Politics

Libertarian Party Founder David Nolan's Life and Legacy

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Libertarian Party founder David Nolan's passing was ably noted on Reason Online by his old college libertarian comrade Bob Poole, founder of the Reason Foundation. What follows are some notes and observations, some from Nolan's own perspective on his accomplishments in promoting the libertarian cause, much derived from the interview I conducted with him as research for my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.  

While Nolan kept his activism focused on electoral politics, as Poole noted, even while Poole did not, I never got the impression Nolan had shifted much from his understanding of what the Libertarian Party might accomplish from the early days, which I summed up in Radicals thusly:

[Nolan] made no grandiose promises for what a Libertarian Party might achieve. He suggested that it could lead to increased media attention for libertarian ideas, which might bring more latent libertarians out from hiding, create a permanent institution to spur those libertarian into action for their beliefs, and help further a breakdown between the traditional right and left by providing a new home, seriously pro-liberty and anti-state, to the forces on either end of the standard political spectrum that ought not feel comfortable with the rest of their coalition. He pointed especially to, on the left, the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, and on the right to the Birchers and the Liberty Amendment Committee (his own former far-right home).

Nolan always had great affection for the long-forgotten Liberty Amendment Committee that provided his political home between the Goldwater campaign and the LP; as he explained it to me, "From World War II to the late '60s a whole generation had no such thing as an active public libertarian movement, and most of the conservative organizations focused on being anti communist and rooting out traitors at home and making sure we didn't surrender to the Russkies. Very few honed in on the idea that the free market can and should do 99 percent of the things that need to be done." Nolan credited the Liberty Amendment Committee—dedicated to passing a constitutional amendment that would eliminate all functions of the federal government not explicitly authorized by the original pre-16th Amendment Constitution—for having an"agenda that was clean and straightforward, not mixed with religion, anti communism, all those strains of conservative thinking. The pure conservative economics philosophy had virtually disappeared except for the Foundation for Economic Education and the Liberty Amendment Committee."

Nolan held fast to not diluting the free-market message with other concerns that actually asked for or required government action—he credited his experience with the mostly forgotten Liberty Amendment Committee as priming him to understand why a specifically libertarian political action group was needed. His holding of the 600-strong list of campus folk interested in the Liberty Amendment, and the list of a small business he ran selling laissez-faire themed buttons and stickers, helped him gin up interest in the early LP, and also helped prime the organizational pump of the major 1970s student group dedicated to libertarian principles, the Society for Individual Liberty when Nolan lent the list to its organizers.

Nolan ran for office with the LP a few times through the years after founding it—he talked to me at length about his 2000 run for U.S. Congress from Orange County, California, in which he stressed the drug war as one issue neither major party could stake out. He was pleasantly surprised with how little angry opposition he found when explaining drug legalization to normal voters.

The future of Nolan's party is very much up for grabs, and while Wayne Root, with whom Nolan sparred on the Libertarian Party's National Committee, hypes himself as a "Reagan libertarian" who thinks the libertarian cause has been infected with too many "liberal" things, Nolan proposed, and the Libertarian National Committee this weekend passed, a resolution holding the party to the notion that:

"WHEREAS we need the support of both former liberals and former conservatives who have come to realize that libertarianism and the Libertarian Party offer a better path to achieving a just, humane and prosperous society,

"The Libertarian National Committee hereby reaffirms that the Libertarian Party welcomes individuals from across the political spectrum who now accept the libertarian principles of self-ownership and non-aggression."

Nolan remained to the end a defender of the notion spelled out well in the popular, and useful libertarian explanation and recruitment tool the "World's Smallest Political Quiz," inspired by an old Nolan libertarian 'zine article and thus knows as the "Nolan Chart": reminding the freedom-minded that there is a viable approach to politics that is orthogonal to the stale, entrapping, equally liberty-violating left-right American political spectrum. Thanks in large part to his efforts, many hundreds of thousands more Americans understand that; and his last political accomplishment was the above effort to maintain his party as a viable political home for Americans whose love of liberty span the left-right divide.

In the Internet age, the LP is a less important entry point for the young looking for places where their peculiar interests in liberty intersect the real world. While Nolan stressed to me the founding gang of the LP were mostly in their 20s, it's hard to find many under 35 at most LP events these days. With groups like Campaign for Liberty and any number of online places to virtually congregate and spread ideas, and with Tea Partyism as a possible spur to more genuinely small-government politicians in the Republican Party, the LPs importance may shrink in the future. Nolan himself became a devotee of the Free State Project approach recently.

An anecdote Nolan told me about his college days was exemplary of his lifelong effort to push liberty ideas anywhere he could. He told me how he and his comrades controlled a Students for Goldwater Group, a Young Republicans group, and a Young Americans for Freedom group at MIT. Since the campus rules allowed one student group to run a booth out at the campus's central crossroads for two weeks straight,, they'd run two weeks of one, two weeks of the next, and two weeks of the third—all pushing the same pro-liberty message he was inspired to by the likes of Heinlein and Rand.

Nolan created an ongoing operation to explain, in a context the greatest number of Americans are prepared to listen and understand, electoral politics,  the basics of a libertarianism clearly distinct, party labels and all, from the two-party political and mental duopoly of America. He thus contributed greatly to the forging of understanding, connection (as well, as any LPer or former LPer will also recognize, for anger, feuding, and splits, but that's the nature of the beast and not Nolan's fault), and inspiration among libertarians. (He credited the interpersonal connections and spreading of information that the LP facilitated, which often ended up coming to fruition outside the LP itself, as the LP's greatest contribution in his interview with me.) Nolan was important in creating an actual lively Third Way in American politics, a Third Way that is far healthier in numbers and brainpower than before he came along. The LP did not elect libertarian politicians, as Nolan always understood it likely wouldn't; it was still a vital part of the set of organizations and approaches that are both allies and sometimes rivals in the ever-livelier free market of ideological and educational action to change minds for liberty.

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30 responses to “Libertarian Party Founder David Nolan's Life and Legacy

  1. Thanks, Brian, for this wonderful tribute.

    I was a member of the Liberty Amendment National Youth Council, of which Dave was the Chairman, and I think at one point Dave appointed me Vice Chair, or some such high office. Willis Stone, at any rate, should certainly be up there in our libetarian pantheon of heroes.

    I would also mention the publication edited by Nolan and Dave Walter, “Commentary on Liberty,” which was published by Philadelphia YAF. This provided the cohesion for a libertarian faction in YAF, and kept activists in touch with each other: it also gave us a forum.

    Dave was a principled libertarian, and a very nice guy. He’s certainly earned his place in the history of our movement, and he will be greatly missed.

    1. Never knew much about David Nolan.

      My first introduction to libertarianism was on a college campus by a be-goateed enthusiast who wanted to sell me a pamphlet. (It didn’t go over well.)

      But Justin Rainmondo, for me, went from a pain-in-the-ass blowhard to a guy whose principles held up in stark daylight. So if David meant something to Justin, then I salute his memory.

      Libertarianism as a political movement has but a few scions–for me, I’d rank them in decreasing order of influence on my awareness; Harry Browne, Jim Babka and Perry Willis, Ron Paul, Justin Raimondo. Based solely on Justin’s mention, David Nolan deserves a place in the pantheon of notable worthies.

    2. Justin, it’s been more than four decades since Dave Nolan approached the Phila. YAF contingent at the Pittsburgh convention in 1967 with his list of libertarian-leaning YAF members. While Dave did not edit “Commentary on Liberty,” he was a close associate from then on in helping to organize the Libertarian Caucus of YAF, from which a thousand
      flowers have bloomed. I was looking forward to hearing from Dave after the recent elections to see if and how his vision of the LP had changed from 1971 when his essay calling for a Libertarian Party first appeared in
      SIL’s “Individualist.” We certainly could have used another, say, twenty years of trenchant insight and activism from Dave Nolan. While the graveyards are filled with indispensable men, he is one who will be sorely missed by all who admired his accomplishments.

  2. So you’re saying that Nolan’s passing now means that awful W.A.R. is certain to be the LP’s 2012 nominee?

    Ugh.

    1. Wayne Allen Root (What is he good for?).

    2. “perfect” is the enemy of “sufficient”

  3. Huh! Yeah! Say it again y’all.

    1. W.A.R., he ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker.
      W.A.R., he’s got one friend
      That’s the Libertarian National Committee.

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  5. I only met Nolan once, at an LP convention 19 years ago, but I was impressed that the Grand Old Man of the party wasn’t haughty about his status at all. Seemed like an all-around decent fellow. RIP.

    1. I got to meet him at the Libertarian election night party on the 2nd here in AZ. He was a great guy.

    2. My, my. An all-around decent fellow. You libertoids have such high standards for your heros.

      1. Re: Max,

        My, my. An all-around decent fellow. You libertoids have such high standards for your heros.

        Indeed – ours are not genocidal maniacs.

  6. and on the right to the Birchers and the Liberty Amendment Committee>

    SQUAWK!!! Conservatron… TEAM RED!…KULTUR WAR !… SARAH PALIN!

    1. SQUAWK!!! Don’t say BIRCHERS at COCKTAIL PARTIES!!1!

  7. Grammatical comments are usually not of much use, but I can’t help saying this: For the love of God, “thus” is already an adverb. There is no reason to add “-ly.” Please, let us banish “thusly” to Orcus.

    1. Real libertarians don’t do “thusly”.

  8. David Nolan’s life is a stark reminder of what a tiny minority (the tiniest being one man) can do.

    As much as I disagree and dislike things I see going on in the Libertarian Party, as well as some of the ideas floating around the libertarian universe — it’s a better world because it all exists.

    David Nolan has my eternal respect and gratitude.

  9. The future of Nolan’s party is very much up for grabs, and while Wayne Root, with whom Nolan sparred on the Libertarian Party’s National Committee, hypes himself as a “Reagan libertarian” who thinks the libertarian cause has been infected with too many “liberal” things, Nolan proposed, and the Libertarian National Committee this weekend passed, a resolution holding the party to the notion that:

    Was there a sale on commas or something?

    Seriously, though, he sounds like a great guy. Nice piece.

  10. Nolan founded a party that has never managed to get the membership that the Communist Party USA had in its hayday. I’d call that a fucking loser legacy.

    1. Re: Max,

      Nolan founded a party that has never managed to get the membership that the Communist Party USA had in its hayday. I’d call that a fucking loser legacy.

      Only because the Libertarians are not genocidal murderers. More people DO have a fascination for the unhinged and the disturbed than they do for liberty types. That much you proved with your post.

      1. Wait a minute. You have to be a genocidal murderer to found a successful political party (as opposed to a fucked up little right-wing cult)? Amazing!

        1. No. But when genocidal murderers do start something that has even half the success that Nolan did, they get a whole lotta lot more air play in the media.

          Consider, for example, Al Queda.

          Also consider the fact that historically, intellectual movements often take centuries to really bear fruit. Then consider the fact that one of the first, if not the first communist government in recorded history, was in ancient China (somewhere around 1700 BC but I forget the exact details now).

          How long has this individual liberty thing had serious legs? Maybe since John Locke? I’d argue that the other teams have a serious head start.

          Of course I’d also argue that the whole libertarian universe still has a lesson or two it needs to learn, before it’s going to be able to keep control of its own turf. But that’s another long story.

          Perhaps the Chinese came up with the ultimate philosophical perspective on politics, with the yin-yang thing. No, Nolan didn’t change the world in his lifetime. But neither did Confucious.

          The Chinese philosophers of old would tell you that water is the perfect material. It is able to conform to any shape it must. But given time, it can also wear through any other material on the planet.

        2. Re: Max,

          You have to be a genocidal murderer to found a successful political party[?]

          Your non sequitur is a masterpiece of mental incontinence, Max. I only indicated that the apparent lack of popularity of the LP vis a vis the Communist party has to do with the fact that there are a few more people who are morbidly fascinated with unhinged and highly disturbed political theories than with liberty. Whether that’s a measure of “success” or not, I can’t say.

    2. I’m actually with Max on this one (and I just puked in my mouth for saying that).

      David Nolan sounds like a great guy and will rightly be remembered a passionate defender of liberty, but his purism and unwillingness to appeal to the libertarian center ended up making the LP into a force that was detrimental to liberty in reality. The LP is attached with purity and anarchism and mired in silly personal bickering and outsized egos while the major parties continue their race over who can grow government the fastest without a competitive, incrementalist libertarian third party challenger.

  11. For LIO bio on Nolan, see: http://www.libertarianinternat…..remembered

    Libertarians are electing (or more importantly, appointing) people to public office and getting young people just great: check out other articles at http://www.Libertarian-International.org

  12. The Libertarian National Committee hereby reaffirms that the Libertarian Party welcomes individuals from across the political spectrum who now accept the libertarian principles of self-ownership and non-aggression[.]

    Clearly you cannot have a government that accepts the principles of self-ownership and non-aggression, as government is the ultimate crime syndicate (it steals, it cheats and it kills with impunity.) This means that the LP would not have any intention of governing over people, ever, if their members hold on to those principles. Which is just fine by me – I would not wish A government upon anybody, I am not that cruel or obscene.

    1. You don’t have the brains to be cruel or obscene. But you do banal very well.

      1. Re: Max,

        You don’t have the brains to be cruel or obscene.

        I am certainly not disturbed enough…

        But you do banal very well.

        Coming from the very expert of banality, I take that as a compliment.

  13. I worked with David on a couple of media projects back in the 1990s, California Liberty newspaper, and a radio program in Los Angeles. He was always a good guy to work with, informed, fun and on the point. His passing is a real loss to the movement, but let’s see us continue the fight for liberty.

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