Libertarians Against Liberty: LP News
by Ari Armstrong, April 12, 2005
An article about Social Security published in the April, 2005, edition of LP News is terrible. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the content of the publication is nearly as bad. As I read through it, I was struck by how much of it proves Peter Schwartz right: Libertarianism tends to devolve into mindless activism that eschews any philosophical foundation. The Libertarian Party (LP) seems to try to make up for this problem by turning to salesmanship.
Some months ago, I explored the possibility of working for LP News myself. I had previously created the state LP newsletter, and I was considering career options. Talks didn't go very far, and I'm glad for that. I think that, had talks gone further, I would have come to my senses and realized the position wasn't for me. My experience with the LP has been an interesting journey. I was excited about the LP especially during the 2000 elections. Then 2002 brought Rick Stanley, and that marked a turning point in my thinking. Then last year activists in the state LP seemed to have learned little from the disaster of Stanley's Libertarian campaign for U.S. Senate.
My transition from LP enthusiast to LP critic has taken many months, and that's appropriate given I had to compare Schwartz's arguments and predictions with evidence available to me. Now my difference with Schwartz is that I do not believe self-described libertarians must reject philosophical foundations the way Schwartz describes, though that is a danger with many variants of modern-day libertarianism. As an empirical matter, however, I see the problems Schwartz describes as widespread especially within the LP and other like-minded organizations. However, many self-described libertarians, particularly those in academia, are doing excellent work in areas such as legal theory, economics, and history. I intend to maintain friendly ties with and learn all I can from what I'll call "philosophically robust" libertarians.
Before turning to LP News, I want to note one of Schwartz's points that obviously anticipated a major problem within today's libertarian movement. Schwartz describes a reactionary element of libertarianism marked by anti-Americanism, a sanction or even worship of violent upheaval, and a stance that refuses to differentiate between actual freedom fighters and authoritarian thugs.
In the post-9/11 world, the problems to which Schwartz points are particularly noticeable. I have criticized Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com and offered qualified support for the foreign policies of Objectivists such as John Lewis. By any realistic standard, events in the Middle East are going reasonably well, better even than I optimistically hoped. Some libertarians, though, seem to revel in the setbacks of U.S. forces and in the successes of Islamic terrorists. To some, every problem signals the incompetence and evil of the U.S. government. Now, there is plenty to criticize about U.S. foreign policy. Objectivists join even Raimondo in harshly criticizing many aspects of U.S. foreign policy over the past decades. The difference is that Objectivists see the United States as basically good and basically protective of individual rights, while some libertarians (along with leftists such as Ward Churchill) see the United States as fundamentally evil and morally deserving of defeat.
LP News contains some okay material. The front page features an article about a school bond that was defeated in Texas, and the section about affiliates discusses an effort in Virginia to defeat a tax on prepared meals. Libertarians do seem able to participate in these sorts of anti-tax campaigns, though it's often unclear how much of an impact Libertarians have when others are involved. The paper also contains a story about eminent domain, though the same information is available from many other sources. An LP affiliate in Indiana hosted a speech contest to promote the First Amendment, the paper reports. Another story features a critique of "tax-payer-funded tourism."
Much of the rest of the paper, though, is marked by anti-intellectualism, attempts at salesmanship, and activism divorced from principles.
The paper reviews ballot-access efforts in Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas. However, while easier ballot access led to more LP candidates in Colorado in 2000, it doesn't seem to have had much of a lasting effect, and the strategy of running more candidates hasn't worked very well because the quality of some of the candidates has been very low. The idea of making it easier for Libertarians to make the ballot seems to rest on the assumption that the goal of the LP is to perpetuate itself. Notably, the effort in Louisiana is expected to help the Greens, too. The paper reports, "The Green Party has approximately 700 registered voters, [Michael] Wolf [secretary of the state LP] noted, 'so with a little more work and $1,000 they could be a qualified party, too'." How kind of the LP to assist an organization with an overtly socialist platform. Some Libertarians seem to take seriously the notion that "democracy" and increased voting are inherently good.
The paper reports that Libertarians in Alabama are trying to "decriminalize marijuana for medical use." I fully support such efforts, but note the rationale for the policy given by State LP Vice Chair Stephen Gordon: "We hold that state government is more responsive than the federal government in meeting the healthcare needs of its citizens -- and that patient care is best served by more of a local approach." In other words, this Libertarian leader seeks to replace national communism with local communism. But what about individual rights? [July 12, 2005, update: Stephen Gordon sent me an e-mail today stating that the quote originated from a local newspaper that took his quote out of context. He said that he was trying to make a point about federalism. Thus, I apologize for the use of the quote, and I retract this case as an example of a "libertarian against liberty." -- Ari Armstrong]
The paper reports, "The good doctor of journalism himself, Hunter S. Thompson, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Feb. 20. Often viewed as a libertarian because of his rancor toward all dishonest, deceitful or otherwise contemptible politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, Thompson was a lifelong advocate of gun rights and drug legalization." Note here that libertarianism is described essentially as anti-state and as perfectly compatible with Thompson's nihilism. (Thompson rode with the Hells Angels and took "copious amounts" of various drugs.) Anything, it seems, to associate the Libertarian Party with famous personalities.
The section "First Word," which quotes outside writers, illustrates perfectly the central problem with libertarianism. (The section is printed near the address label.) Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative wrote March 14: "Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete system of ethics or metaphysics. Political philosophies address specifically the state and, more generally, justice in human society... Given that murder and theft are wrong... the libertarian contends that the state... has no more right to seize the property of others [etc.]... than any other institution or individual has."
So here is the LP's flagship publication wearing on its outer fold precisely the view that Schwartz describes. But the absurdity of libertarianism as it's described by McCarthy is apparent within his own text. Because libertarianism does not rest on "a complete system of ethics," it must smuggle in certain unproved moral premises and spin out rationalistic theories from there. (A "complete system of ethics" explains why murder and theft are wrong and what constitutes those crimes.) To make any progress, a libertarian must define what he or she means by "theft." To a Marxist, theft means owning capital and thereby exploiting workers. To a leftist, theft means withholding from the state one's "proper" payment of taxes. To a pacifist, murder includes the use of defensive lethal force. Given their own assumptions, libertarians can respond to such challenges only by resorting to dogma.
So I'll flip through the paper and describe a few more manifestations of the basic problem of the libertarian aversion to moral theory.
The featured article describes the effort of a Libertarian to raise money and build 50 houses in Sri Lanka, to benefit victims of the tsunami. Generally I applaud efforts of voluntary charity, so my beef is not with the action but with its treatment. Neither the main article nor the full-page editorial by editor J. Daniel Cloud discusses the fundamental problem: economic oppression has severely limited economic growth in many of these areas, such that there's not enough wealth to adequately prepare for and respond to disasters.
A couple of oddities surround the housing effort. First, the American behind the effort says that many "fishing-related-folks... lost their boats -- which means they lost their livelihood." Might they not then appreciate, say, a new boat more than a new house? Also, the houses do not become the property of the recipients for a decade. This is because "the government has been building homes for these people and giving land to them, but people would move in and then move right back out and sell the house to somebody else." Might that not indicate that such people would rather have some other form of assistance? This is not really a big theoretical concern, but it's a bit peculiar.
This statement by Cloud is very strange: "When our government stops stealing my money through taxes... I'll contribute far more than they currently take from me. And I'll do it voluntarily." This seems to be some sort of threat: stop taxing me or I'll refuse to donate to market charities. No doubt government spending drives out some voluntary charity activity, and that's a legitimate point to raise. But Cloud's statement is just weird.
Page 5 contains an ad by the Advocates for Self-Government for the book, Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion. Here's the description: "This book is not 'theory.' It's very specific, step-by-step advice about how to deal with the kind of communications problems you encounter as a libertarian: How to handle 'tough prospects' like family and friends. How to respond to people who raise endless theoretical objections to liberty. How to avoid common gaffes that turn people off. How to project a friendlier, warmer personality while discussing politics."
I haven't read the book, though I've listened to some audio tapes by its author, Michael Cloud, who offers some good advice. But consider the advertisement in the broader context of libertarian antipathy toward a "complete system of ethics." Notice the scare-quotes around the term "theory." It's not a book about commanding correct arguments in defense of libertarianism, it's a book about persuading through proper technique.
Bill Winter, with whom I'm on friendly terms, writes an article about Drew Carey. Winter used to edit LP News, and now he works for the Advocates. Winter notes that Carey "doesn't like... censorship, anti-smoking laws, drug laws," etc., and he does like "freedom, competition, free minds, free markets and -- he won't deny -- beer and dirty jokes." Winter continues, "Those likes and dislikes tell you pretty much everything you need to know about Carey... [H]e's a libertarian." By itself, this passage isn't a huge deal. Yet it seems to be consistent with the view that libertarianism is mainly about emotions -- likes and dislikes -- rather than an integrated philosophy.
The LP's executive director, Joe Seehusen, writes a glowing article about the LP's recent alleged successes. For example, a political science professor claimed that the LP might "pose a significant threat to President Bush's re-election effort." The LP sprang into action to issue a press release based on this comment, Seehusen reviews, and that "triggered a similar story" in various other publications. Seehusen's remarks are odd for a few reasons. First, he seems to assume that any press is good press. But does anyone really care about the opinions of some obscure professor? Second, the prediction was obviously false: the LP had exactly zero impact on the presidential election. So bragging about press that was based on incorrect analysis seems strange. Third, why is it such a great thing that the LP may be able to swing races?
Much of Seehusen's essay deals with the alleged ability of Libertarians to "affect the outcome" of races. This is arguably a good thing, but it might not be so great, and Seehusen doesn't explain why it's generally good. He does argue that a Libertarian helped take out a "taxaholic Republican." But doesn't that mean the voters ended up with a taxaholic Democrat? In general, the claim that the LP can swing a race from Candidate X to Candidate Y means that the LP can take more votes from Candidate X, presumably because the views of that candidate are closer to the views of the LP. So it's not obvious why throwing the race to the candidate with views farthest from one's own is a good general strategy. Regardless, Seehusen's case seems to rest on the notion that what the LP needs is more publicity, not better ideas.
To me, the inductive evidence is overwhelming, even from a reading of a single issue of LP News: the Libertarian Party and other close organizations try to detach politics from an integrated philosophy, and this results in all sorts of pathologies ranging from reactionism to mindless activism to a substitution of salesmanship for ideology. Schwartz was right. While his critique doesn't apply to all self-identified libertarians, it applies to many of them, especially within the LP.