The good news from the Libertarian Party National Convention in Denver this past weekend was, Big Head Press sold a big pile of books. Also, my friend L. Neil Smith got to meet up with a dozen or so friends he hasn’t seen in years, and I got to hang with some great people who had been “Internet friends” till now, and meet many interesting new friends.
The bad news is, well, already pretty widely known. Bob Barr has the LP Presidential Nomination, and his buddy Richard Viguerie at long last can add the LP national mailing list to his collection. Actual Libertarian Steve Kubby went down in flames, although the other Actual Libertarian, Dr. Mary Ruwart, ran a strong second in the voting. If 50 delegates had voted the other way on that 6th ballot, the outcome would have been very different.
The question now is, should we care?
Back in the 1970s, when I joined the libertarian movement, the operating definition of “libertarian” pretty much boiled down to as follows:
A libertarian is someone who believes that no one has the right, under any circumstances, to initiate* force or fraud against another person, nor may one delegate to or incite others to do the same.
* — to “initiate force” means to be the first to introduce coercion into a situation, either by violence or threat of violence. Defensive
force is justified, and retaliatory force may be justified depending on the circumstances.
This is the “non-aggression principle,” which coupled with the Lockean definition of property rights, is the core of libertarianism, and the basis for an ethical system that the Libertarian Party was founded in order to propagate and _eventually_ establish in public policy.
There are, to be sure, some difficult questions — such as abortion, or pacifism, or engagement in electoral politics — about which reasonable
libertarians may disagree. But advocating taxation, or legal discrimination against people with unpopular lifestyles, or prohibiting
any peaceful activity, are clearly against libertarian principles.
One result of this move to form a political party was that, as the most visible movement vehicle, whatever the Party does has come to define what “libertarian” means to most people. What Rothbard wrote, or what core libertarian activists wrote into the original party platforms, matters little compared to what that guy in the tie on the idiot box exclaims.
So with the nomination of Barr, the word “libertarian” will cease to describe a unique ethical and political philosophy, but simply indicate a kind of low-tax conservatism. And the Libertarian Party will now become a dumping ground for other failed Republicans. And it still won’t be able to win elections except in some local offices in low-population towns and counties, and when these “neo-libertarians” gain office, they will act just like Republicans, because the requirements of political power will easily overwhelm whatever weakened principles they may have and drive them tax, borrow, and spend just as politicians always have.
As a complement to the pragmatist triumph of Barr was the completion of the gut-the-Platform project begun in the off-year convention held in Portland in 2006. Replacing the formerly clear and deep explication of libertarianism of previous platforms is a series of TV-friendly sound-bites that are, for the most part, so vague as to render the Platform useless as the educational tool it was once intended to be.
Now, I fully expected something like this to happen, sooner or later. As I explained when I quit the Party eight years ago, the formation of a political party seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out to be a major strategic error. The founders did not expect to win elections in the short term, but thought the Party could be an educational vehicle, by attracting free media attention during election seasons when people are most inclined to think about politics.
However, electoral politics, with a few exceptions, has proved a very poor means of educating people. While it has found some success in bringing together and mobilizing people who are already inclined to cherish liberty, most of what educating has been done has happened outside the Party. (Mostly by authors such as Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein, R.A. Wilson and L. Neil Smith writing compelling stories with strong libertarian themes, and by academicians making the case for liberty in economics, history, game theory, and so forth.) The public cannot be educated with bumper-sticker slogans and the short sound-bites that get through the media filters during election campaigns. Most Party energy is taken up with satisfying ballot access requirements and the various nuts-and-bolts requirements of campaigning — canvassing, making signs, mailing out flyers, organizing campaign events.
What little “internal” education has been attempted has run up against people who feel they already know the score and resent being told they need educating. They are mostly people with opinions only slightly removed from the mainstream, who are just looking for a vehicle to achieve power and enact their agendas. They don’t understand what libertarianism really means and they don’t want to understand, they just want to get elected.
And so while ballot access drives and lawsuits have chewed up activist money and resources, so have the continuing factional struggles between the “pragmatists” and the “purists” consumed much of our energy. And over the last two decades, many of the “purists,” myself included, have walked away from this useless fight, and now have left the Party in the hands of the Republicanoids.
As I said I knew this was going to happen, and it is a painful but necessary step towards fixing the problem that was created when the Party was founded in 1971.
The danger we face now is that the ideals of libertarianism will be polluted and twisted just as was the formerly honorable term and tradition of “liberalism,” at the hands of the progressive/socialists of a century ago. But this can be avoided.
The solution to this problem is to get the Party to give up the name “Libertarian.” I think this can be done via a two-pronged approach: 1) Those of us outside the Party but retaining soap-box power must make abundantly clear what libertarianism really is, and constantly harangue the Party for its failure to live up to that; 2) Those radical stalwarts remaining in the Party must make themselves such an enormous pain-in-the-ass that the leadership will gladly change the Party name if it will get rid of them.
Once the erstwhile Libertarian Party becomes the Fair-Tax Party or Conservatoid Party or whatever they end up calling themselves, we will have saved our “brand” and can apply it to something better — a membership-based advocacy group modeled on the Sierra Club, or something like it, which can be as successful in spreading the ideals of liberty as the SC has been spreading the ideals of environmentalism.
And we can focus on the important task at hand, and spend a great deal less time and money jumping through the government hoops designed to enervate and defeat us.