Bob Barr was the most logical choice for the Libertarian Party (LP), so I was surprised that the Libertarians chose him. They almost didn’t; Barr beat out rival Mary Ruwart only after joining forces with Wayne Allyn Root, who joined Barr’s ticket after dropping out of the presidential run. David Weigel reviews the story for Reason.
But was the Libertarian Party the logical choice for Barr? I might have checked into an independent candidate (though Barr’s record on abortion is worrisome), but I can’t vote for a Libertarian Barr, because the Libertarian Party is such a disaster. Nevertheless, I do think that Barr is Barack Obama’s only hope to win. (I plan to vote for Obama as the best way to register my disgust with McCain.) I don’t think that Barr will make any difference — I predict that Obama is such a weak candidate that McCain will Dukakisize him. Yet Barr could actually make the difference in some states, though I doubt it.
Early in the balloting on Sunday [May 25], Barr’s strategists — and the candidate himself — thought the Radical Caucus might have beaten them. … The 25 percent Barr scored on the first ballot was lower than everyone expected. … Barr didn’t steamroll, instead grinding out a series of ties with radical favorite Mary Ruwart before the Las Vegas businessman Root dropped out and sent his support Barr’s way, wrapping up the nomination.
One problem with anarchist Libertarianism (and party anarchists are inherently peculiar) is that it tends toward anti-state reaction, as I’ve argued. For example, the Radical Caucus favors “Radical Abolitionism.” What is it that they want to abolish? Government. “[T]he outright removal of the injustice and interference of the State is our ultimate goal. … The Libertarian Party is the only political party that traditionally advocates for real freedom from government interference.”
This is untenable. When somebody is trying to mug me, I’d really like some “government interference.” Likewise, if a hostile foreign power tries to kill me or invade my country, I’d like the government to take strong military action.
In general, the proper and necessary function of government is to protect individual rights. While the Radical Caucus mentions rights, it establishes no means to protect them. (I understand the anarchist conception of competing defense agencies, and I toyed with the notion for several years, but the anarchist view ultimately is incoherent and unworkable). Abolishing the government is hardly the same thing as protecting individual rights, and in fact contradicts it.
Ruwart’s anarchism led her to some outrageous positions, which were exploited by Barr’s supporters. As Weigel reviews, Ruwart writes in her book Short Answers to the Tough Questions:
Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it’s distasteful to us personally. Some children will make poor choices just as some adults do in smoking and drinking to excess. When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will.
Ruwart’s position is ridiculous and abhorrent, yet it is typical of anti-state reactionaries. To them, arresting child pornographers is “government interference.” While some anarchists may argue that competing defense agencies might defend children from pornographers, often the reactionary element wins out, as it has with Ruwart in this case.
Ruwart’s position is wrong, first, because children do not acquire their full rights till adulthood (because not fully rational), and thus they do not have the right to make every decision that an adult can make. While it might be true that the prohibition of child pornography increases prices, the same can be said about the prohibition of murder for hire. The argument about prices is a useful side-issue in the drug-war debate, but that’s only because producing and consuming drugs do not inherently violate rights. Murder and child pornography do inherently violate rights. If Ruwart has since revised her position, I have not read about it.
So Bob Barr’s claim to fame now is that he barely beat an anarchist who defended the legality of child pornography. Barr may have lent the Libertarian Party his credibility, but the Libertarian Party has lent Barr its insanity. In this election, a vote for Bob Barr is a vote for the Libertarian Party, and that is not an organization that I wish to promote. (I learned my lesson thoroughly after working for the state LP a few years ago.)
In his May 31 column, Dave Kopel reviews the media coverage of the party’s convention. Unfortunately, he fails to get to the heart of the debate within the LP:
One piece [by Cara DeGette] detailed the fight between Libertarian pragmatists and fundamentalists; the former wanted a platform that could appeal to the 16 percent of the U.S. population that is generally libertarian in outlook, while the latter wanted a platform that set forth maximal Libertarian goals. For example, the pragmatists wanted a platform promising to abolish the federal income tax and the Internal Revenue Service, while the fundamentalists wanted a platform demanding an end to all taxation.
Yet the problem with the anarchists is not that they are interested in fundamentals; it is that their fundamentals are wrong. The pragmatists are thus only reacting to the anti-state reactionaries. The result is that one wing endorses untenable principles, while the other wing eschews principles.
Kopel also conflates the debate over principles with the debate over strategy. Ultimately, I too believe that civil society should ban the initiation of force, of which taxation is an instance. But that doesn’t mean that I do not also advocate the repeal of the income tax. Incrementalism is compatible with radicalism. I would be thrilled to live in a society in which a progressive income tax topped out at four percent. Hell, I’d be thrilled if we could merely phase out the Social Security tax, which devastates the working poor and lower-middle class, even if the income tax remained untouched. I am not against taking a bite of liberty merely because I cannot now have the whole enchilada. If politics is the art of the possible, the goal of the radical is to expand what’s possible by influencing cultural debate at the deepest level.
Unfortunately, by allying himself with a party that tends toward reaction against government at the cost of individual rights, Barr has set himself up to possibly influence the election without improving the long-term prospects for liberty.