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Freedom's Phoenix

Political Action Doesn't Work

April 9, 2010 - 9:21am
Nick Coons by Nick Coons


A quick disclaimer here. This is my opinion only. Jim and Richard are very likely to disagree with me, so please don't take this as a unified Libertarian Solutions position.

The political action that I'm referring to is the sort that libertarians would engage in. An example would be the recent food tax referendum, and now food tax initiative that's being worked on in Phoenix. Political action to expand the scope of government works very well, so that's not what I'm referring to.

To start, I want to explain the business process of repeatability. When expanding a business, repeatability is an important concept. Let's say that you start your own lawn-mowing service. You charge $40 to take care of someone's landscaping, front and back. Included in that $40 are all of your expenses, the cost of fuel for your equipment, your time in transporting you and your equipment to and from the job, etc. In charging $40, you can make money, because after all of those expenses, there's still a little bit of profit in there that's worth your time, and it's more than what would be there if you went out and got a comparable job, so you choose to do it.

Your business picks up, and now you're spending far too much time mowing lawns that you're having difficulty keeping up with the demand, so you decide to hire someone. Naturally, you will need to pay that person less than $40 so that all of your expenses are covered and you can still make a little bit of money. Less than if you did the work yourself, but still something, otherwise what's the point? So if you need to pay someone $20 to do this job, are you still going to make money? And are you able to continually hire people at $20 as your business expands and still make money? Or are you going to have to charge more than $40? This is what determines repeatability. Does it only work if you do the work yourself, or does it work if you pay others to do it? You might be able to have family help you at a discounted rate, but that's a short-lived and extremely finite resource in the sense that at some point they're going to decide that they have better things to do.

The second point to make is that no (or very little) political action can happen with just one person. One person passing around a petition is not going to undo all of the nasty things that the city council puts into place. You need many people. And you will always have the core group of people who want to engage in your cause because they're friends or they have a principled view of what you're trying to accomplish, but these people are like family helping you with your lawn-mowing business. For political action to work, it must be repeatable. You need to be able to go after people and offer them a worthwhile incentive in exchange for their time and effort. If you're trying to enact a new sales tax which is going to give 10% raises to all police officers, then you can get virtually every police officer to support your cause because they all have a financial stake in the outcome.

But this is not the sort of political action that libertarians engage in. We don't want to enact taxes, we want to repeal them. So how does repealing, say, a 2% sales tax on food affect people. For the vast majority of that city's residents, it would save them about $50/year on their groceries. For a very small minority, it would cost them thousands of dollars per year in lost salaries. Who do you think is going to have better luck at recruiting supporters that are actually going to actively support the cause? Even though you might have outrage on both sides, the side offering to eliminate the tax is not offering to its supporters very much economically. As I mentioned, some people will work to collect signatures because they believe in the principle, but most people won't put in too much effort, because they can make far more than $50/year if they invested that time elsewhere.

Now it might be when all is said and done that those wanting to eliminate the tax have succeeded in getting their proposition on the ballot and the tax is voted out. That's wonderful! But in the meantime, the city council has enacted a dozen other things that no one has had the resources to go after, because there simply are not enough interested people, and they're not interested because they have more to gain by doing something else rather than getting involved. So liberty-oriented political action fails the most basic test of large-scale business success; repeatability. If there were incentives for people to oppose governmental action, then there would be no shortage of people available to do just that. The fact that government continues to grow in scope despite the fact of a very small yet very loud minority is proof of the lack of repeatability.

This isn't to say that political action doesn't have important peripheral benefits. Passing around a petition to eliminate a food tax gives you a chance to talk to people, to let them know how government works. That is to say, they do what all people do; they act in their own self-interest, except that most people don't have power over other people the way people in government do. And power disparities inevitably lead to corruption. But the point of this article is to point out to libertarians that political action for the sake of attaining a given political goal is a futile and non-repeatable effort that will not lead to freedom.

Related Content:

Do Rich/Wealthy People Deserve Tax Breaks? - Nick Coons
So It's Either Food or Security, Mayor Gordon? - Kimberly Ruff
Phoenix, Drunken Politicians and a New Food Tax - Jim Iannuzo

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