Introducing “Big City Libertarianism

This oped was published on on November 1, 2017 and was written by the current Chair of the Brooklyn Libertarian Party, Devin Balkind.


The Libertarian Party (LP) is the third largest political party in the United States, with a membership twice as large as the Green Party and twenty times as large as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Unlike the Green Party and DSA, which draw a significant support from urban areas, the LP is significantly more popular in suburban and rural areas. Some believe this distribution of support is inevitable (as city residents rely on government more than rural their counterparts), but it isn’t.

The Libertarian party can re-frame its values for urban populations and develop an urban agenda rooted in social tolerance, good governance, and urban empowerment.

This will allow it to emerge as the most viable alternative to the two-party duopoly gripping local urban politics around the country today.

Social Tolerance

Many people think that libertarian culture and big city culture are at odds because libertarianism is often framed as a philosophy rooted in self-reliance, and that urbanites who experience deep interdependence and rely on large, complex supply chains to sustain themselves are anything but “self-reliant.”

In reality, libertarian philosophy is much more focused on people’s ability to self-organize in complex ways through the “market” than it is on the myths of “self-reliance”. Urban residents know the people can successfully organize themselves through market activity because that’s how their lives are made possible. As such, “Big City” libertarianism should sideline notions of self-reliance and instead focus on articulating how we can understand and improve how the market works for all people in the city.

Libertarians also need to interpret urban experiences from a libertarian lens to show urban residents that they have innately possessed libertarian tendencies.

The core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the non-aggression principle. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” Residents of big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Miami know that if their neighbors didn’t have tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, et al, their cities simply couldn’t function.

While Democrats attempt to talk the talk of “social progressivism”, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female Presidential candidate in the 1970’s, supporting gay rights in the 1980, fighting to end the drug war in the 1990’s and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000’s.

Big City Libertarians should highlight the progressive history of the Libertarian Party and not be afraid to denounce regressive cultural elements in the party’s past and present.

Urban residents also adopt and share the non-aggression principle in ways that go beyond simply tolerating sweaty subway cars with lots of strangers. As such, Big City Libertarians should focus their energies on issues where urban “progressives” and the Democratic Party disagree.

The most serious cleavage between genuine progressives and the Democratic Party is the “war on drugs” and the resulting mass incarceration and police militarization it has spawned. The drug war has fallen out of favor among intelligentsia concerned with public health because of an increasingly broad body of research showing that the Portuguese and Northern European approach of decriminalization and risk reduction is producing superior outcomes in every way: less drug use, less crime and less health crises.

The drug war is also falling out of favor among the young and those pursuing paths of “social justice” because they recognize it as a method of social control – oppressing the most vulnerable and marginalized populations throughout the US.

The numbers are staggering: black men are incarcerated at rates 5x that of whites, even though they use drugs in comparable quantities. The illusion that the Democrats are somehow no longer in favor of the drug war’s prohibitionist policies is a farce illustrated by the Obama administration’s inability to stop the war.

Big City Libertarians should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet — a powerful solution: Ending the Drug War.

Good Governance

New York City, like many large cities throughout the US, is dominated by the Democratic Party. That means political bosses and party elite pick our politicians, and voters have little power to challenge the status quo.

That’s one reason why NYC’s voter participation rate is under 25%.

New Yorkers want more political options, but they certainly aren’t coming from the Republicans who still have a hierarchical party infrastructure that benefits from maintaining the status quo. Many politically active urbanites have invested significant time in the project of reforming the Democratic Party, but their success has been minimal and frustration is high.

Big City Libertarians should present them another option: building up a local party around the values of “good government.

By organizing our party around values of openness, transparency, participatory governance and the appropriate uses of technology, we can run a more effective political operation and also train ourselves in the same type of technology-enabled reform that we can pitch to voters as a solution to corrupt local politicians and lethargic, bloated bureaucracies.

Urban Empowerment

With Trump as president, many city residents have awoke to the fact that there are many layers of government – and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other.

They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and local governments have a lot more.

This “municipalism” is entirely consistent with Libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.

By advocating at the national level for more local control, Libertarians can be inclusive of both urban and rural voters. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the Federal government to state and local government.

Let’s call this “flipping the pyramid.”

Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states and lastly cities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receives the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more.

Now, many rural and suburban localities don’t want or need big local governments, and voters in those places can direct their governments not to raise taxes – leaving them with a significantly lower tax burden than city residents.

For example, a New York City resident who currently pays 20% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 5% to local government (for a total of 35%), would instead give 5% to the Feds, 10% to the State and 20% to the city (total remains 35%).

This restructuring would allow New Yorkers to achieve more local control, sustain or even increase the level of services they receive, while still paying the same total amount in taxes.

Meanwhile, a resident of Grafton, New Hampshire, who is currently paying 20% to the Feds, 7.5% to the State and 2.5% to their county (30% total) could then be paying 5% to the federal government, 5% to the state and 5% locally (15% total) – resulting in a massive tax break for them.

So, for the New York City resident, the Libertarian plan might not lead to a tax decrease, but instead lead to a drastically better funded city government, while to the rural Grafton resident, the Libertarian plan does lead to a massive tax break.

Big City Libertarians and small-government Libertarians can collaborate deeply on “flipping the pyramid” at the national level, and then both achieve their separate goals at the local level in their own communities.

The “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate is something we should all embrace. We’re currently watching the “one-size-fits-all” model of government play out — and it’s not pretty: Washington DC has been gridlocked for over a decade, Donald Trump is president, and it seems only the mega-rich are getting what they want from the political process.

Instead of imposing our ideals on everyone in the country through the federal government, we should view people’s residency as a political choice. If people chose to live in a city or state with high taxes, they’re voluntarily accepting the high taxes. If they don’t want to pay those taxes, then they can move to a place with lower ones. This act of voting with one’s feet is the oldest type of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced, encouraged, supported and maybe even subsidized.

While that might sound drastic or raise the spectre of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, and (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to over a decade of Congressional gridlock and a vicious culture war that put a reality-TV show host into the presidency.

This doesn’t mean that the federal government should stop performing critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of US citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief and more. Rather, it means that we should start a visioning process where we redraw the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state and federal powers. While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local layers of government so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities.

Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt, and even more so, than national politics. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to lead.

With over 135 million Americans living in metropolitan areas of over a million people, that constituency and the Libertarian Party has everything to gain by creating a space for “Big City” Libertarianism.

New York City residents have been crying out for alternatives to the political parties that currently rule. The timing has never been better.

*  Devin Balkind is the 2017 Libertarian Party candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He serves as the president of a nonprofit organization that produces open source information management system for disaster relief and humanitarian aid, and writes frequently about the impact of open source on institutions and societies.

Brooklyn Libertarian Party