What's wrong with the Libertarian Party?
by John Thrasher, June 17, 2002
Towards the end of Murray Rothbard's book, The Ethics of Liberty Rothbard gives his words of advice to a young libertarian movement. He wrote those words in the seventies, and the libertarian movement is not so young anymore. While making some advances in the past thirty years it still seems as though we libertarians have not come very far in advancing our views to the public.
Some believe this is because our views are not meant for the public. The mass man may not be able to understand the subtle differences between liberty and license or force and self defense; more likely, he may not care. Further, it seems that it may be infinitely easier to expand government than to contract it. Others believe that we have just not found the right method to sell liberty to the masses, or maybe that we need to build a critical mass of like minded people that will eventually sway public opinion. I tend to believe the former. If freedom really needs to be smuggled into the public debate under another pretense or if liberty requires a better salesmanship then the Libertarian Party has offered I suspect the masses of voters aren't really that interested in liberation.
I'm not saying that I don't support the Libertarian Party; I think it can be a powerful tool of communication to some people. However, I do believe that the goal of electoral success is, at least in the short run, not feasible. That having been said let me return to Rothbard's advice to the libertarian movement. He warned of two divisive trends that seem to arise in radical political movements: Right Opportunism and Left Sectarianism. I think the left/right predicates are meaningless and misleading so I will just refer to them as opportunism and sectarianism. The opportunists, are those that want success at any cost. Any opportunity to gain power in approached. As basic strategy opportunism is certainly valuable, however, it can lead to a movement destroying its own principles in the search for the elusive grail of power. Sectarianism is the Scylla to the Charibdis of opportunism. It is the puritanical approach to politics that will only accept the end as the solution to any problem. An example would be the libertarian who advocates abolishing the state regardless of the issue raised.
The reason I am reiterating Rothbard's warning thirty years later is I see both of these problems in the current libertarian movement. Specifically in the Libertarian Party, and even more specifically in the Colorado Libertarian Party. After the Leadville convention I was uneasy, it seemed as if the infighting was over. Ralph applauded Vance and Stanly did the same to Steve. Later, Ari announced that Vance was taking over the publications director spot without his aid, and news of certain "moderate-libertarian" candidates began to filter out.
Infighting in a fledgling political movement is bad enough, but the splinters in the party seem to have the decided disadvantage of falling along the lines of opportunism and sectarianism. Sectarianism does not seem as dangerous to libertarianism as opportunism however, and it is the opportunism that scares me.
There seems to be something fundamentally different about Libertarianism that sets it apart from all other political philosophies. The absolute rights of the individual are what this philosophy and movement are based on.
We are "abolitionists" as Murray Rothbard liked to say. Our goal is and always should be to abolish the state. Lest some think that I am showing my true sectarian colors let me add that the goal of the abolition of the state does not preclude a policy of gradualism; but, gradualism should not be a goal unto itself. If we could abolish the state tomorrow we should. It seems that lately some members of the Libertarian Party of Colorado have either forgotten, or never knew of the abolitionist nature of Libertarianism.
When I sees an article in the newspaper covering a Libertarian candidate it is cause for celebration. That is until I actually read the article and I find that James Vance claims that he does not support the privatization of Schools or that some taxes are needed in a society such as ours. I was horrified.
This is not a quibble over whether we should lower income tax by 2% a year or 15% a year until it is abolished, this is a claim that the initiation of force against individuals should be sustained even post an election of libertarian governor. We are growing an odd batch of Libertarians this year. Further, I'm not even sure what it means to call oneself, as a recent bolder candidate did in an interview for the Colorado Daily, a "moderate-libertarian." Does that just mean that you are opposed to the initiation of force most of the time? I mean it's great that people are running for office but are they even remotely related to what could be classified as a libertarian?
My point is not to criticize individual candidates, I'm sure that at least Vance really believes what he says; my point is to warn of the dangers that lie in crass opportunism. The movement, once an idealistic struggle for liberation, can become a cynical and cancerous move towards the control of the reigns of what Albert Jay Nock and Franz Oppenheimer call the "political means." That is the power to expropriate the wealth and freedom from the producers and to redistribute it to the rulers. This is what politicians do and I feel that in the party's groping attempts to win elections, it may create politicians to compete with politicians. A victory of this kind would be truly Pyrrhic.
The solution? Well, I never though I would have to say this, but stick to principles. When we say we are opposed to the initiation of force we should mean it. Taxation is theft, it is forced labor pure and simple and to advocate the continuation of any taxes openly is to advocate the initiation of force. Further, imperialism is not defense. Even if one did believe that for some reason military defense needed to be supplied by the government, do not under any circumstances advocate open ended foreign wars against nations that have never attacked the United States. War truly is the health of the state and if one is interested in abolishing the state, make an open point of opposing interventionist policies abroad. Finally, drug prohibition must be ended. It is the initiation of force against consumers of chemicals. All consistent Libertarians will oppose drug prohibition.
This is not to say that many or even most of the candidates that were finally chosen are opportunists. Ralph has been very consistent especially on the drug issue, and despite the many shot comings of his campaign Rick Stanly can hardly be accused of being a "moderate-libertarian." Ari Armstrong's work to get asset forfeiture reform passed is the perfect example of good Libertarian work. Forming a broad coalition of liberals, conservatives, socialists, and libertarians our world is now a better place because of Ari's work. Capitalizing on opportunities to actualize the libertarian world is what we should all do; however, selling short our principles is not worth any price the political class will give for them.
John Thrasher attends the University of Colorado at Boulder and participates in OMF, on the web at http://www.colorado.edu/studentgroups/OMF/.