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The Party of Vacuous Rhetoric

Mises Daily: Monday, September 04, 2006 by

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I've ignored all the goings on with the LP platform for the same reason that most people have. It appears to have all the significance of a subdivision homeowners meeting at which the main point of contention concerns the placement and type of shrubberies in common areas. This might be important to those who live there, but its importance is localized, with no spillover effects to neighboring communities.

For those who haven't heard, the large, pedagogically useful, principled, and detailed Libertarian Platform — the best thing about the party — has been relegated to the wayback machine and is now replaced with a new one that is tiny, vague, rhetorically slippery, accommodating, friendlier to the state, and non-threatening to mainstream opinion.

Why? The small band that orchestrated this coup confesses: they want the LP to gain power. They've admired the way the Republicans and Democrats have done it, and now they want to do it too. Gone is the posture of opposition, the radicalism, the edge, the braininess.

The debate has been framed as one between dogmatists and pragmatists. What's remarkable here is how the pragmatists are willing to concede just about every criticism made by the principled LPers of old. They admit that they have watered down the entire program. They admit to being pure pragmatists. They admit that they like certain aspects of the state, and were unhappy with the consistency and comprehensive radicalism of the old platform.

Carl Milsted — who seems to have played the major role in this — puts it this way. The LP has waffled between two separate functions. It tries to be "a radical protest organization (a PETA for liberty)" and also a "political party to get freedom lovers elected to office," so he thinks the former role ought to be abandoned in order to achieve the latter.

But you know what? The LP was not founded to get people elected to office. It was founded to oppose the regime and educate the public, and use elections as the vehicle to do so. The American system of government and elections is set up and managed to accommodate two parties. The idea of becoming a third party was only to underscore the evil and trickery of the system.

Milsted is right that the idea of a principled political party is incongruous. So what conclusion does he come to? Let's get rid of principle and stick to politics. It's like saying there is a fly in my soup, so let's get rid of the soup and eat the fly!

Murray Rothbard was also very unhappy about the mix, and he warned against the creation of the LP for that very reason. He believed that there weren't enough libertarians to make it work, that its failure to work could be seen as a failure of libertarianism generally, that the very idea of a political party would invite every manner of political maneuvering toward expediency, and that it would be a huge drain of intellectual energy.

But once it was created, Rothbard threw himself into the goal of minimizing the damage. He worked to make the party platform a statement of principle and a means of education, a public document that would shock and alarm people into rethinking their core political assumptions. He believed in the power of ideas, but not the power of power itself. This is why he sought to make the LP into a cultural force for telling the truth. Since it could never win elections, and the attempt to do so could only result in watering down and selling out, he sought to make the LP into the best it could be.

So it has been for many years. But over time, the LP became nothing but a source of frustration for serious people, who have better things to do with their time. With the platform now gutted, the inevitable has happened. The organizationally empty shell that was the LP has come to be occupied by people who have no clue.

This is all the result of a brain drain from the LP that has been going on for decades. The smart set, if it exists in the LP, is a tiny and demoralized minority. The archetypical LP activist today has a very thin knowledge base from which to draw. He is a child and the LP is his sandbox. Details of issues like monetary reform, safety regulations, secession, the theory and policy of monopoly, and international trade are completely beyond him.

Not that the platform editors cared. Not that we should be surprised. If you put a garage band in charge of editing a Wagner opera, you are going to end up with something very different indeed. This is essentially what happened to the LP platform.

So the overarching feature of the new platform is that it has been seriously dumbed down. For example, the old platform said: "We favor the repeal of the Logan Act, which prohibits private American citizens from engaging in diplomatic negotiations with foreign governments." The new crew probably didn't have any idea what this is talking about, so they figured it wasn't important and struck it down.

In fact, all smart-set planks are gone, something like 80% of the platform tossed out.

This old passage on international travel and foreign investment was fabulous, for example:

"We recognize that foreign governments might violate the rights of Americans traveling, living or owning property abroad, just as those governments violate the rights of their own citizens. Any effort, however, to extend the protection of the United States government to U.S. citizens when they or their property fall within the jurisdiction of a foreign government involves potential military intervention. In particular, the protection of the foreign investments of U.S. citizens or businesses is an unjust tax-supported subsidy."

Now, this is a hugely important plank that zeros in on one of the major excuses for foreign war: the bad guys abroad are stealing from and hurting Americans. But the new group in charge of editing probably had no idea that this was important and so they just cut it out.

It takes a smart set to see through the haze of the political-cultural moment, and divine the true motives of the state. Just one example: the use of the phrase "national security." The old platform saw it as a ruse. "We call for repeal of legislation that violates individual rights under the color of national security," it said. "We oppose all violations of the right to private property, liberty of contract, and freedom of trade, especially those done in the name of national security."

The new one, however, is uncomprehending about the uses of that phrase, especially as applied to immigration. "Ensure immigration requirements include only appropriate documentation, screening for criminal background and threats to public health and national security."

Oh, I see: the LP endorses the current system!

The people who put together the new document believe that it has more of a mainstream viability than the old one. In claiming this, they are employing the theory of the "median voter," though they don't call it that. The idea is that politicians should adapt themselves to appeal to the largest section of voters and cut off the extremes that it can already count on.

The problem is that the median voter theory applies only to parties that already have mainstream viability. If the very existence of your party wholly depends on its extremes, adopting this approach will lead to institutional death.

But might the new platform draw in more mainstream voters? I doubt it. It makes sweeping statements without specifics, leaving even more room for people to believe that libertarians are know-nothing kooks. In foreign affairs, for example, it retains only the preamble of the old platform. Explanation, illustration, and compelling detail are completely gone.

Now consider which is more persuasive. Imagine yourself at a cocktail party. You say to your guest: "The United States government should return to the historic libertarian tradition of avoiding entangling alliances, abstaining totally from foreign quarrels and imperialist adventures." You are essentially asking for ascent without specifics or further explanation.

However, let's say you take a different tactic and explain that you want "to end the President's power to initiate military action, and [to abrogate] all Presidential declarations of 'states of emergency.' There must be no further secret commitments and unilateral acts of military intervention by the Executive Branch."

The second statement is clearly going to compel interest and might even get people thinking.

And yet the new drafters say that they are not really interested in educating people. They are only interested in getting votes. But they have misdiagnosed the problem. The people who vote for the LP are committed activists who don't think that it really matters whether the Republicans or Democrats win.

Thus has emerged in recent years a very important role for the LP, and the only viable political roll: it has become a spoiler for Republican candidates. By controlling only 2-4 percent of the voters, it can swing whole elections in favor of one candidate or another.

If you want to see how this works, please listen to this speech by John Sophocleus, who ran for governor in Alabama. You will be inspired by his experience in educating people about liberty, and how this played a role in causing the Republicans to completely freak out. He never had any illusions about winning. In fact, he didn't want to win. Essentially he wanted to cause trouble for the bad guys and enlighten the masses. He did both!

But then Professor Sophocleus is smart.

Why should we care about the LP platform? The problem of course is that this is the libertarian party, and the word itself is rather important. We would like to call ourselves liberal in the tradition of Cobden, Bright, Jefferson, and Bastiat, but our usage does not accord with current understanding. In addition, the terms "old liberal" and "libertarian" are not synonymous: the libertarian has a theory of the state that is more coherent and consistent than that of the classical liberals.

What libertarianism is: $27

To call ourselves conservatives is out of the question in times when the main symbols of conservatism are the tank, the bomb, and the nightstick.

So, we are libertarians tried and true, regardless of what the platform says.

What's remarkable about this LP boondoggle is that those who brought it about haven't heeded any lessons from the longest running political success of an American libertarian politician, namely that of Ron Paul. He is super-radical in all specifics, super-radical on all general principles, super "median voter" in his presentation, and, above all else, incredibly honest and trustworthy. People love him. He will likely serve in the US House of Representatives as a Republican as long as he willing to serve.

Does he have "power"? No he does not. He is a voice of opposition. He is a teacher. He is an inspiration. That is his role. Libertarians who win public office all find the same thing. The only way to have the power that the LP reformers want is to abandon principle. But then you also abandon libertarianism in every way except in name.

Here is a prediction, and, yes, I'll be very happy to admit that I'm wrong if it turns out not to be the case. The new LP platform will not increase the percentage of votes the LP will received in the national election. By demoralizing the serious activists and talking down to intellectuals, it will result in a diminished percentage of the overall votes.

Thus will they have given up principle for power and not even gained that. The LP won't cease to exist. It will just take its place among the many other third parties that you have never heard of, such as the Prohibition Party.


Lew Rockwell is president of the Mises Institute, editor of LewRockwell.com, and author of Speaking of Liberty. Send email to Rockwell@mises.org. See Lew's columns on Mises.org. Comment on the blog.