Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“They (the emperors) frequently abused their power arbitrarily to deprive their subjects of property or of life: their tyranny was extremely onerous to the few, but it did not reach the greater number; .. But it would seem that if despotism were to be established amongst the democratic nations of our days it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild, it would degrade men without tormenting them.”     Alexis de Tocqueville

February 13, 2008

The Libertarian Party — What Is It Good For ?

by Doug Mataconis

As I noted earlier, the Libertarian Party is making an open appeal to Ron Paul’s supporters to come back to the party:

The Libertarian Party is the last remaining stronghold for liberty in American politics.

Unfortunately, the Ron Paul campaign has unintentionally taken a toll on our party. Many of our members have changed their voter registration to vote for Ron Paul in a primary while others have allowed their support to lapse as they gave all that they could for a candidate that represented their values.

Early on, I made the decision to not interfere or discourage this activity. I felt it was wrong for me to place our party above such an incredible opportunity for liberty that existed with Dr. Paul’s run for the White House.

But today, it’s time to come home.

If you have switched your party registration, allowed your membership to lapse or have put off your decision to join the LP, I now ask that you reverse course and renew your support for our principled party.

Over at QandO Jon Henke asks whether the Libertarian Party is worth the time:

I’m not sure I understand the argument he makes. If you want to feel good about yourself for supporting a somewhat more principled Party, have at and enjoy the warm feelings you might get from it. But bear in mind….

  • The LP has no chance in the short or the long term; libertarians simply are not an electorally viable majority. If that changes, the dominant parties will adjust and the Libertarian Party will be irrelevant; if it doesn’t change, the Libertarian Party will remain irrelevant.

  • Don’t flatter yourself about how principled you are. Unless you agree with every Libertarian Party position (and nobody agrees with other people on every particular), you’re still compromising. There’s nothing wrong with that, but let’s not pretend that participation in a political Party doesn’t involve compromise – or that unwillingness to compromise is a viable strategy in a contested political system.

On the whole, I think that Jon is right. Outside of the 1980 Presidential Campaign, financed to the tune of several million dollars by the Koch family, the Libertarian Party has never even gotten media notice during it’s campaigns. More importantly, I think he’s right that libertarians, by themselves, are not a large enough portion of the electorate to make a difference — a fact that is borne out by the relative lack of electoral success that Ron Paul has had this year.

Back in 2005, Randy Barnett said this in two posts, here and here, at The Volokh Conspiracy:

In hindsight, I think that the creation of the Libertarian Party has been very detrimental to the political influence of libertarians. Some voters (not many lately) and, more importantly, those libertarians who are interested in engaging in political activism (which does not include me) have been drained from both political parties, rendering both parties less libertarian at the margin

[...]

While some libertarian political activists are certainly Republicans and Democrats, the existence of the Libertarian Party ensures that there are fewer activists and fewer voters in each major party coalition than would otherwise exist. Therefore, each party’s coalition becomes less libertarian. I do not mean to exaggerate the extent of this effect. But even a handful of political activists in local and state party organizations can make a big difference. Whatever one thinks of the initial creation of the Libertarian Party, its continued existence seems to be a mistake for libertarians.

Barnett is, I think, largely correct. Perhaps the Ron Paul phenomenon will rejuvenate the Republican Party’s libertarian wing, and, if it does, then it will have at least accomplished something. If those Ron Paul supporters go to the LP, though, they’re going to find themselves getting even less accomplished than they did in this campaign.

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10 Comments

  1. I became a Libertarian because of the arguments for and against measures published with the official ballot and statements of candidates in local and regional elections here in California. I stayed on the Libertarian bus for at least 10 years. After watching Harry Brown and Michael Badnarik I came to a conclusion. The system is rigged against 3rd parties. Now this may not be an original idea since many have validated this position. Almost all 3rd party candidates in 2004 made in their platforms the elimination of plurality voting. They want to replace it with either IRV, ranked choice, or proportional representation. The greens, reformers, Constitutionalists all agree that plurality locks in the two party system. With plurality comes the spoiler effect. The spoiler effect will always reduce 3rd party candidates to spoilers and suppress any chance of getting a fair hearing of the issues.

    Until this is changed all 3rd parties are just going through the motions. The public wants a strong 3rd party to emerge. They are sick of the current two parties hence the low approval rating of Congress. But they never vote 3rd party because of the spoiler effect.

    All 3rd parties need to come together and drive this point home. If the US electorate wants true change and critical evaluation of the issues then we must change to a ranked ballot system.

    Comment by Norm Nelson — February 13, 2008 @ 12:12 pm
  2. Yup…I found the LP to be about as pointless as any group I’ve ever encountered. Nice guys, but they weren’t going to be a whole lot of help on advancing libertarianism in the U.S.

    Comment by UCrawford — February 13, 2008 @ 1:09 pm
  3. I think the LP has done a lot more good than its admittedly meager electoral results might indicate. Many tens of thousands of young Americans have been introduced to pro-liberty ideas through the presidential campaigns of Harry Browne and Michael Badnarik, and others before them.

    Third parties face a big structural problem to electoral success, however. The types of people that join them are ideologically driven, but any successful third party would have to be fairly moderate. Moderates by nature are not the type to found new political movements.

    I believe that there is a political opportunity for a centrist party, taking the best of both D and R: fiscal responsibility, smaller government, avoiding unnecessary wars, and respecting civil liberties as required by the Bill of Rights.

    Since members of Congress represent geographical areas rather than groups of like-minded individuals, the only chance that pro-liberty voters (or other ideologically driven groups) have of exerting political influence in Congress is by moving to a single state, as the Free State Project is working toward in New Hampshire. From Ron Paul’s primary results, Montana might have been a good choice as well.

    Comment by Craig — February 13, 2008 @ 1:26 pm
  4. The very existence of parties is anathema to democracy. They function as a means of dividing the people to deprive them of power. The difference between D & R is inconsequential in practice, but the battles are endless and focussed exclusively on the power of individual satraps within each party, rather than upon issues. The Libertarian Party has served only to further marginalize the voices of liberty. In good conscience, it should be abolished by its own membership.

    Comment by Campell Frank — February 13, 2008 @ 2:22 pm
  5. I don’t agree that the LP weakens libertarianism all that much at the margins by reducing the number of libertarians in the Dem and Republican parties. The number of LP members (and voters for that matter) compared to the number of small “l” libertarians is miniscule. The vast majority – maybe 90-95% of small “l” libertarians vote Republican, Democrat, or not at all, with the greatest number voting Republican at the moment but with the Dems rapidly closing ground.

    I don’t foresee the LP ever getting more than about 10% of the libertarian vote, and no more than 1 or 2% of the overall vote. But that doesn’t make the LP without value. Indeed, I suspect that its very existence performs a valuable educational function just by keeping the word “libertarian” in the public eye, in however small a fashion. Merely by existing, it gives people who have a generally freedom-oriented philosophy but who may not be well-read in libertarian literature an ability to label themselves, and – as importantly – realize that there is an ideological movement that exists beyond just conservatism vs. modern liberalism.

    I’ll admit, this is kind of an amorphous sounding role, but I have little doubt that it is a role nonetheless.

    Comment by Mark — February 13, 2008 @ 2:42 pm
  6. I’m not sure if the Libertarian Party weakens libertarianism. I’m not sure it strengthen’s it either. I’d never heard of it until Ron Paul’s run for president. I was curious and started researching it on the internet. To say that I’d fallen in love with an idea was an understatement.

    Then of course, the honeymoon ended. To be blunt, the infighting, backstabbing, and elitist nature of many of it’s supporters has turned me off. Not to the idea, the idea is good. I’m just not sure about the party. They make the GOP look tame when it comes to cannibalizing their own.

    Sure, they want Ron Paul supporters to come out and support their candidate. The thing is, Ron Paul is the person who brought awareness to a lot of people to get interested in libertarianism. When these people were fired up with the idea of libertarianism, and flocked to boards like this one, they were slapped in the face. Repeatedly. They weren’t good enough, Ron Paul wasn’t pure enough. Both were making libertarianism look bad.

    Then, of course, the newsletters broke. More libertarian’s freaking out about appearances. Of course, this was when my education about paleos and cosmos would emerge. Sigh. The Libertarian Party might like to have the numbers that Paul supporters could provide. I just don’t think that they’d be able to hide their contempt for them.

    Comment by Leanne — February 13, 2008 @ 3:43 pm
  7. I do believe the party has been good for libertarianism. It help me relize where I belong.The reason Paul has done as well has been the Lp infrastructure and activist. 30 tears ago very few people would know the word Libertarian now eve my 63 year dad knows who we are and what we stand for. We recieved 100000 votes for our top candidate in Georgia in 2006. I believe it helps to have us stalking the other guys.Do you think there would this many libertarian blogs if we did not have the Lp pushing Libertarianism. I do find the arguement about pulling us out of the other party interesting I believe there is some truth to that. I believe there was a study done on party switches a few years ago. The found once you get involved with a party that does not match you that YOU tend to change the way you vote and think you become less of what you were and more like them.So the question would we be swallowed up by them or would we move them a little from within. I guess I am about to find out because my goal is to become a delegate for the GOP national convention.

    Comment by Doug Craig — February 13, 2008 @ 4:31 pm
  8. So the ideas of Liberty are relevant only in the duopoly ? The drug war gulag, two illegal occupations and a 9 trillion dollar debt. I’d rather not be part of the blame.

    Rocinante saddle up !

    Comment by Eric Sundwall — February 13, 2008 @ 4:50 pm
  9. I believe that LeAnn is probably right. Libertarians do seem to like to cannibalize their own. Generally they are somewhat intolerant of people that do not agree with them, in some cases on every issue.

    This site is very indicative of that. Doug and UC have been fairly intolerant of so-called “paulites” and “conspiracy theory” people. While at the same time some of the “paulites” have been quite intolerant of them. It comes down to name calling on both sides. The sad thing is that in the end they all pretty much want the same thing. The problem is that all we talk about is where we disagree, not agree.

    If we want to move ahead we need to talk about the places where we agree more, and less about where we disagree. The problem with this, however, is that people just don’t get all that emotional until they are backed into a corner. If we focused on areas where we agree, but disagree with the other parties, we can stop chewing ourselves up but use that energy to try and chew the other parties up.

    Comment by TerryP — February 14, 2008 @ 8:51 am
  10. TerryP,

    Doug and UC have been fairly intolerant of so-called “paulites” and “conspiracy theory” people.

    I’m intolerant of “Paulestinians” because most of them have nothing more to offer than personal attacks and are incapable of debating Paul’s platform rationally. I’m intolerant of “truthers” because “the government ran 9/11″ conspiracies are complete bullshit and the people who propagate them are liars and fools who possess not a shred of concrete evidence to back their position and, being a military veteran and a former intel worker who is offended by their baseless accusations (which are usually directed at me personally once they find out my background), I don’t consider myself obligated to be courteous to them or to take anything they have to say seriously.

    The sad thing is that in the end they all pretty much want the same thing.

    No, I want an honest debate. The Paulestinians and “truthers” want to lash out with personal attacks, ignore actual issues, and stifle dissent to make themselves feel better. We don’t want the same thing at all.

    The problem is that all we talk about is where we disagree, not agree.

    Those who debate honestly with us will often find that we’re willing to concede points or discuss common ground. Those whose arguments are based on fallacy and lies will usually find the insults and mockery they’ve asked for. That said, it’s unrealistic to expect that anyone will agree on everything all the time. If we did, blogs and comment threads such as this wouldn’t exist. Sometimes debate and discussion get messy and involve large amounts of disagreement, even among people with much common ground, and that’s okay…that’s how consensus is eventually reached.

    Comment by UCrawford — February 14, 2008 @ 9:23 am

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