The Idea of a Libertarian Party


Libertarians, with their basic commitment to voluntary social interaction, by nature find politics and the political process unpalatable at best and dangerous at worst. Sincerely hoping to live in a world with greater human freedom, they are faced with the enormous problem of radically changing the present collectivistic and antihuman socio-intellectual climate.

As one of the ways by which to bring about a libertarian society, now various groups of libertarians are working in the traditionally accepted area of social change—politics. The Libertarian Party and the New Jersey-based Citizens for a Restructured Republic are perhaps the best known of these groups. However, all of them face several problems. Among the most important is the problem that, since libertarianism is fundamentally antipolitical, its political activity will have to be limited to what may be called "the politics of the antipolitical." Additionally, many libertarians have come to their present position after leaving the sterile contemporary political arena and pseudopolitical groups such as YAF which served merely to stifle their initiative and blunt their libertarian sentiments.


Criticism of libertarian political activity has come from many quarters, most recently from Don Ernsberger, director of the Society for Individual Liberty (see SIL News, December 1971). Some of the arguments he advanced were a) political changes stem from socio-intellectual change, not vice versa; b) political activities attract only superficial supporters; c) education via party politics doesn't work; and d) the basic premises of party politics—compromise and consensus—are repugnant to libertarian principles.

While such objections have validity, the emergence of a Libertarian Party and libertarian political influence is nevertheless desirable as part of a multilevel strategy for rational education and change. These methods can readily be used to affect social change without basically abandoning libertarian values.

It should be made quite clear at the outset that the political front should be merely one of several areas of libertarian activity and education. The importance of direct action, resistance, avoidance, education, interest groups orientation, alternative institutions, and self-liberation need not be deemphasized nor neglected. In addition to such activities, however, it is virtually inevitable that libertarians take the initial concrete steps, both to depoliticize and liberate the individual, by travelling the historically and socially acceptable route of political action.


Almost all the areas of immediate practical interest to individuals (such as tax reform and repeal, civil liberties reform, the elimination of "crimes" without victims, conscription, putting the economy back into the hands of a free market, isolationism, the loosening of control over public education, etc.) involve the legal and political process to a very high degree. While many people are working hard for such changes, some fail to realize that, in the end, it will be the statesmen, the judges, the lawyers, and to some extent the participants in the electoral process, who will actually make the reforms and repeals that libertarians desire. Without some kind of direct representation in the political sphere, libertarians will be compelled to rely on reluctant conservatives (e.g., Goldwater) or issue oriented liberals (e.g., Hatfield).


The idea is not that in the reasonably near future we will have libertarians in Congress, rather, that we can have an adequately vocal political party which is consistently pushing and publicizing libertarian ideology and programs. Politicians are noted for accomodating groups who pose significant threats to their continued place at the public trough; and the existence of a consistent party of principle might prove quite effective at presenting the libertarian alternatives in workable and acceptable forms to the public. Furthermore, the educational value of even having a "Libertarian Party" label on the ballot would probably evoke more curiosity as to what it stands for than would 1,000 literature tables on 1,000 campuses.


In addition to the general strategic advantages, working in the political sphere would serve as a tangible magnet for both energy and financial resources which could then be channelled in a socially acceptable manner and with some means of assessing the feedback. As perverted as it seems, it is far more palatable to hand the citizen some campaign literature about candidate Blatz with platform XYZ than to hand someone a pamphlet which explains the evils and perils of government. Because it is an institution of sorts, a political party can serve as an acceptable outlet for activism and an effective inlet for money. People feel more secure about donating time and money to a political party than to a free-floating philosophical group with erudite goals, esoteric ambitions that nobody understands, and radically new methods for attaining social change. A political party, with frequent local and national elections and publicity, can serve as a tolerable and effective tool for activism.

It should be stressed at this point that the primary purpose of a libertarian political party would not be to have libertarians elected into office, although that would be the ostensible goal. The present likelihood of such an occurrence on even a local level is minute. While actual political success should be welcomed when it does come about, the initial results of libertarian political activity would be primarily educational. With opportunity for "equal time" and public debate, the dissemination of a consistent set of libertarian proposals (such as is currently embodied in the temporary Libertarian Party platform) and the interaction with large numbers of people, the educational effect of such a major undertaking would be enormous. This point has not been lost on parties on the left, such as CPUSA, Peace & Freedom, or the Socialist Workers Party.


Worries about organizational bureaucracy and political opportunism are indeed areas of concern, especially in light of past experiences by many libertarians. However, since in the case of the Libertarian Party, all state and local parties will be completely autonomous, both organizationally and financially, the likelihood of bureaucratic misuse will be minimized. Also to be considered is the fact that initial efforts will be centered around such things as qualifying the party for the state ballot and raising filing fees and will probably involve fairly small groups of libertarians. It should also be stressed that libertarians who bear antagonisms against voluntary types of organizations such as political parties are in effect contradicting their own principles, since, after all, it is voluntary organization that libertarians are trying to extend to all facets of society. If individualists cannot trust even their own voluntary organizational structures, the arguments in favor of voluntary societal organization will certainly seem hollow. In the final analysis, the virtue of voluntary organization lies ultimately in the fact that, should misuse occur, the individual can always quit and form new organizational forms. Many libertarians have already had this experience and it should function as an effective safeguard against any kind of libertarian political mismanagement.


The idea, then, is not to "sweep the world" toward a libertarian philosophy; the idea is to focus enough attention on that philosophy to generate popular acceptance and public tolerance and thereby realize the merits of laissez faire. Politics is an effective tool in bringing about this idea. As a feminist associate of mine put it, "The success of the 'new' feminist movement (as opposed to the 'old' suffragists) lies in having attracted attention to and generated acceptance for their ideals. Those legal changes which have come about (equal rights amendment, repeal of abortion laws, etc.) are far overshadowed by the changes in women's view of themselves, of their roles in society, and of their relationship with men and other women. However much the traditional roles of housewife and mother may be defended by those women happy in them, their very defense brings about changes. In order to defend, you must examine; and examination itself modifies the situation. The virtue of feminist politicking has manifested itself in stimulating examination and questioning of roles and behavior previously accepted as inevitable. The role of housewife is no more inevitable than taxation. Obeying a man is no more acceptable than obeying a government. The effects of focusing on that which is taken for granted are far-reaching." If politics does nothing else, it at least serves to focus attention on human inequity and injustice, aids understanding, and, insofar as libertarians are concerned, may help to bring about a "hands off" attitude on the part of society.


Ernsberger's arguments against libertarian political activity seem unconvincing. The fact that political change reflects socio-intellectual change overlooks the very important fact that the socio-intellectual climate has changed to the extent that there is a small but growing segment of society which does accept basic libertarian principles and premises but who have no socially acceptable outlet through which to act. Since political change succeeds socio-intellectual change, a well planned initial political organization with consistent premises will be a major asset in channelling the changing socio-intellectual values into positive and practical action. To those who feel that it is "too early" to initiate a political front, it is tempting to ask, just when will the "correct time" be? What is the magic signal? When there are 100,000 libertarians? A million? If it is the individual that matters, why should the question be quantitative? Neither is the assumption that libertarian ideas are just beginning to permeate the intellectual strata of society a reason to delay building sound channels for positive change. The sooner working and established channels for political changes are ready, the easier it will be to begin practical reform and repeal when the intellectual tide has tangibly turned. Let's get ready for that tide now.

If current political activity often attracts superficial followers it is only a reflection of the kind of intellectual foundations most of this country's political parties rest on. Prematurely to condemn libertarian political activity as being intellectually meaningless is to miss the point of initiating libertarian political activity. Is it not libertarians of the "educationalist" school who maintain that sound ideas are the best weapons against authoritarianism? If this is true, then a vocal combat in the political arena by means of campaign activities should accomplish nothing less than the complete intellectual destruction of the present rah-rah party politics.


To maintain that the political arena is an ineffective place to conduct educational efforts is to misjudge both the nature of the political process and the intelligence of the authoritarian left. Both the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party have long maintained small political parties primarily as convenient vehicles for their educational activities. Given the generally limited resources of these radical groups, one would be seriously underestimating the intelligence of these groups to maintain that they have been wasting their time by pushing their views through political activism. As sad as it is, it is true that for most Americans the major part of their political education with respect to social issues is obtained during the frequent political campaigns, both local and national.

There seems to be a natural distaste in general for politics and political issues, and with the exception of the very small number of people who actively engage in politics, most Americans never think about political issues except when they are assaulted with the rhetoric of campaign oratory and media bombardment of campaign promises and platforms. To neglect this significant opportunity to reach large numbers of intelligent people at a time when they become most conscious of social and political issues would be a serious and unnecessary mistake. As part of a multi-level effort to put forth the libertarian message, let's not a priori neglect any important chances to do so.


Finally, to reject political activism on the basis that libertarian principles are incompatible with the basic nature of political activity is to admit ignorance about the purpose of libertarian political activism. The power politics of the major parties necessarily involves compromise and consensus because the object of these groups is to maximize their influence over national and local governments and, hence, the people of the United States. On the other hand, the explicit goals of libertarian political activity are antipolitical in nature. It is an attempt to use the political process to minimize the effects of that process. It may well be the case that the most effective means of limiting the scope of governmental interference with individual liberties will be the tactic of destruction from within the political process itself.

If one contends that libertarian political involvement will ultimately be antilibertarian in practice, it can only be said that such a position precludes the existence of any kind of libertarian society; i.e., no libertarian society is possible if libertarians cannot be trusted to stick by their principles. And if this view is taken, only some kind of external process—revolution or a mysterious "withering away" of the State—is possible to bring about libertarian change. But if one views change as a process of working within the generally accepted societal structures, as is likely to be the case in at least the near future, the choice becomes one of either building libertarian "political forces" or relying on the sympathies of other political forces. The former alternative is clearly preferable.


The method of moving society towards a more rational direction will have to occur on many levels and by many different means. The road to a free society is not a narrow one. To maintain that any particular way is the only way and that all other approaches are worthless is to maintain a rigid, dogmatic, and ultimately an antilibertarian attitude. While the use of the political process carries its own particular set of advantages, this method does not preclude or deemphasize the importance of any of the other methods of change. In fact, the intended result of libertarian political activity will be to emphasize the fundamental problem of any kind of political activity—the rule of men by men. Libertarians should work for the day when the political means of conducting relationships among men living in society will be reduced to its ultimate minimum level. But by any future projections the Era of Libertarianism remains a distant goal. As one who is interested in improving the present social climate, I maintain that political activity of some kind seems to be the most promising method of attaining meaningful change.

The basic fact that individual human effort does determine the course of future social direction must never be neglected. The important thing for any libertarian to realize is that without some kind of effective individual efforts, the kind of society libertarians visualize will never become real. Political activity can be one means of attaining that goal. Rather than condemning that method out of hand as ineffective, libertarians should allow experience and reality to be the ultimate judges of successful pro-life activity.

Michael E. Holmes is an economics and philosophy major at Rice University. He is currently associated with HARD CORE NEWS and the Center for Libertarian Studies in Houston.