The Libertarian Party is currently running candidates for President, Vice President, the Senate and House, and various state offices. Party members, friends, and sympathizers are being asked to contribute large sums of money, volunteer to circulate petitions, and devote time in other ways to working for these candidates. Although the LP has grown rapidly in the four years since its founding, its candidates to date have achieved only miniscule vote totals, generally in the vicinity of one percent (and at a cost of several dollars per vote). This lack of electoral support has occurred despite its attractive candidates and the obvious openings created by the Watergate and CIA/FBI revelations, the failure of Great Society programs, a growing tax revolt, the emergence of decriminalization and deregulation as live issues, etc.—and despite media attention considerably greater than the LP's actual size would warrant.
Obviously, something has prevented libertarian candidates from getting votes (even where they appear on the ballot), despite a climate of opinion which appears inherently favorable. It would appear that libertarian candidates simply are not being taken seriously by the electorate. What we have, in other words, is a failure of communications—of marketing libertarian ideas. To understand this failure, we must examine the nature of most libertarian campaigns, to date.
Ostensibly, the purpose of a political campaign is to elect the candidate to office. Yet most libertarian political campaigns have been run principally to "educate the voters" in libertarian political philosophy. Thus, much time is spent on detailed expositions of the Party's theoretical position on every conceivable issue, showing how this seemingly diverse collection of views is really a consistent philosophical whole. Some candidates have taken pride in their ability to shock the voters with their consistent radicalism and are pleased when a presentation to 500 people results in five or six potential new converts (apparently ignoring the possibility that of the other 495, 295 may be bored and the other 200 permanently alienated). The net effect of such activity is indeed to increase awareness of the libertarian philosophy—and to guarantee the hostility or indifference of the vast majority of voters.
To a certain extent this pernicious effect has been masked by the interest shown in LP candidates by media people. Many candidates report spending long hours with reporters, explicating the libertarian classics. Reporters are fascinated with such ideas as private roads, competing private defense agencies, individual secession, completely voluntary financing of government, etc. As a result, press conferences tend to focus on questions of the "How would the blind be cared for in a libertarian society?" variety. The candidate glibly answers that private charity will solve all such problems once the State is abolished. The reporter is pleased for having obtained sensationalist copy ("Candidate favors welfare cutoff"), but the audience, though "educated," is largely frightened and turned off by what appears to be a naive, utopian, and irresponsible position.
Libertarian politicians are thus faced with a basic choice. They must decide whether their first purpose is to educate people in political philosophy (in which case they can forget about electing candidates and accept the likelihood of alienating a majority of the populace) or to elect candidates who can get on with the task of rolling back the State (leaving to non-party vehicles the task of teaching political philosophy). If the latter alternative is selected, as we would urge, then a fundamental change in marketing policy is required.
If a campaign's purpose is to elect candidates, then the focus of its marketing must be on what the specific candidate can and will do during the term of office for which he/she is elected. What is required, in other words, is a specific program which can be seen as potentially realizable during the time period in question. Such a program would be evolutionary in nature, taking into account today's political realities (e.g., the existence of foreign threats, of millions of people dependent on welfare and Social Security, etc.). It would purposely begin with proposals by which a large majority would benefit while only a small vested interest would lose. Each element of such a program would be a step in the direction of less government control and greater personal freedom, and each could be justified in terms of appropriate libertarian principles. But any prolonged discussion of the ultimate libertarian utopia would be scrupulously avoided, as irrelevant to a specific campaign for a specific office.
Such a program for candidates to national office in 1976 might include such elements as abolishing the most vulnerable regulatory agencies (CAB, ICC, OSHA), deregulating energy pricing, repealing the postal monopoly, repealing Federal laws against marijuana and pornography, enactment of a Constitutional amendment prohibiting deficit spending, and setting up a ten-year plan to convert from Social Security to private retirement programs. Each of these proposals is potentially saleable to a majority of Americans, if presented in an appropriate context and using nonthreatening rhetoric. Notice that the list does not include abolishing income taxes or welfare or the FDA—ideas whose time has not yet come, since people today cannot see how to do without these institutions. Until viable replacements can be researched, developed, and popularized, people's needs and fears must be taken seriously if a candidate is serious about being elected.
Those who will attack this approach as compromising or unprincipled should keep several points in mind. (1) The purpose of a political party is to elect people to office. Those libertarians who find this unpalatable should leave politics to the politicians and start or support educational libertarian groups. (2) It is not a compromise to face the necessity for evolutionary change and, therefore, to implement a long-term plan a step at a time. (3) Libertarians are under no obligation to advertise their ultimate goals every time they make a public statement, so long as they don't misrepresent or conceal their principles. In short, we must learn the art of strategy and tactics, and develop marketing approaches at least as sophisticated as those used to introduce a new breakfast cereal.
The stakes are very high. What we are talking about is the survival of liberty in America, and perhaps the world. If libertarian politics is to play a part in this struggle, those involved must develop programs that can actually get candidates elected. It will be a tragedy if the impressive talent now commanded by the Libertarian Party alienates voters who could accept the first steps of a libertarian program to free the country.
[Note: This basic approach was suggested over a year ago to the Australian Workers (libertarian) Party by John W.A. Curvers of Woollahra, New South Wales. Libertarians owe Mr. Curvers an immense debt of gratitude.]
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Libertarian Realpolitik".