Evicting Libertarian Party Principles: The Portland Purge

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Portland, we
have a problem. The July 1–2, 2006, Libertarian Party National
Convention in Portland, Oregon, is over, but the repercussions will
be felt for years. A small, well-organized group of pragmatists
and conservatives — the LP Reform Caucus — attempted to oust the
original heirs of the Libertarian Party.

First, the
usurpers attempted to abolish the LP pledge, arguing that it is
simply too shocking for the general public. They failed, but barely.
Next, through a parliamentary procedure, the Reform Caucus successfully
gutted the LP national platform from over 60 planks to about a dozen.
Little remains, not even the venerable plank opposing foreign interventionism.

With typical
political thinking, this small discordant group dismisses anyone
favorable to the platform as "anarchistic," predisposed
to stopping any "Big Tent Libertarian" outreach ventures.
Unable to abolish every plank in one full sweep, the reformers plan
to recruit new LP members from the ranks of other political parties,
specifically from the religious-right "Constitution Party."
With these people as card-carrying LP members, they hope to finish
off the remaining platform and pledge at the 2008 convention.

So what do
these reformers want? They desperately want to win elections. They
believe that by watering down or abolishing the LP platform, the
voting public will empower the Libertarian Party with greater vote
totals. Whether this strategy would ever succeed is questionable.
The Green Party has made their platform far more acceptable to the
general public with little electoral success. Their 2004 Presidential
candidate David Cobb received only 118,000 votes compared with Michael
Badnarik's 400,000.

So what are
some of the principles that they believe must go? First and foremost
is the non-aggression principle, which is considered the main threat
to an election-oriented populism. If Libertarians would simply throw
away this ideal, explaining LP policies on taxation, the drug war,
foreign policy and military intervention would no longer be a campaign
embarrassment. The LP would be free to advocate all sorts of government
programs and interventions since taxation would no longer be considered
a violation of human rights. Voters would no longer fear that someone
out there actually believes an individual's property does not belong
to the state.

The reformers
even want to dumb down the drug issue. One member of the Reform
Caucus suggested that if they could not get rid of the drug war
plank, which survived the Portland purge, it could be watered down
to "drug laws can hurt minorities and low income citizens."
This would eliminate any suggestion that individuals have a right
to drug use — such an honest consistency would obviously frighten
voters.

These reformers
are attempting to make the LP more palatable to the vote-getting
political mainstream. And yet, the founder of the Libertarian Party,
David Nolan, has repeatedly said that he and the early founders
were more interested in the educational opportunities available
through a campaign for office. To them, actually winning an election
was secondary.

Should the
Libertarian Party base its success solely on achieving political
power? Should we seek political power as the end-all? One Reform
Caucus leader echoed this sentiment by arguing that the LP must
"win elections at any cost," which comes close to the
Machiavellian notion that the "ends justify the means."
To him libertarian principles were an impediment to greater LP election
victories.

What will happen
to the Libertarian Party if it attempts to fool voters about what
Libertarians really believe? Will voters reward our deceptive campaigning
with more elected candidates? Will diluting and hiding our message
increase membership? Or will it open the floodgates to more conservative,
religious right, and pragmatic members who have little understanding
of our philosophy? And what will happen if other reformers in later
years pressure the LP to dilute our message again to gain an even
a greater share of the popular vote? Where does this erosion of
principles end?

It is troubling
that the Reform Caucus wants the Libertarian Party to make a grab
for more political power, as if Libertarian politicians would impose
Libertarianism on the public. This has traditionally been unappealing
to even moderate Libertarians. Most Libertarians run for office
to decrease government power, not to increase it. They take a defensive
posture. They do not run to gain power; they run to defend citizens
from coercive powers, oppressive taxation, and government interference
in everyone's lives. Of course, in the realm of the political elite,
this is as popular as a mosquito in a nudist colony.

If Libertarians
discard or hide their principles, they will have no maps to take
them where they had set out to go. They will be ideologically naked
in a political world that has little regard for individual autonomy.
Like clothes, principles provide a fabric with which to cover one's
vulnerable parts. Without them, most people would be susceptible
to the seductive and corrupting influence of a political system
only interested in its own survival at the expense of taxpayers.
Any electoral victory by a non-principled "Big Tent Libertarian"
would be hollow and meaningless. He or she would simply become part
of the systemic problem of overreaching government.

True libertarians
must retain unyielding principles. They can compromise on issues
and policies to make government smaller, but they must not compromise
on their core beliefs in free choice, non-aggression, and self-ownership.

The Reform
Caucus attempt to highjack the Libertarian Party is a sad tale of
a post-911 retreat from core principles. Without strong moral guidelines,
the Libertarian Party might as well as change its name to the Conservative
Party or the Reform Party. If the Libertarian Party wishes to remain
the "Party of Principle," it must have some.

July
7, 2006

L.K.
Samuels [send him mail]
is editor and contributing author of Facets
of Liberty: A Libertarian Primer
, and is the Northern California
Vice Chair of the Libertarian Party and Vice Chair of the Monterey
County LP. He was a delegate to the 2006 LP Portland convention.
Visit his Website.

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