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February 16, 2007

Is Bob Barr Good For Libertarians ?

by Doug Mataconis

Former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr created a bit of a political tornado back in December when he announced he was not only joining, but also taking a leadership position in, the Libertarian Party.

In the March issue of Reason, David Weigel takes a look at Barr’s move and asks whether it is really a good thing for the Libertarian Party. As Weigel points out, prior to December 18th, there were significant differences between Barr and Libertarians on the issue of the War on Drugs:

Before 9/11 changed the issue map so drastically, many libertarians knew Barr primarily for his strong support of the war on drugs. The 1998 Barr Amendment blocked implementation of a D.C. medical marijuana initiative that 69 percent of voters supported (according to exit polls) by prohibiting the D.C. government from spending any money “to conduct a ballot initiative which seeks to legalize or reduce the penalties associated with the possession, use, or distribution of any schedule I substance under the Controlled Substance Act.”

The national Libertarian Party ran a TV ad against Barr in that final 2002 campaign that featured Cheryl Miller, a multiple sclerosis sufferer and medical marijuana user, pleading for Barr to stop trying to put her in jail. When Barr lost, the party whooped it up over beating “the worst drug warrior in Congress.”

Barr has had very little to say about the War On Drugs since his announced party switch, though there is some indication that his views may be changing:

In a late December interview with the Phoenix-based radio host Charles Goyette, Barr said he was “very supportive of the concept of legitimate testing for the use of medical marijuana” and “disappointed that the government has stood in the way of that”; he also indicated that states should be allowed to determine their own policies regarding the medical use of cannabis. That’s at odds with what he has said before, and it might be a sign that his views on drugs are evolving. But it’s still a long way from the full-fledged legalization of drugs urged by his new party. Although his public position may be changing, he and the Libertarians are still an awkward fit.

So what does this mean ? Is Bob Barr only a few more speeches away from publicly adopting the libertarian position on the Drug War ? Quite honestly, I find that unlikely given his past views. Barr’s views on illegal drugs may have evolved somewhat, but it will be very surprising to me if he comes out in favor of full legalization.

As Weigel argues, though, it may also be as sign that the Drug War is no longer the pre-eminent civil liberties issue facing America:

As libertarians discovered over decades of political warfare, the drug war was a unique rallying point. For some people, it’s the sole reason they became libertarians. It was also a deal breaker for many who agreed with libertarian positions on taxes or public schools or motorcycle helmet laws but thought the government had a moral responsibility to keep drugs off the streets.

“Throughout the ’80s and ’90s the drug war was the principal justification for reducing civil liberties in this country,” [As libertarians discovered over decades of political warfare, the drug war was a unique rallying point. For some people, it's the sole reason they became libertarians. It was also a deal breaker for many who agreed with libertarian positions on taxes or public schools or motorcycle helmet laws but thought the government had a moral responsibility to keep drugs off the streets.

"Throughout the '80s and '90s the drug war was the principal justification for reducing civil liberties in this country," [Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan] Nadelmann argues. “On September 11, the drug war was superseded by the war on terror as the new rationalization for curtailing civil liberties. That’s what changed.”

One issue hasn’t eclipsed the other. While many libertarians are hoping Barr will change his views on the drug war, that might not need to happen. As Barr says, every successful party (or political movement) includes swarms of allies who don’t agree on key issues. The issue that finally pulled Barr into the Libertarian Party—civil liberties during the war on terror—happens to be one of the starkest, most controversial fissures in American politics. If every voter who distrusts the government to respect his liberties were to follow Barr into his new political home, the GOP and Democrats could start holding their conventions in high school gyms.

That, of course, is unlikely to happen, but Barr does have the potential to bring into the libertarian fold voters from both parties upset with the encroachments on civil liberties supported by both parties that five and one-half years of the War on Terror have brought us.

Related Posts:

Bob Barr Joins The Libertarian Party
Bob Barr Explains Why He Joined The Libertarian Party
Just How Libertarian Is Bob Barr ?


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3 Comments

  1. I don’t know why Barr didn’t just join the Republican Liberty Caucus.

    Comment by Jen! — February 18, 2007 @ 10:55 pm
  2. First the National Platform was gutted and now Bob Barr gets a leadership position. I can only cringe at what may happen next. Taking federal money for the Presidential election? Now as a former GOP’er, I do believe that a zebra can change its stripes but I would rest more easy if Mr. Barr did publicly state that he is now opposed to the Federal “War on Drugs”. Radical “macho-flashing” libertarianism turns people off but if we water down our message much more how will we be any different that the Dems and Repubs who stand for nothing?

    Comment by Shawn Scott Smith — February 20, 2007 @ 10:06 am
  3. There have been many complaints Barr was improperly foisted on the region. The usual consensus process was not followed, chairs were not notified, and the State Commitees of two of the largest states in the region (NC and Florida) refused to endorse him. Florida voted down even a resolution welcoming him to the LNC.

    Reports on the LP website that he was enthusiastically endorsed are simply untrue.

    Comment by bill — February 22, 2007 @ 9:58 pm

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