Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Understanding Libertarian Party reform and the Libertarian Reform Caucus

Back in 1974 (a long time ago; way before my time and long enough ago that it looked as though the political party founded in Dave Nolan's living room might actually gain some traction) the Libertarian Party in convention formally welcomed anarchists into its ranks in what became known, bombastically, as the "Dallas Accord".

The Dallas Accord was an agreement that the Libertarian Party not take any official stance on whether or not government ought to exist. (I used to be able to find the associated declaration on the Web; if you know where it's at, send me an e-mail.) In principle, it was entirely sensible; political gains are won through coalition-building, not attrition and group polarization. Anarchists, who believe that civil society ought to and could, given time and inducement, totally take over the functions of the State, share, by definition, so long as the State exists, political goals with liberal minarchists who believe that the role of the State should be diminished and that of civil society increased.

Similarly, the character of liberal minarchists is such that they believe that the State should exist only in such a capacity that it liberates; they do not value government as an end in itself. Thus the two groups, treated as hypotheticals, not only share common goals, but also have compatible values.

If matters were that simple, there'd be no need for a Libertarian Reform Caucus. History, however, conspired to do away with both the common values and the common cause. Perhaps most damningly, failure to make significant gains in over three decades of election cycles, and resulting attrition, rendered the LP vulnerable to subversion by those who'd rather evangelize for pop "philosophy" than move public policy in a more liberal direction.

Murray Rothbard's destructive romp through the Party, didn't help. If nothing else, Rothbard had a Leninist conception of politics, believing that the best way to effect change was to maintain a vanguard party adhering to an ideological plumb line defined by--no surprise here--Rothbard himself. (Rothbard also seemed to belive that revolution is morally necessary, even if it brings one back to square one.) What Rothbard didn't understand is that vanguards become effective by attracting thugs to their side in a state of social chaos, and that they tend to achieve little in a representative system of government.

Exacerbated by the Randist/Objectivist influence on the libertarian movement, which brought with it a poisonous mix of the Continental obsession with consistency and the dubious sin of "sanction", Rothbard's vanguardism didn't achieve anything in the political sphere, but it did bring a thugishness to the LP. The "nonaggression principle", "zero aggression principle", or "non-initiation of force principle" preciptated a moralistic nihilism. The sort of anarchism-of-the-possible that is compatible with the Dallas Accord was ovewhelmed by an anarchism driven by the belief that the State was evil. For example: to those who, like Rothbard, retained a folk belief in preinstitutional property rights (a concept on the ash heap of serious philosophy), taxation is theft! Not a possible means to theft, and not something that deserves much contemplation due to its coercive nature, but an absolute moral wrong.

Not only, then, were the minarchists, regardless of how well-read or well-grounded in serious political philosophy, adding noise to the vanguard's evangelical efforts, but they were advocates of evil, too, subject to obnoxious "internal education" efforts, exclusion where possible from positions of leadership in the Party, and, worse still, backstabbing. The Party's nihilists do their best to persuade others than minarchist candidates, or even anarchist candidates running on incrementalist Platforms, aren't worthy of support, because they advocate evil or the continuation of evil. By 1996, the year I joined the Party as a wide-eyed teenager, the Party's official documents, with the exception of the LP News, were explicitly anarchist, and efforts to bring them into line with the Dallas Accord were and are treated like advocacy of rape and robbery. Forget what Tullock had to say in The Politics of Persuasion; one must not advocate for anything less than the utopian ideal!

Honesty demands that I note that this was not true everywhere, and that some local Libertarian Parties avoided this tendency and even achieved moderate electoral success, albeit with the national Platform and reputation as twin anchors tied to the neck. I merely describe the general climate of the LP, and it was is in this climate that, fed up with the miserable failure of vanguardism to so much as move the Overton Window in a libertarian direction, let alone get libertarians elected to public office, that calls for radical reform of the Libertarian Party began springing up, starting, most notably, with Gene Trosper's Libertarian Mainstream Caucus, and terminating solidly in the Libertarian Reform Caucus.

Libertarians tend to fancy themselves as being smarter than the general population and ahead of the curve on many issues, but the general response to reform, nearly impossible to separate from the dishonest caricatures of the vanguardists, has revealed that they tend to be confused about the nature of politics and hence of the reformers' goals.

Jacob Hornberger infamously described calls for candidates to run on realistic platforms and advocate real-world solutions as compromise and concealment and declared such efforts the "road to defeat." (Hornberger may also have been writing in response to Michael Emerling Cloud's "Essence of Political Pesuasion" tapes, which called for responsible but perhaps slick communication of libertarian policies and values, but I digress...) Hornberger's errors, characteristic of the common misconceptions, were twofold. Compromise is not pre-concession of defeat; compromise is something one does to achieve gains when actually at the decision-makers' table. It does not properly describe acting intelligently to get a seat at that table. Running for office on a platform of real-world solutions and not utopian speculations, thinking about how to get from point A to point B in a socially responsible fashion, and not leading the voter to think you care more about your ideas than the general welfare, none of that is compromise and none of that is defeatist.

Likewise, Hornberger accuses reformers of calling for dishonest "concealment". Asking that candidates not talk about irrelevancies is not the same as asking that they hide something like a skeleton in the closet. When the total end to taxation isn't even within the Overton Window, it's about as relevant as the color of the candidate's underwear. That a candidate doesn't discuss the shade of his skivvies doesn't render him a liar, and neither does his choice to discuss policies, not fantasies. Hornberger goes on, in a strange inversion, to accuse incrementalists of dealing solely in vague generalities. The last time I checked, "there should be no government" is vague with respect to what a candidate will do in his term of office, whereas incrementalism requires a plan: privatize this, cut the budget of that, pass X law and repeal Y and Z. If anything, the former could be honestly mistook for concealment, albeit of the blundering kind.

Carl Milsted, the LRC's organizer and de facto spokesperson, recently published an essay, calling, provocatively, for an end to the "Party of Principle", thus feeding the same old misconception that drove Hornberger. Contrary to the common confusion, Milsted is not advocating that libertarians wrap their principles in tin-foil and stick them in the freezer for use at a later date. He is advocating an end to vanguardism, adoption of a big tent policy, to wit, a Party that is "a diverse coalition of somewhat similar interests".

This is not too different, albeit more explicitly broad, than what anarchist T.L. Knapp called for back in 2003: a new Dallas Accord. Granted, Milsted launches a salvo against anarchism, but reading carefully it's only against the anarcho-nihilism of the vanguardists. By pointing out the moral failings of the smash-the-state, government-is-evil crowd, Milsted dispels the illusion that they hold the ethical and philosohpical high ground, and that incrementalists and pragmatists believe the same as they do. There are times when regard for human welfare and liberty demands incrementalism.

There's room in Milsted's tent for anarchists-of-the-possible, like Knapp (and Dave Bergland and Harry Browne!) who recognize the common goal. There's even room, I would guess, for the previously linked Mike Renzulli, if he rejects smash-the-state zero-aggression dualism for a more principled and nuanced view. As a reformer, the Libertarian tent as I see it is open to all who support using the political process to effect liberalization, regardless of their position on the ultimate compatibility of real human freedom and a stateless society. For those whose beliefs prohibit the use of the political process, including those who make the perfect the enemy of the good, and for the old vanguardists, who view most other libertarians as advocates of evil, the door is closed. There's room in my tent for Milsted and I suspect room for me in his despite differing opinions on use of military force.

Milsted is damn right: a tiny Party with a history of being effete makes it look as though only a few people want liberty. I'll add to that: the LP's dominance by cranks and their followers makes liberty seem nutty! If Milsted goes wrong anywhere in that essay, it's perhaps in his conviction that making over the LP is preferable to starting a new Party. (I stick around, grudgingly, for lack of better options.) Even if the LRC succeeds in 2008, I suspect we'll find that the Libertarian Party is long past its shelf life. Its name is mud and prospects of luring back the silent majority of libertarians, who read Reason or contribute to the Cato Institute but won't touch the LP with a ten foot pole are dim. Better to forget about our sweat equity, cut our losses, leave the thugs, bullies, and dimwits the Party they ruined and to start with a clean slate.

There are legitimate places for disputes between the various flavors of libertarianism: academia, think-tanks, weblogs, and magazines. And discussing philosophy with people met through politics, whether for fun or for persuasion, can be done constructively. There is always a place for introducing a young Objectivist to serious analytic philosohpy before A is A, existence exists, qua qua qua stunts his intellectual development. There is always a place for passing around economics or philosophy tracts to empower candidates and activists in their efforts, and arming one's self against the Rothbardian dualists with Nozick, Epstein, and the like is a virtual necessity. It is only vanguardism, the notion that it is not enough within a Party to share and advocate for common, immediate policy goals, that must go.

In Milsted's words:

"I am not a libertarian in order to promote a simplistic, impractical and inhumane philosophy. I am a libertarian because I love liberty...building the party around one narrow principle results in a tiny party...a party of principle is a joke, and it's the statists who are doing the laughing."

Yes, let's have a new Dallas Accord: Lovers of liberty, unite!

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