June 07, 2004

The Marginal Futility of the Libertarian Party
Posted by Jon Henke

Recently, I wrote a post on Libertarians that elicited quite a bit of comment, both pro and con, as well as links from Reason Magazine and former Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Harry Browne. My position was, and is, that the Libertarian Party (LP) makes perfect the enemy of good.

You see, the LP follow an untenable course, aiming at instant revolutionary change. The problem is that revolutionary change does not occur in a working system. Revolutionary change occurs in one of two ways:
1: As a reaction/solution to a crisis.
2: Over long periods of time, through gradual change. Reference: the evolution of US politics--and especially the Democratic Party--towards collectivism.

We may disagree over how bad conditions are in the US, but it is absolutely inarguable that we are not in a crisis, or, really, even close to one. When armed insurrection is the norm, or when US authoritarianism approaches Soviet levels, get back to me. In the meantime, we're nowhere near a swing back towards the barbarism that brings out the individual survival instinct necessary to make a real Libertarian government popularly palatable. In the absence of such a condition, man will seek his own best interests, and those will include a fair degree of "security". So long as the most important threat to individual security is seen as the minor discomforts of economic turbulence, mankind--in general--will seek insurance against that. And the State will be the obvious insurance agent to which the populace turns.

Frankly, I don't see any way in which the Libertarian Party, standing on principle, can overcome that basic facet of human nature. And that's a problem, if they truly are engaged in politics so that they can "restore the American dream of liberty and justice for all". With permission, I excerpt the comments of an acquaintance...

Third party politics doesn't work, in the US anyway.

If you want to be ideologically pure, stay the hell out of electoral
politics [...] If you want to make a difference in electoral politics -- at the
risk of eternal damnation if by chance there's an unforgiving
hardcore libertarian g*d and the rest of judeo-xian-muslim mythology
is roughly true -- you have no choice but to participate in major
party politics ...

And that's the crux of it, isn't it? If you believe in the principles of the LP, you have a choice:
1: Play the only game in town: major Party politics....
2: Run on the LP hamster wheel, knowing full well you will never accomplish a thing - in fact, you are objectively lending support to your least favored major party. But, while USS Principle goes down, you're staying with the ship.

The LP (and libertarians in general) should take a page from the "Moral Majority"--often, the ideological opponent of libertarians within the Republican Party--and reorganize as an interest group within the Republican Party. Look at the influence the "Moral Majority" can excert, with relatively small membership. Now, imagine the libertarian movement countering that.

Seems to me they could be more influential working within the system, than without. It has, after all, worked for others.

"But", principled Libertarians will say, "what about Principle? If we vote for somebody with whom we disagree, then we're sacrificing all of our principles and we are no better than those we oppose!"

To which, I would respond with an exaggerated (and somewhat historically inaccurate, but bear with me) example: would you refuse to support the opponent of Hitler, simply because he supported redistributionist tax policies? Of course not. There is far more at stake. You may not like Hitler's opponent, but the marginal utility of voting for him exceeds the marginal utility of voting for your ideal candidate....or not voting at all.

So, why does the same not apply in a less extreme case, when less is on the line, but the same utilitarian margin exists? (I am not comparing anybody to Hitler - please don't misunderstand)

So, that's where I am. The only utility I see in voting LP is as dissent, when it can be afforded. At this point, I'm not sure it's a vote I can afford...and, yet, I am still unsure that I won't do it anyway. It is both amusing and confusing to me, that I believe I have clarity about what Libertarians should do, but so little about what I should do. Frankly, I don't have an answer....but it is pretty evident that the current set of libertarian answers are wrong.

(I would also note the Republican Liberty Caucus--a group of libertarians, working within the Republican Party--as a very likely solution)

UPDATE: Scattered leftover thoughts...
* There is a lot of purity in LP ideas, but ideological Libertarians want to take us there in one shot, while they ignore the political and practical problems that would create. (i.e., if you open the borders wide, while a welfare state still exists...you're fiscally screwed) They don't offer a lot of "here to there".

* A lot of voters--even candidates--are described as "libertarian" due to their views on specific issues. (legalization, tax cuts, etc) The LP touts this as an example of the untapped power of the libertarian movement. I'm not so sure. It's hard to define a person as "libertarian" just because, for example, they want marijuana decriminalized. It may not be a desire for "less government" or "more freedom". It may simply be a desire for marijuana.

That's different.



Excellent article, and I agree whole-heartedly. To me, it makes much more sense to form a special intrest within the Republican Party and attempt to exert influence that way than it is to stand on the outside and cry about "principle" upon deaf ears.

It makes sense, and if libertarians cared more about enacting change rather than talking about it, they'd do as you say.


Posted by: Cody at June 7, 2004 11:42 AM

It doesn't help the Libertarians at all when Harry Browne goes off about all the things he'd do on just his first day in office. Things such as eliminating 7 cabinet-level departments, selling off National Parks, etc. Government just doesn't work that way, and it's damned naive of the Libertarians to think they can accomplish it. Further, talk like that scares the crap out of voters, making them think Libertarians are a bunch of nuts.

Government didn't get big overnight, it got big incrementally. And that's how to fight it: win ONE battle, make ONE part of government shrink. When the dust clears, and the Libertarians can show people that things are better off without that one part of government, then they can go on to shrink a couple more.

But the Libertarians aren't interested in that kind of progress, it's all or nothing. And so far, it's been nothing.

Posted by: Steverino at June 7, 2004 12:23 PM

At present, the Republican Liberty Caucus has been in existence for something like a decade... with zip to show for it. The Democratic Liberty Caucus doesn't even have the power of the RLC. The leadership of both parties are dedicated to more power, more patronage, more graft... and utterly opposed to anything like less government.

If you're looking to advance Libertarian ideas, working within the existing power structure of the two establishment parties is not only futile, it could possibly be hazardous to your health.

I'm a moderate Libertarian. I don't believe in instant change or all-or-nothing rhetoric. Yet I work with the Libertarian Party because it comes closest to what I believe in- and because nothing a Democrat or Republican says can be believed. If you don't like how the Libertarian party works, join and do your part to change it- it's much easier than with the Democrats and Republicans.

Kris Overstreet

Posted by: Kris Overstreet at June 10, 2004 10:58 PM