Libertarian or libertarian

Bruce Bartlett

12/19/2006 12:01:00 AM - Bruce Bartlett

In a recent column, I discussed the disaffection of libertarians within the conservative coalition, suggesting that many might be more at home on the political left. A number of readers wrote to say that they agreed with my analysis and had left the Republican Party for the Libertarian Party. Among these is former Republican Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, who officially joined the Libertarians last week.

Of course, people are free to do what they want to do, and if they want to join the Libertarians, that's their business. But if their goal is to actually change policy in a libertarian direction, then they are making a big mistake, in my opinion. The Libertarian Party is worse than a waste of time. I believe it has done far more to hamper the advancement of libertarian ideas and policies than it has done to advance them. In my view, it is essential for the Libertarian Party to completely disappear before libertarian ideas will again have political currency.

The basic problem with the Libertarian Party is the same problem faced by all third parties: It cannot win. The reason is that under the Constitution a candidate must win an absolute majority in the all-important Electoral College. It won't do just to have the most votes in a three- or four-way race. You have to have at least 270 electoral votes to win, period.

Theoretically, this is no barrier to third parties at the state and local level. But in practice, if a party cannot win at the presidential level, it is very unlikely to achieve success at lower levels of government. In short, the Electoral College imposes a two-party system on the country that makes it prohibitively difficult for third parties to compete.

Furthermore, to the extent that third parties exist, they invariably hurt the party closest to them ideologically. When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 and 2004, for example, he didn't hurt George W. Bush, he hurt Al Gore and John Kerry. Maybe a few of Nader's voters wouldn't have voted at all if he hadn't run, but the vast bulk of his votes came from Gore's and Kerry's totals. Needless to say, Gore and Kerry are certainly closer to Nader generally than the man he helped elect.

Over the years, I have known a great many people who have flirted with the Libertarian Party, but were ultimately turned off by its political impotence and immaturity. C-SPAN runs Libertarian conventions, and viewers can see for themselves how unserious and childish they are. They show that the Libertarian Party is essentially a high-school-level debating club where only one question is ever debated -- who is the purest libertarian, and what is the purest libertarian position?

At times, serious people have tried to get control of the Libertarian Party and make it a viable organization. But in the end, the crazies who like the party just as it is have always run them off. In the process, however, they have also run off millions of voters who have supported libertarian candidates at one time or another. After realizing what a waste of time the Libertarian Party is, many became disengaged from politics and don't vote at all.

The result has been that libertarian-leaning activists have been drawn away from the Republican Party and the Democratic Party by the Libertarian Party, leaving the major parties with fewer libertarians. In other words, both major parties have fewer libertarians than they would without the Libertarian Party, meaning that the net result of the party has been to make our government less libertarian than it would otherwise be.

My conclusion is that for libertarian ideas to advance, the Libertarian Party must go completely out of business. It must cease to exist, period. No more candidates, no more wasted votes and no more disillusioned libertarian activists.

In place of the party, there should arise a new libertarian interest group organized like the National Rifle Association or the various pro- and anti-abortion groups. This new group, whatever it is called, would hire lobbyists, run advertisements and make political contributions to candidates supporting libertarian ideas. It will work with both major parties. It can magnify its influence by creating temporary coalitions on particular issues and being willing to work with elected officials who may hold libertarian positions on only one or a handful of issues. They need not hold libertarian views on every single issue, as the Libertarian Party now demands of those it supports.

I believe that this new organization would be vastly more influential than the party and give libertarian ideas far more potency than they now have. As long as the party continues to exist, unfortunately, it will be an albatross around the necks of small-L libertarians, destroying any political effectiveness they might have. It must die for libertarian ideas to succeed.