If L. Neil Smith Ran the Circus

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If L. Neil Smith Ran the Circus

IF I RAN THE CIRCUS
by L. Neil Smith
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise, Issue 212
Reprint permission reproduced below.

(With apologies to Dr. Seuss)

For quite some time now -- several years, in fact -- people have been asking me if I intend to run for President (of the United States, that is), and if so, as a Libertarian Party nominee or an independent candidate.

I have replied in a variety of ways, more or less depending on the circumstances, often saying I wasn't a candidate for anything, but just a guy whose friends were trying to persuade him to run. Although that became sort of a running joke, it was true, as far as it went. Unlike most office-seekers, I would enter the fray sort of against my better judgement (not to mention the better judgement of my wife and daughter), without any money to speak of, without useful political connections, and with a job I was contractually obligated to keep doing, no matter what. The issue of my candidacy had more to do with what other individuals wanted and were willing to do, than it had with me.

From the beginning, some of those individuals, some of those friends, created websites and mailing lists, ostensibly to convince me to run, and to discuss strategy and tactics. The most recent of them is "Smith2004" on Yahoo, and it's an amazing thing. Its participants run the gamut from conservative (the real kind, not those neo-phonies running the GOP these days) through good, old-fashioned libertarians (as defined by their adherence to what they've begun to call the "Zero Aggression Principle"), to outright, straightforward individualist anarchists.

My kind of people.

As befits the sort of thing it's trying to be, Smith2004 is an unmoderated list, and threads of conversation wander all over the place, from discussions of cooking (chili and barbecue being popular topics), to mutual assistance with cranky computers, to discussions of firearms suitable for hunting and self-defense, to music -- a number of the participants, including yours truly, have written songs and earned a living as musicians -- to jokes of all kinds, as long as they're in questionable taste. We have a couple of talented graphic artists, all kinds of writers and technicians. Unlike a lot of what happens elsewhere, we have a welcome female contingent, along with other sorts of individuals, including one of the founders of Pink Pistols.

Smith2004 is an extremely comfortable point in cyberspace to hang your virtual hat, and one of the few places left in the movement (that I know of, anyway) where theory -- the philosophy and politics of freedom -- is still discussed as if it hadn't all been settled decades ago.

I've learned a great deal there, myself.

Maybe the most important thing I've learned is that geography has nothing to do with anything political any more. Smith2004 can boast of participants from Hawaii to Great Britain, a number of Canadians, and would welcome anyone from anywhere else, if they shared the goals and values of other members on the list. I enjoy seeing folks from places other than the United States. It seems to me that the people of the world have a lot at stake in American elections. At the least, they deserve some say concerning who's going to be dropping bombs on them next.

The effective nullification of geography is just one of the ways in which the rules of cyberspace are different from the rules of "meatspace".

Last year I gave a speech in Arizona in which I pointed out that no sane Libertarian candidate expects to win a presidential election, but that this is a good thing, because it frees him to say and do things no Republican or Democratic candidate would ever dare to say or do.

But it goes much further than that. The fact is that Libertarians are not pursuing the same objectives as Republicans and Democrats -- and wouldn't be Libertarians if they were. Republicans and Democrats seek and demand absolute power over your life and mine -- and all the world's wealth. Libertarians want to limit that power or eliminate it altogether.

In addition, Republicans and Democrats command unlimited resources with which they can pursue their objectives, whereas Libertarians do not.

Moreover, Republicans and Democrats need to be seen to defeat one another decisively. Libertarians, on the other hand, need only to earn enough votes to shock or surprise everyone, or, on occasion, to take an election away from one of the two major parties and hand it to the other.

It follows, therefore, that Libertarian strategy and tactics must differ considerably -- if not radically -- from those of Republicans and Democrats, and that to any extent Libertarians have mindlessly imitated traditional Republican or Democratic strategy or tactics, they have been operating inefficiently and at a severe, self-imposed disadvantage.

Suppose, as an illustration, we calculated that all we needed to do to achieve our particular Libertarian goal -- and not to try, inappropriately, to achieve the goals of Republicans or Democrats -- was to win votes in the northwest corner of the country. That means any effort we expended in the southwest, southeast, or northeast corners would be wasted. Worse, it would mean that we had taken time, effort, and money away from where we really needed to spend them the most.

When I say Libertarians need only to shock or surprise, I didn't mean for its own sake. The course of history has been changed on many occasions by candidates who couldn't win, but who lost with a higher percentage of the vote than anyone expected, demonstrating a change in the public attitude that no longer supported the policies of the incumbent.

Lyndon Johnson, in effect, resigned from office because Eugene McCarthy and other opponents to the long, nightmarish war in Vietnam threatened to make the next election difficult and humiliating for him. Richard Nixon was persuaded to resign before a single vote was cast to impeach him because it was clear no alternative was less painful.

Is there any way to calculate how large a minority has to be before a sitting politician will change his policies or even give up altogether? Probably not. But the Libertarian Party's ability to take an election away from Republicans and hand it to Democrats is a useful indicator.

The Libertarian Party has never won an honest million votes in a presidential election. (Ed Clark got about 900,000 votes in 1980, although they cost his contributors more than five bucks apiece.) The election of 2000 could certainly have been swayed by a million votes in the right place, and anyone who still thinks that things could possibly be worse if Algore had been elected needs some serious couch time.

Directly confronting the Boot On Your Neck party in this country is exactly like putting your army head-to-head with another, bigger, more powerful army. If your army is significantly smaller, less well trained, badly financed, and more poorly armed, you're going to lose every time, just as the Libertarian Party has been losing for over 30 years.

Even when we win we lose: I know of at least two instances in which candidates lost only because of fraud -- in one, ballot boxes were "misplaced" and found in the desert days later where they'd been dumped.

It's time for something completely diferent.

Guerilla conflict occurs when there is a sharp difference between two sides in terms of the assets and resources they command. Among the things a guerilla makes use of is the terrain -- mountains, jungle -- that suits him. If our goal is simply to attract a million voters, why not do it on the "terrain" we not only know best, but dominate: the Internet?

We've been playing the BOYN's game by their rules, on their field, with their bat and ball for too long. Conventional advertising, on TV and in newspapers, could almost have been deliberatly designed to bankrupt a third party, trying to reach folks who don't care and never will.

Excessive travelling exhausts the candidate, strains his family, and wastes the resources people have given him to do the job. There are far better uses to which the candidate and those resources can be put.

Beyond that, this is not a time to hop from state to state, but to do what we're best at -- telepresence -- as well as to boycott the statist airlines. The sight of a Libertarian Party candidate being wand-raped on national TV hardly inspires confidence in his ability to put a stop to such practices -- although the discovery that he was on one of the infamous federal "no fly" lists might prove politically useful.

But this is about what I'd do. And what I'd do, for the most part, is what I do right now: read my e-mail and answer it. I would acquire a bigger, faster desktop PC than I have now, and hook it up to some sort of broadband access to the net. I participate in two or three "mail lists" now, and I would expand that. I write six columns a month for three different online publications, and I would do a great deal more of that, too. And I would recruit a "League of Crossposters" to make absolutely sure my message got through to as many folks online as possible.

I would write and record at least one address a week, taking on all the issues that are important to freedom-loving people. I'd also make sure that at least one new photo of me a week got circulated, not the usual campaign garbage, but candid shots of me at my computer, out at the shooting range with my family, at the rink where my daughter skates and my wife teaches, or simply playing my guitar or banjo, holding my cat, joshing with my dog, or standing proudly beside my SUV.

I can hear you moderates and gradualists out there whimpering just like Beaker at Muppet Labs. Try to hold on to yourselves. Yes, I mean to be photographed with guns and gas guzzlers and I almost wish I were still a smoker. For the first time in LP history, we'll be going after _our_ voters -- all we need is a million -- and forget about the ones who will never vote our way no matter what we do or refrain from doing.

Did you know that the Ayatollah Khomeini took Iran away from the Shah by a surprisingly simple expedient? Not everyone in his country could read, but for some reason they all had cassette tape players. He recorded hundreds of speeches which were smuggled into Iran, copied, distributed among the people, and recopied so many times they became unintelligible. But by that time, the hearts and minds of Persia were his.

I'd do the same thing -- with CDs. I'd also make at least three or four videos where, perhaps as we walked through my neighborhood, or in the mountains near here, or out on the prairie that is my real love, I'd answer questions put to me by a friendly interviewer. Copied and distributed as cheaply as possible, they'd also wind up on the Internet. Of course I'd get conventional media coverage where I could, but with half of American homes wired to the Internet, I wouldn't work or worry very hard to get it. Most of the time it does more harm than good.

Would I visit state Libertarian Party conventions in order to get the nomination? Perhaps a few, within driving distance -- I've vowed never to fly on airlines again until I can fly armed -- but let's be grown up. Freedom now faces the worst threat since the War Between the States. At this moment we all have one foot in a concentration camp and the other on a banana peel. What's more important, making social calls on your friends, or letting the country know it has a chance to express its dissatisfaction with the current regime by voting for somebody who isn't a lying, thieving parasite or a warmongering son-of-a-bitch?

I've always said that, in terms of actually changing things, one third party vote has the power of any ten of the other kind. Instead of playing games 200 years obsolete, I'd concentrate on shocking the political system with a million votes -- antiwar, pro-gun, antitax, pro-freedom votes -- that cannot be overinterpreted or analyzed away. And I'd do it by the easiest, cheapest, and most modern medium available.

The one you're using right now.
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Three-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith is the author of 23 books, including _The American Zone_, _Forge of the Elders_, _Pallas_, _The Probability Broach_, _Hope_ (with Aaron Zelman), and his collection of articles and speeches, _Lever Action_, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at . Autographed copies may be had from the author at lneil@lneilsmith.com.

L. Neil Smith writes regular columns for _The Libertarian Enterprise_ , _Sierra Times_ , and for _Rational Review_ .

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