Libertarians: Try Laboratories of Democracy

|

Thomas Knapp suggests applying a little scientific method to test, and eventually improve, Libertarian Party electoral prospects, non-presidential division.

NEXT: Wednesday Afternoon No-Fun Link

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hope springs eternal, I guess.

  2. Such a campaign would require $100,000 bear minimum (mostly for lawyers). And thanks to BiCRA it’s illegal for third party candidates to raise that much money.

  3. When we are all comfortable removing the quotation marks from the word serious, I’m thinking the LP will have better prospects. Stop nominating kooks.

  4. Badnarik beat $100,000 about a month ago in his district. Don’t be so quick to claim defeat!

  5. three or four precincts are a couple thousand voters at the most, potentially less than a 1000 — so that isn’t $100,000. And BiCRA doesn’t apply to state and local candidates, they are governed by state and local campaign finance laws. The big question is the candidates, if they do knock on doors, are they presentable and articulate and are they on a unified message.

    Other factors are which voters do you taget? Regular voters, casual voters, people who haven’t voted in a while or ever?

    Also, I’m pretty sure other state and local LP’s have committed similar experiences, I’d urge Tom to check that out.

    Another idea — combine the candidate approach with a local iniative like lower property taxes or something like that and get more synergy. Form front groups not closely associated with the LP to draw others in, etc.

  6. Warren,

    $100,000? That’s a pretty bizarre figure. I’m talking about doorbelling, and conducting campaign activities of varying types, in four precincts.

    If the county party printed a “combined” brochure, the costs would probably run, at the very outside, to a few hundred dollars. If each campaign provided its own brochure, and if yard signs were part of the mix, it might run into the very low thousands.

    Put a different way, in 1997, I personally canvassed a buttload of precincts — and carried 20+ of 77 of those precincts in a city of about 100,000 … on a total budget of about $1,500.

    $100K would be enough to elect a Libertarian state legislator in Missouri. I’m talking about gathering data on tactical efficacy in a few precincts in one state legislative district.

    Regards,
    Tom Knapp

  7. spur,

    Good suggestions. If I have it my way, my county LP will be purchasing voter lists for various uses, and one of those uses will be to decrease doorbelling expense by targeting households with actual voters living in them.

    Another, at some other experimental stage, may be to target specific voter demographics (i.e. frequent voters, people who vote only in the general and not the primary — we don’t have registration by party, so that might increase the weight of independents in our cost, etc.).

    You’re very right on combining with issues initiatives. As a matter of fact, I have one in mind, if we have good candidates in the area (a smoking ban battle in a town in the county — the LP was instrumental in beating a countywide ban).

    The important thing to me is that the LP needs to stop thinking that the way to victory is to have the right ideas and pray really hard for a miracle. We need to start learning what works in general, and what works for us specifically — even if what we eventually learn is that nothing does.

    Regards,
    Tom Knapp

  8. I suggest renaming it from “Libertarian Party” to something like “Constitutional Party” (taken, I know) so it won’t be associated with people like me.

  9. Jason,

    The reason I put “serious” in quote marks in the post linked to is this: Most state LPs, Missouri included, run a lot of “paper” candidates.

    These “paper” candidates are not necessarily non-credible as individuals. Most of them clean up okay, don’t spit when they’re talking, and don’t segue off into diatribes about the Federal Reserve being controlled by robots from an underground bunker in Newark or anything like that. They’re non-“serious” candidates because they don’t run aggressive campaigns. They pay their filing fees, and perhaps fill out some interest group questionnaires and attend a candidate forum or two. Maybe they sit for a newspaper profile interview. That’s it. They were recruited to puff up the LP’s ticket numbers and such. They’re willing to have their names on the ballot, but not to have their lives revolve around a political campaign for months on end (especially since it’s the conventional wisdom that they have zero chance of winning).

    By “serious” candidate, I mean someone who is willing to commit to a more aggressive effort, i.e. to knock on doors, shake hands, recruit and utilize volunteers, raise funds, buy advertising and signs, etc. The more of this stuff a candidate is willing to do, the more “serious” he or she is in the sense I’m talking about.

    Regards,
    Tom Knapp

  10. Passing out the LP pamplets on gun control at local ranges might be a good start…

    Speaking of that issue, if Rudy gets the republican nomination in ’08, I think we could see the NRA endorse the LP candidate… That would at least get the party name out there and would probably benefit local/state candidates.

  11. I’ve wanted the LP to concentrate on this for so long. Stop wasting money on frivolous shit (Anti Drug war ads on CNN) and start focusing on winning local races by figuring out what works. Rather than beg for contributions for some idiot from wisconsin (and get him $100,000 I might add), focus your resources on these winnable races. County commissioners, state legs – these are winnable with effort. ALso, you need to run people that can win the next level…

    Oh, and stop electing nutjobs to run the national party.

  12. Badnarik beat $100,000 about a month ago in his district. Don’t be so quick to claim defeat!

    I thought we were going to stop nominating kooks…

  13. I thought we were going to stop nominating kooks
    Oh comon, the only crazy things he said were that he drove without a license, refused to use zip codes when mailing letters, would blow up the UN building… ok, I guess he’s a kook.

  14. By “serious” candidate, I mean someone who is willing to commit to a more aggressive effort, i.e. to knock on doors, shake hands, recruit and utilize volunteers, raise funds, buy advertising and signs, etc. The more of this stuff a candidate is willing to do, the more “serious” he or she is in the sense I’m talking about.

    There was a kid – Cameron Dejong, that ran for County Commissioner in North Carolina a few years ago. He was in college at the time, but devoted himself to the campaign. He garnered a a decent percentage of the votes and I think finished a couple of hundred votes back of the last elected spot. He went door-to-door. He did a pancake breakfast for seniors. He had a dew local radio ads. I sent him a few contributions to get him rolling. Certainly, the LP kicking in $5k or so would have won the election for him.

    Then you’ve got a 20-odd year old county commissioner that is obviously electable. Could you actually write a better script for getting a state leg. elected in 2010?

  15. “Passing out the LP pamplets on gun control at local ranges might be a good start…

    Speaking of that issue, if Rudy gets the republican nomination in ’08, I think we could see the NRA endorse the LP candidate… That would at least get the party name out there and would probably benefit local/state candidates.”

    The day the NRA endorses the LP presidential candidate is the day pigs fly. The Republicans could nominate Joseph Stalin and the LP wouldn’t get the NRA’s support.

    “I’ve wanted the LP to concentrate on this for so long. Stop wasting money on frivolous shit (Anti Drug war ads on CNN) and start focusing on winning local races by figuring out what works. Rather than beg for contributions for some idiot from wisconsin (and get him $100,000 I might add), focus your resources on these winnable races. County commissioners, state legs – these are winnable with effort. ALso, you need to run people that can win the next level…”

    There have been dozens and dozens of attempts, organizations, efforts, etc. over the years in the LP to do exactly that, most run by smart, competent people and they have generally failed — libertarians living in Oakland, CA like the idea of city councilors in New Hampshire but most aren’t willing to shell out money to their campaigns — somethign sexy like Ed Thompson — a very excellent candidate and person btw. or a national ad or issue campaingn like the war on drugs is more likely to get funds from libertarians spread around the country.

  16. or a national ad or issue campaingn like the war on drugs is more likely to get funds from libertarians spread around the country.

    SWEET! So then it can be spent on more lunatic candidates!

  17. There have been dozens and dozens of attempts, organizations, efforts, etc. over the years in the LP to do exactly that, most run by smart, competent people

    Bollocks. The LP may have had smart people running things, but they’ve NEVER been competent.

  18. A few more comments:

    “Passing out the LP pamplets on gun control at local ranges might be a good start …”

    Two problems with that:

    1) This area is urban/suburban and doesn’t have much of a gun culture. Or rather, the gun people here already know about the LP and either support or don’t support it.

    2) Passing out LP pamphlets is “selling the party” — one of the biggest mistakes we LPers tend to make. We’ll never “sell the party” to more than a few hardcore activist types. If, however, we concentrate on selling the party’s candidates, one at a time, the party will hopefully eventually sell itself on the strength of those candidates’ performances.

    A lot of numbers are being thrown around here, too, with respect to money. Money is important. It’s one of the most important things. But it’s not the only thing, and how far a given amount of money will go varies widely. As a campaign manager, I won my last two local elections on a combined budget of about $25 — defeating a ballot initiative to eliminate an office, and electing a write-in candidate to that office. That was a unique circumstance, though … had it been a typical circumstance, I’d have probably budgeted around $200 to elect that particular official. That might or might not have been enough, but if it wasn’t, $2,000 or $200,000 wouldn’t have been either.

    Regards,
    Tom Knapp

  19. Although you and I have had serious disagreements, Mr. Knapp (hammering out my overt disgust for Rockwellians on the old Solohq.com), I applaud you for your serious approach to alleviating the government’s harmful intrusion in our lives. Thanks for the thoughtful and relevant political points, and let’s hope that someone is smart enough to take you up as an advisor soon.

  20. Thomas-

    You campaigned against a proposal to eliminate a public office?

  21. Between your rational approach to elections and your campaign to keep a public office, it seems clear that you are not a “real” libertarian.

  22. Steven,

    Good to see you over here! (And I’m not a “Rockwellian,” exactly).

    thoreau:

    I actually didn’t communicate well: No, I didn’t run a campaign against eliminating an office, or at least not exactly. The measure I was campaigning against was to eliminate an elected office and replace it with an appointed office. Specifically, the city board wanted to eliminate the elected office of city marshal so that they could appoint a “compliance officer” who would write more, and more lucrative, tickets.

    We distributed a flier to every household in the city two days before the election: One side urged that the voters keep the office elective, the other side offered a write-in candidate to fill it (everyone was so sure the ballot measure would pass that nobody had filed).

    Took the powers that be totally by surprise. The ballot measure went down 65-35 and the only (write-in) candidate was elected. She recently resigned, though — the board of alderpersons was right wroth at having been thwarted, and it was a year-and-a-half of solid nastiness. For my next trick, I’m going to try to make them rename the town “Pyongyang West.”

    Regards,
    Tom Knapp

  23. Thomas, did your bandwith get overwhelmed? I’m getting a “The page cannot be displayed” error.

  24. SR,

    I’m on Blogspot, which theoretically includes unlimited bandwidth. I’m getting the error too, which probably means that Blogger is having problems.

    Regards,
    Tom Knapp

  25. Makes sense, Thomas. And I like your proposal. First fire a shot across the bow, then threaten to fire a whole bunch of shots aimed directly at them if they pull any stunts.

    I wish you the best of luck.

  26. Here’s one I first offered — oh, 15 fucking years ago to various LP mavens in DC — find ONE congressional district you can win and win it. Stop dicking with the national ticket and win something that gives you national PLATFORM from which to grow.

    Alas, they’ve opted to continue rolling their twelve-sided die.

    Anyone have a Level 33 mage?

  27. I’ve become disenchanted with the notion that political power is the answer. …If there is a definition of a real libertarian, maybe it’s someone who doesn’t believe that our problems have political solutions.

    …not that I won’t vote Libertarian in the next election.

  28. If there is a definition of a real libertarian, maybe it’s someone who doesn’t believe that our problems have political solutions.

    But libertarianism is fundamentally about defining (and limitng) the role of government in people’s lives. That is inherently political.

  29. Sigh.

    Do people understand what the public choice people say about democratic politics, or do they just choose to ignore it?

    To get elected, you have to concede to powerful special interests. They are one issue voters, that are easy to placate, and easier to piss off. So the second you advocate a position against them, your opponent is suddenly going to have a very committed base and very likely very committed funding. So you start prioritizing which issues YOU think are important, and which ones are less important, so that you can lure back, or at least not anger, these special interests. Pretty soon, you’re indistinguishable from one of the two species of Republicrat.

    The system is the way it is because that’s the way it works. People think that the small government movement sprang out of Ronald Reagan’s head fully formed, ignoring the fact that a much larger constituency for it existed at the beginning of the 20th Century. And they followed the strategy that you guys are proposing. And look what it spawned: the current Republican Party.

    Libertarian ideals aren’t going to win by imposing them on an unwilling populace. You have to educate and persuade people that the underlying principles are right. Until we do that, no amount of political campaigning will ever turn the corner.

  30. Libertarian ideals aren’t going to win by imposing them on an unwilling populace. You have to educate and persuade people that the underlying principles are right. Until we do that, no amount of political campaigning will ever turn the corner.

    Fair enough, except I think we need to persuade people about the issues, not the principles. I don’t care whether they accept that A is A and you own yourself and whatnot. If people accept that, say, drug legalization is a failure, I don’t care what they think about self-ownership. If people accept that free trade can bring about greater prosperity, I couldn’t care less whether they think that free trade is fundamentally about free association. If people accept that a lot of regulations are designed to give big business a comparative edge over small business and consumers, I couldn’t care less whether they believe that property rights are the foundation of all other rights.

  31. The utilitarian reading of libertarianism is the way to go. Show people how your vision of limited government, etc., will make their lives better. Do not bother explaining (or “educating” about) why the philosophy is morally better, because that just doesn’t get you very far. Frankly, with the ineptness, the high cost, and the corruption of government at all levels, it’s not that hard of a sell.

  32. “Fair enough, except I think we need to persuade people about the issues, not the principles.”

    Fair enough, and perhaps suprisingly, I agree – on an individual level. Heck, I vote, based on my priorities. However, trying to create a Libertarian Party that seeks to get candidates elected is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Just as the tip of the iceberg, you’re going to start opening yourself to charges of hypocracy or being a “shill” the second the candidate makes his first compromise. And that will only allow people to smugly write off “l”ibertarians as just “greedy” or some other such deragatory term.

    As for your last two sentences, again, I agree, but again, you’re talking about persuading people on philosophy. Granted, you’re reducing it to the application of the philosophy to given issues, but it’s still about persuasion, and not imposition.

    I guess you could sum it up as believing that individual libertarians should freely prioritize and engage in issue alliances. I’m not sure that there should even be a Libertarian Party.

  33. I seem to recall a thread many moons ago where some of us agreed that having a Libertarian Alliance of people who are registered with a variety of parties might be more pragmatic in promoting liberty than hoping the LP will get its act together.

    Speaking of the LP, I’ve always wondered why it doesn’t just focus on restoring limited government (i.e., returning us part way to the orginal Constitution, less a few unsavory items). Don’t get into discussions about issues like abortion, drugs, guns, etc. Not because those issues aren’t important but because those things will be handled better (so we libertarians think) in a freer society with a more limited government.

  34. I find it fascinating that quasibill and I see causes so similarly but wind up with drastically different conclusions. I agree with everything he said – until the last paragraph.

    Ideals will never endure in coalition politics because what motivates 90% of voters to pull the lever is not ideology. You will never sell libertarian ideology to the masses to the extent that you will win an election based on the number of people you convince.

    Look, there are only a couple of choices: participate in coalition politics effectively, participate ineffectively, or don’t participate. As a results oriented guy, I feel obligated to point out that the last two look the same on the end that matters.

    The LP is largely an attempt to opt out of coaltions so as to maintain purity. For this strategy to be meaningful, one has to believe that there are enough (even potentially) purist libertarians to win outright. Nobody who has thought seriously about it can come to that conclusion.

    The counter to this argument is generally that the party can become significant enough to spoil or turn the electoral tide on the margin if it can be adopted by an existing coalition. The problem here is that libertarians, ala quasibill, are utterly uninterested in forming coalitions with the impure. To get the libertarian vote, a coalition is asked that they swallow the whole ideological thing – which would step on much bigger toes in the existing coalition. This is quasibill’s argument – that you wind up with a non libertarian coalition. I hate to burst bubbles, there there is no way that a governing party will form composed entirely out of libertarians.

    So, we can’t enforce ideology if we want to participate in coalition government. What we can do is influence platform. To be effective libertarians, almost an oxymoron, we would need to analyze closely major coalition platforms and throw what electoral weight we can muster behind the coalition that adopts a specific freedom enhancing measure that we want. Newsflash, it can’t be something that the rest of the coalition hates because we are very small.

    At the end of the day, I see a two pronged attack. Educate people about how a policy measure helps them (hint: this education should never even mention natural rights), then bring all the support for the policy you can muster to the coalitions.

  35. Jason-

    What do you think of Thomas Knapp’s proposal to influence coalition politics as a swing bloc? He’s not suggesting some pie in the sky vision where if we just get a miracle we can elect an LP majority to Congress or anything. He’s simply saying that libertarians could use a local LP candidate to display their numbers in a precinct, and then tell an incumbent that these numbers can either work for or against the incumbent in the next election, depending on how the incumbent does things.

    Of course, the devil is in the details, but it seems like a pragmatic way to influence a coalition. Members of a coalition get more attention if they show that their votes can’t be taken for granted, and that their demands are reasonable. Thomas Knapp seems to be suggesting a reasonable way to get attention and make reasonable requests.

  36. Thoreau:

    The devil is in the details of what a supposed swing bloc is going to ask of a coalition. If the swing bloc makes their vote contingent on one or two policies that do not overtly poop on larger coalition members, then I think it is a great idea. That is exactly what we should be doing. If we take our swing bloc and try to make major coalitions become libertarians, we will remain irrelevant.

  37. As I’ve always said Jason, we probably agree on 99% of issues. The devil is in the details.

    However, I think you mischaracterize my position. I explicitly said I join issue coalitions. And I encourage other libertarians to as well, because I agree that can help to increase liberty in the short run.

    I just don’t see any value in having an organized party called Libertarian that engages in such coalitions, as I note that it will open all libertarians up to criticisms of hypocracy. You needn’t look any further than this board to see how few libertarians actually associate themselves with the Party – with good reason. However, many people who don’t think real hard on politics will look at the LP to evaluate what libertarianism is all about. If you turn the LP even further from purity and start supporting, say, an amendment banning gay marriage in order to maintain your coalition to reduce corporate regulations, many people who are left of center, who might be amenable to libertarian beliefs, will see the LP and immediately draw a negative conclusion, making it that much harder to convince them and their friends that libertarianism isn’t about crass politics as usual.

    On the other hand, if you’re doing it as an individual, people can always come up and ask you why you’re doing things the way you are. You can explain that you’ve had to make compromises, but that given your druthers, you would be against the proposals some of your allies bring forth.

    Finally, the idea of imposing freedom is a bit of an oxymoron. It doesn’t work that way. Either people value freedom and liberty, or they don’t. And if they don’t, no amount of force or politics is going to change that (except in the reactionary sense when the state becomes totalitarian, where force and politics seeking to repress liberty instill the value of liberty in the populace). So a strategy that focuses exclusively on political means is going to be a loser in the long run. You also have to put an effort into winning the cultural values battle.

  38. Out of curiosity – and I really don’t mean to be an asshole here, though I suspect that’s how this question is going to come across (apologies in advance) – how many of you have served in public office (anything from deputy dogcatcher on up)? Elected or appointed? Under what (if any) party? Where?

    JMJ

    P.S. Today’s a busy day, and I’m hoping I’ll be around/free enough to add to this discussion, because it’s an important discussion. In case I don’t, just a little quick food for thought: our adversaries not only are the dominant players in the “game,” they own the field and get to write the playbook. Any sort of conventional “attack” is unlikely to work, at least to any significant degree. And, yes, running any sort of race, coalition or otherwise, is conventional. Sorry if this sounds cynical.

  39. Oh, I probably should have also included unsuccessful races for office (which, what party, where, when, …)

    JMJ

  40. JMJ,

    You ask:

    “Out of curiosity – and I really don’t mean to be an asshole here, though I suspect that’s how this question is going to come across (apologies in advance) – how many of you have served in public office (anything from deputy dogcatcher on up)? Elected or appointed? Under what (if any) party? Where?”

    I am an appointed federal official. I serve on my local Selective Service Board. The appointments are theoretically non-partisan, but I was appointed by (or rather, on behalf of) the current president, so I guess that makes me a Republican appointee.

    As a candidate for elected office, I’ve never done well (20% in a three-way non-partisan race was my best).

    As a manager, I haven’t done particularly well, but better than most Libertarians: Two wins for local, non-partisan office (one in 2004 in Missouri, one in 2001 in Pennsylvania, although it would be a stretch to say that I really “managed” that one — I advised the candidate).

    As an anarchist, I am familiar with and cognizant of the arguments against being involved in electoral politics.

    As a politics junkie, I decline to allow those arguments to sidetrack me from being thus involved.

    Roses are red,
    Violets are blue,
    I have multiple personality disorder
    And so do I.

    Regards,
    Tom Knapp

  41. Thank you, Tom. For a few minutes, I thought I had managed to kill the thread.

    In fairness, I’ll answer my own questions:

    Local (Oxford, Connecticut):

    Successful: Town Committee (LP) Treasurer (1994-1997?) Chairman (1997-2000); Board of Ethics (Libertarian appointed by a Democrat, later re-appointed by a Republican) 1996-2004; Zoning Board of Appeals (Elected as a Libertarian candidate, 1997-1999); Justice of the Peace (doesn’t really count, since, as long as slots are open, you apply and are appointed, but still… Non-major party appointee, 2000-present); and I’m supposedly on some sort of Homeland Security Advisory Committe (which has yet to meet – Libertarian appointed by a Republican, 2004-present).

    Unsuccessful: LP candidate for (most notably) First Selectman: 1999. (There were a few minor office races as a fill-in candidate, but the BoS race in 1999 was a legitimate campaign.)

    State:

    LP State Central Committee (1994-1999 I think; held offices of Dep. Treasurer and Dep. Director of Communications at various times, and was part of the 1996 delegation to the National Convention)

    (Non-partisan) write-in for state rep/senate a few times (principally as a “none of the above” vote)

    National:

    On the LP’s Connecticut slate of Presidental electors (1996 & 2000).

    While I learned something from each of these, the run for First Selectman was the most enlightening and even edifying (an a way, anyway): it gave me an opportunity to get a really good look “under the hood” at the machinery of politics and government. That experience, on top of the sum total of the others, has resulted in my cynicism about the “system” generally, and the liklihood of (L)libertarian success in it (something I’ve commented on in threads past).

    Then again (and let us never forget): the outcome we (most of us, anyway) are looking for ISN’T necessarily electing (L)libertarian candidates to office. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in trees and not see the forest. The goal is the movement of “public policy” (a term I hate) in a direction we find acceptable.

    I suspect that running candidates for office is only one tool in the proverbial toolbox here, and not even a particularly effective one. (Not that it shouldn’t be done at all, just that it shouldn’t be overemphasized.)

    JMJ

    P.S. Okay, so how about the rest of you: how many of youze have even made an attempt at “becoming part of the machine” and, thus, can speak with some degree of experience and authority on what the political process is really all about?

  42. JMJ,

    I’ve been an LP County chair and on the LP’s slate of Presidental electors in my state.

    All it takes for either is to not get out of the room fast enough.

  43. Okay.

    Any (non-party committee) public offices / races?

    JMJ

  44. “SWEET! So then it can be spent on more lunatic candidates!”

    “I thought we were going to stop nominating kooks…”

    But, see, the problem is that by the folk definition of “kook” or “lunatic” that you guys are using, any libertarian by definition would be considered a “kook”. We don’t have anyone else. Well, kooks and liars.
    Sure, maybe you don’t want to emphasize the whole agenda, if you’re doing a single-issue type of local campaign, but it’s pretty much impossible to run a national candidate who gives no opinion on issues that will get him labelled as a kook if he picks the libertarian answer.

    If you don’t think that conventional “wisdom” is mostly bunk, then one of the major parties is probably closer to your viewpoint than the LP.
    If you do, then you’re a “kook” too.

  45. Jason Ligon and quasibill are both right: that is the way for libertarians (or anybody else) to do politics, and the Libertarian Party is useless to that end. Plus, the LP isn’t good for education either.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.