The Libertarian Party Grows Up

By the time Abraham Lincoln had won the election of 1860, the young Republican party had been through significant upheaval and ferocious infighting but it had a very general set of core values. It was a party opposed to the expansion of slavery along with two corollaries: granting land to independent farmers who didn’t use slavery, “free soil,” “free labor” and support for industrial development.

Just eight years later, during the administration of President Grant, many of the party’s founders had left the GOP to support Horace Greeley’s candidacy as a Democrat.  The party was nearly destroyed electorally over Reconstruction, unprecedented political corruption in the White House and several business contractions during the late 19th century.

New parties, particularly those caught up in a moment of changing political dynamics and crisis are subject to wild shifts and growing pains.  UKIP’s evolution in the UK is but one example of this trend.  It’s obvious that from election to election minor changes in the content and emphasis of platforms occur, but in potentially seismic political moments volatility can be much greater.  This is especially true within smaller political organizations that are not anchored to entrenched interests and established leadership.

John McGinnis’ piece on the Libertarian ticket is factually accurate in most respects, although his suggestion that the Johnson/Weld ticket is indifferent to cutting spending or entitlements is simply wrong.  Johnson and Weld do not suit the tastes of many who are concerned about the size and scope of government in our lives.  Their positions on religious liberty are very much at odds with many long time party supporters and Governor Weld’s tendency to believe that all of America should be governed from the perspective of a 1970’s Northeastern Republican is clearly inconsistent with those of us who dream of markets and politics as described by Mises, Hayek, or for that matter John Stuart Mill.

But that’s hardly surprising.  For a party that has never achieved 1% in any presidential election, the leap to being potentially included in the national debates (albeit a long shot) with the nomination of a “serious” candidate was too tempting to ignore.  A party which has been more famous for public strip teases and unusual membership chose to give itself an opportunity to select two former governors who had been re-elected and hold a large number of positions consistent with the party platform.  After long having been dismissed as not serious, Libertarians should be commended for trying to act as adults.

Growing up is hard to do, however. And this is especially true for political parties.  We don’t all get to become astronauts or athletes.  We slowly realize our strengths and limitations as we “grow up”. Parties are no different.  The soul and future of the Libertarian party are very much up for grabs at this moment and immediately after the election.  The defection of a number of Republican state legislators to the Libertarian party may turn into a larger tide depending on the outcome this November.  Regardless, the parts of the liberty movement that come to dominate the LP will have a large say in what the public thinks classical liberalism and libertarianism represent.  And the party certainly would be open to having more “conservatives” in its ranks.  It has nominated Bob Barr and Ron Paul, neither of whom were as socially liberal as Governors Johnson and Weld.

That party’s future is uncertain, but having two, albeit imperfect, candidates who are at least talking about cutting spending, ending foreign wars, the fruits of free trade, and fighting crony capitalism is a welcome addition to the barren landscape of policy discussion during this presidential race.  We can’t ask teenagers to act quite like adults, but we can shape their futures.  We would be well served to apply the same standard to the LP.

Patrick Lynch

Dr. G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund. He is currently working on a book length manuscript focusing on the "state of nature" in political theory.

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Comments

  1. Philip Wallach says

    Can you please provide a citation to something detailing the “defection of a number of Republican state legislators to the Libertarian party”? I hadn’t heard anything about this.

  2. Wayne Abernathy says

    The author seems to be straining as much as the Trump supporters do at self-convincing, indeed the words reading even more like attempts at deceiving themselves. In neither case are their candidates fit by temperament or policy to lead the executive branch of the United States.

    • John Ashman says

      Why not? Clearly moreso than the leading contenders, and they have the track records to prove it. But, please, do make the argument.

  3. Paul Binotto says

    I confess, I do not follow the LP closely enough to comment on its 2016 Presidential Campaign, however, I would think that, “two former governors who had been re-elected…”, would possess, (at least between themselves) enough transferrable political savvy and experience to run a campaign that wouldn’t merit the characterization (by implication) of being “teenager” in its level of sophistication.

    Having said this, in my view, in this current presidential election cycle, where the LP may be an attractive suitable alternative to both conservatives, who are dissatisfied with Trump, and to Liberal/Progressives, who are firmly in the Sander’s camp and by principle, are not disposed to get on board with Hillary, (especially after the DNC email leaks), I would expect the LP to be frantically massaging its traditional positions to present a platform more palatable to these otherwise disparate factions.

    • G. Patrick Lynch says

      I was comparing the current state of the LP to teenagers in terms of maturity not Johnson or Weld

  4. Scott Amorian says

    If temperament and policy were qualifications for office, perhaps someone can explain to us the current president.

    I’m much more concerned about how candidates get selected than I am with the tit-for-tat arguing that passes for reasoned debate.

    The math of the political science of popular elections tells us that there will always be one more dominant parties than there are seats in the office (up to about five parties). The presidential office is a single seat office. So in the election of a US president there will always be two dominant parties. Third parties like the LP only have the power of playing spoiler. They get something added to the public agenda by threatening to take votes away from the dominant candidates. In exchange for not taking away votes, the parties agree to adopt some of the platform of the spoiler. Without deep electoral changes, the minor third parties will never go much beyond being also-rans.

    • gabe says

      Perhaps we should give them Vanity Plates for their limos.

      Oops, I forgot, we exhausted the supply of Vanity Plates as we gave them to the 37 GOP Presidential Primary candidates.

        • gabe says

          Yep but since The Trumpster has arrived on the scene, it would have to be a Yuuuuuuge CHUUUGGG!

          take care
          Now back to the garden and some good chuuuugs!

  5. John Ashman says

    Thank you for this. Republicans and Democrats have never significantly worried about their candidates deviating from orthodoxy in a campaign and far less when in office. And, in fact, in a $4T welfare/safety state, there is no way a purist libertarian who believes in the freedom to discriminate, the elimination of public schools, all welfare, social security, NASA, standing military, public police, pubic parks, public, the legalization of all drugs, prostitution, elimination of all border security, purely open immigration, food and health safety laws, minimum wages, federal pollution law etc, etc, etc, could win more than a sliver of a vote, about 0.5% on a good year.

    But using those ideals as a general direction and moving in that direction on all or most fronts IS a valid platform that appeals to a large swath. Sure, he might eliminate a few federal agencies if given the chance, but not 500 of them. Prove to people that they can live without the onerous federal government in this way or that, and they will be far less concerned about removing more of it over time.

    The voters are little white bunny rabbits scared to death of freedom. If you want to get them accustomed to freedom, you can’t do it by throwing them into the pool.

    • John Ashman says

      He didn’t endorse BLM, Gabe. He simply acknowledged the statistics. And he understands a main root cause – the drug war, which he would immediately address.

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