Whither the Libertarian Party?


This issue of REASON explores the accomplishments of the six-year-old Libertarian Party. During the past year considerable controversy has arisen over the LP—concerning both its role and its strategy and tactics. Some of these issues are discussed in our lead articles, and in the interview with Milton Friedman.

The fundamental question is this: can a libertarian political party be an effective means of bringing about a free society? One's answer to this question depends on what one conceives the role of such a party to be. And here some history is worth recounting.

In 1971 and 1972 when the LP was first being organized, many thoughtful people were hostile to the idea, seeing politics as basically the business of wielding power and finding that (correctly) to be incompatible with the libertarian philosophy of noncoercion. Never fear, they were told. The purpose for organizing a libertarian party is to take advantage of the great opportunity that political campaigns provide for exposing people to the philosophy of freedom. Electing people to office would only be the "ostensible goal," wrote Mike Holmes in REASON (May 1972)—the real purpose would be educational.

This argument proved persuasive, and many people joined the LP. And indeed, significant media coverage resulted, far more than anyone could have predicted from the party's very small initial membership. Thousands of people first learned about libertarianism via LP election campaigns.

But along the way the LP began to grow up. A slate of competent, professional national officers was elected in 1974 and plans were laid for a massive 1976 presidential campaign. And a new theme began to be heard: that of making the LP into a serious national political party—and more: of displacing the GOP to become Number 2. Roger MacBride, in REASON, compared the LP's position with that of the emergent Republican Party 120 years ago. In a span of only six years the newly formed Republicans completely displaced the Whigs, electing Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. This was the model for the LP, said MacBride. We thus witnessed a fundamental shift in emphasis from strictly education, to education and winning elections, as the LP's means of bringing about a free society.

American history is replete with examples of political parties of both kinds, each playing its own kind of role. On the one hand, there is the archetype educational party—the Communists, the Socialist Workers, the Progressive Laborites—whose role is to publicize its philosophy and attract members to its movement. Such parties have no illusions about winning elections (except in rare instances); their goal is to spread ideas. An educational party can bring about change; it can shift the terms of political debate in a direction favorable to gradual co-optation of its positions by the parties in power. It can also accomplish change by attracting members who can infiltrate other organizations, carry out research, and a host of other activities.

By contrast, the fundamental change strategy of an electoral party is to get people into office so that, once there, they can accomplish the party's program. For an ordinary party, this would mean creating new laws and programs. For a libertarian party, it would involve repealing laws and abolishing programs. The goal of such a party's campaigns, though it may include spreading its ideas, is basically to get the people into office.

For an organization to be effective in achieving its goals, it must tailor the use of its limited resources in accordance with those goals. The goal of electing libertarian candidates to office is not the same thing as the goal of spreading the libertarian philosophy and attracting new members to the movement. Though obviously related, the two goals call for quite different allocations of resources—different kinds of literature, a different marketing approach, different kinds of staff and organization.

Ignoring this distinction, some would have the LP adopt a purist, "abolitionist" approach, limiting the party's platform to a call for the immediate abolition of all forms of coercion (taxation, welfare, the military—you name it). There are times and places for such advocacy, as a means of education. But when it comes to getting people elected, quite a different approach is needed. As in the MacBride presidential campaign, voters must be presented with a program that addresses their concerns and that appears achievable in the real world. (Hence, while clearly stating his opposition to taxation, MacBride advocated tax cuts, not elimination; while opposing public education on principle, he endorsed the voucher system as a transition program.)

But LP members have failed to come to grips with this problem. The debate within the party on gradualism vs. abolitionism is really a debate about what kind of role the party should play—but the issue has not been identified in those terms. The members and leaders of the LP must face up to this question and decide what kind of a party they prefer to be. In making this decision it is vital to keep in mind the distinction between the Libertarian Party and the libertarian movement. The libertarian movement is an incredibly diverse collection of individuals and organizations, many of them educational and quite a few of them non- or antipolitical. This is as it should be. There is no one "right way" to go about creating a free society. It has never been done before!

Whichever role the existing LP decides to play, the rest of the libertarian movement can take on other, complementary roles. If, for example, the LP decides to be primarily an educational party, those people who wish to pursue a free society by directly effecting political change (repealing laws, abolishing agencies) can pursue a number of alternatives: working for issue-oriented political action groups (NORML, NTU, Libertarian Advocate), running libertarian candidates for office as Independents or as Republicans (like Ron Paul) or Democrats (like Woody Jenkins). If, instead, the LP decides to be primarily an electoral party, those of an abolitionist bent can find much work to do in existing educational groups (SIL, IHS, CLS, Cato Institute, etc.). There they could research and publicize the workings of a purely laissez-faire society. They could also organize a smaller, more radical party to carry on educational efforts on this more abstract level.

The real danger is that the LP will attempt to play both roles simultaneously, producing a creature that is neither fish nor fowl. What will likely happen in that case is that the two goals will continually undercut one another, producing candidates and platforms too "radical" to win elections but too "pragmatic" to attract a hard-core following. Were this to occur, it would surely be a tragedy for the future of liberty.