Viewpoint: The Danger of Opportunism


Robert Poole's REASON editorial ("Libertarian Realpolitik," August 1976) is a disastrous and self-defeating counsel for the Libertarian Party and for the cause of libertarianism in general. Mr. Poole poses a dichotomy between the goal of getting libertarians elected to office, and that of educating people in political philosophy, and he opts strongly for the former. But there are several fallacies with the alleged dichotomy itself. In the first place, the goal of the Libertarian Party should not be to get elected but to get elected as libertarians. But that means "educating people in political philosophy." Furthermore, Mr. Poole would have the LP stop educating people in libertarianism—and thereby in effect surrender or conceal our basic principles in order to con the public—in exchange for what? For I submit that even on his own admitted Realpolitiker terms, his opportunist counsel is self-defeating. For if the LP simply presents to the public what appears to the average voter (and to myself, for that matter) as a mere carbon-copy of, say, Ronald Reagan (e.g. a balanced budget amendment, and deregulation of industry, which even President Ford favors), why the hell should these voters pull the lever for the minuscule and relatively unknown LP when they could vote for Reagan in the first place? As in the case of the market, it is necessary to differentiate one's product, especially in the case of a new and small organization offering itself to the public. Indeed, I submit that those libertarians who want to hide their principles in order to get into office as quickly as possible, have a much more efficient and more Realpolitik course open to them: to forget about the Libertarian Party and to join the Democrats of Republicans.

Mr. Poole is also forgetting his Realpolitik when he airily suggests that the task of educating the public to libertarian principles be left to "non-party vehicles." One question is: which "non-party vehicles"? Since they don't exist, and show no signs of coming into existence, this means that we are left with the Libertarian Party as the only realistic vehicle for such education. This point is enhanced by the fact that the American public seems only to care about political principles in the context of electoral campaigns, and also seems chronically uninterested in joining any ideological groups except political parties. All this makes the Libertarian Party the only serious vehicle that we are ever likely to have in educating the public in political philosophy.

But most important, Mr. Poole's gravest error is a failure to think in terms of historical dynamics. It is absurd to think that the LP has a realistic chance of coming to power immediately; such an electoral majority looms only in the future. The first realistic political influence that we could expect the LP to have, as it grows in strength, is—in the great tradition of third parties—to push the establishment parties in a more libertarian direction. And to do this, once again, we have to establish a clear alternative, a direction in which to do the pushing. But, especially, the terms in which Mr. Poole puts his dichotomy are faulty. The prime task of the LP, as well as of whatever non-party vehicles may emerge, should be to build the libertarian movement, to build a cadre of dedicated libertarians in continuing communication and acting together in the political realm. But in order to do that, we must "educate" people to become such cadre, cadre who will have influence, even on the number of votes, far beyond their own numbers. If he considers this, he will hardly consider it a failure if each political meeting converts a few cadre to the libertarian cause. If Mr. Poole will examine the history of successful "radical" political movements, he will see that that is precisely how they won—not by opportunistically watering down their principles and programs as soon as they began—but by sticking to their principles which are their sole excitement and glory, and thereby building an ever stronger cadre which adheres to them and spreads their influence. For just one important example in our Bicentennial year, I cite Sam Adams, whose revolutionary and libertarian drive for independence and against British state tyranny did not begin as a majority; the important thing is that it ended victoriously and with majority support.

Let those who think as Mr. Poole does join the Democratic or Republican parties, and we will see how successful they will be in our allegedly common ultimate goal. But let them leave the Libertarian Party alone to raise the banner to which those who love liberty and are sick of government may repair—and we will be able to see which strategy will prove, in the long run, to be more successful. Let us see, by the way, how much media attention—which Mr. Poole concedes that the LP has had in abundance—the opportunists who sound very much like other Republicans or Democrats will get. And, by the way, before he sings hosannas to Mr. John Curvers' strategy for the Workers Party of Australia, may I point out that I haven't seen them take over Australia yet. When they do so, then perhaps it will be time for us to evaluate their strategy, as well as what they will be able to accomplish for liberty once they have achieved their cherished office.

Murray Rothbard is professor of economics at the Polytechnic Institute of New York. Dr. Rothbard's viewpoint appears every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Tibor Machan and David Brudnoy.