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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Libertarian Party, RIP

[This article is from http://www.neolibertarian.net.]

The Marginal Futility of the Libertarian Party

Jon Henke

Libertarian: "One who advocates maximizing individual rights and minimizing the role of the state" [The American Heritage Dictionary - 4th Edition]

There is a great deal of rancor within libertarian circles over the word "libertarian". Over time, increasingly exclusive and doctrinaire libertarian groups have replaced the broad, inclusive "maximizing rights/minimizing government" definition of libertarianism with ever-narrower litmus tests of purity. There is a "with us, or against us" mindset among those groups, brooking no compromise. Nowhere is this more evident than the Libertarian Party.

Consider the 2004 Libertarian National Convention, where opposition was mounted against prominent libertarian radio host Neal Boortz's appearance, because "[it] is not in the best interests of the Libertarian Party to facilitate public misidentification of its positions on foreign policy with Mr. Boortz's divergent views." "Dissent isn't good for The Party" is not a position one usually associates with libertarians.

Disillusioned major party members formed the Libertarian Party (LP) in 1971, hoping to create a successful alternative. They enjoyed some initial success, and in 1980 reached their zenith with almost 1 million votes, but thereafter stalled. They never again received more than 485,000 votes. By 2004, with two decidedly non-libertarian candidates who engendered widespread dissatisfaction, the party received less than 400,000 votes nationally. It was a pathetically-and predictably-ineffectual performance that demonstrated just how little electoral influence the Libertarian Party enjoys.

With rigid doctrinaires in charge, the Libertarian Party suffers from an unfortunate malady: a self-defeating political philosophy. Their disavowal of power and unwillingness to compromise makes them uniquely unqualified to defend their goals against political opposition. There is little chance that such a party can make a meaningful impact. With no desire in the LP to commit to the political compromises necessary to build coalitions, the major parties can easily out-flank and out-bid them for votes.

Of course, the Libertarian Party claims that over 590 Libertarians hold public office, more than all other third parties combined. But this claim deserves a closer look. Of the 590-plus Libertarians holding public office, not one is elected at either the State or National level. While each of these positions is important, they are hardly remarkable accomplishments for a national party. And in many cases, these offices were uncontested, so that party affiliation was inconsequential.

The Party's declining membership also argues against its success. After a 1999 high of over 33,000 paid members, the Libertarian Party shrank to about 20,000 members in 2004. Financial stability has also declined with membership. Perennial LP candidate Harry Browne responds by noting that, while Libertarians don't actually win races for political office, " those races often provide the only opportunities for libertarians [to do mass public outreach] ". Declining party numbers speak to the effectiveness of that function.

The center of libertarian political activism, therefore, is no longer the Libertarian Party. The party is now one of Small-Tent Libertarians; a party of principle above electability. It's hard to see why a party that is fundamentally opposed to compromise-the very essence of politics-would even want to participate in electoral politics. One doesn't succeed in politics with policies of exclusion. So long as these are the LP's values, it may as well dissolve, and let its former members go home to spend the rest of their lives slapping each other on the back for a failure well done.

But, if the LP is a dead end, it does not follow that libertarianism is also dead. In fact, there's a historical template for a successful libertarian movement. Ironically, it is the Socialist Party, which Milton Friedman called " the most influential political party in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century ", because, " almost every economic plank in its 1928 presidential platform has [by 1980] been enacted into law ".

But that did not happen as a result of the Socialist Party's actions. Between the factions led by Daniel De Leon and Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party also had its own share of doctrinaire exclusivity and infighting. So, prominent members of the Socialist Party abandoned 3rd party politics and " formed the Social Democratic Federation to promote socialism within the ranks of the liberal/labor wing of the Democratic Party ". This, along with the activities of the American Labor Party (which was " intended as a pressure group, a point of leverage that would enable progressives to maximize their influence within the Democratic Party "), gave the Socialist Party increased political influence among Democrats. Obviously, they have been rather effective.

Randy Barnett wrote, " the creation of the Libertarian Party has been very detrimental to the political influence of libertarians ", because libertarians " have been drained from both political parties, rendering both parties less libertarian at the margin ". To reverse this trend, libertarians have little choice but to drop the pretense of a 3rd Party and rejoin major Party politics, even if they have substantive disagreement with that Party. As Pejman Yousefzadeh writes of libertarians within the Republican Party, what " matters in the end is whether libertarians and conservatives have more substantive issues uniting them than they have issues dividing them. There are a whole host of reasons to believe that they do ."

Ultimately, like the Socialist Party of the early 20th century, or the "Moral Majority" of the 1980s-which turned 8 million new voters into massive influence within the GOP-libertarian-friendly coalitions must be built within the major parties. Frank Meyer called this union " fusionism ", and there are groups that exist to pursue this Fusionist end. As Dean Esmay has said, " libertarians really ought to be abandoning the pointless Libertarian Party and, at a local level, building up either the Democratic Freedom Caucus (if living in an area where the Democrats are in the majority) or the Republican Liberty Caucus [http://RLC.org](if living in an area where Republicans are in the majority) ."

The Libertarian Party is dead; it is a conceit libertarians can no longer afford. But those disaffected Neolibertarians who are still willing to take the intellectual and political field can save libertarianism itself.

For a number of years now, there has been a great deal of intelligent, passionate, and intellectually honest work being done by these Neolibertarians in the blogosphere. Many of these bloggers may even be unaware that they are Neolibertarians.and yet they are now the front line of the libertarian movement. The center of political libertarian activism is no longer the Libertarian Party, it is the Neolibertarian blogosphere. It is time for us to join the political game.

[The Socialist Party's 1928 economic planks are listed in the appendix of Milton and Rose Friedman's book, Free to Choose.]


Blogger Michael Morrison said...

Although there is a little bit of truth in this message, there are also lots of errors.
The LP has not been ruined by doctrinairians (and if there ain't such a word, there oughta be), but by incompetents, by people in positions about which they were inexperienced or just plain unable.
I think, too, there have been too many employees who were more interested in making a living out of the movement than in furthering the cause.
Still, if we really want a free country, or even if we just want to return to obeying the Constitution, the Libertarian Party is the only choice.
Certainly the Democrat Party long, long ago became completely statist, and obviously today's Republican Party is controlled by the so-called neo-conservatives who are equally statist and even more imperialist.
There are other problems with having just two parties, anyway, including the absence of real philosophical discussion or even real philosophical inclinations.
Granted the LP needs a lot of work, but I hope people won't give up completely.

Fri Feb 24, 10:15:00 PM CST  
Blogger Mark said...

Yes, there are incompetents in the LP but the real problem is the philosophical disconnect between libertarianism and politics. Libertarians are generally opposed to political solutions to problems; they prefer voluntary interactions and agreements without government intervention. So when libertarians go politicking they are entering into a situation which they fundamentally abhor. There is no way around this while remaining libertarian. Limited or no government means just what it implies -- no political solutions to problems.

"Neolibertarians" are committed to government solutions. They appear to deny that government will always grow at the expense of liberty. They are "reformists"; i.e., wishful thinkers wearing varying degrees of blindfolds.

Sat Feb 25, 01:30:00 PM CST  
Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

Michael, I agree with you-the two main parties are both terribly corrupt and statist. I hold my nose every time I vote, but it is the only way my vote has any impact.

I have disagreements with Libertarianism, but much prefer it to what we receive from the Republican Party. Libertarians and Conservatives are natural allies. The problem is that the Libertarian Party just isn`t going to succeed; they simply don`t have enough popular appeal-and the media hates them as much as they do Conservatives. It`s the reason why the Constitution Party will forever remain a backwater. If every conservative in the country left the R.(i)P. and joined the C.P., their influence would melt like the morning dew.

That is why I hold my nose and vote R(I)P every election cycle. I think Libertarians would be wise to move en-masse to the Republicans (at least temporarily) and help us kick the corrupt and the statists out.

The Democrats are dying; if the Libertarians would help the GOP kill them, there would be room for another party. America has always had two. Perhaps the party of Jefferson (which has long since left his principles) has run its course, and perhaps it is time for the Democratic Party to join the Whigs, or the Federalists.

Two is company, three is a crowd. This has always been true in American politics.

Sun Feb 26, 05:11:00 PM CST  

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