An awkward implication of (some radically laissez-faire readings of) libertarianism suggests that it is fine for people to compete in markets, but they are better precluded from competing in the political field.
The yoke of market discipline takes care of people's irresponsible propensities. Yet, in politics there seems to be no such harness available that would restrict the inevitable overreach to which people are predisposed.
The hope and advice of certain libertarians that access to the political sphere should be barred or voluntarily relinquished in a free society is just another form of paternalism. A paternalism based on the intolerant fear that a view of freedom other than one's own may win the day.
It is a demand by those purporting to promote freedom that seems to me incongruous in three ways :
(1) Market discipline does not just happen, but requires forces to prevail in political competition that are prepared to demand and defend laws, customs, and regulations making for market discipline.
Thus, it is hardly convincing to claim that the internet used to be unregulated and unaffected by politics and the state - when in truth the drivers of the internet are associations protected by and compliant with the sort of laws that make a free society possible. We appear to be faced with a special type of "what-is-seen-and-what-is-not seen," that for some reason libertarians do not like to look into more carefully: by enforcing property rights, the state becomes the strongest protector of a private-property-based civil society.
Put differently, the state is the most efficacious limitation on the process by which government might crowd out private social arrangements. However, when we think of the state, we do not normally picture the billions of state-enabled, state-protected transactions, objects, and forms of behaviour that represent private property and from which the tissue is weaved out of which a free society consists.
(2) Political emancipation of the adult population used to be one of the most important demands of (classical) liberalism.
It would be a fatally truncated variant of "personal freedom" that does not allow for the individual's right to affect public affairs, i.e. influence decisions that do not conform to the pattern of bilateral exchange.
(3) It is not true that free individuals have not been able to create a political order that largely complies with robust conditions of freedom.
Our societies are peaceful, productive, even rich, and offer unlimited access to those wishing to defend or improve political conditions supportive of robust conditions of freedom.
For liberty to be resilient in such a way, she must have room to accommodate the inevitable diversity of conceptions of freedom and legitimate forms of defining her. We must remain free to disagree about freedom and experiment with varying approaches to her. Freedom is defined by restrictions on arbitrary action. The number of such restrictions held to be sensible is unlimited, and to learn about and test more appropriate restrictions, we must allow people to compete for the acceptance and enforcement of their differing conceptions.
This is why we should not expect to ever achieve more than robust conditions of freedom. The latter are the smallest common denominator of criteria whose fulfilment ensures an open access society. What makes freedom resilient and a powerful substratum underlying our societies is the fact that she is a composite of different visions of freedom. She is not the application of the vision of any single faction, which very fact is the trigger of unending outrage in all the factions there are.
Why libertarians consider the individual exceedingly fit for competition in the market, yet incapable of political competition that produces acceptable outcomes, I have a hard time to fathom. However, I am confident their oblivion in this matter is related to their inability to conceive of politics as a spontaneous order which may have evolved, like markets, in an interplay of unwitting growth and conscious design, to bring about stable regions of dynamic near-equilibria in human interaction, including mechanisms of the kind that Adam Smith referred to as "the invisible hand."
By "dynamic near-equilibria in human interaction" I mean communities that are stable enough to be enduringly peaceful and productive, yet at the same time capable of change and adaptation.
It is beyond the purview of this post, but we should keep in mind the possibility of a close intertwining between "the invisible hand of the market" and "the invisible hand of politics."
The business of defining liberty in practice is vitiated by the fact that there will typically not be perfect solutions available but compromises and trade-offs, and any number of loopholes for manipulation, opportunism and egotism. But these difficulties remain virulent in any kind of political order, while it should be the task of the libertarian to promote arenas, channels, and locks by which political activities are subjected to robust conditions of freedom.
Incidentally, competition is naturally messy, which anyone will confirm who has ever been involved in real markets as an entrepreneur or a key employee of a competitive firm. Why should we expect political competition to be as orderly pre-arranged as the re-enactment of a stage play.
The problems and shortcomings of politics are a price we must pay for a free society.
It would be interesting to retrace the moments in the history of liberalism when the core demand of liberty for political emancipation, for political freedom, and free access to the practice of politics for everyone turned into a doctrine that places such practices under a taboo.
See also The Blue Gravel Walk of Freedom,