Sunday, 26 January 2003

Why I can't be a Libertarian any more

I've written some on libertarians (and the Libertarian Party) before in this weblog (see here and in response to John J. Miller's nonsensical "The GOP would win if only libertarians would vote for us" argument here, here and here — to recap, John, in a republican democracy it's the party's responsibility to appeal to potential voters, not the voter's responsibility to vote for the "least bad" option offered by the two major parties). The truth is, however, the LP (despite still being the third-largest political party in the U.S.) isn't going anywhere fast — and electability isn't on the agenda. Libertarian ideas are selling — witness the stunning support for repealing Massachussetts' income tax in 2002 — but libertarian candidates aren't, at least not under the LP label.

Much of the blame for this, of course, can be laid at the feet of rigged electoral and campaign finance laws that entrench the power of the GOP and Democrats. Even in a post-Buckley world (free from the FECA), though, the electoral laws aren't going away. Which, in essence, means that if libertarians want to get elected to office (as opposed to working through the courts via like-minded groups like the Institute for Justice or through think-tanks like CATO), they're going to have to do it through the two existing major parties, using what I'd call the Ron Paul strategy.

The ground conditions for doing this vary from state to state. In most states, it's probably fair to say that the Republicans are rhetorically, if not in fact, closer to libertarian positions than the Democrats; if nothing else, the existence of the Republican Liberty Caucus and the absence of a similar Democratic-leaning organization suggests that Republicans are more willing to embrace libertarian principles, despite the hard-right influences in the party.

Beyond the practical matter of getting elected, however, it seems like the LP's disconnect with geopolitical reality is becoming more and more pronounced in light of the problem of global terrorism. While I respect the principled stand of many LP members and leaders, including 2000 presidential candidate Harry Browne, on foreign policy matters, I find it difficult to believe that the September 11 attacks wouldn't have taken place if the U.S. had pursued a more isolationist foreign policy, nor do I believe that Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il would be less belligerent global actors without the U.S. having a role in Gulf and East Asian politics. As a matter of first principles, avoiding foreign entanglements would be the best policy — unfortunately, we've had foreign entanglements since the XYZ Affair during the Adams administration. Our government can't simply hide under a ballistic missile shield and pretend that the rest of the world doesn't exist.

The Libertarian Party, for better or worse, is a party of principle (or "The Party of Principle," if you prefer). As such, it is inherently unelectable in a two-party system with plurality elections; you can't build a winning coalition on the uncompromising LP platform except if (a) you call yourself a Republican, (b) you do it in a highly-Republican district and (c) somehow win the Republican primary (Ron Paul's technique). Even at the state and local level, running on a party ticket as a Libertarian is not a vote-winner absent incompetent campaigning by the major-party candidates and a strong LP candidate. The LP doesn't have the resources to counter-act this effect (due, in large part, to FECA; McCain-Feingold will only make it worse) by getting an effective message out or electing a critical mass of candidates, and is unlikely to gain those resources — or more favorable rules — in the foreseeable future.

Fundamentally, the purpose of political parties is to win elections (see Why Parties? by John Aldrich — and no, parties are not evil!). The Libertarian Party, as currently constituted and working within the existing rules, can't do that. And since libertarianism can't be effectively advanced by the LP, there's no longer any point in my being a member.

Any implication that this post is the groundwork for me running as a GOP candidate in Mississippi's November elections is probably true.