Evicting Libertarian Party Principles: The Portland Purge

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