Third Parties

Liquidate the Libertarian Party?


Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, reason contributor Ilya Somin repeats a pretty consistent call from the more intellectual end of the libertarian movement oh these past 25 years or so: give up on the Libertarian Party as a meaningful vehicle for political/ideological change. An excerpt:

….third party politics simply is not an effective way of promoting libertarianism in the "first past the post" American political system. That system makes it almost impossible for a third party to win any important elected offices. And such a party also can't be an effective tool for public education because the media isn't likely to devote much attention to a campaign with no chance of success.

Libertarians have had some genuine successes over the last 35 years. These include abolition of the draft (heavily influenced by Milton Friedman's ideas), deregulation of large portions of the economy (of which libertarians were the leading intellectual advocates), major reductions in tax rates (facilitated by libertarian economists, libertarian activists, and the legislative efforts of libertarian-leaning Republicans), the increasing popularity of school choice programs, increases in judicial protection for property rights, gun rights, and economic liberties (thanks in large part to advocacy by libertarian legal activists), and heightened respect for privacy and freedom of speech (promoted by libertarians in cooperation with other groups). Libertarian academics and intellectuals have also done much to make libertarian ideas more respectable and less marginal than they were in the 1960s and early 70s.

What all these successes have in common is that they were achieved either by working within the two major parties or by efforts outside the context of party politics altogether. The Libertarian Party didn't play a significant role in any of them.

Libertarians often emphasize that failed enterprises should be liquidated rather than kept going on artificial life support. That enables their resources to be reinvested in other, more successful firms. The point is well taken, and it applies to the Libertarian Party itself. For 35 years, the Party has consumed valuable resources, both financial and human. The money spent on the LP and the time donated by its committed activists could do a lot more to promote libertarianism if used in other ways.

Of course, for some people third party activism is exactly and only how they would care to participate in the game of public ideological change. And for some (including yours truly) getting hooked on the team-sports aspect of an ideological movement through what seems, especially to the young, its only significant action element, political parties running for office, leads them on to other parts of the ol' war for liberty (for better or for worse, I grant).

I wrote on how and why third party politics might be more a consumer good (for its own sake) than a capital good (meant to lead to something else, like political or ideological change, that is meaningful for its own sake) back in 2004.