Time To Scrap The Libertarian Party ?

Brian Doherty’s piece in Reason about the relative failure of Bob Barr’s Presidential campaign, which I commented on earlier this week, leads Volokh Conspiracy contributor Ilya Somin to wonder if the Libertarian Party should even exist anymore:

Brian’s article discusses numerous possible causes of Barr’s failure that were specific to his particular campaign. Some of these theories may be correct. In truth, however, Barr’s failure is of a piece with the more general failure of the LP throughout its entire 36 year history. In that time, the Party has never gotten more than a miniscule share of the vote, and has failed to increase its share over time (the LP’s best performance in a presidential election was back in 1980, and its performances in state and local races have also stagnated over time). The LP has also failed in its broader mission of fostering greater acceptance of libertarian ideas. There is little if any evidence that its efforts have increased public support for libertarianism to any appreciable extent. Such consistent failure over a long period of time can’t be explained by the personal shortcomings of individual candidates. Barr’s performance undercuts claims that the LP can do better simply by nominating a candidate with greater name recognition and more political experience than its usual selections.

For reasons that I explained in this post, the truth is that third party politics simply is not an effective way of promoting libertarianism in the “first past the post” American political system. That system makes it almost impossible for a third party to win any important elected offices. And such a party also can’t be an effective tool for public education because the media isn’t likely to devote much attention to a campaign with no chance of success.

Libertarians have had some genuine successes over the last 35 years. These include abolition of the draft (heavily influenced by Milton Friedman’s ideas), deregulation of large portions of the economy (of which libertarians were the leading intellectual advocates), major reductions in tax rates (facilitated by libertarian economists, libertarian activists, and the legislative efforts of libertarian-leaning Republicans), the increasing popularity of school choice programs, increases in judicial protection for property rights, gun rights, and economic liberties (thanks in large part to advocacy by libertarian legal activists), and heightened respect for privacy and freedom of speech (promoted by libertarians in cooperation with other groups). Libertarian academics and intellectuals have also done much to make libertarian ideas more respectable and less marginal than they were in the 1960s and early 70s.

What all these successes have in common is that they were achieved either by working within the two major parties or by efforts outside the context of party politics altogether. The Libertarian Party didn’t play a significant role in any of them.

Libertarians often emphasize that failed enterprises should be liquidated rather than kept going on artificial life support. That enables their resources to be reinvested in other, more successful firms. The point is well taken, and it applies to the Libertarian Party itself. For 35 years, the Party has consumed valuable resources, both financial and human. The money spent on the LP and the time donated by its committed activists could do a lot more to promote libertarianism if used in other ways.

Somin echoes something that small-l libertarians have been arguing for several years now.

Back in 2006, Bruce Bartlett argued that the LP should be replaced by an advocacy-group strategy:

In place of the party, there should arise a new libertarian interest group organized like the National Rifle Association or the various pro- and anti-abortion groups. This new group, whatever it is called, would hire lobbyists, run advertisements and make political contributions to candidates supporting libertarian ideas. It will work with both major parties. It can magnify its influence by creating temporary coalitions on particular issues and being willing to work with elected officials who may hold libertarian positions on only one or a handful of issues. They need not hold libertarian views on every single issue, as the Libertarian Party now demands of those it supports.

I believe that this new organization would be vastly more influential than the party and give libertarian ideas far more potency than they now have. As long as the party continues to exist, unfortunately, it will be an albatross around the necks of small-L libertarians, destroying any political effectiveness they might have. It must die for libertarian ideas to succeed.

And Brad Spangler made the same argument Somin does back in March:

The libertarian movement predates the Libertarian Party and will survive after it is gone. There was a time when radical libertarians like Samuel Edward Konkin III denounced formation of a “libertarian” politicial party as incompatible with libertarianism properly understood. With evisceration of the LP platform in recent years by “small government” statists longing to join the ruling class, the Ron Paul GOP presidential campaign has served not to shout out the irrelevancy of the Libertarian Party so much as serve as the heavy duty exclamation point punctuating that death cry that the LP already delivered to itself.

A shutdown of the Libertarian Party would get radicals and moderates out of each others hair. Radicals could pursue the long neglected non-electoral strategies for long-term radical change and moderates could apply their energies to seeking small reforms inside the major parties, as Ron Paul does. Sufficient social space for needed overlap between wings and their ideological cross-fertilization would exist organizationally in groups like ISIL and the Advocates for Self-Government, as well as out on the internet in political discussion forums of all sorts generally.

And I find it hard to disagree what I wrote back then as well:

A look at how the world has really worked since the Libertarian Party was formed in the early 1970s would seem to add credence to Spanlger’s position. Aside from the Election of 1980, which was largely financed by the family fortune of the LP’s Vice-Presidential candidate, no Libertarian Party candidate for President has been able to gather anything close to 1,000,000 votes and none have garnered what would be considered a statistically significant amount of the vote in any election. And, except for one or two notable exceptions, no Libertarian Party candidate can be said to have had a significant impact on a contested election.

But winning elections, some people will say, is not real why the LP exists. It’s purpose, they contend, is to educate the public about libertarian ideas.

Well, if that’s the case, then I don’t think it can be said that they’ve done a very good job there either. If they had, then 35 years of education should’ve been something that Ron Paul’s campaign could have tapped into. Instead, the major party candidate that came closest to libertarian ideas was soundly rejected by the members of his party.

You can blame that on the media. You can derisively call the voters “sheeple” — thereby insuinating that the reason they didn’t vote for your candidate is because they’re stupid. But, in the end, the fact of the matter is that the public wasn’t receptive to libertarian ideas. So much for the education I guess.

Were there flaws in the Barr Campaign ? Most certainly, but there weren’t any worse than the flaws that have existed in practically ever Libertarian Party Presidential campaign for the past 20 years. And yet, despite that, Barr received more votes than any LP candidate in 28 years. Yes, there were promises and predictions of 1 million to 3 million LP votes this year — but these are the same promises that LP candidates make every four years, and they never come true.

Regardless of what standard of success you use — election result, education campaigns, or influence in the public policy arena — it’s fairly clear that after 36 years the Libertarian Party has been an abject failure.

How many times are libertarians going to continue bashing their head against a wall before realizing it’s not really accomplishing anything ?

Cross-Posted From Below The Beltway

  • George Whitfield

    We Libertarian Party members will decide whether to scrap our party. You decide whether to scrap your efforts.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis


    With an attitude like that, I’m fairly sure that the meeting where the LP is finally given a merciful death will occur in a phone booth

  • TerryP

    I actually like the idea of a libertarian association much like the NRA, but the problem may lie in that it has to many areas to focus on, whereas the NRA focuses on one issue. If you break the LP down into one issue groups then you lose some of the effectiveness due to the decrease in size of each group, but gain a little bit in a more focused platform.

  • http://publiusendures.blogspot.com Mark

    Doug – the question isn’t whether it’s time to scap the LP, which is not a question non-LP members are really entitled to ask. The question is, as it has long been, how to find alternative avenues of influencing politics in a libertarian direction during a time when campaign finance “reform” makes it increasingly difficult for a viable third-party candidate to emerge.
    The answer, I suspect, is to fight for more open primaries, which is very much an achievable goal. Open primaries allow independent ideologies to unite to support one particular candidate, no matter which party he is in, in a context where the “playing field” is relatively level. Even if the preferred candidate doesn’t win, he will be able to win enough of the vote to potentially allow for an actual “message” to be sent.

  • http://www.libertarianrepublican.blogspot.com Eric Dondero

    It’s hard to come to the conclusion that the Second Best Presidential Campaign in Libertarian Party history, since 1972, (10 election cycles), was a “failure.”

    Barr broke the magic 500,000 number. The finals are not in, but it appears the number will be close to 520,000. That’s a 140,000 vote improvement over 2004.

    How is that considered a “failure.”

    And one cannot disregard the Sarah Palin factor. It is a confirmed fact, from at least one McCain Campaign insider, that Palin was picked to head off the rising Barr Campaign.

    Palin, one of three serving libertarian Republican Governors in the Nation (SC’s Sanford & Otter of Idaho), was chosen to head off Barr, who in late summer was polling as high as 6%.

    It worked splendidly for the GOP.

    But it can also be regarded as a success for the LP. For the first time in history, they influenced the selection of a major party cadidate.

    Bob Barr 2008? Perhaps the most successful Libertarian Presidential campaign in History.

  • AFH

    The author suggests an advocacy group RATHER THAN a political party.

    This is fallacious thinking. One group does not mutually exclude the other. You do not have to destroy one effort to have another.The authors real message: “Destroy”. Most of the time I see this sort of tripe come from people who are so motivated by an inability to have control over a group of people that they seek to destroy them for their impertinence.

    The author’s message is divisive and cowardly. If he has visions for success he should go realize them instead of working to undermine other people’s.

    Shame on Brian Doherty, shame on the cross poster of divisive trash, and shame on anyone else who seeks to destroy the work of others in order to feed a narcissistic urge.


    BTW Dont ask me what I as a Libertarian think of a “failed” business. I consider the party a small business struggling against government imposed ceilings.

    It is hard work. It is righteous work. Members of the Libertarian Party have every right and every reason to hold their heads high and spurn the gargoyles of liberty that denigrate their efforts.

  • Give me Liberty!

    Sorry, but your argument is fallacious:

    1. The LP is ahead of its time, and perhaps was started too soon, but our time is coming.

    2. The 1980 campaign shows what would happen if only the party were well managed enough to advertise on TV, relative to the later Presidential races.

    3. The US electoral system actually favors well organized 3rd party efforts. We just need to get organized.

    4. Ron Paul’s recent Presidential gambit demonstrates that the pool of libertarian volunteers and money available has grown substantially. This does not say that it came from LP efforts, but you cannot claim it didn’t either. It is likely that Ron Paul’s money and numbers came in large part from the existence of the LP.

    5. The libertarian successes you list would likely not have come if there had been no LP around to make the politicians nervous.

  • http://poppychop.net/ Nitroadict

    I prefer the idea of an advocacy / political party only in name type of approach, but something a bit more ambitious than simply a libertarian outlook.

    donny with an A had an excellent idea over at the mises forum concerning forming a Polycentrist Party, something that I think would greatly help the effectiness & add-on to the tactics of working within the two major parties, for those who still believe in political means, anyways (The Polycentrist Party would be for both apolitical & political approaches).

    Read more here:

    Donny’s blog: http://libertarian-left.blogspot.com/2008/11/polycentrist-party.html

    Mises Forum Thread: http://mises.org/Community/forums/p/4634/61798.aspx#61798

    I encourage the Liberty Papers to cover this possible development, as I think it just might be the new idea that’s needed to pick the ball up again & keep the movement rolling while the Internet is (relatively) free until the States across the world decide to clamp down access absolutely.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/2005/11/22/a-bit-about-kevin/ Kevin


    And one cannot disregard the Sarah Palin factor. It is a confirmed fact, from at least one McCain Campaign insider, that Palin was picked to head off the rising Barr Campaign.

    Palin, one of three serving libertarian Republican Governors in the Nation

    Sarah Palin a libertarian? That’s funny.

    Barack Obama is more libertarian than Palin.

    Though the rest of your comment actually makes somewhat sense.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis


    the question isn’t whether it’s time to scap the LP, which is not a question non-LP members are really entitled to ask.

    Not really, I think it’s a question that libertarians in general should discuss even if they’re not party members.

    It’s really a question of how to best advance libertarian ideas.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis


    Palin, one of three serving libertarian Republican Governors in the Nation (SC’s Sanford & Otter of Idaho), was chosen to head off Barr, who in late summer was polling as high as 6%.

    Name one reputable national poll that showed Barr “polling as high as 6%” prior to noon on August 29, 2008.

    I was following the polls pretty closely back then, and I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t exist.

    And I won’t even bother to comment on your contention that Sarah Palin is a libertarian, mostly because it’s clear you have no coherent definition of the word.

  • http://campaignforliberty.com Jason Hellenberg

    I’d like to invite my fellow Libertarians to join the Campaign for Liberty. It’s Ron Paul’s post 2008 election Libertarian child. It is non partisan, and is more about getting the message of Liberty out than propogating any specific party’s ideals and goals. Liberty is it’s goal.

    I think that the Republican Party dissidents have fled to the LP and diluted it’s content. I think we should flood the Elephant and change it to be more Libertarian. If we ever had a chance, now is it. The GOP is circling their wagons and trying to re-focus their efforts. I think the LP and the GOP share a great many things in common.

    In Liberty,
    Jason Hellenberg

  • uhm

    I think it is best to see what happens in the next 4 years. The Democrats will their shot at governing. I don’t think they will succeed. The Republicans are in disarray. The base on the internet is telling them off which inspires hope. They may go back to the old lies of small goverment, strong defense, etc or further embrace social democracy.

    Jason, Ron Paul and his ilk aren’t liked by many Libertarians here. Ron Paul should have never been associated with the word “Libertarian” because people don’t like their beliefs associated with him.

  • Steve

    Scrap the Libertarian Party? What are you a Republican who just woke up and spotted a Georgia Libertarian running for Public Service Commissioner and received a third of the vote in a three way race. He received over a million votes.

    If you want to just look at one race and declare the party dead then you are clueless. What I see is the Republican party in dissaray

  • Steve

    What are you a Republican that just woke up after the election with one hell of a hangover and saw that a Georgia Libertarian receiving over a million votes for 33% of the total vote in a three way race.

    You look at the top of the ticket and declare the party over. I look down ticket and see record number of voters voting for Libertarians. Then I look over at the Republican party that has lost its soul traded it to fundamentalist Christians who haven’t a clue about individual liberty and smaller government. A party that has spent the last eight years spending the country into poverty while they strip the public of their rights of privacy, habeas corpus and our wealth. A party that like the Democratic Party has given up its purpose in exchange for corporate gold used solely to stay in power.

    You might argue, Follow Ron Paul. Well didn’t you watch the Republican convention. They have tossed him aside.

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  • http://www.capitaloutsider.org Eric Sundwall

    “It’s really a question of how to best advance libertarian ideas.” DM

    No, it’s not Doug. If people in the Libertarian Party chose to organize and compete on an unlevel playing field, be a small libertarian and let them . . .

    I personally have never been able to identify as a Republican or Democrat. By the same token, investing my efforts in the pluralistic mush of think tanks, institutes and organizations defined by the IRS or FEC aren’t my cup of tea.

    Compromise for the war and welfare parties simply because its more comfortable or practical is middling world view that I’d rather not embrace. Radical, uncompromising views thrust into that middling world occasionally drives an issue.

    As your comment to the listener about the non-existent telephone booth(anymore)indicates, yours is a more undercurrent criticism. Those dirty libertarians who smoke pot and hate war are just not as acceptable as real life ‘successful’ people who accept the hegemony.

    Third parties are a very normal part of American life. While they may never have a chance electorally, they satisfy a niche in the polity. Nixing the LP will do nothing for liberty. Statists and authoritarians will rule as far as the eye can see, quit agonizing over it.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis


    If people in the Libertarian Party chose to organize and compete on an unlevel playing field, be a small libertarian and let them . . .

    I never said anything to the contrary.

    At the same time, I’d feel free to argue that the LP is a waste of resources and that any donation of time or money would basically be going down a rat-hole.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    As your comment to the listener about the non-existent telephone booth(anymore)indicates, yours is a more undercurrent criticism. Those dirty libertarians who smoke pot and hate war are just not as acceptable as real life ’successful’ people who accept the hegemony.

    No, my comment was directed to the FACT that the Libertarian Party has had exactly ZERO impact on the public debate in this country for the past 30 years.

    If I had the money to donate to a libertarian cause right now, and I was looking for a return on investment, I’d send it to groups like Cato or the Reason Foundation long before I’d write a check to the LP

  • http://sclibertyblog.blogspot.com Charles Broadway

    I voted for Bob Barr, but I did it as a protest vote. I knew it was a waste of time.

    I agree that the LP hurts libertarianism. I’m focusing my efforts to helping elect pro-liberty candidates through the GOP and the RLC and the Campaign for Liberty.

    The LP is a joke.

  • http://ericsundwall.com Eric Sundwall

    ZERO impact is a tad dramatic for my tastes. Still, it’s not my point, whereas, you can’t let go of one approach . . . that is ‘I advocate liberty in this area and all others are insane if they do otherwise.’

    Again, live and let live.

  • Michael Seebeck

    Doug, to quote Wes Benedict, “You’re an idiot.”

    To say the LP has had no impact on public policy or debate is utter hogwash.

    It was the LP who has pushed the decriminalization of MJ on various states, working with such diverse groups as MPP and NORML.

    It was the LP who got civil asset forfeiture reform passed in CO.

    There are more ways to influence public policy than electing people to legislative office or the Presidency. Only now is the LP finally figuring it out. If the LP has a fault besides infighting, it’s a lack of organization. Where we are organized, we are effective.

    However, that does not mean the LP should cease to exist.

    By your own reasoning, since Doug Mataconis does little for the liberty movement except bitch and moan about the LP, perhaps he ought take his own advice and end The Liberty Papers, because his own impact has been zero, zilch, nada, and null.

    The only thing worthwhile here is watching Doug argue with that other idiot in Dondero.

  • http://www.libertarianrepublican.blogspot.com Eric Dondero

    Funny how some people here who are not really libertarians, claim to know what constitutes a “libertarian.”

    I believe I’ll trust the judgement of the Libertarian Party of Alaska, whose leadership voted to endorse Sarah Palin for Governor in the 2006 election, and whose State Chairman Jason Dowell campaigned at her side. I’d say that’s a pretty powerful statement. Alaska Libertarians know best about Palin.

    As for which poll showed Barr at 6%, two Zogby polls over the summer. This was big news. Wasn’t some obscure polling firm. It was Zogby.

    And other polls relfected that. Gallup and others had Barr as high as 3% nationwide over the Summer.

  • http://www.libertarianrepublican.blogspot.com Eric Dondero

    I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me how it is that 520,000 votes, a 140,000 vote improvement over 2004, can be considered a “failure.”


    BTW, another fact:

    Ron Paul, the only other former Congressman to run on the LP ticket got 435,000 votes in 1988. So, Barr got nearly 100,000 over Ron Paul.