Monday, December 5, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS" by Nick Gillespie & Matt Welch

It's probably important to list the subtitle of this book - "How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America" - even though I'd argue that's not really what this is about. I see these book by two REASON magazine editors as more diagnosis than straight-up solution, in that they do an excellent job enumerating what's broken in the US politically - that would be pretty much everything - and also in providing the libertarian, free minds/free markets antidote. All good, and really, outside of a little overemphasis on drug legalization (Nick Gillespie in particular has made this his bugaboo, outside any sense of proportion to its usefulness to society as a whole), I truly agree with everything these guys say. They're unable to provide much of a roadmap for how we get from political sclerosis to a poltical system that replicates society's more general evolution in a libertarian direction. They argue that this revolution needs to come from below, and eventually will. I truly hope we speed the process up, because it looks pretty dire right about now.

That said, this book was a no-brainer for me to read, although I was concerned it would tread too much ground I already knew, having regularly read these guys' work as long as they've been published writers, often daily over at the Reason blog. I've been a REASON subscriber for twenty years and a small-l libertarian for longer. It's the only political philosophy that has even made any sense to me: Allow liberty to be as wide and as all-encompassing as possible without stepping on the liberty of someone else. Simple, straightforward, and a philosophy that brings out the best in humankind while letting competition for ideas and intelligence drive progress rapidly forward. 

Matt Welch and Gillespie argue quite rightly that in virtually all spheres of our lives, individual choice and decision-making rules the day, with groupthink and hive mentality rapidly exiting our lives. The "organization man" is dead, as are private one-size-fits-all labor unions, government-regulated airline travel, TV channels that number in the single digits, everyone drinking the same beer & coffee and so on. The examples are legion, and are spelled out in funny and engaging chapters in this book. People are expressing their individuality and desire for autonomy & dynamic choice more than ever before - in all areas except for in government, where a 2-party system has a lock on discourse and the status quo.

Anyone reading this book while watching our political system as it exists today can't help but agree. The Republican presidential candidates range from bad to worse to abominable, and this is their appalling answer to the worst President in my lifetime, a man so economically tone-deaf he believes the solution to being out of money is to spend more of it. Welch in particular, a guy I actually knew personally while we were college students in Santa Barbara together, loves the theme of "We are so out of money", and uses this phrase in virtually everything he writes, including as a chapter of this book. He's right, you know - and the reckoning is happening all around us while the political class squirms and sits on their withered, gnarled, do-nothing hands. The authors believe that the libertarian-leaning changes in our society and the trend for Americans to either declare themselves independents or to sit out elections entirely is a bellwether for the destruction of the two-party system, and running out of money will do nothing but sharpen the mind and start the revolution from below.

I actually think it will be more simple than that. A politician will eventually come along within either the Democratic or Republican parties who, through both charisma and a well-articulated & consistent ideology, will seize the moment that's already here, and catch the political system up to the 21st century. The core ideals, which I believe that a solid majority of Americans agree with, are limited government in both private markets and public choices. In other words, someone who lets business succeed or fail on its own merits and gets the hell out of the way, while affirming the ideals of the US constitution and letting you choose what you want to smoke and who you want to marry or have sex with. I just wish I knew who this person or persons were - someone believable and trustworthy who could capture the electorate. It's not the doddering Ron Paul, nor the charisma-challenged Gary Johnson, and certainly not any of the other buffoons running for president in 2012.

One thing that sometimes annoys me about Libertarians - including these guys - is how, in the service or defending their economic views (which are considered too aligned with "conservatives"), they almost apologetically pump up their left-leaning social views to compensate (drugs, sex, "police brutality"). Far as I'm concerned, society will take care of the social stuff and already is - the teenagers of today are overwhelmingly gay-friendly, and have grown up in a time of choice and individuality that will make trying on a new identity as easy as changing the bedsheets. Economics is where the two-party system has a crushing stranglehold on our lives and ability to progress as a society, and where the decisions made in Washington, Sacramento and elsewhere have long-term consequences to our lives and livelihoods. Republicans sometimes talk a good game, but I don't believe any of them, since virtually all of them become cogs in the machine once they get a chance to spend your money. This theoretical political movement that I believe will help move us in the right direction may already be here or coming, but it needs to focus on the big problem of the day - our dysfunctional spending policies and the hindering of true competitive capitalism by government. Not on pepper spray or legalized pot dispensaries.

If you happen to be tottering on the edge of a libertarian-leaning ideology and are wondering how to help crystallize your ideas, "THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENTS" will absolutely help focus the mind. It's engaging, fun and a fairly quick read. What it argues sounds radical until you realize just how well-woven its ideals are in our lives today already, in every area except those whom we choose to be governed by.