One of my very first political clients had no idea what she believed in, but she knew she was a conservative. It was about 20 years ago and I was new enough in political consulting that I’d take whatever clients I could get. The woman was a first-time candidate running for an office with enough prominence that she was going to be interviewed by a local TV news crew. She was terrified, and she became my client because she needed someone to help her prepare and then to run her campaign.
I did a mock interview in front of a video camera and tried tossing her softballs in the beginning just to get her comfortable. I just asked her to tell me what she was in favor of — what she believed in.
“Well, I’m a conservative,” she said confidently.
“What does that mean? What do you believe in?” I asked.
“Well … I’m a conservative. I believe in … well … conservative things. … So I’m … conservative.”
Things went downhill from there. She had no idea what she believed. The only thing she was sure of was that she was a conservative. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that most people are in the same boat. They know what label they apply to themselves, but they have little idea what it means. What’s worse, many others who use the same word use it to mean other things entirely.
The typical response from lots of bright people has been to create complicated charts such as this and this and this. Or even this. The results are messy and confusing for people who don’t want degrees in political science. What’s worse, few of the systems agree with each other.
If you talk about conservatives, are you talking about the Goldwater conservatives of 1964? Are you talking about the Nixon conservatives of 1972? The Reagan conservatives of 1980? Or the Jerry Falwell social conservatives? These four figures represent radically different things, but they’re all called conservative. We could go on and on — and we could do the same game with so-called liberals — but you get the point.
So if the most common labels — such as liberal and conservative — are muddled and meaningless, we’re at least better off in fringe political movements, because we all agree on what we believe. Right? Well, do you know of any two libertarians whose beliefs and values are identical? I don’t. And the more I talk to people about what they really believe and what they really want, I find that they agree on less than they realize they do. Typical libertarians might talk a lot about liberty and property rights, for instance, but the actual definitions of what those things mean get pretty narrow and confusing depending on who you’re talking to.
So are political labels useless? Insofar as completely understanding someone else’s positions, probably. As shorthand that lets some of us work together on some of the key things we can agree on, the labels can have some use. But we have to resist the temptation to believe that everybody who uses our label agrees with us about everything. What’s more important, we don’t have to agree about everything.
In my experience, a shockingly high percentage of libertarians are afflicted with what I call “libertarian disease.” It’s an illness that makes you believe you know everything and have a moral responsibility to explain to everyone else why he’s wrong. If you’re a libertarian, you’ve probably seen it — in online discussion groups, personal bull sessions and 10-hour executive committee meetings of political parties that are supposed to be making plans, but degenerate into arguments about how many libertarian angels can dance on the head of a pin.
We have to learn to work together with people on the things we can work together on, but not personally attack those who we disagree with. Years ago, the late Marshall Fritz spoke to me of “80 percenters” and 90 percenters” and “100 percenters.” He said that many of those who are 100 percent believers in liberty are disdainful of the “90 per centers,” who agree with them about most things but not everything. And the “90 percenters” are many times disdainful of the “80 percenters” — and so forth. I think Marshall was right. As long as we’re living in a society that’s so far away from the ideal any of us wants, we have an incentive to work for the things we all do believe in.
I’d prefer to get away from the labels and talk more about what the world needs to look like — in concrete terms — so that more and more and more people can get what they want. The truth is that I’m not going to get a world that completely looks like what I want it to look like, but you’re not, either. And nobody else is. We can either spend the rest of our lives — and our children’s lives and grandchildren’s lives — arguing about what “the world” should be like or we can try to develop systems that let each one of us set up the corner of the world where we want to live in our own ways.
Some people are going to want to set up enclaves or cities with practices you disagree with, but they have that right — just as you’re going to have the right to say what you want to set up. The key, though, is that you have to be willing to build what you want and then you have to compete for “customers.”
For too long, pretty much everybody has wanted to dictate what “the world” needs to look like. In the post-statist future, you’re going to be able to have what you want, but only if you’re willing to plan it and build it. If you’re not willing to do that, you’ll be stuck choosing among what other people have built to offer to the market. And maybe that’ll be good enough for you. After all, in the same way, most of us shop in stores that other people open and run. The key, though, is that it’s your choice. The state will no longer have a monopoly that prevents you from following a dream of remaking one little corner of the world.
Whatever label you apply to yourself, realize that we all have an incentive to build a world where we can all get our own way. I’d much rather work with a socialist who wants to start a commune/city for himself and others (without requiring me to be part of it) than with a libertarian who wants to force everyone into accepting his version of freedom.