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Time To Scrap The Libertarian Party ?

by @ 8:26 am on November 21, 2008. Filed under Bob Barr, Libertarians, Politics

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 ?

3 Responses to “Time To Scrap The Libertarian Party ?”

  1. Doug, you need a superstar candidate and Barr wasn’t it. Only somebody like Ron Paul could vault the Libs into the mainstream, and even then he has some problems.

    I like your idea about an advocacy group, but which issues would you choose? Fiscal or social? I think that would be a tough decision to make.

  2. Justin,

    Superstar candidates do not lead to successful political parties.

    Just look at what happened to the Reform Party after Ross Perot walked away from it. Outside of Minnesota, where it is more an outgrowth of the independent candidacy of Jesse Ventura than anything else, it is a rump party everywhere and has had no impact on the public debate.

    As for what kind of advocacy group, well I don’t think it needs to be just one, but in that regard I think that Cato has been doing banner work for decades now, as have the people at Reason.

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