The Libertarian Party Can Only Harm Liberty

 Logic and History Show It!

Let's assume a worthwhile proportion of voters vote on issues or ideology. That may or may not be true, but if it's not then there's no reason to have an ideologic political party. Further assume for now that candidates nominated solely by the Libertarian Party have no chance of winning worthwhile public offices; we'll come back to that assumption later within.

An issue to get out of the way is whether voters act knowledgeably. The rationally ignorant we can assume to be non-voters or at least to cancel each other out, but the question is whether the remainder know what's good for them or are deluded. If you take the position that people generally are deluded or are too stupid to do well by themselves, that cuts a major prop out from under libertarianism. You could theoretically still believe in libertarianism on ethical grounds, even though you believe that laissez faire will lead to most people's making their own lives worse, but I strongly doubt many will take that position! Or you could take the position that most people are incompetent, but that both democratic and nondemocratic rule are inferior under the circumstances, and will drag down the few competent persons. However, that position pretty much makes all libertarian political activity futile, doesn't it? So we are left with the assumption of a worthwhile proportion of interested and reasonably rational and intelligent voters voting on issues or ideology.

Case 1: There's no worthwhile difference between the major political parties (and by "parties" we mean the candidates, the leadership, the rank and file, and nonmembers who tend to vote their way). That should be reflected in a lack of worthwhile difference in ideologies the candidates represent, and if that choice is bad it's a Kang-vs.-Kodos election in terms of Simpson cartoons. A Libertarian candidate running against them has no chance of being elected, we're asuming for now, but may get some votes, possibly more than the difference between the votes for the major candidates. A balance of power! However, if the voters are intelligent and voting on ideology, Case 1 will lead to the Libertarian drawing votes in equal proportions from the Democrat and Republican bases. If that's so, it means the Libertarian entry made no difference in the outcome of the race. That's a position of 0 leverage.

Case 2: There is a worthwhile (in terms of effect on individual liberty) difference between the Republican and the Democrat. That means if a balance of power is achieved as in Case 1 (more than the difference in a close election), it's because the Libertarian nominee drew more from one party's base than from the other (because there are more libertarian voters, or more libertarian sentiment among voters, in one major party than the other). Congratulations! You, Libertarian, just swung that election to the less libertarian candidate.

Case 3: There is a disconnect between the leadership and candidates of one major party and its rank-and-file, which is more libertarian. This is like Case 2, but it gives a good reason for the voters of that party to defect. However, such a situation contradicts the rationality and ideologic orientation assumptions above, so it will arise too rarely to base a political strategy on. By and large, the parties' candidates and leadership will reflect their bases.

But even if there's no major disconnect, whether Case 1 or Case 2 applies, wouldn't those building the Libertarian candidate's vote total hope to be co-opted by major party candidates in the future? The idea being, either candidate could pick up those balance-of-power votes in the future by adopting one or more positions of the Libertarian candidate. But a little reflection with the ideologic and rationality assumptions shows this fantasy to be, well, fantastic. Say the votes come out approximately 49-49-2. Why should candidates drool over that 2% the Libertarian got, when adopting positions to go after them could jeopardize the 49% the major candidate got? Even the loser among the top two can console hirself, "At least I didn't get 2% like the Libertarian. I better not touch those positions!"

There's only one circumstance of policy positions that would, and often does, justify going after that niche vote: an issue that motivates niche voters while not significantly repelling other voters. That actually happens a lot in minority interest group politics. But what positions can you name that libertarians are hot about that arouse no great opposition? By and large, issues are important to libertarian activists because and to the degree that they are opposed by large (and motivated) majorities!

So a spoiler strategy will at best be futile, and at worst do harm. But how about a strategy based on building to the point where Libertarian candidates will actually win important elections? Here history tells you, forget it. There's been only one time in USAn history that a political party has displaced an existing major party. It was mostly over the issue of slavery and spawned today's Republican Party. Within just a fewyears of its formation, that party contested seriously for major offices. Other than in New York with its major practice of cross-endorsement of candidates by more than one party, in the USA new political parties have tended to achieve their maximum strength within a short time of their formation. Some have declined slowly from that peak, others disappeared fairly quickly, and one, the GOP, became a major party.

The Libertarian Party is long past the duration established by history for a political party to catch on big. Conditions for that to happen are, by my assessment, considerably worse now than they were during the first decade of LP's existence. If the party had a chance to succeed as a political party, it would've done so by now.

Robert Goodman
July, 2004

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