Why Libertarians Should Abandon the Libertarian Party

In urging liberty advocates to actively join the Republican Party to advance better candidates, do I ignore the elephant haters in the room, the Libertarians? Is the Libertarian Party (LP) a viable path for pro-liberty activism?

On the contrary: The LP impedes progress toward liberty by wasting resources, muddying the ideological waters (as I’ll explain), and leaving electoral outcomes more fully under the control of authoritarians. Members of the LP should abandon that party and either join the GOP, if they wish to engage in electoral politics, or else devote their energies to other causes.

I make these points as a former activist within the LP. I served on the Colorado LP’s board of directors, produced the state LP’s newsletter, organized the 2002 state convention, ran as a Libertarian candidate, and edited and promoted the work of then-Libertarian sheriff Bill Masters (who later became a Democrat). My criticisms of the LP grow largely out of my experiences in it.

Evaluating the Libertarian Party

Let us begin with an obvious question: Has the Libertarian Party fulfilled its intended purpose or even moved substantially in that direction?

The Libertarian Party was created in 1971 in protest of the anti-liberty policies of Richard Nixon, as David Nolan, a founder of the party, told me in a 2001 interview. Nolan said that the founders of the LP hoped it would “become a major party” by 1984 or 1988, one that would control the “balance of power, . . . able to strongly influence the political debate, and act as a swing vote.” Toward that goal, in 1972 the LP ran philosopher John Hospers for president.

In its nearly half-century of existence, has the Libertarian Party accomplished the goals of its founders? Obviously not. As Nolan understated the point, his goals for the party “didn’t quite happen.”

In 2016, in which the major parties ran two historically unpopular candidates for president, the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson—as a former (Republican) governor the most credible candidate the party has ever fielded—captured just over 3 percent of the vote. Did Johnson hold the “balance of power”? No. He did become infamous for not knowing what Aleppo is.

In Colorado, no Libertarian has ever won a state legislative, statewide, or congressional race—or even come close. Far from playing a major role in state politics, the LP’s successes have been limited mainly to a few local races—which could as easily have been won without the party trappings.

Has the Libertarian Party influenced the major parties in the direction of liberty? Quite the opposite. Today, the Republican Party is if anything more authoritarian than it was in the days of Nixon, and the Democratic Party hardly is better than it was.

The main effect of the Libertarian Party, other than to occasionally throw a race from a Republican to a Democrat, has been to divert liberty-oriented activists away from the major parties, where they otherwise would have served as a check on those parties’ authoritarian impulses, toward electorally pointless minor-party work. The major parties have gotten worse—more authoritarian—not better, because of the Libertarian Party.

Yes, we now have gay marriage, legal marijuana, and widespread concealed gun carry, and the activist work of Libertarians contributed to those successes. But, for the most part, those are not the successes of Libertarians, but of the gay-rights movement (active mostly in the Democratic Party), nonpartisan activists such as Mason Tvert who shepherded marijuana measures through the petitioning process, and pro-gun Republicans, respectively.

Insofar as LP members facilitated those successes, they probably could have had an even greater impact if they had been active outside the resource-draining party. Insofar as Libertarians have achieved anything of consequence, for the most part it is despite the fact that they were part of the Libertarian Party, not because of it.

Ah, but the Libertarian Party is growing, and “people are quickly abandoning the two-party system,” the state LP declares. Sure, from February 2013 to February 2018, LP active voter registrations increased from 18,714 (0.7 percent of the total) to 36,911 (1.1 percent of a larger total). So any Trump boost was worth less than a percent of total active voter registrations.

Often the Libertarian Party is literally a joke. Try searching the internet for “blue libertarian.” Or consider this news account about a recent debate featuring gubernatorial candidates in Colorado:

Republican candidates wanted to relax regulations to make housing more affordable and keep oil and gas development going strong. The Libertarian candidate wanted beavers. . . . To be fair, [Scott] Helker didn’t just want beavers. He wanted to deploy those beavers, to “get them ready” to solve Colorado’s water shortage. Some in the audience chuckled. Helker said they should do their research or remain ignorant.

No doubt the reporter was having a little fun and not presenting Helker’s best remarks. (I Tweeted Helker’s fuller remarks on the matter.) Still.

By any objective standard, the Libertarian Party has been a massive failure with no prospects of substantial success on the horizon.

Explaining the Failure of the LP

Why has the Libertarian Party failed, a few minor exceptions aside? I think four main factors are at play.

1. American election rules heavily favor two-party politics.

Libertarians can argue until they are blue in the face (unless they already are) that voting Libertarian is not “wasting your vote”; they will not change the fact that the winner-take-all system heavily favors the two major parties.

Often someone who votes for a minor party thereby increases the chance of his second-place candidate losing to his least-favored candidate. Often someone who votes for a Green candidate otherwise would vote for the Democrat, and someone who votes for a Libertarian otherwise would vote for the Republican. Yet if someone’s rank of candidates is Libertarian, Republican, and Democrat, by voting Libertarian the person thereby increase the chance of the Democrat winning.

On most issues there really are two basic directions we can move from the status quo. We can increase or decrease spending, raise or lower taxes, further restrict gun ownership or further liberate it, protect or rescind gay marriage, expand or restrict regulations, expand or restrict access to abortion. So on a given issue a minor party is likely to be closer to one of the major parties than to the other. For example, Libertarians in Colorado agree with most Republicans that the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights is a good idea, whereas Greens usually agree with Democrats that it is a bad idea.

The oddity about Libertarians (from the perspective of the mainstream) is that they tend to agree with Democrats on some issues (abortion, the drug war) and with Republicans on other issues (taxes, guns, business regulations). But, practically speaking, most Libertarians are more closely aligned with the Republicans than with the Democrats. This is especially true now that marijuana is legalized in Colorado and even major Republican figures support it or at least do not buck it. And abortion is largely off the table in Colorado.

Approval voting, which I endorse, could change electoral dynamics considerably by allowing people to vote for candidates from a major and minor party at once (among other possible combinations). But, despite Frank Atwood’s tireless advocacy, I do not see a realistic possibility for approval voting into the foreseeable future, mainly because the major parties, which pass all the laws, have no incentive to implement it. That said, if Libertarians really want to advance their party, they should probably forget running candidates and focus on getting signatures to place approval voting on the ballot. But I’ll be surprised if they do that.

As things stand, interest in the Libertarian Party is inherently and severely limited because winner-takes-all voting strongly favors the two-party system.

2. The Libertarian Party rewards ego-stroking and delusion.

During my time with the Libertarian Party, one fellow mortgaged his house to run for Congress. Of course he lost just as badly as every other Libertarian who runs for Congress.

In 2002 a candidate ran for U.S. Senate under the delusion that he could actually win the race. The fellow turned out to be a little crazy; rather than going to Congress, he ended up going to prison for threatening judges.

People often run for office on the Libertarian ticket simply because they want to run and stand no chance with the major parties. How fun! You can respond to media inquiries and even be invited to debates, just by registering to vote Libertarian, attending the right meeting, and throwing your name into the hat.

Obviously the major parties also attract plenty of deluded and egotistical activists. Politics is a never-ending soap opera, regardless of party. The difference is that the major parties also attract serious candidates who stand a real chance of winning major elected offices.

I have met many level-headed Libertarian candidates, too. But because of its minor-party status, the LP elevates a disproportionate number of eccentric or outright kooky people to prominent positions, and this reinforces the status of the LP as a fringe party.

3. The LP promotes a radical agenda.

There are two main types of Libertarian candidates: real libertarians and Republican-lites. Running a Republican-lite candidate is pointless, as voters might as well just vote for the actual Republican, who has a chance of winning. The problem with running real libertarians is that hardly any voters agree with the more radical libertarian positions.

Take a quick guess as to how many voters want to legalize cocaine. Now take a quick guess as to how many voters want to abolish government-run schools. Now look for the overlap of those two groups. There roughly is the base for the Libertarian platform.

An irony is that, although the voter base of the LP is tiny, it is substantially larger than it otherwise would be simply because no one ever seriously expects the Libertarian to win. So the LP is a safe protest vote.

But if a Libertarian ever got any real traction, the candidate would be buried in ads to the effect that people’s kids would be snorting cocaine behind their shuttered schools.

To the degree that Libertarians promote sensible but unpopular policies, they would be better off promoting those policies on the educational front, not through out-of-touch electoral politics.

4. The LP is corrupted by bad ideology.

I agree with many Libertarian policy aims. But the Libertarian Party, influenced as it was by the likes of anarchist and David Duke defender “Mr. Libertarian” Murray Rothbard, often tends to be more anti-government than genuinely pro-liberty.

The anti-government undercurrents of the LP ooze to the surface with some regularity. A certain brand of Libertarian heartily denounces Abraham Lincoln and laments the “War of Northern Aggression.” A surprising number of Libertarians ally with racist alt-Righters because they too want to tear down the existing system. The previously mentioned Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate wrote favorably of “summary street trials” in which various sorts of “traitors” would be executed. Two-time Libertarian presidential candidate Harry Browne was an explicit anarchist (and a very amiable fellow). (There are better and worse variants of libertarian anarchism; the academics Bryan Caplan and Michael Huemer represent the best sort.)

The better Libertarians, the majority, are straight-up Constitutional republicans. But they will never be able to fully shake the anti-government ideological roots of libertarianism.

The Republican Party, by contrast, is in its ideological foundations the anti-slavery party—a good place to start. Today the two major parties are big tents housing loosely grouped coalitions. In participating in the Republican Party, I am not saddled by the worst ideological elements of the party in the way that Libertarians are saddled with anti-government elements of libertarianism.

The Libertarian Party is by its declaration an avowedly ideological party, so the ideology is fundamentally important. And the libertarian ideology has a dark side that is difficult for Libertarians to escape.

Joining the GOP

How can I join a party that has so often sold liberty advocates down the river? How can I sanction the authoritarian tendencies of today’s Republican Party? These are the sorts of questions that Libertarians would typically ask (and the sorts of questions that once drove me to the LP).

Libertarians often mistakenly treat party affiliation as defining their views or personality. The attitude seems to be, “I don’t want to be a Republican because I reject what today’s Republican Party stands for.” Such an attitude is silly. The point of participating in a major party is not to define yourself by the party; it is to change the party for the better by defeating those party members you disagree with.

Think of it this way: If you were confident that the GOP would consistently implement your preferred policies, there would be no reason to spend any time trying to change it. It is only to the degree that you think the GOP is or could be on the wrong track that you have a reason to work to reform it.

The Republican Party is a means to electoral influence for the sake of implementing better policies, and, to me, that’s all it is. I participate in the GOP precisely because I disapprove of its direction and want to help change it. If I thought that a better party had a real chance of pushing out the Republican Party, I’d join in a heartbeat. But no such party exists.

For reasons I explained in my previous article, liberty activists actually have the ability to advance decent (or at least better) candidates through the Republican Party, especially now that state law allows the unaffiliated to vote in primaries. Practically speaking, the new rules offer a way around the theocratic activists who now dominate the caucus and assembly process. (I opposed that law, but I cannot change it, and many Republicans openly embraced it.)

Of course, my argument hinges on people wanting to actually achieve electoral victories and not just play at politics. The purpose of a political party is to win elections. The Libertarian Party is incapable of doing that in any meaningful way.

I suggest that people looking for a social club join a social club, that people looking to advocate the ideas of liberty join an educational group, and that people looking to affect electoral politics join a major party in which that is possible.

There is simply no value worth having that the Libertarian Party, as a political party, provides. In 1971 it was reasonable to think that a new liberty-oriented party might succeed. In 2018 it is no longer reasonable to think that the Libertarian Party can accomplish what it was intended to accomplish. It is time to try a different approach.

Photo of Ari Armstrong, Harry Browne, and Pamela Lanier Wolfe