach, where you buy some nice thai dishes for a cheap lunch at the hotel without leaving the beach.

  • STM

    It’s a great place to stay Doc, right on the southern tip of the island. Go the next step up from the standard room – ask for a suite. They are slightly bigger and with the way the dollar is against the baht, you’ll get a decent price. Check out the website. Easy to google.

    It’s a great place to chill out, a good way from Patong, and to vary it up you can walk down the hill to the village and there’s a fantastic, really, really cheap waterfront restaurant. If you don’t want to walk, they run a shuttle. You and your wife could eat for five bucks.

    At the hotel, there’s a great colonial-era building on the beach that doubles as a restaurant at night.

    Breakfast is on a covered deck overlooking the water.

    If you want to shop, they’ll organise to drive you to Patong. We got a tuk-tuk home, which was fun even if it was life threatening.

    And Clav, I think if you go to Patong Beach and surrounds, it’s still memorable but most people can’t remember much.

    Which is why, with a 13-year-old in tow, I opted to go the quiet spot instead.

    My wife managed to drink her way through enough local beer to kill a brown dog, though. So sophisticated.

  • Cape Panwa Hotel, eh?

    We’re going to Phuket next month and haven’t booked somewhere to stay yet. Have to check that one out…!

  • Clavos

    I was in Phuket on R&R from ‘Nam.

    Don’t remember much, but it was memorable, if you know what I mean…:-)

  • STM

    Doc: My favourite pastime on Castaway: nothing.

    And I mean that literally. I went there to chill out and do nothing and that’s exactly what I did. I even stopped myself joining in the tip footy match with the staff up on the grassy headland where the helicopter flies in, which was near our Bure. For about 10 minutes anyway. That was the most energetic thing I did on that whole holiday I reckon.

    Like the Cape Panwa Hotel in Phuket, Castaway does “nothing” well.

    And man, is it good, or what.

    I’d be worried about going to Fiji now with Bananarama in charge, just on principle.

    The islands must be restrored to democracy, and now, not in 2014, and once and for all bring a genuine end to the “coup culture”.

  • STM

    Clav, I don’t think Savusavu would be much like Manaus, which from what I’ve heard is a) quite a big town and b) very beautiful in itself, with quite stunning colonial architecture (like the aforementioned opera house).

    And here’s a couple of dive spots for your friend.

    Two place in the Philippines: El Nido on Palawan and Sumilon Island just off the tip of Cebu, about three hours drive south of Cebu City and reachable only by boat.

    From the surface, you can see the grains of sand on the bottom and tiny fish at depths of 10-15 feet.

  • Well, we took the catamaran out, Stan, so I wouldn’t know about Nadi International Seaplane Port. It was a nice ride. Took about 90 minutes and we stopped to drop people off at a few of the other resorts on the way out. Got to see some interesting sights including a sandbar. Yes, yes, I know I can go to any estuary near me and see a sandbar, but this one actually was a bar… on a sandbar. LOL.

  • STM

    Doc: “When we got to the place, it was just a hut and a wharf, with no sign of life.”

    Lol. No, Doc, you dopey pommy bugger. I meant the main seaplane base in Nadi, not on Castaway. There was nothing there, although the lone seaplane float sitting on the ground was a giveaway.

    The plane pulled up right out the front of the resort on Castaway. We were there for a week in 2001, in the furthest bure from the resort, way up the beach. My daughter and I had thongs on (no, not fragrant underwear … flip-flips to Americans!!) when we hopped off the seaplane but my wife was worried about her feet getting wet 🙂 Eventually she took off her shoes.

    And Ruve. Ho ho. Very funny.

  • Leroy

    Libertarians are just republicans, who, ashamed of the republican record, seek to differentiate themselves.

    Otherwise they slavishly follow the republicans.

  • Clavos

    Where the Amazon actually starts is a bit subjective, isn’t it, Clav?

    Actually, I think the scientists agree that the Amazon proper starts at the confluence of the Marañon and Ucayali rivers, which is upstream of Iquitos, near the town of Nauta. Even so, the furthest upstream headwaters are actually in the Andes West of Lake Titicaca. According to Wikipedia:

    “The most distant source of the Amazon was firmly established in 1996,[3] 2001[4] and 2007[5] as a glacial stream on a snowcapped 5,597 m (18,360 ft) peak called Nevado Mismi in the Peruvian Andes, roughly 160 km (99 mi) west of Lake Titicaca and 700 km (430 mi) southeast of Lima. The waters from Nevado Mismi flow into the Quebradas Carhuasanta and Apacheta, which flow into the Río Apurímac which is a tributary of the Ucayali which later joins the Marañón to form the Amazon proper. (While this is the point at which most geographers place the beginning of the Amazon proper, in Brazil the river is known at this point as the Solimões das Águas). Soon thereafter the darkly colored waters of the Rio Negro meet the sandy colored Rio Solimões, and for over 6 km (4 mi) these waters run side by side without mixing.”

    However, as noted, in Brasil, the river is named the Solimoes until the Meeting of the Waters, near Manaus.

    I could have been a bit more explicit in my original post.

  • …its proximity to the “Meeting of the waters,” which marks the joining of the Negro and Solimoes rivers, thus forming the Amazon itself.

    Where the Amazon actually starts is a bit subjective, isn’t it, Clav? Last September I was in Iquitos, Peru (noteworthy as being the largest city in the world which cannot be reached by road), which is on the Amazon and about 1500 miles upstream of Manaus.

  • Castaway Island Doc????

    Yep. Stayed there in November 05. Made the mistake of leaving afterwards…

    When we got to the place, it was just a hut and a wharf, with no sign of life.

    Ah yes, well, you see, the seaplane lands just around the point from the resort, so when you get off, all you see is a deserted beach, the aforementioned hut, a guy raking seaweed, and the raft Tom Hanks used in the movie Cast Away, which was filmed on a nearby island.

    If you’d walked south for a couple of minutes, you’d have hit something approaching civilisation only more relaxing!

  • Clavos

    LOL! That’s funny, Ruvy!

  • Since you decided to take over Nalle’s comment thread, Stan, I’m giving you a taste of “Australian Generosity”

    AUSTRALIAN GENEROSITY AT ITS BEST !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    A big earthquake with the strength of 8.1 on the Richter scale has hit Lebanon.

    Two million Lebanese have died and over a million are injured.

    The country is totally ruined and the government doesn’t know where to start with providing help to rebuild.

    The rest of the world is in shock.

    The United States is sending troops to help.

    Saudi Arabia is sending oil.

    Latin American countries are sending supplies.

    The small island country New Zealand is sending sheep, cattle and food crops.

    The European community (except France) is sending money.

    The Asian continents are sending labour to assist in rebuilding infrastructure.

    The Australians, not to be outdone, are sending two million replacement Lebanese.

    God Bless Our Aussie generosity.

  • Clavos

    The port looks a bit like one of those bigger trading-post towns on the Amazon that you see on cable TV.

    Seen ’em live. I’ve cruised much of the Amazon, though on a charter, not my own boat. The Teatro Amazonas, the opera house in Manaus, is amazing, built in 1896, at the height of the rubber boom, it saw such operatic luminaries as Caruso and Jenny Lind.

    Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, is hardly a “trading post,” but it is interesting, not only for the opera house, but also for its proximity to the “Meeting of the waters,” which marks the joining of the Negro and Solimoes rivers, thus forming the Amazon itself. The waters of the Rio Negro, as its name describes, are black, and the Meeting of the waters is famous for the fact that the black waters of the Negro and the brown waters of the Solimoes flow downstream side-by-side, without mixing, for about six clicks (4 Mi.). It’s quite a spectacular sight. The Amazon basin (with all its tributaries) contains about 20% of all the world’s fresh water.

    it’s on Vanua Levu, the second biggest island…But it’s the surrounding area rather than the town that is so spectacular. Divers’ paradise too. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

    So says a friend of mine who is methodically running down the list of the world’s best dive spots; she dove there two summers ago.

  • Baronius

    Eric, it takes more than money to get the NY senate seat; you also have to free Puerto Rican terrorsts. (Whatever happened to the political hack who brokered that deal, anyway? I hope the Justice Department got their hands on him.)

  • STM

    Yeah, me too …

    Castaway Island Doc???? 15 minutes by seaplane from Nadi, and a thousand miles from caring about anything.

    We rushed from Nadi because the seaplane was leaving at 10.30. When we got to the place, it was just a hut and a wharf, with no sign of life.

    Forgot about Fiji Time. The plane arrived about 11.30, the pilot had no shoes on …

    Paradise. No one rushes.

  • Careful, mate. You might stop in Fiji and not get any further.

    I know a couple of quiet little places in the Mamanucas where you could throw out the anchor and not be too bothered with weighing it again…

  • STM

    Savusavu is where all the trans-Pacific yachties seem to stop … it’s on Vanua Levu, the second biggest island – but not the main island – of Fiji. The port looks a bit like one of those bigger trading-post towns on the Amazon that you see on cable TV. But it’s the surrounding area rather than the town that is so spectacular. Divers’ paradise too. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

    Then it’s probably a day and a night’s sail on to Nadi or Suva on the main island. The little island groups off the main island are, literally, south pacific paradise.

    Most of French Polynesia is paradise too, but a bit pricey.

    Get your boat out Clav!

  • Clavos

    Fair dinkum, mate, with a stop or two in Fiji, p’raps Tahiti, and other delightful places along the way.

  • STM

    Clav: “I’d be outta here … one the high seas”.

    Headed for the Panama canal, and then southwest across the big pond??

  • STM

    Lumpy, why don’t you tell us what you really think?

  • Clavos

    With 10 mil I wouldn’t want the NY senate seat — or anything else to do with the government.

    I’d be outta here.

    On the high seas…

  • I could win the NY Senate seat with 10 mil . . .

  • There’s never going to be ‘pure’ libertarianism in the US or in any modern, complex society — just as there won’t be pure socialism.

    So if we’re always going to have a hybrid, ‘impure’ system, let’s just say so. I definitely agree the mix could use a little adjustment — although I doubt my suggested adjustments would match Dave’s or Kenn Jacobine’s.

    It might help if we would stop caricaturing each other’s models so viciously. The things the libertarian writers on here say about the current administration for instance — pure propaganda, not reasoned, balanced argument.

  • Clavos

    This person was pretty characteristic of LP candidates, who offer a libertarianism that is so diluted that it is almost homeopathic.

    Good line…

  • Nicolas Martin

    Some interesting thoughts, but one error. Most of the “libertarians” who run for office are not ideological purists, they are the LP don’t-offend-anyone type. A recent candidate for Indiana Secretary of State put forth these as his main issues:

    1. Opposition to gerrymandering, which he called a “number one issue.”
    2. Encouraging people to vote
    3. Bringing the Dept. of Motor Vehicles under control of the Sec. of State.

    He delivered platitudes about liberty but took no position on any controversial issue, like drug prohibition. He declared that he was “proud” to have worked for a local government as a permit issuer.

    This person was pretty characteristic of LP candidates, who offer a libertarianism that is so diluted that it is almost homeopathic.

  • Baronius

    A libertarian working constituent services? “No, Mrs. Jackson, this office will not help you with your VA benefits. You shouldn’t have fought an unnecessary war in the first place. And you definitely shouldn’t be taking money from Americans now. Why would you contact this office, anyway? If the VA benefits are yours, and they’re not, you shouldn’t rely on your congressional office to get them for you. That just adds another layer of bureaucracy onto an already burgeoning government. Thank you for your letter. We will be sending you a bill for the cost of this response.”

  • Lumpy

    Libertarians are mostly arrogant fools. The article is right to compare them to the self absorbed intellectual elite of the left. They are just as useless.

  • Dave’s practical suggestions all make sense – this coming from someone who does not agree with a whole lot of his political ideas. You do not learn politics until you actually have to practice politics, convince voters to vote for this or that piddling asshole, or this or that piddling proposition. You do not learn politics until you deal with real people who have real complaints. That is how I learned politics, and that is how I suspect that Dave learned politics as well.

    Ivory towers have one single purpose in the universe – to provide a place for pigeons to shit.

  • Sounds like a plan.

    I bemoan the two party system. It’s not enough parties for me. I fit in neither category, and if I vote for one because I like parts of the platform, I’m invariably dismayed later by the other parts of their dogma.

    I hope the Libertarians find a way into the hearts of Americans that’s unique yet catchy. I don’t think I am alone in my frustration. I’m not “young” but I just might sign up for that.