Written by David F. Nolan
Four years ago, at the YAF convention in Pittsburgh, there was born a unique coalition – the coalition that is known today as “the libertarian movement”. There, for the first time, Randists, Miseists, and elements of the old “radical right” from all over the country got together and established an embryonic network of organization and communication – laying the groundwork for future cooperation and building the foundations for a mechanism whereby previously isolated individuals could begin to act as a cohesive force in American society.
Since that time, “the movement” has come a long way.
Today, there are an estimated ten to twenty thousand individuals who can be loosely classed as “libertarian activists”, with perhaps a thousand of these being “hard core” or “self-starting” activists.
Where, in 1967, we had no organizational home save the semi-hostile Young Americans for Freedom, today we have the Society for Individual Liberty. And where, in 1967, there were no libertarian publications of national scope, save a few esoteric journals, today we have several (Reason, Protos, The Individualist, etc.)
Press coverage of libertarian views and activities has mushroomed from an occasional local item or back-page squib to major proportions (Newsweek, The New York Times, The National Observer, etc.) and the libertarian philosophy is now beginning to find some acceptance among the intellectual community.
“The movement”, in short, has come of age. Yet, despite this new-found acceptance, we have not yet been able to make any major impact on the course of events. Day by day, America moves ever closer to becoming an overtly statist country. And in a few areas where strides have been made towards libertarianism, it has been almost entirely irrespective of the existence of “the movement”.
The question, the, is “What can we do about it?” And the answers that have been given, to date, have fallen (roughly speaking) into one of four categories, whose advocates can be described as follows…
1) The Educators, whose answer is, in a nutshell, “go forth and spread the Good Word, and, in time, people will Come To See The Light – and the millennium will have arrived.”
2) The Infiltrators, whose strategy is to get libertarians into the seats of power (the academy, the media, think tanks, existing political organizations) in the hope that by a sort of reverse Fabianism we can undo past mistakes and “turn things around.”
3) The Snipers, who have devoted their efforts to sharp-shooting at the more obvious and repugnant examples of statism, in the hope of either bringing statist programs to a halt, or arousing the public to the dangers such programs pose; activities such as picketing draft boards, blocking urban-renewal bulldozers, and refusing to pay one’s taxes fall into this category.
4) The Retreaters, whose approach is one of liberation oneself, ignoring the state as much as possible, and encouraging other to do likewise – on the perfectly valid grounds that if everyone did so, all would be well with the world. Variants of this philosophy are the Waldenesque “build a cabin in the woods, and eat berries” approach, and the “start our own country, on the seas or in some remote location” idea.
There is, of course, an overlap in these four approaches – and all are both philosophically sound, and, to some extent, efficacious. The fact nonetheless remains that all of them (except the “infiltrative” strategy) also largely ignore a central fact that one of the major determinants (if not THE major determinant) of the course of events in this country is the political process.
Now, one may argue that politics is an “immoral” game, that political approaches are inherently coercive, that one cannot achieve pure ends by impure means, and so forth. But the fact nonetheless remains that we live in a society whose shape is largely determined by political processes, our chances of achieving our goals are not great.
Many libertarians have recognized this fact, of course – and have expended hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of man-hours in political activities. But to date, we have reaped only a minuscule reward for our efforts.
And the reason for this lack of success, I believe, is simply that the present two-party system is fundamentally “rigged against us.”
The Myth of the Two-Party System
This statement may seem a little strong, at first reading – especially as most of us have been raised from first childhood to believe that the two-party system is The Best Of All Possible Arrangements.
We are told, for instance, that it is the hallmark of a free society – with the Soviet one-party system held up as its antithesis. Conversely, we are told that a multi-party system produces “chaos”, which in turn means loss of freedom for those persons so unfortunate as to live under such a system.
The fact of the matter, however, is that, logically speaking, if a one-party system is tyrannical, a two-party system is only one step removed from tyranny. And empirical evidence shows that citizens of a country which has a multi-party system can be just as free as we are here in the United States; such countries as Germany, France, and Australia, while hardly libertarian nirvanas, are not significantly more repressive than our own country – and Switzerland, which has a four-party system, is probably the least despotic of any of the world’s major nations.
The second popular argument against a multi-party system – that is produces “chaos” – is, from a libertarian viewpoint, actually an argument in its favor. The prospect of a coalition government, where any of a number of small parties can veto legislation, is far from horrifying to anyone who is inclined toward a limited-government (or no-government) philosophy.
A third argument, often brought to bear against anyone who advocates the establishment of a third party here in the United States, is that (historically speaking), third-party candidates “can’t win”. This argument has two basic flaws in it, however.
First, third-party candidates CAN win – especially in local or nonpartisan elections. Even at the national-government level, it happens occasionally. Third-party candidates have been elected to Congress more than one hundred times in this century, and there are two “third-party” Senators (Buckley and Byrd) in office at this very moment.
And second, “winning” (in the sense of electing someone to office) is not the only reason for having a political party – especially in the short term sense.
In fact, this very mania for “winning now” is one of the factors that makes both of our present major political parties unlikely vehicles for libertarianism. Both the Democrats and Republicans are so concerned with “winning” that they are almost rabidly hostile to the idea of candidates who would “rather be right than President”. A third party, in contrast, can take a long-range approach – running candidates with no intention of immediate victory, for the purpose of building up support and organization for future elections.
Thus, upon analysis, we can see that the major consequences of our present two-party system are as follows…
1) It drastically limits the range of choices open to the voter, and the range of viewpoints which can be expressed in the political arena.
2) It assures that there will be a cohesive majority in the government at all times.
3) It eliminates from contention those poten- (sic)
The Present Situation
As might be suspected from the foregoing analysis, the two major parties in America today offer little hope as potential vehicles for the promotion of libertarian ideas. The GOP, at the moment is nothing more that a step-n-fetchit organization for Richard M. Nixon – who, even at his most promising, was nothing to rave about, and who is now virtually indistinguishable from his 1968 opponent Hubert Humphrey. The Democrats, by virtue of assiduous efforts, have managed to make themselves even less appetizing. And the present outlook is that neither party is likely to take any stance in opposition to the prevailing semi- statist ethic in the foreseeable future; after all, they both want to win.
Such third-party efforts as already exist are also less promising. Wallace, although probably not significantly worse than Nixon or Kennedy, is “anti-liberal”, and most of his opposition to the “liberal” zeitgeist is on points where libertarians would tend to agree with the liberals (e.g., social issues) rather than where we would tend to disagree (e.g., economic issues).
Such third-party efforts as may materialize on the “left” are also unlikely to offer much. At best they will be hyped-up versions of the Democratic Party (e.g., a Lindsay-Gardner ticket); at worst, they will be voices for totalitarian nihilism.
All of which leads this writer inexorably to the conclusion that the time has come for us to form our own party. We have the numbers to mount a meaningful effort, nationwide. We have both a desire and a need to achieve visible results. And, despite the fact that we certainly aren’t going to elect “one of ours” as President of the United States – at least not in 1972 – there are a number of advantages to be gained by such action.
First, and perhaps most important, we will be able to get a great deal more news coverage for ourselves and our ideas than we have ever gotten before. Public interest in political issues and philosophies is always at an all-time high during Presidential election years, and the media people are actively seeking news in this area.
As a direct consequence of this fact, we will probably reach (and hopefully convert) far more people than we usually do; hopefully, some of these people will turn out to support our candidates, and will thus enable to locate hitherto-unlocatable libertarians (or at least sympathizers).
Third, we will be able to get some idea of how much support we really do have (at least in potential form) around the country; if we can get 100,000 votes the first time out, we know there are at least 100,000 libertarians out there – and whatever number we get, we can figure that it represents only a small fraction of the total, as not all of our potential supporters will even hear about our efforts, and many of those who do will be in States where we can’t get on the ballot.
Fourth, a libertarian political party would provide a continuing “focal point” for libertarian activity – something that “one-shot” projects do not provide.
Fifth, we will be able to hasten the already emerging coalition between the libertarian “left” and libertarian “right”. At the moment, the former group is supporting people like Eugene McCarthy, while the latter is supporting people like Barry Goldwater. A truly libertarian party would draw support both from such “leftist” groups as the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence and the American Civil Liberties Union, and from “rightist” groups like the John Birch Society and the Liberty Amendment Committee, however. This would increase the political impact of the libertarian “movement”, as “leftist” and “rightist” libertarians now usually wind up voting so as to cancel each other (when they vote at all). Furthermore, libertarian votes now get lumped in with “liberal” and “conservative” votes, whereas the votes received by a libertarian party would not be hidden in this manner.
A sixth point is favor of establishing a libertarian party is that by its mere existence, it would put some pressure on the other parties to take a more libertarian stand.
An finally, there is always the possibility that we might actually get some libertarians elected.