Is Political Realignment Even Desirable?

The Libertarian Party Would Probably Fail By Succeeding, If It Could!

Since the 1960s many libertarian activists have lamented the particular lines of political division in the USA: philosophically "liberal" or "left" vs. "conservative" or "right", and politically Democrat vs. Republican. These activists have hoped for a realignment into libertarian vs. authoritarian, with the major political parties reflecting that alignment. Some have hoped the Libertarian Party could accomplish that, either by itself becoming a major party or by somehow causing one or the other of the existing major parties to become radically, or at least fairly consistently, libertarian. Ask some of these people and they'd say that was the primary goal the Libertarian Party could accomplish, as a tool for increasing liberty.

Be careful what you wish for. While it may be philosophically satisfying for the activist or even the observer, I'm afraid such a realignment would be bad for the progess of freedom. Say we did manage to realign the parties...then what? Do you flatter yourselves that as long as people saw clearly and considered a choice between more and less freedom, that they would tend overall to choose more of it?

The analysts are correct that, at least in the USA, the general tendency is always to have exactly 2 major political parties, basically in opposition to each other. That means if one is a libertarian party, the other is going to be an authoritarian party. I'm afraid the authoritarian party would pretty well wipe the floor with the libertarian party.

It was almost a quarter century ago that CATO published Maddox & Lilie's survey and analysis, "Beyond Liberal and Conservative". They showed by surveys that the descriptions "liberal" and "conservative" missed a large proportion of USAmericans, and identified the other strains as "populist" and "libertarian". This is not far from the diamond chart system many of you have seen, but the label "populist" was applied instead of "authoritarian" because the USA has not had a major tendency toward the truly ideologic authoritarianisms represented popularly in many other countries as communist, socialist, dirigiste, phalangist, fascist, etc. In Maddox & Lilie's analysis, all 4 poles of the diamond could be traced to an early American liberalism, and those they labeled as populists, without any philosophic predeliction toward theoretic authoritarinism, just wound up giving the most consistently anti-libertarian answers.

The "populists" outnumbered the libertarians in the survey by about 3:2. (Send me no stories about how your WSPQ finds otherwise; you're not getting a random sample.) Maddox & Lilie thought the populists, because of their numbers, would have great potential for organizing, but for other factors. For one, they have no coherent ideology. For another, racist tendencies among populists tend to keep black and white populists from recognizing each other as allies.

But what if organizers of the populists got a big favor by one of the two major parties becoming a libertarian party? It would simplify their task considerably: "That's what we're against." General oppositional tendencies would lead to the other party's becoming authoritarian. Of course the general tendency of large political parties toward centrism, to be like each other, would still operate, but the authoritarian party would quickly find a large base among Maddox & Lilie's "populists" to keep from becoming too libertarian. Once unified politically, it is quite likely they'd develop think tanks that would then develop a coherent authoritarianism resembling those of the Old World as mentioned above, or maybe a uniquely USAn version. The liberatarians would unite the now-scattered authoritarians against them, and the authoritarians would thereby be more politically effective than they are now.

A quick look at the rest of the world sustains this view. In democratic countries having approximately libertarian and authoritarian parties among the larger political parties, the authoritarian party or parties are usually considerably more authoritarian than the major parties of the USA, and they usually command a bigger following than do the libertarian parties.

Fortunately the Libertarian Party will never accomplish this realignment, because it is not an effective political force.

Robert Goodman
July 2004
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