Whether and How to Stand

I have been giving considerable thought to whether and how to stand and be effective at standing in Beckenham or elsewhere for a small party for this snap election. Since you are probably interested, I have decided that I am unable to bring forward the resources myself to do so.

I do have a fairly clear idea of what I would try to accomplish (and it isn’t winning…) but what is really required in the context of a snap election is a well-formed team of experienced people who will commit and deliver, to a plan, in an accountable way. I do not think that the team described above exists today, and in this context it must exist now.

I sense that people underestimate what is involved in total. Conversations between libertarians about standing tend to begin and end with issues like finding the deposit, the requisite 10 signatures, what forms to fill in and sometimes some issues around expenses. I think that the scope of such conversations is therefore limited to only a small part of the overall process and, tellingly, mostly those parts that are fixed in law and not the parts that need to be designed by the people involved.

My strategy would have been to expend modest yet significant resources, primarily time, on the following activities with a goal of gathering actionable data. I’ll talk about that data and why it could be useful later, but notice that neither winning nor even gaining publicity are goals. Only learning is a goal.

  • Collect The Nomination Signatures
  • Get Nominated
  • Set up a database to which people can register online.
  • Make preparations to receive paper sign-ups.
  • Design a leaflet and print 70,000 copies to the Royal Mail deadline.
  • Design and build a websiste with appropriate calls to action, policy statements, analytics and database sign ups.
  • Participate in interviews for approximately 5 media outlets.
  • Negotiate and Fix on 4 to 10 key messages.
  • Design around 20 online advertisements (10 Facebook, 10 Twitter) , possibly including landing pages (i.e. 10 or 20 bits of medium length marketing copy)
  • Set up and fund the advertisements to run in Beckenham (or elsewhere).
  • Collect Click-Through Rates, and goal conversion rates for newsletter and party membership sign ups.
  • Develop an additional leaflet for distribution by activists.
  • Manage the distribution of leaflets.
  • Attend the count and declaration, additional media appearances.
  • Tabulate CTR, conversion rates and vote counts alongside demographic data (age, gender, postcode) and any interest profiles made available by Facebook or Twitter. i.e. work out who seemed to be interested and who did not seem to be interested.
  • Attempt to apportion vote counts to buckets of electors within the pre-polling day results. i.e. work out who we did well with and who we did not do well with on polling day
  • Make follow up inquiries and conduct surveys with the electors in the database in order to generate additional insights and confirm insights.

The result of the above process would be data that would allow a party to refine it’s marketing strategies and decide for example, which localities to develop candidates in, where to establish meetups, how to spend it’s advertising budget etc. If people really want to scale up libertarian efforts in the face of the unique challenges of our time, then such data is invaluable.

It is possible I have presented a chicken and egg scenario. To stand needs a team but a team must be forged from shared experiences. It is also possible that I am wrong – there are plenty of passionate libertarians who do at least know each other. In either case the question is how do we go from where we are now, to a place where there is a team ready to go the next time an election is called.

Democracy Will Win, The People Will Lose

In our society “democracy” is a universally positive concept. Many people use it synonymously with freedom. Tyranny and democracy do not go together. It is remarkable that this positive image can continue to prevail, despite the fact that most people are ready to admit that there is a lot that is going wrong in politics.

The main reason that people seem to continue to promote democracy is that they cannot possibly imagine a better alternative to the system. But why are we so willing to accept the popular claim that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others? After all it has brought about some truly bad results. The Nazis, one of the most criminal regimes in human history, came to power in a democratic system. Right now, we have a number of truly ugly governments in power, who have the blessing of the voters, from Erdogan in Turkey to Putin in Russia, Orbán in Hungary and Duda in Poland, to name just the most obvious. All these governments won in fair elections.

And then of course there is the current election in the US. As I am writing this, it is not clear who is going to win this election circus, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Whoever it may be, democracy will have won in the end. Whoever it may be will have come to power with the blessings of the voters.

And that is saying a lot. As before every election, we get the usual ‘this time is the most important election ever’ mantra. I have never bought into that, but I have to say, even to me this time seems a bit different. The wisdom of the crowds has narrowed the realistic choices for the oval office down to two candidates who are so awful that even their supporters often cannot praise them with a straight face. In fact, this election, the vast majority of people seem to vote mainly against the other candidate rather than for someone.

I was surprised to see that even a libertarian like Penn Jillette came out openly saying that he is going to vote for Hillary Clinton, a candidate that he admits he has no agreements with. His vote for Clinton is purely a desperate attempt to keep Trump out of the White House. I cannot even blame him.

This absurd situation is fundamentally the result of a democratic system at work. No one can seriously say that there is something undemocratic about the awful and dangerous situation that the American people find themselves in. And yet, I hardly hear anyone seriously questioning the legitimacy of this evil charade.

That is remarkable, since it does not seem difficult to imagine a better alternative. What about liberty? What about just accepting the idea that people have unalienable rights to their life, liberty and property? What more do we need than that to organise a very attractive society for everyone? There is no need for a government to constantly change the law. All we need is a legal system that enforces these rights. All the details of life that need sorting out can be better arranged by free contracts between the people involved in the decisions, rather than a one size fits all top down government.

But no, unfortunately, liberty is not an option for most people. Or worse, they are so confused that they think liberty is what democracy is. They rather think that this absurd situation of having the choice between Trump and Hillary, having Erdogan, Putin, Orbán and Duda telling them what to do with their lives is the absolute best they can do. That is sad, but I don’t see this changing soon. That means that unfortunately, as ever in fair elections, democracy will win and the people are fucked.

The Ignorance in “Rational Ignorance”

It would seem there is among the politically-minded professoriate a widespread belief that there is such a thing as “rational ignorance,” which holds that it is not particularly rational for any potential voter to waste time studying up on political affairs, researching candidates’ histories and positions, and so forth. Maintaining ignorance of the political factors of the day is “rational.” From this it follows, of course, that any political activism or activity is a waste of time except for those whose hobby, profession, or hustle it is. From which it follow that voting itself may be a pointless activity for any particular individual.

© Colin

© Colin

But wait. Isn’t this the cart pulling the horse? Actually, these foolish intellectuals present the argument for “rational” ignorance based on the claim that any given person’s probability of affecting the outcome of the vote is statistically tiny. And if that’s the case, voting’s a waste of time and, therefore, so is becoming educated on political matters. (It’s important to note that that’s a complete non-sequitur, since you can do a lot to influence how OTHERS vote even if you forgo doing it yourself.) Proponents of this amazingly ignorant doctrine include such up-and-comers as Michael Huemer of the U. of Colorado, who is considered by many to be a libertarian. But Prof. Huemer has plenty of company.


On the contrary.

First, and as to voting most obvious, there is such a thing as the cumulative effect of tiny increments. That, of course, is in fact the way voting works; the very notion of the statistical probability of a given person’s vote’s determining the outcome is really not even applicable.

Usually it’s not because of any one, particular person’s vote that X won the election. It’s because of the aggregated effect of the votes for and against X. And (assuming all the votes are counted accurately and are honestly reported), every vote cast counts toward that aggregate effect. And that includes the votes for the losing candidate or the losing ballot initiative or referendum.

Let me restate from a comment I made in a Libertarian Home discussion last week:

The doctrine is beyond false; it’s downright silly. Why? Because we DO have elections that DO produce winners and losers BECAUSE OF the proportion of votes that WERE cast. The fundamental error in the whole thing is that it isn’t this or that or these or those votes IN PARTICULAR which matter: It’s the cumulative effect of all the votes cast for each candidate or each ballot initiative or in each referendum that makes the difference.

The Democrats always run a huge and successful get-out-the-vote campaign. Because what matters is the bottom line, and they understand that if nobody on their side votes, their bottom line will be a goose-egg: LOSE! But if enough folks can be persuaded to vote (whether by argument, intimidation, or bribe), the result will be WIN!

Returning to my earlier comment:

Had another mere 4% of the voters in 2008 taken the trouble to be aware of Obama, his history, his background, they and we would at least have not ended up with a Chicago-Machine-cum-totalitarian-wannabe as President. –Not everything he said was a lie, however: For those who do understand that there’s a point to non-ignorance, he said forthrightly what he was gonna do, and he’s doing it.

Indeed, according to Wikipedia the final popular vote was 65,915,796 for Obama, 60,933,500 for Romney. Not counting any votes for some other candidate, this adds up tot a total of 126,849,296 votes cast, and Obama won by 51.96% of the total vote; Mr. Romney carried 48.04% of the vote. The spread between them, then, was less than 4%.


Second, it’s true that all of us have only a finite amount of time at our disposal, and (probably) infinitely many ways in which we could spend each second of it. So we must prioritize, and it may well turn out to be, per our own circumstances and value system, better to spend time learning how to take the best possible care of the coming infant than to educate ourselves properly regarding political philosophy, the current situation, and the candidates. But that’s a question of the rational choice of priorities, and persons in different situations might choose differently–for instance, perhaps the pregnant lady has already chosen adoptive parents who will assume parentage of the newborn immediately she delivers, so she can take time gather political information; whereas the lady next door, also expecting for the first time, judges that the more important priority is to learn how to avoid breaking the infant’s neck by accident.


But — this leads us to the third point, which is that each of us has to live with the consequences of the fact that X won. And this will often enough have an effect not only on our own lives even years hence, but also on the lives of the next generation, and the one after that, and ….


Finally, in general: while ignorance in any field may be necessary for any of a variety of reasons, it is rarely in and of itself rational–even knowing baseball statistics is of value to some. (Although, very rarely, willful blindness to the realities of the situation may be the only way to overcome panic enough to act.)

“There is no such thing as useless knowledge.”


However, all of this impinges on the issue of whether a society is encouraged to maintain itself in a state of ignorance in general, and is encouraged to believe the educational theory making the rounds in the early 70′s. This was (and, if you believe in Rational Ignorance as a good excuse not to bother learning, still is) that “you don’t need to know it, you just need to know how to Look It Up.” The college-kid sages of that era loved to spout that one. Well, intellectuals have always been full of prunes — I should know, having been pretty pruny myself from time to time — but when the teachers teach such baloney, I call it malfeasance. And similarly for any theory implying that ignorance is a value, that it is irrational to confront and try to affect a situation or event that so clearly can be affected by those with a certain kind of knowledge. (In politics, also by uneducated or miseducated fools, alas.)

Which brings us to the concept of Enlightened Self-interest. The concept includes (among other things) the understanding that one sensibly and rationally seeks knowledge, rather than a comfy maintenance of ignorance, in matters which seem likely to have a serious effect on the long-term course of one’s life. And, as Mr. Robert A. Heinlein wrote:

Politics is “barely less important than your own heartbeat.”

Video: Is UKIP a comfortable home for libertarians?

Harry kicked off the talk by saying that unfortunately UKIP has suffered from some misconceptions but his mind was made up that UKIP was a comfortable home for adherents of the non-aggression principle. I did find it strange that the very next thing Harry said was that objectively UKIP is not libertarian, which for me somewhat conceded the proposition to the floor. Why did he say that?

Factually, UKIP does support an income tax, and it supports state-provided healthcare and education paid for from that tax, which means there will be redistribution of wealth under a coercive system. Yet UKIP, he claimed, was libertarian leaning and the most libertarian leaning of any party. That meant that Harry could feel at home.

For Harry ideas that are not put into action are inert, and putting them into action is very hard work. That means having an institutional party to do that hard work.

A party has several aspects, which Harry listed:

  • Policies, which are what you stand for but have to be a blend between what you believe and what is achievable.
  • Voters, in order to win elections, must be won in large numbers which necessitates policies that have broad appeal.
  • Constitution, allowing a specific ideological stance
  • Members, who’s stances shifts over time but which is also visible to voters.

Harry claimed that it is not possible to achieve “broad cultural change” without participating in elections. That “teeth” and broad appeal were required to make those changes. He dismissed pressure groups as incapable of achieving change outside of narrow issues or policy areas.

He told us that most voters vote in a positive way for a party they want to see govern, not in a negative tactical way; and that voters want to know where you are coming from as a group and from where you get support. The reason for that is that they want to know that while in government, responding to changing circumstances, your instincts and incentives match their own. If you don’t talk to people about healthcare and education and the whole host of other things that they get from politicians, from the state, then they won’t be interested in talking to you voting for you.

Harry claimed that UKIP is libertarian in its constitutional document, which now contains a sound statement of intent. So people will look to it’s constitution and know the party’s instincts.

At this point, Harry went on to make his main point, that when people look beyond the paperwork to the members they will demonstrate libertarian credentials. The young people joining UKIP are libertarians and those new members will slowly shift the dominant ideology of the group and leave the old school of Tories and anti-EU lefties stranded and ready to leave. The party must have mainstream policies for the reasons above, but people will apparently know where their heart is by looking at this membership.

So what of those policies?

Harry boasted UKIP’s Friedmanite voucher system to introduce choice, diversity and value to education. He boasted the flat tax policy which, though being a tax, was at least transparent and difficult to meddle with. He defended the policy of direct democracy and referenda. On this, he acknowledged the tyranny of the mob but suggested it was a useful protection against bureaucrats in areas where decisions must necessarily be democratic. On spending he was proud of UKIP’s pledge to scrap whole programmes worth 10% of spending.

The burka ban, immigration, and gay marriage he had less time for, but suggested they were not as illiberal as we might have heard and benefited from a closer examination.

Making his final pitch, Harry reminded us that a party is essential for effecting broad change; that attracting defecting voters was hardwork, but UKIP’s package, spokespeople and branch institutions allowed it to build a base of habitual UKIP voters; that the institution needs to be paid for, which means having members which must be attracted by having broad appeal and a good package.

He addressed the idea that the EU focus made UKIP seem transient, and claimed that awareness of its other policies allowed it to gain a form of permanence (because the referendum rug cannot be pulled out from under them if they stand on the other issues).

He said UKIP has an opportunity to stake out the classical liberal ground. That it is starting to steal votes from Labour as well as the Tories and that this was thanks to this package and its broad appeal.

My conclusions

Frankly, having played the talk through a couple of times I’m confused. It seems strange to me that a party can have ideologically compromised mainstream policies that are not objectively libertarian when examined, and yet be observably libertarian to the public. I’m not sure it matters that UKIP doesn’t really use the word libertarian or name the movement’s principles, but the limitations of mass media mean voters won’t receive the detailed explanations Harry offered us.

Also, the basic claim made is contradictory on it’s face. It is as if Harry said “it is essential to effect changes via elections and people will vote for our mainstream authoritarian policies because they like how libertarian we are underneath”. It might be awfully clever politically but I have no idea how that can actually work.

I want to support something that talks explicitly about moral principles and changes the assumptions about what is and is not beyond the pale. That’s something that blogs and books did for me by explaining over and over why today’s news events are good or bad. If a policy suggestion is well-intended but coercive I’d like to see TV pundits and newspaper columnists chew it up and spit it out because it is coercive, even when well-intended. Once that happens no-one will get away with coercive policies ever again, but I don’t see how UKIP’s weird message can produce that kind of genuinely broad and deep cultural change while being contradictory on the surface. A party that was ideologically pure and lost every election, such as the lefty enviromentalist’s Green party, could do a better job at making this kind of change, and I’m far from convinced that well-designed pressure groups don’t have a role too.

However, if your purpose is merely to get a school voucher system tried in the next 20 years, then UKIP is more interesting. I think if the UK tried a voucher system, and the consequences were allowed to speak for themselves then the idea might become mainstream, might, but without the why being talked about I don’t see the mainstream adopting consistently libertarian positions long-term. Yet, if I’m wrong and UKIP is able to get it tried then we might learn differently. To succeed in that respect UKIP must do a lot better at putting those things onto the public’s agenda.