So how come we’re not free yet?

21. December 2008

Last week Lew Rockwell hosted Libertarian Party co-founder David Nolan on his regular podcast, in which the two discussed at length “what has happened to the Libertarian Party.” Or more to the point, why it seems to have gone off the rails, and why has the world gotten more statist despite all the blood, sweat and tears invested in reversing that trend.

Nolan’s remarks have been reverberating around the libertarian blogosphere and via mailing lists in the days since, and were passed on by long-time LP activist Richard Boddie. One responder opined that it was unfair to blame the LP for this failure, but the fault lies instead with a “failure of people to want freedom.” Which to me sort of begs the question.

I began what was to be a two-paragraph response which quickly telescoped into a full-blown essay, which took me a few hours to get down, and with that sort of time investment, I figured I might as well post it to my blog as well. Herewith, with some minor edits for style:

In much the same way as declaring property is owned by everybody, really makes that property owned by nobody, spreading the blame for failure around to everybody is pretty much the same as blaming nobody.

But rather than assign blame for our current situation either to particular libertarians, or to libertarians generally, it might be more constructive to examine the strategies and strategic philosophies that were pursued, and consider whether or not they were helpful.

It might also be useful to compare the success or failure of the libertarian movement with that of another popular movement which developed at the roughly same time — environmentalism.

When the Libertarian Party was formed in 1971, its founders had no plans for actually electing people to office. The LP was intended to be an educational vehicle for promoting libertarian ideas during electoral campaigns, when, it is assumed, more people are more interested in political discussions.

It was assumed that as LP candidates explained our philosophy in public fora and media, a much larger portion of the public would embrace it and then candidates for the major parties would begin adopting our positions, moving us incrementally towards greater liberty.

In the half-decade following that founding, the movement quickly coalesced around the Party, with only a few anti-electoral hold-outs such as Samuel Edward Konkin III, Carl Watner, and Wendy McElroy. Murray Rothbard was originally skeptical but came around by the ’76 election cycle. The Party thus became the primary organizational engine of the movement, and its Platform Committees became the movement mullahs who defined the parameters of what “libertarianism” means.

In contrast, environmentalists did not form a political party at this early stage. They formed study groups to develop and popularize their ideas, and membership-based advocacy groups which began to lobby Congress and state legislatures. They also established relationships with opinion-makers in the news media and academia, as well as media celebrities. They wrote books and began to script movies.

Various disparate strains of “environmentalism” quickly developed, ranging from a “don’t soil your own bed” pragmatic view through a crypto-marxoid, anti-capitalist stance all the way to a “humans are a cancer” attitude. Disagreements were vehement, but each camp was able form its own organizational base, from which the different blocs could either forge ad hoc alliances or do their own thing, which was mostly public outreach and education.

To be fair, the LP was never the only libertarian game in town. We had Society for Individual Liberty, we had FEE, we had The Institute for Humane Studies, we had Reason Magazine. But the LP was so much larger than any of these it became the public face of the movement.

Libertarians also had their factional splits, largely between the radical anarchists and the limited-statists, who quickly adopted the sobriquet “minarchist.” But rather than form separate organizational bases, they remained together under the Party rubric and in 1975 formed “The Dallas Accord” in which the slightly more-numerous minarchists agreed not to purge the anarchists and the anarchists agreed not to advocate abolishing the state in Party political campaigns.

So the inwardly-anarchist, outwardly-minarchist LP continued to grow and attract various people to its limited-statist message. The anarchists told one another not to worry, once we bring people in we’ll “educate” them in the sublime wonders of pure libertarianism and transform them into proper anarchists, or at least, radicalized minarchists.

But already by the close of the 1970s another transformation was taking place, unforeseen. Whereas the founders saw the LP as an educational vehicle, the new recruits viewed the Party as they do any other political party — as a vehicle for electing candidates to office who would then implement desired policy changes. Furthermore, less and less ideological “education” was going on at LP meetings and conventions, and a great deal more focus was on the nuts and bolts of election campaigns, from ballot-access and finance laws to “how to appeal to Miss Grundy.”

The 1980 Presidential campaign, fueled by Koch money, almost quintupled the 1976 vote total, and the Party seemed to be on the track to success. Through the early 1980s, so many of us were high on the prospect of real electoral triumph. As a Texas LP activist in those days I remember predicting to media in 1983 that we’d be winning Congressional races in the next decade and maybe even the White House in 2000.

Then 1984 happened.

The LP nominated California attorney and well-established Party activist David Bergland, who ran a campaign hitting on the same themes as his predecessor, but polled barely more than a quarter of the 1980 vote. Disappointment was blunted somewhat by a smattering of local electoral successes — to small-town city councils, rural county-commissions, suburban water-management districts, and such-like. The LP managed to elect Andre Marrou to the Alaska state assembly in 1985. Marrou lost his re-election bid in 1987 but became the LP’s VP running-mate to its first Republican crossover Presidential nominee, Ron Paul, in 1988.

Paul’s vote total almost doubled Bergland’s but it became clear by that point that the Party had fallen far off the path of “liberty in our time.” Some long-time activists and donors began dropping out (or as in my case, going on “sabbatical” to focus on developing a career far removed from politics). And in our place, a new breed of activist took our place — people less interested in the grand vision of pure liberty and more inspired by the forms and functions of governance.

And as for the hope that mainstream party candidates would adopt libertarian positions? Well, there was Ron Paul’s election to Congress in 1976, a fairly spectacular victory in itself. But one that has not been replicated elsewhere. Ronald Reagan ran on vaguely libertarian themes and was elected President in 1980, even claiming in a Reason Magazine interview that “the heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.” But once in the White House, aside from reducing some taxes and de-regulating oil prices, Reagan’s mantra became “politics is the art of the possible” and the only possibility was business-as-usual.

The enviros, meanwhile, continued their poly-centric activities. By not running candidates for office, they avoided the cycle of heightened expectations followed by brutal disappointment which has enervated so many Libertarians. And perhaps also, has discouraged prospective recruits from joining the LP bandwagon.

By the mid-1990s, environmentalism as a general idea had achieved virtual mainstream status. Homeowners cheerfully joined the recycling movement, either hauling newspapers, cans and boxes to neighborhood centers, or dividing their refuse into various color-coded curbside bins. Anti-animal cruelty laws were strengthened and the SPCA practically became a branch of state and county governments.

When the first American Green Party formed in 1996, it seemed more like an afterthought, and has since functioned more as a dumping ground for disaffected socialist ex-Democrats than the movement’s driving force.

At the same time, LP activists seemed to be splitting their energies evenly between interminable ballot access campaigns, and squabbling amongst themselves over the direction of the Party. “Pragmatists” squared off against “purists” in endless arguments at party meetings, on platform committees, and on the rapidly-expanding Internet.

And at the National level, the LP National Committee clearly ceased being a neutral facilitator for party activists and by 1996 (or perhaps earlier) had become a faction of its own, enabling the nomination of its preferred Presidential candidates. When the Arizona LP split in 2000 over the issue of government campaign financing, the NatCom interceded in favor of the “pragmatists” who wanted tax subsidies, and the long-time “purists” suddenly found themselves politically homeless.

These and other problems began driving away an increasing number of “purist” activists (myself included), and the party became ever more focused on governance and ever less on philosophical principle.

Several score, local activists manage to win election to local offices in each cycle, in smallish constituencies where party affiliation means a great deal less than the personality of the candidates. Some office-holders flame out in 2 to 4 years. Others manage to hang in there year after year, serving as in-house gadflies, annoying local power brokers, sometimes holding down taxes or stopping regulatory excesses here and there. But like Ron Paul in Congress, they can do little besides stand athwart a growing tide of enslavement.

In the bigger picture, and on the larger scene, the libertarian movement seemingly may as well have never existed. The police state is metastasizing. The failure of Republican-led monetarism and faux “deregulation” is being laid at the feet of libertarian “laissez-faire.” Because Libertarians were too busy with internecine quarrels, and perhaps also too seduced by the power Republicans wielded, to effectively call out the Republicans on their phony rhetoric, when it might have done some good.

And the LP National Committee, as David Nolan has observed, has fallen prey to a tendency all institutions have, in which the original mission of the organization becomes subordinate to the continued thriving of that institution for its own sake. In 2000 and 2004, their institutional self-interest led them to ensure the nomination of Harry Browne, an investment advisor with fairly extensive funding connections. In 2008, that same interest led them to support the second Republican crossover candidate, the near-beer-”libertarian” Bob Barr, who promised to raise a campaign war-chest of at least $20 million.

Meanwhile, environmentalism has become the new civic religion, without a single significant electoral victory by the Green Party, but instead through a far greater victory over the hearts and minds of Americans.

Because, what most libertarians have failed to grasp is, to paraphrase Reagan: Politics is the problem, not the solution.

The Libertarian Party seemed like a good idea at the time. Electioneering is a game that anyone could join in, and offers the entertainment value of horse-races which stir the blood and stimulate fund-raising. But _as a strategy_ it clearly has done nothing, or almost nothing, towards achieving a libertarian society. It hasn’t even halted the advance of statism. Possibly, it has slowed it up just a little bit, enough so that as we grow old and die off we can shrug and pass the mess on to our children and grandchildren.

But that wasn’t what I signed on for back in 1978, and I don’t think it’s what the rest of us hoped for either.

A political party, clearly in retrospect, is not an educational organization. A party is for mobilizing existing support for a set of policy positions and social values, and electing people to office who will implement policies in support of those values. This has been the position of the “pragmatists,” and on this point they are correct. But without sufficient popular support for those policies and values, a political party must fail.

Our strategic failure, as a movement, is that we have put the cart before the horse. At the early stages and also in the present stage, before we can make any real headway we need to persuade enough of our neighbors as to the virtue of our beliefs, that they will join us in resisting statism. It need not be a majority, but it has to be a great deal more than the one or two percent who consistently vote for LP candidates.

And to achieve that we need to work in other areas. We can support the growing number of academic organizations like IHS and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which promote free-market scholarly studies. We can support educational-outreach groups like the Future of Freedom Foundation, which presents seminars to the public and op-ed articles to newspapers. We can support journalists, pundits and bloggers like Alan Bock or Vin Suprynowicz or Brad Spangler or Tom Knapp or Wendy McElroy (still purist after all these years), or pop-philosophers like Stefan Molyneaux. We can support libertarians working in popular culture (here, I only know of a handful of novelists, and maybe five cartoonists besides myself — we desperately need more musicians and film makers).

Finally, we need a membership-based organization, one that stays clear of electoral politics but promotes the ideals of liberty in a way that can include all the rest of us without special scholarly or fine-arts skills, bringing the ideals of liberty into every neighborhood. Advocates for Self-Government has done work in this direction, but seems to have limited vision. Maybe we need three or four organizations like it, partly to provide suitable homes for the different factions and partly to provide an energizing competitive environment.

And once we get that critical mass of popular libertarianism, then just maybe it will be time for a new Libertarian Party. Or better yet, maybe it won’t be necessary after all.

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