The Importance of Beltway Libertarianism: Or Why I Disagree With Tom Woods and Lew Rockwell

By Mike Tront

Beltway libertarianism, or plain vanilla libertarianism (as Tom Woods puts it) often gets a bad rap among many in the libertarian community.  Organizations like the Cato Institute, Reason Magazine, and even the Libertarian Party itself get accused of not being libertarian enough.  Being too centrist.  Pandering to people in power.  Or just flat out not hating government enough.

Recently this disdain for beltway libertarian organizations is illustrated in Episode 870 of the Tom Woods Show.  Tom and his guest Lew Rockwell, of lewrockwell.com, wondered why “plain vanilla” libertarian websites are not considered fake news while Tom’s and Lew’s websites are.  They are referencing a list of websites compiled by a professor and her class from Merrimack College.  This list displays a number of news sites and labels these sites based on their level of bias and fakeness.  This list has been out for months, but it is back in the news now that the Harvard Library put out a guide on how to identify fake news, and linked to this list as a handy reference.

On this list, tomwoods.com and lewrockwell.com aren’t actually labeled “fake news”, they are labeled “unreliable”.  “Unreliable” meaning:

“Sources that may be reliable but whose contents require further verification or to be read in conjunction with other sources.”

Not as bad of a distinction as the “fake news” sites, but still ridiculous that they’re even on this list to begin with.  Tom and Lew don’t claim to be news organizations and they simply offer quality, consistent, truthful libertarian content.

Also on the list is The Cato Institute.  Cato is a mainstream, Washington D.C. based think tank that offers libertarian leaning solutions in government.  They generally strive for limited government policies, but fall far short of the “tear it all down” type of solutions that many of us desire to see.  Think of them as the Gary Johnson of the think tank world.  Not surprisingly, Cato is labeled “Credible” on this fake news list.  “Credible”, according to this list, means:

“Sources that circulate news and information in a manner consistent with traditional and ethical practices in journalism”.

This leads to a discussion between Woods and Rockwell, in the above mentioned Podcast, about why “plain vanilla” libertarian organizations aren’t feared by the mainstream like Woods and Rockwell are.  Rockwell states:

“These people are not exactly a threat to the regime.  In fact, they’re a part of the regime.  They play their role, just as [George] Soros plays his role with another hat on, but that’s what’s wrong with plain vanilla libertarianism”

Before I go on, I’d like to say that I have nothing but love and respect for Tom Woods and Lew Rockwell.  These guys do more for the advancement of libertarianism on a slow Tuesday than most of us will do our entire lives!  Hell, I wouldn’t have even known about this conversation if I wasn’t a Tom Woods listener!  However, no two libertarians agree with each other 100%.  When Lew and Tom downplay the importance that beltway libertarians have in the movement, I’ll wholeheartedly disagree.

My Path

Most of us aren’t born libertarians.  From the time that we’re conscience of the outside world we’re taught from schools, parents, religion, and media that government is a positive force in our life.  Everything we know and love is either given to us by government, or protected by government from the scary bad guys.  At some point, however, we libertarians start to doubt this narrative.

Once we begin to question this narrative, especially after decades of conditioning, it’s important to have many different resources we can use to move us along the path to libertarianism.  Not all of us are able or willing to jump in head first.

I don’t exactly remember what lead me to discover libertarianism.  My earliest memories were in High School. For some reason I stumbled upon Harry Browne’s campaign website for President in 2000.  I also remember being in a debate class in High School, and for some reason only one resource seemed to line up with my personal opinion on the subject I was debating.  It was the Cato Institute.  In that class, they would give you a resolution and lists of resources to use for your arguments.  You could only use arguments and stats that were acquired from any number of credible resources that were provided.  Cato was one of them.

I don’t remember if Harry Browne and the Libertarian Party came first, or discovering The Cato Institute came first, but once I started down this rabbit hole it was a done deal.  I was a living example of the old libertarian joke:  “What’s the difference between a libertarian and an anarchist?  About 6 months!”

Beltway Libertarianism IS a Threat

Lew Rockwell says these groups aren’t a threat to the regime.  In and of themselves, he is right.  They aren’t trying to tear it all down.  For the most part, they provide seemingly practical solutions to make government run more efficient and at a much lower cost to the taxpayers.  However, they also cast doubt on the necessity of government involvement in many aspects of our lives, both economically and socially.

While every other think tank and political organization is promising to use the enormous power of government to keep you safe and give you things, “plain vanilla” libertarians are the only people in Washington actually using the existing framework of government to get the message of smaller government out to the masses.

You and I both know that they have no shot at limiting government.  We also know that their message is often watered down and within the boundaries of political correctness.  However, it’s exactly because of this politically correct and watered down message that they’re considered “credible” and not scary by the establishment.  This gives them one important advantage and one important role in our movement.

Lao Tzu said “A Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  The “plain vanilla” libertarians are the first step.  If this politically correct and credible first step weren’t available, many of us would never have gone down the libertarian path at all.  In this respect, “plain vanilla” libertarian organizations could be one of the most important prongs in the fight for a libertarian world.  Without these mainstream organizations, I imagine many current listeners and readers would have never even discovered Tom Woods or Lew Rockwell.

Just like how some people consider marijuana a “gateway” drug, one where if someone consumes it they become more likely to consume more dangerous drugs, mainstream libertarian organizations are the gateway to the Tom Woods’, Lew Rockwell’s, and every other truly anti-state organization and person in the movement.  With that in mind, “plain vanilla libertarianism” is definitely a threat to the establishment.

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