Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Let's Lose! Why rejecting practical solutions has kept the Libertarian Party in the political basement.

By James Turbett

The Libertarian Party, 33 years old, has always faced a number of obstacles, whose result is a record that is viewed as a success only in the glowing reports of LP News, the party’s newspaper. Proposals that would confront those barriers exist, but the reception to them is lukewarm, at best. Opponents often cite various libertarian principles as the basis of their objections, but is that truly the basis?

Here are 7 examples that I have encountered during my time working within the party.

Problem 1: Voting for the “Lesser of Two Evils”

A voter who would prefer the Libertarian candidate to all others abhors the Republican (or Democrat) so much that he/she votes for the Democrat (or Republican) to make sure that the worst candidate does not win. Such a voter reasons that the LP candidate will not win anyway and that to vote for the Libertarian would “waste a vote”, one that could be used to help ensure that the Republican (or Democrat) does not win. Regardless of whether such reasoning is valid, counterarguments (primarily that “the lesser of two evils is still evil”) have not availed in what matters -- the behavior of voters.

Proposed Solution: Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)

Basically, IRV mimics a system of successive votes in which the last place finisher is dropped from the ballot until someone wins a majority; the difference is that with IRV this takes place all at once (“instantly”) by having the voters rank their preferences on the ballot. It enables a person to vote for a Libertarian first, but if the Libertarian loses, to still vote against the Republican (or Democrat). A nationwide organization already exists to push IRV, and it has achieved success, most notably in the city of San Francisco.

Libertarian Reaction: Not good enough

You would think that the reaction would be “Great idea; solves our problem; let’s push this!” But you’d be wrong. One common reaction within the LP is that IRV is not as good a system as something called the Condorcet system. Proponents of this system have constructed some bizarre scenarios in which IRV would allegedly bring about the “wrong” result. Their main accomplishment is to provide an example of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

Problem 2: Legislative Inertia

Republican and Democrat legislators are self-interested and are disinclined to either ease ballot access rules or reduce restrictions on individual freedom.

Proposed Solution: Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

Initiative enables voters to place a proposed law (and in some states a constitutional amendment) on the ballot by gathering petition signatures. Referendum allows the voters to do the same thing to overturn a law. Recall allows voters to place the removal of an elected official on the ballot before his/her term ends.

Libertarian Reaction: Lukewarm

It smacks too much of democracy, which Libertarians associate with mob rule and majoritarianism. They ignore the fact that laws passed by initiative are subject to the same constitutional scrutiny as those passed by the legislature (for what that’s worth).

Problem 3: Incumbent Power

Incumbents are able to use their positions to secure reelection through use of taxpayer funded resourcesThe senior legislators are the survivors in a process that rewards those who are adept at channeling taxpayers’ money to special interest groups while disguising their support for high taxes. In return the special interest groups deliver votes and campaign donations.
These senior officials have set up an aura of tradition in support of a seniority system under which they have political life or death power over junior legislators. As a result, the votes in the legislature are more statist than the inclinations of the legislators.

Proposed Solution: Term Limits

Term limits forbid incumbents to be on the ballot for reelection after a certain amount of time in office. With term limits there is less opportunity for senior legislators to exercise power over junior ones and for unhealthy cozy relationships to develop between legislators and lobbyists. They give junior legislators the nerve to challenge senior ones. Honorable individuals are more likely to run for office and to stick to their principles. And legislation to the liking of the LP is more likely to receive a fair hearing. There are open seats more often. A collateral benefit is that term limited state legislators are “free radicals” looking to attach themselves to new positions, so they constitute a welcome threat to non-term-limited Congressmen.

Libertarian Reaction: No Principle

This is not a libertarian issue. A position on the issue cannot be derived from the non-initiative of force principle. It is “procedural”. Or it is unlibertarian, because it takes away the right to vote for the incumbent.

Problem 4: Government Schools Brainwashing the Future Electorate

The machinery of the state is used to replenish the supply of statists by funding proponents of anti-libertarian positions, most especially in the K-12 school system.

Proposed Solution: School Vouchers

The government gives vouchers to parents of school age children. Vouchers are the school equivalent of food stamps. The vouchers are usable in private schools for tuition. As the voucher amount is for less money than the average per pupil cost in government schools, they actually save the government money, money they and the teachers unions do not want to save. As the result of competition parents have more choice, and schools, even government ones, have more incentive to give the service that parents want.

Tuition tax credits are a variant form of school choice under which there is less danger of strangling regulations, however it is less marketable in that the visible financial benefits are more for the wealthy than the poor.

Libertarian Reaction: Too Dangerous

They are afraid that the government will attach regulations to the funds that will make the private schools as bad as the present government schools. There is some merit to this fear. But there is also merit to the fear that without vouchers the electorate will be indoctrinated for eternity.

Problem 5: Lack of Funds for Candidates

Donations to LP candidates are quite low. Lack of funds affects the ability of candidates to get their names and positions known by the voters.

Proposed Solution: Accept Federal Matching Funds

The Federal Election Commission provides funds to qualifying candidates for campaign expenses -- if they apply. The LP is often eligible to receive Federal matching funds, which would alleviate its funding problem to some degree.

Libertarian Reaction: Outraged Rejection

No matter that Libertarians are taxed to receive the benefit of government spending in other ways and that they accept such benefits. In this one case the LP indignantly refuses.

Problem 6: Complacency about Taxes

Potential converts among the non-libertarian population seem oblivious to the high level of taxation. This allows the government to spend more money than would otherwise be the case.

Proposed Solution: The “Fair Tax”

A taxpayers group has devised and proposed a plan to repeal the 16th amendment and replace the Federal income tax with a national sales tax. Instead of people’s taxes being hidden by withholding, everyone would be reminded of taxation with every purchase. Presumably people would then be more prone to question the use of their tax money.

Libertarian Reaction: Substantial Opposition

While this proposal does enjoy considerable support within the Libertarian Party, it also faces strong opposition from prominent party members. The grounds: Supporting a replacement tax amounts to supporting taxation itself, which is intolerable in a “party of principle”. This view illustrates the common stand on a variety of issues that if I can’t have it all now, I am willing to wait an eternity.

Others argue that the Fair Tax bill will be amended just before passage to be an additional tax rather than a substitute.

Problem 7: Lack of Notice and Publicity

There are still numerous people who have not heard of the Libertarian Party or who have misconceptions about what it stands for. Advertising and direct mail are costly and are only modestly successful. News coverage is sparse and when received is often unfavorable.

Proposed Solution: Talk Radio

Having a popular libertarian talk show host generates hours of positive publicity every week. It is free to the LP. Talk radio has significantly contributed to the ascension of the Republican Party.

Libertarian Reaction: Blow Off Boortz

Competition in talk radio is intense, and Neil Boortz has met the challenge, but because he differs with a majority of the Libertarian Party on the Iraq war, dissident members have done all they can to drive him into the ranks of the Republican Party, which has no shortage of successful talk show hosts. In particular the anti-Boortz faction mounted a campaign to withdraw an invitation to address the 2004 national LP convention.


Often it is a minority that opposes alleviating solutions, but frequently the minority is vocal and consists of people prominent within the LP. It is quite possible that the objections to some of the proposals are insightful and well-grounded, but it seems that they constitute a pattern.

What is the pattern? It is that practical solutions to the party’s problems and interim steps towards the party’s goals are spurned, because they are or are deemed imperfect. Measures that would put a struggling small political party into the game yield to the mantra that it is the party of principle.

What accounts for this? Two phenomena are prominent. One is the delusional belief that a significant number of Americans are libertarians but just don’t know it yet and that tiny incremental gains in membership supplemented by some magnificent event will turn the tide. For them the obstacles give them the comfort of not having to test this belief.

The other one, the harmful one, is the enjoyment of the feeling of martyrdom. Never far from these people’s lips are utterances such as “party of principle” and “the lesser of two evils is still evil”. They are almost haughty in their view of themselves as superior to compromisers and above the dirtying process of practical politics. They are content to make no progress in wait of utopia.

A political party, as opposed to a church, needs to accept steps in the right direction and needs to remove procedural obstacles. It cannot refuse to address current situations on the grounds that they came about due to past unlibertarian policies. It needs to take into account that no party can exist solely on true believers and recognize the importance of marketing. Marketing involves selecting the best issues to emphasize and to present them in an appealing way.

A party that ignores these things will find itself condemned to a world of right policies and wrong electoral results.

James Turbett is Treasurer of the Center for Liberty and Community and a contributing editor to the Free Liberal.