Sunday, August 17, 2008

Two Paths for the Libertarian Party

“Libertarian,” in the modern American context, describes a range of political views. It includes hard core libertarians who would like to reduce the size and scope of government to something between a minimal state and no state at all. It also includes the much larger number of Americans–polls suggest ten to fifteen percent of the electorate–who favor substantial, but not radical, reductions in government involvement in both economic and social matters. A libertarian in the second sense is probably in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, might well be in favor of decriminalizing marijuana use, is probably not in favor of complete drug legalization. He is likely to view education vouchers favorably, is probably opposed to national health insurance and may support some privatization of social security, but is unlikely to take seriously proposals for a fully private system of schools, health care, or old age insurance.

The Libertarian Party is mostly made up of hard core libertarians. Its campaign strategy has been to spread their views, to appeal to those who share them, while hoping for some votes from soft core libertarians who see voting for it as a way of pressuring the major parties to shift in a libertarian direction.

This year is going to be different. Bob Barr, the LP’s presidential candidate, is an ex-Republican congressman whose past (and, arguably, present) views are no more than moderately libertarian. He supports the legalization of medical marijuana but allows interviewers to assume without contradiction that he opposes more general marijuana legalization. He limits his opposition to the War on Drugs to opposing federal involvement–which, given that the War on Drugs is mostly conducted on the state and local level, is very nearly an irrelevancy masquerading as policy. Judging by what I have seen of him, his version of libertarianism will correspond, at best, to the views of the libertarian wing of the Republican party.

An optimistic view of this year’s strategy is that it will finally get the LP a significant number of votes. Currently Barr is polling at about 6%, roughly twelve times the best electoral outcome the party has ever achieved in a presidential election. Some of those are doubtless Republicans, both libertarians and fiscal conservatives, who feel this year that their party has abandoned them. But many others may be Republicans, Democrats and Independents who are libertarian in the moderate sense and have in the past been repelled by the LP’s more extreme version. If Barr actually ends up with five to ten percent of the votes that will put pressure on both major parties to modify their positions at least a little in a libertarian direction, which is surely a good thing.

A pessimistic view of the current strategy is, first, that it won’t work–that the vote totals will not match the polling totals–and second that, to the extent it does work, it will send the wrong message. The positions that Barr is likely to push, after all, are already held by quite a lot of people in the major parties. A few years ago, I suggested to a local Democratic congresswoman that one way in which her party could pull libertarian voters out of the Republican party was by coming out in favor of a federal policy of respecting state medical marijuana laws. She replied that she and some colleagues had already introduced such a bill.

Seen from this standpoint, Barr’s candidacy seems chiefly designed to push the Republican party back towards something more like its pre-Bush position as a coalition containing, but not dominated by, libertarian elements. It may also strengthen the position of the more libertarian elements in the Democratic party. But it is unlikely either to spread libertarian ideas in any strong sense or to encourage the major parties to consider more than minor adjustments in their policy positions.

The poster child for the more radical strategy is the Socialist Party of the first half of the 20th century. It won almost no elections, in part because it supported extreme positions. But most of those positions were eventually adopted, and implemented, by the major parties.

I have no confidence in my abilities as a political prophet, so am reluctant to predict which strategy will work better. As an individual voter, however, knowing that a single vote has no appreciable effect on the outcome of a national election, I regard voting as a symbolic act. Being myself a hard core libertarian, I am disinclined to vote for a Libertarian candidate who is, so far as I can see, no more libertarian than the better Republicans.

It looks as though I get to sit out this election.


jwpegler said...

Thanks for the post. I’m probably somewhere right in the middle of your definition of ”hard core” libertarian and the libertarian-wing of the GOP. Given their behavior over the last 8 years, I see nothing wrong with a strategy that seeks to punish the GOP for their complete abandonment of anything and everything that resembles a belief in small government. Perhaps a complete repudiation of the GOP will be just the thing that enables their libertarian-wing to gain some much needed influence in the party. So, I will be happily voting for Barr in November.

Chris Hibbert said...

David, I'm sitting in pretty much the same place as you. From what I've heard of Barr, he doesn't have anything to do with the libertarianism I've been voting for all my adult life. But that hasn't yet convinced me that I should stay away from the polls (or at least not enter anything in the presidential column.) But that seems the most likely outcome.

Since I can't actually cast a vote that expresses my preferences, I ought to be free to vote however makes the most sense. I may be more worried about McCain than Obama, but I'm much more worried about one-party rule in Washington.

But my usual justification for voting libertarian is that my vote won't make a deciding difference in any contest, so all I can hope to do is pad someone's total. (Pundits may believe that there are votes against candidates, but politicians only ever see votes for someone; whoever you vote for will interpret it as general support for all his/her positions.) Normally the LP candidate is someone I agree with enough that I can expect people to read my vote as support for reasonable libertarian positions. But with Barr, any surplus over normal LP totals will be read as support for Barr's positions.

Anonymous said...

Hold on a second... if you see voting as a "symbolic act", why wouldn't you vote for the LP candidate? It's not like Bob Barr is actively out there promoting socialism - he has repented for his earlier sins and now talks the talk. He won't be elected President, so symbolism should mean one votes for the Libertarian Party platform, regardless of the current candidate.

If by some miracle he is elected President, his first act would probably be to appoint people like you and Ron Paul to his cabinet.

Anonymous said...

I believe the turnout rate for American elections is something like 50%. If you look at Jesse Ventura's successful independent run in Minnesota, he significantly increased the turnout. So third-parties have a chance of winning if they can get large numbers of new voters out to the polls.

For the above reason, regular third-party voters shouldn't sit at home in my view.

Anonymous said...

It’s painful to see a personal hero so wrong in so many ways, but at least Prof. Friedman is man enough to post his wrong ideas on a blog where slighted fans can take potshots!

> a single vote has no appreciable effect on
> the outcome of a national election

First, to say that one vote doesn't determine the outcome is only true in the trivial sense that one person doesn't determine the outcome of any common endeavor. If a child is trapped under a bus and it takes about 100 people to lift the bus, but no one knows the exact number and 200 people lift the bus to save the child, then each participant should get 1/200th of the credit for the deed even though individually any one person could have just went on his way without changing the outcome.

Only a very sophisticated thinker would argue that no individual should participate in any activity where there is little or no chance that his INDIVIDUAL effort will change the outcome. This bit of Sophistry reminds me of Zeno's paradox and argues against doing your part in any collective effort.

> Barr’s candidacy seems chiefly designed

I can’t speculate on what motivates Libertarian candidates or the people who vote for them, but the one thing that ALL Libertarian Party presidential campaigns have in common is that they move the country away from liberty. The Republican party may have recently lurched to the left (as in far left=communism/fascism and far right=anarchism), but the difference between the major parties is still crystal clear to anyone who bothers to look at the voting records.

The communists in the U.S. were extremely effective at implementing their platform because they hid their ideology from the voters and they made a wise tactical alliance with the Democrats. Obama himself is a disciple of Saul Alinksy who actually taught a class on Alinksy at the University of Chicago. Alinksy wrote "Rules for Radicals" with wisdom like:

Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and change the future.

Like Ronald Reagan, I resent it when these people refer to us as the masses and I wouldn’t prescribe the Alinksy model as the path toward libertarianism, but we could learn from the socialists a bit on how to think tactically and most importantly, we have to get involved in the fight.

Right now the Club for Growth and parts of the Republican party are the only effective political organizations advancing the cause of liberty. How is it that the left has Barack Obama, a hard-core socialist a step away from the presidency and all we’ve got is John McCain and another Libertarian Party clown. It’s precisely because Libertarians are too clueless to make smart tactical choices. We’ve abandoned the Republican party to the RINO’s and Democrat-lite’s.

The net effect of Barr will be to push us closer to Saul Alinsky-style revolution. If Barr and the Libertarians REALLY cared about freedom they would at least ask their supporters to vote for McCain in the battleground states. Since they aren’t going to do that, I think Barr and the Libertarian Party deserved to be mocked for being the most absurd bunch of clowns and cuckolds this country has ever seen.

War is a nasty, vicious, untidy business, but the founding father of this country cared enough about freedom to go to war for it. Today's "Libertarians" don't even care about freedom enough to vote and make some untidy political compromises.


montestruc said...


I am also a bit ambivalent about the man, but see his candidacy as more of a get out the vote and advert thing than care about his actual policy opinions. He is a small government libertarian in philosophy and I will vote for that against the ilk of Obama or McCain to show that they have opposition if not else.

For better or worst ( I meant to go to the National Convention, I was a nominated deligate, but personal issues intervened.) the National Convention after a record number of ballots nominated him. As Mr Kubby approximately said to some delegates threatening to leave the party, if you go, you hand them all we have worked for all these years.

The bottom line is this year we have a chance of getting significantly larger vote totals, and in Texas we have made enormous progress in that we are on the ballots consistently (legal requirement that we win more than IIRC 7% of the vote in a statewide race) and are running in nearly as many races as the Democrats, and more than any other third party and have elected office holders.

I am not staying home just because of a "Yaller Dog" Libertarian.

Anonymous said...

eric blankenburg wrote:

punish the GOP for their complete abandonment of anything and everything that resembles a belief in small government

The guard dog didn't succeed in protecting the hen house so you want to punish him by replacing him with a fox.

I'm a "hard core" libertarian. So tell me, how does punishing *me* by electing a big-government socialist teach the GOP a lesson?

Most of the clown and cuckold Libertarian crowd didn't even participate in the primaries.

Are we going to keep electing socialists until finally American see the light? Is that our strategy?

Here's why I keep harping on the Club for Growth. They target big government Republicans in the primaries where they can actually make a difference.

We have smart political activists for gun rights (NRA) and for economic freedom (Club for Growth), why don't we have a similar group for libertarians in general?

Medical marijuana (or in many places decriminalized marijuana) is a great wedge issue for someone who believes in limited government, but it's a worthless issue as an endpoint. I don't want medical marijuana, I want the complete privatization of the FDA.

Give me your typical Democrat + medical marijuana and I'll pass.

Instead of pitching it to big government Democrats, we should be pitching it to small government Republicans, especially in trendy college towns that tend to elect Democrats.

We need to have a laser-like focus on ways to ratchet down the size and scope of government.

Taxes are the best ground for building a firewall, because tax payers are actually a voting constituency. Spending control is important, but it usually involves a very vocal interest group that lives off government. "Starve the beast" is the strategy that strikes fear into the hearts of the Krugmans of the world.

The Republican "leave us alone" coalition is a natural fit for libertarians and we could have a tremendous amount of influence in the party if we took more of the Ron Paul approach to the big divisive cultural issues.

Apart from abortion, the religious right mainly wants the same thing we want: greater choice. They want the freedom to send their kids to Christian schools and they don't want secular social engineers telling them how to live.

Many of the big issues (that incidentally split the LP as well) could be avoided with greater federalism. Massachusetts and Mississippi should be able to have different laws on gay marriage and abortion.

So at the federal level (President, House & Senate), we need to stay focused on shrinking the tax revenues per GDP, shrinking federal control and steering the Republican party in our direction by targeting bad Republicans in primaries.

At the state and local level we can afford to be more agnostic about the political parties and more forceful in pushing our more specific agendas.


Gil said...


I don't think it makes sense to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. How often do you get a candidate who perfectly represents your views? At least the party represents views much closer to yours than any others.

I think a vote for the LP candidate will be the best symbolic message you can send. So, if you want to send a message by voting for a presidential candidate, that's the best way to do it.

Nobody will count non-voters as people waiting for more hard-core libertarians.

PlanetaryJim said...

There is, of course, a radical hard core libertarian party, the Boston Tea Party, founded in 2006. The nomination of Bob Barr confirms for many of us the outcome of the Portland convention in 2006 which stripped all the meat of the LP platform and left a few mangled bones. Our presidential nominee is Charles Jay, but we've also endorsed the candidacy of George Phillies and Chris Bennett who are running for president and VP in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Moreover, we've identified several dozen libertarian candidates who support our smaller government platform.

In California, we're working on write-in status for our presidential candidate, and we have a very active state affiliate which Joy Waymire, Carolyn Marbry, and Gale Morgan are leading. We expect to see many candidates from your state endorsed by our party.

Obviously, I don't think we'll win any elections, and I'm not interested in doing so. I want to stick with the extreme position of libertarianism. Let the LP compromisers do their worst, and see what it gets them.

Membership in the LP is down dramatically since 2000, according to party co-founder David Nolan. If the members who pay for the party feel disenfranchised by it, perhaps they'll stop paying.

Why is the Boston Tea Party different? We charge no membership dues, so there is no big budget to corrupt our national organisation. We hold all our proceedings in public on open e-mail lists, so there are no closed door sessions to hide dirty laundry. Most important, any member can propose a poll of the entire membership to overthrow any action by the national committee. So unsatisfied members can simply over-rule the party leaders.

I'm not sure it is going to work, but it has been remarkable to see how many hundreds of others think it would.

Anonymous said...

Vote Cthulhu

It is always in the interests of a majority to vote for state intervention on each particular matter that becomes an election issue, even though it is against the interests of the majority to have state intervention on every issue. Thus a succession of votes can and usually will give rise to a highly oppressive order that few would have voted for if the whole package was put in a straight up and down vote

Anonymous said...

The more votes the Libertarian Party gets the less libertarian the major parties will be. The major parties compete for the votes that do not go to the LP; i.e., the votes that are less libertarian. Am I wrong?

Brian Martinez said...

I have a major problem with this statement:

He limits his opposition to the War on Drugs to opposing federal involvement–which, given that the War on Drugs is mostly conducted on the state and local level, is very nearly an irrelevancy masquerading as policy.

This is not true. Not only does the Federal government spend billions on drug interdiction efforts (including the aid they provide to Colombia and other countries for their drug wars), they often work in concert with state and local law enforcement agencies, and give the states funding to militarize local police for conducting increasingly violent and dangerous drug raids.

And of course, where state law is more permissive than Federal law (as with medical marijuana), the Feds take matters into their own hands. Try asking Charlie Lynch if opposition to Federal drug policy is "irrelevant".

Yes, it would be nice if Barr came out with a broader opposition to the drug war at all levels of government, but opposing it at the Federal level is significant. And it makes sense for a Presidential candidate to address policy issues over which, as President, he would wield executive control.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Friedman: You mentioned that the Socialist Party while not electing anyone got most of it's platform installed in the Republican and Democractic platforms. The real reason that their beliefs were implemented is simple. They advance the size and power of government control over the individual which at the core of every modern politicians heart is what what they're real goal is. We have the opposite problem.

chofland said...

I propose considering this an experiment. The Libertarian Party has a chance this year of getting what to us is significantly higher numbers. This is not so much a Bob Barr thing, as a Ron Paul thing. A lot of folks this election cycle expressed interest in the "Freedom Agenda". Let's see how much of that we can harvest.

The fact that they came out for Ron Paul indicates to me that they're receiving on a different frequency than the folks who voted for, say, Harry Browne. The closest transmitter we have to that frequency, I'm guessing, is Bob Barr -- as opposed to Ruwart or Kubby.

Different elections offer different opportunities. This year we can try to get a lot of votes. That's still by our rather sad standards! That 6% is likely to get whittled down to 1.5% by election day, but it's still worth jumping at the chance at double our average and triple our last attempt.

I don't think that total votes matter more than anything, but it's kind of silly to be, you know, a political party and say vote totals don't matter AT ALL. This year is the chance to try that arrow in our quiver.

That said, I look forward to future Libertarian presidential candidates trying completely different strategies: nominating a celebrity, a former Democrat, someone ethnically interesting, someone very effective with civil disobedience, someone who can deliver a big constituency, someone who can take over all broadcasting airwaves and read Machinery of Freedom for 90 minutes.

Being a small party means we have the luxury of trying out some whacky ideas. Bob Barr as a candidate is a pretty whacky idea, but a good one. For now.

For goodness sake, vote though -- Boston Tea Party or write in Manny Klausner. Then next time around they'll say Bob Barr woulda done better if he'd have just been more radical.

Anonymous said...

> kind of silly to be, you know, a
> political party and say vote
> totals don't matter AT ALL.

Kind of? Try very silly.

Kind of INSANE to be, you know, a political party that helps elect the politicians most opposed to your agenda.

If we could just get some of you Libertarian strategists to work for the Green/Socialist party...


Gary McGath said...

planetaryjim: Thanks for your comment on the Boston Tea Party. I've seen a number of mentions of it, but hadn't been able to figure out what exactly it was about.

If I'm reading your comment correctly, it aims to be what the Libertarian Party once claimed to be. Is that about right?

TGGP said...

You underestimate the role of the federal government in the war on drugs. They supply huge amounts of funding for state and local level drug enforcement. Policies emanating from DC have massive effects on places like Latin America and Afghanistan.

John Lott said...

1) "Currently Barr is polling at about 6%, roughly twelve times the best electoral outcome the party has ever achieved in a presidential election." -- As a factual note, Ed Clark got about one percent of the vote in 1980.
2) As has been pointed out elsewhere here, third party candidates tend to fade as one gets closer to the election.

Andrew said...

While your individual vote will not make a difference, it seems folly to publicize this, as it discourages your like-thinking readers from voting. A hundred votes could make a difference.

Unknown said...

I have often voted Republican, usually Libertarian. The current administration is so bad that it got me to vote for John Kerry, for whom I have very negative feelings.

If McCain could have distanced himself at least somewhat from the current administration, I would have voted for him as a vote for gridlock is always reasonable. The Democrats are going to hold both houses of Congress, so gridlock requires McCain.

But he has made not a single statement that would indicate that he shares anything with those of us who might have been called the Libertarian wing of the RP or the Republican-leaning wing of the LP.

So I'm voting Libertarian.

Unknown said...

According to Wikipedia, Sarah Palin's first trick as Mayor was to actually succeed in keeping her campaign promise to cut property taxes by 40%. She seems to have a large number of other libertarian views, and accomplishments. She was endorsed by the LPA for governor, in spite of the fact that they had their own candidate on the ballot.

This seems like a libertarian dream come true: to be precise, straight from a Heinlein story (can someone remind me which one?) in which a black woman is added to the ticket as window dressing, is elected, then the President dies and she proceeds to clean house, restoring libertarian government to america. Everything I see in Sarah Palin's record says: she is the woman for that job.

Unknown said...

Just to add to my previous thought: the Heinlein story more or less appears to be her actual record to date. After her mayoral stint, the Governor picked her to chair the Energy commission, presumably believing she'd play along like everyone else, but she went into total reform mode and cleaned house. Then she cleaned out the Governor himself, and hasn't stopped going yet.

Bob Armstrong said...

I'll vote Libertarian , as I have since I learned of the brand , simply to reinforce brand awareness . I'm encouraging Paulites to vote LP for the same reason , tho it is impossible to present Barr as even Paul lite .

I think the Barr entourage has been stunned by their failure to produce even a glimmer of revolution like support and cash , but I think they have been precipitating some useful legal battles which will help increase the awareness of just how stacked against any outside voices the duopoly has rigged the system .

That both a Repub and a Dem defected from their parties to seek the LP nomination this year shows the brand's philosophy is gaining strength which augers well for the quality of candidates who may present themselves in the next election cycle .

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