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Advice for the Libertarian Party

0. Why The LP Gets So Few Votes

In any multi-dimensional analysis of Americans' political views, they cluster mostly in the 2-D plane defined by the Nolan chart, and even more so along the left-right diagonal of the Nolan plane. As noted by Duverger's "Law", this in combination with plurality voting laws means that successful third parties cannot arise along that diagonal without being easily co-opted by the two existing major parties already encamped on that line. Too few Americans occupy the totalitarian quadrant of the Nolan plane to support a viable third party there, so the only opportunity for a significant American third party is in the libertarian quadrant. That the Greens do arguably better than the LP despite this situation is a stunning indictment of how badly the LP has botched its opportunity.

Polls show that
16% to 20% of Americans are liberty increasers -- i.e. they agree that America should have both more civil freedom and more economic freedom.  The proximate cause for the LP getting nothing like that voting share is of course the wasted-vote syndrome, exhibited by voters who believe that voting is more about tipping the election outcome than about signaling their political beliefs. But underlying that cause are several ways in which the LP actively minimizes its electoral influence:
All of these are symptoms of the fundamental problem of the Libertarian Party: its activists tend to care more about exhibiting their ideological purity than about influencing electoral politics in the direction of increased liberty.  This hypothesis explains every single dysfunctional and self-defeating behavior diagnosed below.

1. Fix The LP's Exclusivist Principles

1.1. Liberalize The Pledge

Both aggression abstainers (i.e. anarchists/ZAPsters) and aggression minimizers (i.e. minarchists/AAPsters) face the same question in their electoral politics: should we unite with anybody who wants to move public policy in our direction (i.e. any aggression decreasers), or should we exclude anybody who doesn't want the same ultimate goal state as we do?  The answer depends on whether one cares more about exhibiting one's ideological purity than about influencing electoral politics in the direction of increased liberty.  The best way to move America in a given direction in Nolan space is to aggregate into the same political party as many voters as possible who prefer that direction.  If instead anarchists or minarchists or geolibertarians practice electoral politics primarily to exhibit the purity of their ideological convictions, they should use a membership pledge to try to exclude other libertarian factions from their party.

The current pledge is required by section 5.1 of the bylaws:

Members of the Party shall be those persons who have certified in writing that they oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals.

Some extremists in the LP try to use the Pledge to castigate members who disagree with anarcho-capitalism, but this distorts the original meaning of the Pledge. LP founder David Nolan created the Pledge in 1971 to protect the party from possible accusations that the LP seeks violent overthrow of the U.S. government.  But there is now no prospect of a COINTELPRO-style government threat to the party. When I took a pledge in joining the Libertarian Party, I was joining a party that I believe had competently named itself and thus had consciously decided not to call itself the Anarchist Party. As I signed up to be a party activist and support the party's political actions, it didn't seem very strange that the party might ask me to pledge tactical non-violence so as to give the party plausible deniability for anything destructive that I might try to do in its name. The oppressively legalistic atmosphere of the modern nanny state makes such silly CYA certifications all too common.  I was aware of how anarchists use the phrase "initiation of force", but it was always in the context of absolute abstinence for any purpose.  The LP Pledge qualifies the usual anarchist formula with this vague language about "political or social goals". If the LP had intended an oath of absolute fealty to the Non-Coercion Principle, it would have used a normal and unqualified statement of it.  I could only conclude that these "political or social goals" must be a reference to the goals involved in the step I as a Pledger was taking: adopting the Party's goals as my own.

The 1972 Platform adopted only a year after the Pledge was written seems to explicitly admit the state's authority to use coercion. Its Statement of Principles said "the sole function of government is the protection of the rights of each individual", and the Property Rights plank says we "oppose restrictions upon the use of property which do not have as their sole end the protection of valid rights."  This clearly leaves room for non-opposition to property restrictions -- like minimal taxation to finance the courts, police, and national defense -- aimed at protecting rights.  Where the Statement of Principles said we "oppose all government interference with private property", the examples it listed were just "confiscation, nationalization, and eminent domain" -- noticeably excluding taxation. The only mention of force initiation in the SoP is "we support laws prohibiting the initiation of physical force against others" -- language that doesn't necessarily say government should absolutely abstain from force initiation via tax collection.  "Eventual repeal of all taxation" was only mentioned in a plank titled "Long-Range Goals".  Against all this textual evidence, I see only a reference in the "Individual Rights and Civil Order" preamble to the "fundamental principle that no individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government".  This can be interpreted as stating a general-but-not-absolute principle, or as merely trying to state the absolute principle that civil order requires no force initiation between individuals or between governments.

The Pledge should be modified to eliminate the potential for ideological exclusivism and to unite all those who want increased civil and economic liberty.  Adapted from a proposal by Oregon LP Vice-Chair Phillip Schmitt of the Libertarian Reform Caucus, a superior Pledge would be:

The Libertarian Party will always advocate increasing liberty and decreasing government on every issue. As a member of the Libertarian Party, I will not attempt to change this.

This pledge rallies liberty-lovers by referencing the tangible deficit of liberty in America, instead of browbeating them by demanding loyalty to one faction's theoretical and absolutist goal. At the same time, it offers protection against ideological backsliding by making members promise that the LP will always be aimed north in Nolan space.

1.2. De-Kookify The Platform

:The LP Platform is at its most kooky at precisely the points where it ignores the problems revealed by the standard textbook analysis of market imperfections -- especially the problems of natural resources, natural monopolies, and public goods.  The most egregiously anarchist polices in the LP Platform are: The LP should replace these fringe positions with alternatives based on the standard textbook economic analysis of the proper role of government: The Platform has a few other planks that are kooky because they pander to fringe constituencies with fringe solutions to what are currently not very big problems.

The Purpose of the Platform

The Platform is not a campaign commercial or trifold brochure. The length of the Platform does not metaphysically impose any minimum length on any of our voter outreach materials. No sane party hands out its Platform as its first contact with a voter. That would be like a car salesman handing you the car's manual when he comes up to shake your hand. But selling cars still requires being able to show the manual, because an important fraction of buyers are going to have questions about particular features of the car. However, almost no buyer is going to want to read the manual cover-to-cover. A Platform is reference material, a systematic summary of what we believe and what we would do.

The audience of party platforms is not the average voter, but rather:

The Platform isn't our voter pitch, it's our policy stand.  The purpose of a third-party platform is to tell opinion leaders what positions the party defends or doesn't defend.  Even for opinion leaders, the platform of a third party is less of a pitch than is a major-party platform. The platform of a third party like the Greens (at or Libertarians is much more constant across election cycles than are the major-party platforms, and so are written much more like reference material. The platforms of the major parties are custom-written by the presidential nominee's campaign staff to emphasize the achievements and failures of the major parties in the last four years, and the specific changes the nominee would push in the next four years. There is no prospect of a third party writing laws in the next four years, and a third party has no legislative record to stand on, so its platform needs to be more constant and comprehensive.

2. Fix The LP's Exclusivist Strategy

2.1. Avoid The Cargo Cult Mistake

Many Libertarian strategists call for the party to focus on winnable -- i.e. local -- races, for reasons like these:
All of these reasons are overstated to the point of being mistaken, and the last one is a particularly interesting mistake. Many Libertarian strategists look at what the major-party politicians do, and think that if we just mimic everything but their policies, we will mimic their electoral success too.  Some strategists say we need our state and federal candidates to first win local non-partisan office, like the Demopublicans do.  Others say we need to run on a platform that is more conversational and less comprehensive, like the Republicrats do.  Still others say we need to distribute candidate yard signs and wear suits, like the D's and R's do.  While it may be better to share such attributes than not if all else is equal, we should avoid the cargo cult mistake. The natives of Melanesia in the late 1940s built airports and radios of coconuts and straw in the hope that these would call down from the skies the planes that had stopped bringing precious cargo after the war ended. There are systemic reasons why copying the habits of the major parties won't make us a major party.

2.2. Be An Inclusive Voting Bloc, Not An Exclusive Purity Club

The Bylaws say the LP should "function as a libertarian political entity separate and distinct from all other political parties or movements", should "elect Libertarians to public office", and forbids the endorsement of "any candidate who is a member of another party for public office in any partisan election".  The LP explicitly refuses to unite in electoral politics with any voter or politician who fails to "challenge the cult of the omnipotent state".  This is silly -- and not just because states aren't omnipotent and statism isn't a cult.  It's silly because the LP acts more interested in using electoral politics to exhibit ideological purity than to "move public policy in a libertarian direction".  The Bylaws claims it wants to do the latter, but only "by building a political party that elects Libertarians to public office" -- as if electing Pledge-certified LP members is the only way to move public policy in a libertarian direction.

The purpose of the LP should instead be to use electoral politics to send the policy-making community the largest possible signal of the desire for increased civil and economic liberty. The LP should seek to be the political voice and electoral broker of all eligible voters who want to pull America north on the Nolan Chart.  Instead of making the perfect the enemy of the better, the LP should maximize the size of the pro-liberty voting bloc and then see how much increased liberty (if any) it can buy with these votes. We know from public choice theory that politicians will sell favors, and there is no reason that increased liberty can't be such a favor.  If a major-party candidate in a race will promise us an acceptable amount of effort for increased liberty, then we should swing our voting bloc her way.  We won't be infallible in our judgments about who to support, but the only way to guarantee we won't make such mistakes is to continue our strategy of electoral irrelevance.  Of course, the more liberty-increasers that the LP can unite into a voting bloc, the more the major parties will move to co-opt the LP by adopting some of our positions. Good!  We care about increasing liberty, not about donkeys vs. elephants vs. torch ladies. (Right?)

2.3.  Threaten The Major Parties Like A Virus

There are systemic reasons why the Republicrats win and the LP loses, and there is no combination of strategy and tactics offering a real-world possibility of making the LP a majority or even plurality party in this century. Game-theoretic analysis suggests that the best we can hope for is to incite one of the major parties into co-opting the large territory that we should stake out Nolan-north of the Left-Right equator. The best-case scenario for the LP is to be an electoral (or coalition) partner with a major party that has turned somewhat libertarian to counter our threat, and then to merge with that party and take it over from the inside. Some Libertarian activists are afraid of the LP losing its principles if we unite with those who love liberty a little less than we do. Who should be afraid of who here? If the principles of libertarianism can't win a fair fight in the marketplace of ideas, then our cause is already lost and we should spare ourselves the efforts of activism.  Libertarianism is not some fragile flickering candle, liable to be extinguished if impure people breathe too hard near it.  Rather, true libertarianism is an intellectual firestorm, that when given half a chance will starve competing ideologies of their oxygen. True libertarianism will surely end up being the most enduringly potent political mind-virus produced in the 20th century, and true libertarians relish any opportunity to terminally infect a political organization with libertarian ideas.

If you think of libertarianism as a political innovation analogous to photosynthesis in the biological world, then consider that today's photosynthetic organisms are not really descended from the organisms that invented photosynthesis.  Instead, the chloroplast precursors that invented photosynthesis became endosymbiotic organelles inside organisms that themselves had made their living from energy sources other than sunlight. The containing organisms became so dependent on the innovation of photosynthesis that they came to be defined by -- and completely dependent on -- this ability.  If America is ever ruled by a libertarian party, it will probably be a major party that had no choice but to swallow the LP and then became what it ate.

3. Fix The LP's Marketing

3.1. Target The Mainstream, Not The Fringe

The LP's outreach efforts too often target the low-hanging fruit of fringe groups instead of the mainstream of those sympathetic to increasing civil and economic liberty. Some examples from just here in California:
The LP too often projects itself as drug enthusiasts, gun enthusiasts, and tax evaders who care less about your liberty than about their dope stash and gun rack and tax bill. Drug decriminalization is important, but LP representatives should avoid emphasizing it unless they are someone like Judge Jim Gray -- i.e. someone clearly not seeking personal advantage on the issue.  Here are some positions that the LP could emphasize that would differentiate itself from the mainstream parties while appearing much less selfish:

3.2 Finesse Divisive Franchise Issues

The three most divisive specific issues in the LP are abortion, immigration, and foreign intervention. What they have in common is that they are all issues of franchise -- those which deal with an entity's ethical status, based on attributes such as property ownership, religion, race, gender, citizenship, age, intelligence, sentience, and sexual orientation.  Issues of enfranchisement lie outside the two-dimensional Nolan plane, which is defined by freedom versus security for fully-franchised entities on civil and economic matters. Libertarianism is defined essentially as northward in the Nolan plane, and so gives no guidance on what entities qualify to have their liberty protected. Traditionally, libertarians and other liberals lean toward inclusiveness on franchise issues, but there are notable exceptions.

3.2.1. Abortion

Liberals typically see fetal enfranchisement as a threat to women's enfranchisement.  The extreme positions available on this issue -- that personhood starts at conception, or that personhood starts at birth -- are both obviously wrong. Like with the guns issue, any reasonable disputant here is only quibbling about where to draw a line, and any argument for a bright sharp line is inherently suspect. It's silly for the LP Platform to pretend it's not drawing a line when it says that "government should be kept out of the question"; this is just an intellectually cowardly way to say we deny that fetuses have any rights.  I prefer to draw the personhood line based on neurological development and to make it much closer to birth than to conception. Thus I like that the LP leans against fetal personhood, even though its argument for doing so is as intellectually vacuous as its claim to be "pro-choice" on the issue.  Enfranchisement is never about "choice", and leaving fetal personhood to the "choice" of the mother is like leaving infant personhood to the "choice" of parents, or leaving African personhood to the "choice" of slave traders.

3.2.2. Immigration

In a world with modern transportation technology and with the vast inter-country disparities in living standards that Libertarians know result from the vast inter-country disparities in economic freedom, it's simply untenable to say that the world's most prosperous (i.e. freest) large society should allow unrestricted immigration of economic refugees who have nowhere near the human or material capital of that society's average citizen. Party-line Libertarians might claim that a Libertopian repeal of the welfare state would solve the problem, but this claim is schizophrenic.  Libertarians must surely claim that a thriving Libertopia would if anything be more attractive than a welfare state for most immigrants -- especially Libertarians who spout the party line that charity would provide a safety net as good or better than the nanny state's.  (Or would charity in Libertopia be harshly xenophobic?)  Again, the policy extrema of zero or unrestricted immigration are untenable.  The LP should continue to lean toward open economic immigration for those with enough human capital not to move America too far from having a first-world labor market.  This position is just vague enough to do the job of finessing a divisive franchise issue that lacks a tenable principled libertarian prescription.

3.2.3. Interventionism

While party-line Libertarians favor the full enfranchisement of foreigners on the issue of immigration, they oppose any enfranchisement of foreigners on the issue of U.S. intervention abroad. They see the enfranchisement of foreigners for any U.S. military protection as a threat to the enfranchisement of U.S. taxpayers. Anti-war single-issue-tarians are politically naive to believe that Iraq is a good wedge issue for the LP.  Recent history provides a natural experiment that refutes this belief almost perfectly. 2004 LP presidential nominee Michael Badnarik ran as an anti-war candidate, but didn't grow the standard Libertarian vote share at all. If anti-interventionism can grow the LP, then Nader's 3 million voters from 2000 should have been available to the anti-war candidates in 2004, because both major-party candidates favored continuing the war. Together Nader and Green rival Cobb reclaimed at most 700K of those 3 million, and so with at least 2.3M anti-war voters up for grabs, Badnarik increased the 2000 LP presidential vote by only 13K!  Thus it seems that an anti-war stance can bring us only about 1% of the non-LP anti-war vote, which itself is less than 3% of voters. It's hard to imagine better empirical evidence that foreign policy is not the lever to grow the LP.  Since it is a franchise issue, foreign intervention should (despite all the single-issue-tarian passion surrounding it) not be a marquee issue for the LP.

3.3. Use Our Best Wedge: Entitlements Reform

One massive problem will dominate American politics over the next decade and beyond, and it's not terrorism (<3K fatalities/yr) or war (~1K/yr) or the Patriot Act (~0/yr). It's entitlements.  Consider:
Not since slavery has there been an issue with such potential to shake up the two-party duopoly. The Depression, civil rights, and Vietnam all had the opposing sides quickly staked out by the two major parties, but myopic fear of seniors has (despite Republican lip service) has stranded both major parties on the same side of this issue. The issue is so huge that even Perot and his Reform Party amateurs accidentally almost built a third party over a small subset of the problem: deficit and debt. This issue should be ours. The Young should be ours. The Future should be ours. The Future can be ours, if we're just mature enough to take it.  Entitlement reform is clearly what the LP should declare as our trump issue. The Greens can't follow suit, the major parties have bet too much on their losing hands, our policy ace is high, and the generational deck is totally stacked in our favor. To fold this winning hand would be sheer folly.