There is much excitement in some libertarian circles over the entrance of Bob Barr into the race for the Libertarian Party’s nomination. Even the mainstream media has been reporting his candidacy, as well as that of Mike Gravel. Based on the way these men are covered, you would have thought that the party had previously planned not to run a Presidential candidate, or that it hasn’t run a candidate in every Presidential race since it’s founding. Nonetheless, many are thrilled with the idea that, if we nominate Bob Barr, this press coverage could continue. Others see the Barr candidacy as an opportunity to continue the energy of the Ron Paul campaign. I believe the excitement over the Barr candidacy is misplaced, will lead to disappointment, and that Barr should not receive the LP’s Presidential nomination.
While Barr seems, in some ways, to be among the more libertarian-leaning conservatives, he is not a libertarian on the most important issue of our time — foreign policy. I have yet to hear an unambiguous commitment to immediate withdrawal from Iraq. Unlike Paul, he also has not promised to remove our troops from the other 150 countries in which they are stationed. Barr’s campaign website uses the rhetoric of non-intervention, but a perusal of the articles available on that same website gives the lie to any idea that he opposes foreign intervention.
In these articles, Barr argues for intervention in both Iran and South America. He affirms the US as a “stakeholder” in Iranian political decisions, and supports sanctions. Regarding South America, he says that troops should be sent from Iraq to South America in order to stop the flow of illegal drugs. This demand makes sense on only two assumptions: that the war on drugs is right, and that the United States owns the world. He arrogantly refers to current American policy in the region as “benign neglect,” under which the citizens allegedly “chafe.” It is hard to know where to begin criticizing this claim — with the fact that benign neglect is a term applied to British imperial policy toward its colonies, that the colonies liked benign neglect and rebelled because it ended, or with the observation that, in fact, we already intervene plenty.
Barr calls for the use of foreign aid — money stolen from Americans — to achieve better drug enforcement — forcing Americans to pay in order to be foiled as consumers. He has praised Bush for the surge, which “is working,” supported the use of military tribunals, and argued for reauthorization of the Patriot Act — an act for which he voted. He used his article to express his regret when crazed neocon John Bolton stepped down as US Ambassador to the UN, praising him for pushing for American security. No mention is made of the security of those nations which Bolton advocates invading.
Much is made about Barr’s libertarian voting record in the US Congress. Yet the man who claims to be for privacy, who runs the Privacy Watch List, voted for what was, at its time, the most egregious violation of privacy on the books. Even if he now says he regrets this vote, what does it say for his judgment, for the positions he will take in the future? Besides, to what extent can he truly regret voting for the Act, if as recently as 2005 he was advocating for its reauthorization? The Patriot Act was not a difficult decision, and he made the wrong call on it. As President, he will face more subtle and difficult decisions. He has given us little reason to trust him.
Ron Paul argued for the elimination of the income tax, to be replaced with nothing. Barr argues for the elimination of the income tax — to be replaced with a revenue-neutral national sales tax. Just a few years ago, the Republicans ran a candidate who promised “no new taxes.” Are the Libertarians now to run one who promises to push for a new tax?
Barr is said to have the greatest name recognition, estimated at 36%, and is polling at 7%. Members of the House of Representatives do not earn 36% name recognition outside of their districts unless they are associated with a particular issue or event. Barr has both — he is known nation-wide as one of the strongest advocates of the war on drugs, and is associated with the Clinton impeachment. Will running a famous drug warrior build understanding of the libertarian message? It is true that Barr has repented this position. It is also true that he now advocates for medical marijuana — hardly a radical libertarian position. Consider his appearance on Fox news on April 10, 2008, in which he clarified that he would not support an outright legalization of all drug use. Do we wish to tell the world that this is the face of liberty?
On the other hand, participation in the Clinton impeachment is a good thing, isn’t it? Most libertarians would agree that all recent Presidents deserved to be impeached. However, there are some questions to be asked here. For one, just why is it that Barr hasn’t expressed any interest in impeaching Bush? Under what reasoning can Barr believe that Clinton was worthy of impeachment, as he surely was, but not feel a need to impeach a President who authorized torture, lied the country into war, and who publicly admits violating federal law to spy on citizens? Some could argue that they oppose impeachment on principle, but that answer is surely not available to Barr.
There is also a strategic question to be raised as regards the Clinton impeachment. For many years now, the libertarians have played mostly to the right. Those on the right who have an interest in liberty are aware of what libertarians have to say — and those with a commitment to it have already exited the Republican party, or perhaps stuck around to support Ron Paul. Particularly since 2001, it seems unlikely that there are significant numbers of libertarians identifying themselves as Republicans. Ron Paul pulled 10% of the vote, showing that at most 10% of the party opposes red state fascism. To further the message, and interest more people in learning about libertarianism, it is necessary to target the appeal to independents and Democrats. Ron Paul, a relatively unknown Congressman, was able to do that. He carried very little right-wing baggage, and so liberal-leaning independents and Democrats were willing to look at him and learn what he had to say, particularly once they realized he was the most anti-war candidate in the race. Bob Barr cannot have this effect. No independent or Democrat approaches the man with an open mind, which means Barr will have little ability to change minds on the left. Do we really wish to alienate the left and the middle from the get-go?
The idea that Barr’s position as a former Congressman will pull more press attention, and allow his campaign to continue at least part of the Paul energy, discounts relevant facts about the political landscape. Most importantly, Paul ran as a Republican and was in almost every debate. Barr will not be in the debates, and will not receive even the modest coverage that Paul did. It is highly unlikely that Barr will ignite the same intensity and passion that Paul did. Also, the Democratic race is now down to 2 candidates; anti-war enthusiasts have made their peace, so to speak, with that party. They will not cross the aisle again — particularly if they are not presented with a solid anti-war position.
The Paul campaign, and its level of success far higher than any previous liberty-oriented campaign in recent days, should have taught us a few things. For one, Paul succeeded as well as he did not in spite of his radical positions, but because of them. In fact, I believe that his unapologetic radicalism, together with his personal demeanor, was the most important factor in his success. Barr brings the same conservatism as Paul, but none of the radicalism. If he is a libertarian, he is a moderate one at best — or, as he describes it, a “grown-up” libertarianism, a phrase I can only take to refer to an abandonment of any consistent application of principle. Paul also raised a crucially important issue — the Fed and monetary policy — which Barr does not seem interested in raising. We learned that the Fed actually does excite people — it was an unfamiliar issue, one on which the debate was not yet poisoned by the mainstream media. Barr doesn’t mention it in his literature, and even if he did, could not do it justice the way Paul did, as Barr shows no evidence of familiarity with Austrian economics.
The Ron Paul campaign opened many people to hearing about freedom — the LP must now run a candidate who can continue to feed this interest, in addition to attracting more. To do this, the candidate must be uncompromisingly radical — people can only be inspired by a candidate able to present, in a convincing way, the hope of a world without coercion. It is imperative that the LP put forward a consistent, principled libertarian, one well-versed in the libertarian scholarship, in order to continue the educational task. Every day, I meet people who are reading Bastiat, Mises, Hoppe, Rothbard, and Menger because of Ron Paul. I have students who are asking questions about liberty, and about Mises, because they saw my Ron Paul poster and looked him up. A Republican retread, who is moderate on issues which require radicalism, will not attract the same interest. To nominate Barr now would be to prioritize short-term concerns — a doomed attempt to win the Presidency, an attempt to influence the race between the two major parties, or a desperate play for votes — over what should be our primary focus: the long-term return of freedom to our nation.
Note: For more information on Barr’s positions, please see the website BadBarr2008.com, which is replete with Barr quotations on these and other vital issues.
Joshua Katz, NREMT-P [send him mail], is the Libertarian Party of Connecticut’s candidate for State General Assembly in the 23rd district. A member of the faculty of Oxford Academy in Westbrook, Connecticut, his areas of interest include mathematics, philosophy of mind, and the use of the synthetic a priori. He enjoys a glass of port and a wedge of Brie as an after-dinner treat.