Libertarian Party Founder David Nolan's Life and Legacy


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.