Frontlines: Libertarian Party Convention


There was a time, as Murray Rothbard used to recall, when the entire libertarian movement could have had its annual convention in his living room. It was not that there were so few libertarians, but there was no focal agency for the political philosophy. During the days of July 12-17, 1977, in San Francisco over 1,000 people gathered for the 6th annual Libertarian Party convention. This was by far the largest and most financially successful convention held to date.

Whether, as libertarians, we agree that the Party is an important institution (my opinion), or that the only way effectively to work toward a minimal government is with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, or that the only "libertarian" political thing worth doing is to drop out and defend individually what we have left, the fact remains that the Libertarian Party has grown substantially in the past five years and is accumulating "name recognition" at an increasing rate.

Eric Garris, who was elected to the National Committee of the Libertarian Party at the convention, was responsible for public relations and media coverage. Daily, the newspapers and TV in San Francisco carried stories about the Party and the convention. There was often the overtone in the press coverage that the Libertarians are curious and not to be taken as too much of a threat to the status quo, but the reporters and TV cameras were on the floor of the convention throughout. The fact that libertarians can make themselves visible, but cannot automatically make themselves appear potent and important, is the most serious problem still to be overcome. The comment was made by one reporter at the 1976 convention that the Libertarian Party was the most intellectual collection of people ever seen at a political gathering. Indeed, the convention was an intellectual treat—but far too many of the people who came may not be politically effective in their own communities.

The new National Committee of the Libertarian Party is now much more heavily weighted with individuals who have political achievements to their credit. Prior to the MacBride campaign—which provided a nationwide test for the leaders of the Party, to put up or shut up—election to the committee was more of a status symbol and the real work of the Party was thrust onto the Chairman and the National Director. This has hopefully changed.

One very significant amendment to the Libertarian Party constitution and bylaws now requires the local Party organizations to sell memberships in the national party in order to earn their delegate strength at the 1979 national convention—where the candidate for President in 1980 will be nominated. The old system of relying on estimates of local party strength for the number of voting delegates to the convention has been abolished. The new system requires documentation in the form of payments and signatures on the pledge against initiation of force. Some of the "big states" have a job to attend to now, and something to worry about.


The theme of the convention was stated in the keynote speech by Murray Rothbard, in reference to the year 1777 which was the "turning point" in the first libertarian revolution. The Party has shown its colors with the 1976 Presidential campaign, and it is necessary now to demonstrate that libertarians intend to go on and take the powers of government out of the hands of interventionists. The next elections are all state and local. The immediate focus has to be on the grass roots.

The National Committee concerned itself at its meeting following the convention with the development of an introductory piece of literature suitable for use by the Young Libertarian Alliance chapters on college campuses. Most of the activists in the Libertarian Party seem to be in that category which includes students and ex-students who have not yet tied themselves down to the anxieties and problems of career and family. The theory is that if the Party is to grow rapidly, it must recruit workers who have available time and who don't yet have the problems of the average overtaxed citizen. Moreover, the idealistic vision of a libertarian society is better understood by young people—and too readily dismissed by cynical, "practical" types who have already settled down and given up.

The appearance of Eugene McCarthy and Timothy Leary at the convention was an interesting symbolic gesture. Leary gave a talk at a seminar, presenting himself as an advocate of the rights of individuals, although not as consistently libertarian as we would have liked. His inclusion in the program was a coup from the standpoint of public relations, however. He is a symbol of social laissez faire. Eugene McCarthy spoke at the banquet following Roger MacBride, as well as appearing with MacBride at a press conference the previous day. McCarthy's 1968 campaign more than his 1976 campaign was the symbolic factor from which the public image of the Libertarian Party will gain. His speech was an interesting presentation of attitudes—he praised the Party's stand against eminent domain as a violation of the rights of individuals, and he said nothing along the lines of an expanded welfare state. He clearly knew his audience, and it was impressively large. The news media took excessive notice of McCarthy during his 1976 campaign, relative to MacBride's effort, and the symbolic bringing together of these memories in the minds of those who may remember is very important for the future of the Libertarian Party as the focal agency for political idealism.

The actual business sessions of the convention, amending the constitution and bylaws and revising the platform planks, were only a part of the action—and possibly not the best part at that. Carol Cunningham, who was re-elected to the National Committee, is to be praised for conceiving of a convention with a wide selection of seminars and workshops—so attractive, in fact, were the sideshows that the convention floor was always half empty. Of course, San Francisco itself lured many a delegate away from the hotel altogether.

In the city where gay rights are taken for granted, it was pleasing to many local visitors at the convention to realize that the Libertarian Party is genuinely tolerant of the rights of individuals to live their lives as they choose, and that the Party exemplifies this principle today, as Robert Nozick said it should when he addressed the 1975 convention. A resolution was adopted, upon motion made by Chairman David Bergland and seconded by Ralph Raico, Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, and Roger MacBride, to condemn the crusade of Anita Bryant against the rights of homosexuals to live and work in a community on equal terms with heterosexuals. The resolution made clear, of course, that the Libertarian Party opposes the use of forced association laws, but the important issue is the condemnation of the bigoted social conservative movement which is still a major political force in the United States.