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.

Friday, 7 February 2003


About two weeks ago, I outlined here why I can't be a member of the Libertarian Party any more. Today, I'm going to talk about how I'm going to advance libertarian ideas another way.

Mississippi has historically been a one-party state. Post-Reconstruction, the Democrats dominated state politics, and even the “Southern Strategy” of Richard Nixon produced relatively little movement to the Republican Party. At the state level, the Democratic Party dominates most offices. If there has been a realignment in the South, it skipped Mississippi's state offices completely, or at the very least has been delayed by over 30 years.

Part of the Republicans' problem in Mississippi politics is that most Republicans offer little that is different than the Democrats. Both parties are socially conservative, by and large. About the only meaningful difference that can be discerned, other than the fact the Democrats are far more inclusive of Mississippi's blacks than the Republicans are, is that Republicans want a somewhat smaller state government. The conservative coalition agenda is hardly earth-shattering in its scope, discussing a rather bland array of issues. This is hardly surprising, since most of the states' Republicans are just Democrats who have figured out which way the wind was blowing.

Yet Mississippi does face serious problems. Legislators are spending 2003 playing games with the budget so they can put off a tax increase into 2004. They have passed a massive increase in education spending, with nothing to increase accountability — no vouchers, no school district consolidation. They have failed to provide meaningful oversight of spending from Mississippi's anti-tobacco lawsuit proceeds.

We need to stop the budget games. Mississippi is a relatively poor state, and we can't afford more taxes to pay for an uneeded Labor Department, or to throw more taxpayers' money at higher education that could, instead, come from higher tuition. We need a more accountable, smaller state government.

So, rather than simply complain about these things in my blog, I'm going to do something. On Monday, I sent my $15 qualifying fee to the Mississippi Republican Party to be a candidate for the 10th House District in the 2003 statewide election. The 10th District has a population of nearly 23,000, representing parts of Lafayette, south and eastern Panola and northern Tallahatchie counties in northern Mississippi, including parts of Abbeville, Batesville, Courtland, and some of the suburbs surrounding Oxford. The district is about 75.4% white, 23.4% black, and 1.2% persons of other races, and is currently represented by Warner F. McBride, a three-term Democrat from Eureka Springs in Panola County (Mississippi legislators serve four-year terms).

I'll set up a campaign web page in the next few days, with a proper announcement and issue statement (a preview: you'll see the phrase “Taxpayers' Bill of Rights”); it will be linked from the web page. I'll write some about my experiences on the campaign trail here, but there probably won't be a substantial shift in the general melange of topics that come up.

Thanks to Bill Hobbs for some extra publicity with a link from his blog. I'm hoping to have everything ready to roll (the website, platform/position statement, and bank account) in the next couple of weeks. However, up front: I will be endorsing a TABOR Amendment like Colorado's to the state constitution, as well as continuing the direct election of our supreme court (my opponent has proposed legislation that would change to Tennessee-style elections where public input would be greatly reduced). I think this is a winnable district — it went heavily for Bush/Cheney in 2000, even though Batesville's own Ronnie Musgrove will be at the top of the ballot in November.

Thanks to Greg Wythe and neo-conspirator Jacob T, Levy for additional linkage. Now, if I could just get some bloggers to move here; it'd save a bundle on campaign ads.

Sunday, 1 February 2004

Whither the Libertarians (and the libertarians)?

Stephen Green has caused quite a stir with his two posts on the schism between “doctrinaire” and “pragmatic” libertarians over the conflict in Iraq and the broader War on Terror. The schism is really nothing new, and at some levels is analogous to the “anarchist/minarchist” split in the movement; it all basically boils down to a question of “how much of a statist can you be and still call yourself a libertarian?” Martin Devon of Patio Pundit describes it thusly:

I often hear Libertarians lament that the two party systems prevents them from being able to take power and implement their vision. Hogwash. That’s the same thing you hear from the Greens, the Ross Perots and Jesse Venturas. Feh. The Republican and Democrat parties have dominated the political landscape because they’ve done the difficult work of translating a guiding philosophy into votes. In order to that they’ve had to cut some corners and make some unholy alliances. Libertarians could do the same thing.

As many bloggers have commented, there is a segment of the American population who believe in the “leave me alone” school. In order to make them happy you just have to leave them alone—on guns, on gays, on regulation, on religion. These sentiments draw considerable support from both red states and blue states, and therefore Libertarians could amass power by taking over the leadership of either the Democrats or the Republicans.

The truth is that they already have, but when they compromise enough to win power Libertarians are too pure to recognize one of their own. What do you think Arnold the Governator is? He’s a Libertarian who has traded some purity for power.

Now, as someone who himself has left the Libertarian Party for many of the same reasons that Stephen and others are repelled by it, I don’t know that I can offer any constructive advice. In a lot of ways, the party is trapped by the dominant narrative created for it by the media: full of weird people who have turned themselves blue or have strange views on prison rehabilitation and meet with potential voters in pizza parlors. That alone makes the “Ron Paul” strategy a compelling one. In other ways—although Martin discounts it—the party is trapped by electoral rules designed to favor the existing parties and agenda-setting effects by the press that stop libertarians from advancing their message through unpaid media. The LP has spent decades building a grassroots organization, the net impact of which on American politics has been approximately zero—by contrast, the small amount of media attention Ralph Nader garnered for the Greens in 2000 allowed them to build a comparably strong party organization in mere months.

But “Ron Paulism” isn’t all that effective either. Neither major party’s leading presidential contenders come close to sharing libertarian values—the Republicans treat their alleged principles of limited and small government as bargaining chips to be traded for support from the hard right, while the Democrats sit around whining about a PATRIOT Act that virtually all of them voted in favor of for cynical electoral reasons. The desperation associated with being in the “electoral wilderness” has brought Democrats closer to socialism, not libertarianism, and there’s no reason to believe a few years out of the White House will make Republicans genuinely turn to libertarian ideas either—they, like the Democrats, are far too wedded to the concept of The State as a credible moral actor, the only difference being that they’d use it to advance different moral ends. I don’t know what the solution is, but it isn’t going to come from John F. Kerry or George W. Bush.

Update: Gary Farber thinks Eric Raymond’s piece takes the slippery slope argument a tad too far.

Monday, 2 February 2004

"Reform Conservatives": Pragmatic libertarians or unreformed nanny-statists?

Somewhat apropos of Sunday’s discussion of the failure of libertarianism, the Baseball Crank considers a new camp in the conservative big tent, which he describes as “Reform Conseratism”*:

Traditionally, the conservative movement has been driven by small-government conservatism, the idea that government is too big and intrusive and spends and regulates too much. Ever since the Reagan years, the small-government conservatives have been trapped in a sort of limbo: they’ve won the battle of ideas, but lost the political battle, most spectacularly with the failure of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution to eliminate any significant government programs.

Partially in response to this, we’ve seen the growth of what (at the risk of adding another sub-category) I’ve long liked to think of as Reform Conservatism. The central insight of Reform Conservatives has been that the most important problem with government programs is not that that they involve the government, but that they take choices away from individuals. The classic Reform Conservative solution is including privately controlled accounts within the Social Security system; rather than stage a losing battle over trying to scale back or get rid of the program, Reform Conservatives have focused on introducing within it an element of private choice to make the operation of Social Security more like a non-governmental program. The other signature issue of Reform Conservatives, school choice, operates the same way: it’s still redistributing taxpayer money, but the decisionmaking authority over the use of that money is shifted to parents and away from school system bureaucrats.

The Crank contrasts this approach with something he unfortunately calls “neoliberalism”†, who share the conservative critique of government failure but “prefer[] instead to have government enforce standards that demand accountability [for the failure of New Dealesque social policies], rather than depending on individual self-interest” to reform them.

Overall, I think it’s an interesting discussion of a policy area where many small-l libertarians could be encouraged to agree with elements of the conservative platform. But I think the Crank overstates the case that “Reform Conservatives” make for choice: while they attempt to capture the power of the market in their reforms, the “decisionmaking authority” that citizens receive is narrowly circumscribed. You can only use school choice money for educating your children in certain settings (you generally can’t use the cash to send them to live in Africa for a year, for example, even though that’d probably be far more educational than shuttling them back and forth to a nearby charter school). You must set aside the “private account” in social security for your retirement, rather than investing in (say) your own education, a house, or a new car, things that the average 30-year-old needs more than a nest-egg for a far-off retirement (which, given the solvency of social security, he or she’ll be lucky to see before turning 75). In the end, it’s still a government bureaucrat that ultimately decides the scope of what you can do—reform conservatives just make the scope a bit bigger.

Monday, 31 May 2004

W(h)ither the LP?

Doug Allen wonders what the best future approach for the Libertarian Party is. In the comments on Allen’s post, Skip Oliva writes:

The LP’s flaw is that they focus exclusively on electoral politics, which is a high-cost, low-yield means of communicating your message when you’re a third-party. I’d like to see more LP activism in things like administrative law (which is where I focus my attention) and areas that aren’t the focus of popular and media attention, areas that could use some principles to shine a light on government abuse.

I think the larger question is whether a political party (e.g. the LP) is the best vehicle to advance those goals in the contemporary U.S. political system. I have previously written why I think not; rather, I think the best front is to support organizations like the Institute for Justice and the Cato Institute that work on the legal and interest articulation side of the spectrum. Groups like Cato and IJ have institutional advantages over political parties for pursuing goals outside the electoral process—most notably, the ability to attract tax-deductable donations.

Sean Hackbarth has some thoughts on Allen’s post as well.