TCS Daily

Happy Birthday! Now Grow Up, Libertarians

By Nick Schulz - December 11, 2001 12:00 AM

Today is the 30th birthday of the Libertarian Party. So let's take a moment to offer a hearty congratulations to America's third largest political party.

But it's also worth taking a minute to admonish the LP, and perhaps there's no more fitting way to do so than by paraphrasing one of the party's intellectual godfathers, Barry Goldwater, and issue a full-throated:

"Grow Up, Libertarians."

In 1960, the Arizona Republican spoke to the party faithful at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. "Let's Grow Up, Conservatives," he barked to the true believing members of a political party that lacked a coherent vision and had grown unfocused, undisciplined, and listless. Goldwater urged his fellow conservatives that they needed to work within the GOP to advance conservative political objectives.

And conservatives more or less took his advice. Over the subsequent 40 years, working steadily within the GOP, conservatives engineered significant political victories such as those in 1964, with Goldwater's Republican presidential nomination, and 1980, with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, and the 1994 Congressional sweep.

But many on the political right who thought of themselves not as conservatives but as libertarians did not see fit to work within either of the established political parties. So they founded their own political party in Colorado Springs in the winter of 1971.

Three decades later, it's worth taking stock: How has the LP done?

By some markers, it has done remarkably well. "The Libertarian Party has grown to 224,000 registered voters and 301 elected officeholders -- more than any other third party," its website boasts.

Beyond its status as a political party, moreover, libertarian ideas have entered the mainstream. Several prominent writers and intellectuals proudly brand themselves libertarians, from Milton Friedman to Charles Murray to P.J. O'Rourke. And pet "libertarian" issues from privatization of social security to de-monopolization of public schools through vouchers have gained public support and are taken seriously, even by opponents.

But it is often best to judge an entity's success on its own terms. So the question to ask today is: On its 30th birthday, has the LP been, in the aggregate, a help or a hindrance in "rolling back the size of government and eliminating laws that stifle the economy or control people`s personal choices"?

While any answer to this question will be based, ultimately, on a subjective judgment, I think a sober analysis has to conclude that, no, it hasn't been helpful.

And the answer is 'no' for reasons members of the LP certainly understand. It is not in the nature of the American political system - one that, thankfully, shuns a parliamentary constitution -- for a third party to emerge as a viable challenger to either of the two major political parties. After all, if LP ideas proved sufficiently attractive, they would be appropriated by either of the two major political parties. Indeed, many members of the LP will admit privately that this level of influence - imitation as flattery -- would be victory enough.

More than that, the political stability the two-party system engenders is, on the whole, a profoundly good thing.

And so the LP finds itself in an odd position. Its members claim they are genuinely looking to win elective office (and not merely influence the political debate) because neither of the two major political parties pledges sufficient fealty to 'liberty' as the highest political value. The two major parties prefer, naturally enough, to seek the necessary political goal of balancing liberty among a host of competing political values.

But since the LP's members are aware that it has no realistic chance of serving as a credible alternative to the two party status quo, these happy warriors are then left clinging uncomfortably to a cynical dream.

It is similar to the cynicism that infects the Naderites of the Green Party. In the 2000 election, the major media covered with undue seriousness the effect that Nader's candidacy would have on the election. Because of that coverage, we got to hear Nader and his supporters respond over and over to those on the political left who said Nader risked spoiling Al Gore's candidacy. The Naderites indignantly maintained that they couldn't care less if Gore lost. Why? Because there wasn't "a dime's bit of difference" between Gore and Bush.

Nader could certainly be funny on the stump when he jabbed both the Democrats and the Republicans. He made for great theater by heaping particular scorn on Gore during the campaign - this despite Nader's being far closer to Gore than to Bush when it came to the candidates' approximate philosophical make up.

But Nader's "Demo-cans Are The Same As Republo-crats" shtick -- and the vehement parroting of it by his acolytes -- grew tired by the end of the campaign. It even got tired to conservatives who hoped Nader might be harming Gore's political chances and thus helping Bush. The shtick got tired because the shtick is simply untrue.

As with Green Party believers, LP supporters are forced to justify their support for a third party by claiming -- falsely and cynically -- that there 's not dime's bit of difference between major party candidates that permits them, in good conscience, to support one over the other.

And there's a practical consideration at work, too. Outside the distinction-sharpening filter of major and established political parties, debate takes place in an echo chamber and renders the exchange of ideas stale and ineffective. Evidence for this comes in the tone and tenor taken by some libertarians (see, for example, the folks at the Mises Institute and or the self-destructive tendency of some libertarians to antagonize natural political allies and harp on irrelevant or crackpot political issues. This even goes for many libertarians who don' t ally themselves with the LP. They are leading an exercise in futility, which may only serve to harm the cause of liberty by marginalizing it in the eyes of the public

So on the occasion of its 30th birthday, here's a single, highly qualified cheer for America's largest third party. We at TCS champion many libertarian ("classical liberal," "Whig," "fusionist," pick your word) ideas and concerns, especially the celebration and understanding of free enterprise and the free market system. But the Libertarian Party remains, thirty years later, too much a manifestation of that most corrosive of all public impulses, the impulse toward political cynicism.


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