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Libertarians and conservative activists are fighting a losing battle. They are working to reduce the size of bloated governments at all levels as they attempt to abolish everything from abortion, to food stamps, to zoning laws. But even in Utah, where the dominant religion highly values choice and freedom, those fighting the hardest for these causes are getting defeated at every turn. Their ideas are viewed as impractical, unrealistic—even heartless. If they are to be successful and bring government to the state of liberty they desire they need to practice what they preach: employ the free market and out-compete the government.
Typically government programs are established in order to meet a need, or a perceived need. While there may be other underlying reasons, public support comes because people believe the programs are necessary. Government welfare, health care, daycare assistance, education grants, and even more local issues such as zoning laws have all come about because there was a void or a perceived void in the marketplace. Once those programs were put in place they expanded. People came to expect them, rely upon them, and ultimately cannot fathom life without them.
If any of these programs were to end abruptly many people would be hurt—even devastated. When it really comes down to it, almost no one is willing to let that happen. Even many who believe people are harmed more than helped by government aid, and who believe it immoral to confiscate from one to give to another, are afraid to leave grandma without prescription coverage, or little Johnny without lunch. This is the reason many libertarian ideas are criticized as being unrealistic. But this does not mean that shrinking and ending these programs is impossible. There is a solution.
The solution is competition in the marketplace (and yes, I mean marketplace as opposed to free market, as the market is not completely at this time). The marketplace is what human beings use to fulfill the needs and desires of the human family. Most are familiar with how it works. If you do something well, you get rewarded. If you do not do something well you go out of business. If you do something well and someone else comes along and does it better or cheaper, you either improve or go out of business. It’s simple. It works. So why not apply it to activism?
Imagine if local food pantries had a significant increase of community support. Imagine if they gave better help, had a higher success rate, and a less intrusive way of determining who to help than the food stamp program. The food stamp program would naturally diminish. Then, if one were to propose to elimination it there would be no need to worry about accusations about “cold-hearted” conservatives allowing people to starve in the streets.
The same can be applied to many aspects of government. One can spend time lobbying the legislature to make abortion illegal, for example, but will it really stop abortion? The only reason the legality of abortion is an issue is because there is a demand for it. If people join organizations that give support and assistance to women who are at risk for abortion, and search for ways to prevent lifestyles which lead to abortion, they could reduce the demand for abortion and for its legality at the same time. As a bonus they could avoid the accusation that they are preventing women from making choices about their bodies. There is little sense in expending energy on fighting for or against a law unless one is also convincing individuals.
One may wonder if this approach is too difficult and will take too much work. It will take a lot of work. But so will trying to convince people to privatize the education system. (And frankly, so will paying taxes to support government inefficiencies). Neither approach will be successful in the long run unless people change their hearts enough to have faith in each other and in this type of freedom. But which approach is more likely to change hearts? Pushing political ideas on people, or actively working to solve problems? Implementing ideas in the real world is far more likely to spread those ideas than sitting outside the State Capitol building holding a sign.
The real challenge with this approach is competing with government subsidized programs. But that challenge has been overcome in the past and can be overcome again. The subsidies naturally create inefficiencies that one can capitalize on and compete with.
One example is that of the early transatlantic steamship industry. The United States offered subsidies to a steamship company who would compete with England in travel across the Atlantic Ocean, and would make ships available to the military as backup. A man named Edward Collins received millions of dollars in subsidies for this purpose. He overpromised and under delivered. He asked for and received increases in the subsidy amount regularly because he was not able to make the business profitable. Another man named Cornelius Vanderbilt was denied a subsidy but competed against Collins anyway. Vanderbilt broke even the first year and was so profitable every year after that he eventually put Collins out of business. Even though he never received a subsidy he eventually donated one of his ships to the Union Navy during the civil war. How did he do this? He took advantages of inefficiencies and strings attached to the Collins line because of the subsidy. At first glance it seems as though subsidies are an obstacle, but they can actually create a weakness that can be leveraged.
If libertarians and conservatives are capable of creating a voluntary social safety net that is more complete and more effective than the government, they can essentially put the government “out of business”. No one will cry about ending a food stamp program that isn’t needed. No one will complain about ending the free lunch program if they know that there are no children going without lunch. They don’t have to wait for the political will to end entitlement programs. They have to create it by out-competing the government in the marketplace. The challenge, then, is to choose an element of government that one would like to see reduced or eliminated, identify the void it is attempting to fill, and find ways to fill it more efficiently. Crowd the government out.
Stiles, T. J. The First Tycoon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 2009. Web. 24 Feb, 2012
Fulsom, Burton W. Jr. The Myth of the Robber Barons. Virginia: Young Americans Foundation, 2010
Fulsom, Burton W. Jr. “The Myth of the Robber Barons.” History and Liberty Seminar. Foundation for Economic Education. 5 June 2010.
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