There are enough people who, upon hearing the phrase “pragmatic libertarian” immediately categorize it with such phrases as “jumbo shrimp” or “authentic replica” and that’s a somewhat fair response.
Libertarianism and the Libertarian Party have always been focused on idealism, often to the point where “pragmatic” sounds like an insult. After all, pragmatism is what led to the current win-at-any-cost, don’t-do-anything-that-might-lose-a-vote mentality that defines modern American politics for the two largest parties.
The problem with this perspective is that it’s neither idealism nor pragmatism that is to blame for the current, sorry state of affairs, but the lack of balance between the two. The Democrats haven’t come up with a new idea, good or bad, since before they let the word “liberal” become a profanity. There are still a few Republicans who keep the balance, but the majority of the party leadership have spent the last twenty years confusing moralizing with morality.
The Libertarian Party, on the other hand, gave up all pretext of trying to influence the election or the electorate when they nominated Michael Badnarik to run for president in 2004. What little exposure he got as a candidate focused not on the libertarian ideals of smaller government and more personal freedom, but on his opposition to drivers’ licenses and ZIP codes.
As a pragmatic libertarian, I believe in the libertarian ideal that the government which governs least governs best. From there, I look at the way the world is and throw my support behind political causes that move us in that direction and actually have enough popular support that they might one day become a reality.
A typical example of this is school vouchers. Democrats were against school vouchers because they would weaken public schools and put government funding in the hands of church-run organizations. Republicans were for vouchers because they would allow parents to choose what sort of education their children got.
The strictly idealistic libertarian response to school vouchers was, “Hell, no. The government should be getting out of the education racket all together.”
As a libertarian, I agree that funding and regulating education isn’t an appropriate role for government. As a pragmatist, I know that no one is going to shut public schools on my say-so.
The net result of libertarians staying on the sideline, sticking to our ideological guns, is that we had no say at all.
The pragmatic choice was to support school vouchers, not because the government should be in the education business, but because a nation with school vouchers is freer than a nation with little school choice and a national curriculum. If libertarians want to see the end of the bloated Leviathan that is American public education, letting it die gradually of natural causes under the glow of market-based competitors is a far more effective means of reaching our goals than waiting for someone to hand us the big, red button that lets us do it by fiat.