February 23, 2005

Libertarian Dilution

Randy Barnett has a well-reasoned and widely noticed entry on the VC blog about the LP and how the split of Libertarians from the GOP is detrimental to the political values of libertarians. Now, he's a libertarian in the GOP and has argued this for at least a few years if not longer. That might put him in a suspect position to die-hard Libertarians. I, however, have been a member of the Missouri LP, registered Libertarian in Virginia, and have signed onto the Free State Project. Perhaps this inoculates me against some of the potential criticisms when I say I agree at least in part that splitting libertarians into two or three or four different parties is silly.

The most active and energetic libertarians tend to split and join the LP. This means that literally hundreds and thousands of activists, as well as over a million votes (combined for the House races the LP contests) are siphoned off from the GOP. That, in itself is fine. If any political party fails, then fuck them. I really don't care, prima facie, if the GOP or any other political vehicle fails. However, if the ethics, goals and policies I value are demeaned or weakened because of a GOP loss, then I definitely care.

A party is just a vehicle. If it fails, so be it. I'd weep no less than if an old Chevy were recycled and turned into bottom-quality scrap metal. But if a party represents a future I like, or at least dislike less than its alternatives, I have a reason to care. The GOP, and indeed any party, only matters inasmuch as it advances laudable or important policies. A party is not lovable in and of itself - despite what the partisans seem to believe.

A lot of people deride the two-party system. I understand why - it appears to force away change and encourage lockstep thinking. This is misleading, however. The two-party system is effective because it absorbs good (or rather popular) ideas and eventually eschews bad (or less popular) ones. It's not perfect by any means, and it's not even as accurate as the free market, but it operates fairly well over the long term. Enough people want America created, slaves liberated, the union preserved or civil rights guaranteed and eventually the two parties respond.

It is within the two parties that real change can happen. Each party is itself a very flexible coalition. This is more flexible than parliamentary democracy in terms of ideas and somewhat less flexible in terms of officers. In the end, it preserves a great variety of ideas, politicians and policies. I don't think we need to move over to multi-party elections, because we have multi-ideology elections. Ideology and policy are the reason a multiparty democracy is desirable anyway, so there's no need to bother changing for the sake of more parties if it wouldn't increase debate significantly.

Within every party are factions - Republicans For Choice, Democrats For Life, Democrats that want tax cuts, Republicans that want spending hikes, etc. It's very complex. The interplay on foreign policy alone is striking - the GOP has its balancing factions, its aggressive factions, its liberalist factions, its isolationist factions, and so forth.

Politicians, interest groups, newspapers and magazines often pick sides in this never-ending interplay of ideas and interests. Buchanan's American Conservative magazine will square off against the Weekly Standard from Barnes and Kristol - even though both backed Bush in 2004 (Weekly Standard moreso). It's a complex game and it's damn time libertarians really started playing it.

One of the most important parts is think tanks - the source of studies, conferences, ideas, policies and press releases that generate buzz and generate legislation. The libertarian faction already has a great one. The Cato Institute is a premier group, both learned and respected, and has had a great deal of interchanging between its fellows and experts and various GOP and White House groups. Cato is quite successful. Yet when it gets reported in the news, what it's called? "The Cato Institute, a conservative think tank..." or "The conservative-minded Cato Institute..." and so forth. Sometimes it gets recognition for being libertarian, but this usually only in Republican and conservative circles when saying something meant to be read and circulated among like-minded folks.

It's time libertarians for to step into the GOP and take the influence we can achieve. We've got ideas, energy, experience and people. All we need now is to unify it.

As it stands, a great deal of people are alienated from the idea of even calling themselves libertarian because the GOP and LP are separate. There are a lot of people with libertarian sympathies who would be much more willing to follow our ideas if we were in their party. Moreover, we could get GOP lawmakers to listen to us if we offered them votes. We could elect libertarian-friendly legislators if we started giving them money. As it stands, a million dollars dunked on a Senate race would probably end up with a Libertarian struggling to break 15% at the polls. But $500,000 in a Senate primary could tip a libertarian-friendly legislator to victory over a more moderate or social-conservative opponent.

This is how Club For Growth has been successful. They pour their money into primaries and try to influence the GOP outcome. This is an important party of the electoral process, and one in which libertarians could be very effective.

Joining the GOP means we bring to the table a lot of things. On Election Day, our current numbers might appear quite small. But on the primaries, we have greater power - a group of active, interested, educated people who will go out and vote. We could have a lot to say about which candidate is nominated.

Now, I know there are a lot of problems with some Republicans. Just remember: 1) there are almost always more problems with the Democrats, 2) the point I'm making is that party-coalitions are going to have internal disagreement, and 3) would you prefer the Republican you helped chose and who listens to you or the Republicans you didn't help choose and has no allegiance to you? The choice is simple.

I know the LP won't dissolve, but I think it ought to consider reforming as an interest group. It already has a website, contacts and affiliates in every state. There is a lot to be done and the LP has a lot going for it. We just need to refocus: put our influence into the GOP, accept when we fail and rejoice when we succeed.

Some Libertarians are looking at influencing the Democrats, and a few are in the Greens. I don't feel a lot of sympathy for economically-left or collectivist libertarians, because to me capitalism and free markets are the essence of liberty. I don't expect Democratic libertarians to listen to me any more than I would listen to them in this instance. I wish them the best possible luck in the Democrats. My only advice to the left-libertarians is to those not joining the Democrats, but staying independent or Green: join the Democratic Libertarians, because they have a much better shot in the end of having some influence. Better to get some of your values than none at all.

But the preponderance of libertarians will probably concede, if pressed, that the Republicans are better prospects for libertarian fusion than the Democrats. To all these libertarians, I recommend you consider re-focusing your influence to the GOP. Personally, I haven't decided to call myself a Republican yet (I'm far too uncomfortable with the South, for instance) but I'm definitely considering working with libertarian candidates in the GOP. I'd also like to help my favored Republican to win the 2004 nomination. So while I'm not a Republican, I think it's time for libertarians to consider pooling together as much of our resources as possible into the best bet for liberty: two-party politics.

A lot of libertarians and third-partiers LIKE losing because it reinforces their view that the center is corrupt and that they themselves are purists on the fringe. So be it. I'd rather see progressively greater and greater support for liberty from the center of political debate, and I think something like the Republican Liberty Caucus might be the way to do just that.

CORRECTION: Randy Barnett reproduced part of the above entry on the VC blog here and pointed out that he's not in the GOP. I assumed, inferred, guessed - whatever term you prefer to instead of 'made it up.' Sorry Randy Barnett; I assumed and made an 'ass-' out of '-u-' and '-me.' To be more accurate: he defends libertarian association with the Republican Party.

11 Comments:

Blogger fling93 said...

The two-party system is effective because it absorbs good (or rather popular) ideas and eventually eschews bad (or less popular) ones.Not necessarily. For example... libertarian ideas. Also, the two-party system forces coalitions of ideas that don't always go together. For example, labor unions with environmentalists. Or libertarians with social conservatives. This makes the government less representative of the electorate, who has to decide which of their ideals they have to sacrifice.

Giving libertarians a viable third party within a multi-party system would foster more debate, as libertarian discussion among the electorate and think tanks and the blogosphere would now also take place within Congress. Right now it doesn't.

Yes, libertarians ought to step into the GOP, so that they aren't spread across three parties (as I've also observed myself). In addition to the arguments you and Barnett have made, a plurality electoral system also has the side-effect of marginalizing third parties (if you'll pardon some self-linkage). So not only do Americans associate "libertarian" with losing, they also associate it with "barking moonbats."

But I wouldn't pretend that this will happen anytime soon, as libertarians disagree as much about political strategy as ideology. There will always be libertarians who value social liberty more than economic liberty, and vice versa. And don't pretend that it will, in and of itself, allow libertarian ideas to be represented fairly. Coalitions in the U.S. are too stagnant for the smaller partners to have that much clout.

I know that the parliamentary system has its own stability problems and can magnify the importance of small king-maker parties. That's why I've always favored pairing proportional representation with our presidential system, maintaining the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches (keeping our independent direct election of the executive). I'm only starting to learn about comparative government, so if there's an inherent reason nobody's tried this, I don't know about it yet.

Oh, and great post, BTW.

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