What Happened at the Libertarian Convention

Reflections on Attending the 2008 Libertarian Party Convention in Denver


Just this past weekend (5/22—25/08) I attended the Libertarian Party Convention in Denver. In what follows are some reflections on this experience, and ruminations on the future of the party in particular, and on the libertarian movement in general.

I had heard, beforehand, that the LP was on the verge of being taken over by conservatives, and nothing in my experience of that convention was incompatible with that surmise. The first evidence I personally witnessed in this regard was the high profile and very well-received speech of Richard Viguerie, of all people. Thought I, uh, oh, what oh what is this conservative fund raiser even doing at an LP convention, let alone addressing it at a plenary session?

The second time my nose was pushed into this new conservative reality of the LP was when the moderator of the presidential debate was announced: Jim Pinkerton. Happily, as his conservative credentials were being read to the audience in his introduction, there was widespread booing and hissing reverberating around the large hall. Well, maybe, not all that widespread; I was doing so much of it myself that I failed to realize that this was not at all the majority opinion of the assembled delegates. To be fair to Mr. Pinkerton, apart from one minor non-ideological glitch — he asked one question out of order — I thought he did an excellent job as moderator. But why oh why was he chosen in the first place? Were there no libertarian moderators around?

The main indication of the new conservative orientation of the Libertarian Party (writing this last phrase, I confess, was very irksome; but the truth is the truth) was of course the election of Bob Barr as its presidential candidate, and of Wayne Allyn Root for vice president.

Why do I say this? That question is equivalent to asking why I consider both of these men to be conservatives, not libertarians; well, okay, conservative libertarians. In some sense, this claim of mine is difficult to defend, for, surely, there is a gradation between these two views; there is no hard and clear distinction to be made between libertarianism and conservatism. Certainly, there are conservative libertarians, and libertarian conservatives. How, then, simply, to distinguish Barr and Root from "real" libertarians?

I suggest two litmus tests: foreign policy and drug legalization. Lord knows, libertarians disagree on many things. Heck, if you get 10 libertarians into a discussion, you’ll have 10 different opinions on many things, maybe even 11. But, there is unlikely to be any difference of opinion on the importance of ending U.S. foreign imperialistic interventionism, right now, and legalizing drugs, all of them, immediately. Both are clear violations of the libertarian non-aggression axiom, if ever there were any.

How, then, do Barr and Root stack up on these two questions. At the convention, neither would clearly and unambiguously commit themselves to the libertarian position on either of these two questions. Both avoided a clear commitment to pulling U.S. troops, all of them, out of the some 730 military bases now located in roughly 130 different countries around the globe. They evaded questions attempting to elicit clear positions on these two issues. On the drug question they both hid behinds states’ rights: it is not a federal issue; they are running not for state but federal office; therefore, let the states decide. In any case, they would only commit themselves to medical marijuana, not its recreational use, and legalization of anything stronger would certainly be anathema to them. On foreign policy, they would only make "major" troop withdrawals, not total and complete ones.

Since Ron Paul, a member of the Republican Party, not only embraces these two planks, but makes them central elements of his candidacy for that party’s presidential nomination, we have arrived at an anomalous pass where a prominent member of the GOP is more libertarian than the two standard bearers of the LP. Who would have anticipated such a sorry state of affairs? Who would have thunk it? Poor Murray Rothbard must be spinning in his grave.

But perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps I misheard, some of the answers of Barr and Root in the presidential debate. After all, they came thick and fast. Candidates were allowed only a minute or two for responses. Maybe I got the wrong impressions?

In order to determine this, let us go to the record. Here is Root on war:

"The WAR in Iraq: *Republicans say “stay forever” (or 100 years as John McCain predicted). Wrong answer. Democrats say “Go right now.” Wrong answer. It is a much more complicated issue than that. I believe the answer must involve a combination of nuance, compromise and common-sense. *Admit the Iraq war is a disaster. *Admit post-war planning was a disaster. *Admit it’s a civil war in Iraq — and our boys do not belong in the middle of a civil war. Our troops are not policeman. *Use the success of the surge to declare victory and make plans to get out of Iraq as soon as reasonably possible"

Well, yes. Our servicemen should not police a civil war, and, it cannot be denied that the Iraq "police action" has been a total, complete and utter disaster. But, leave "as soon as reasonably possible?" Why, you can drive a big truck through that loophole. Why is "right now" the "wrong answer"? In making this claim, Root shows himself as less libertarian than even many members of the Democratic party.

And here is Root on drugs:

"*The war on drugs is a failure — this is one of the biggest wastes of taxpayer money. Let’s start with legalization of medical marijuana — this is a states’ rights issue. The federal government has no constitutional right to interfere in this issue versus states that have approved the use of medical marijuana by individuals."

Again, yes. The war on drugs is a failure. Our jails are bulging with victimless criminals, there has been murder and mayhem on our city’s streets, and there is widespread talk of invading countries other than those in the "axis of evil" which do not follow our crop "recommendations." Sure, let’s, indeed "start with legalization of medical marijuana." But, if this is truly "a states’ rights issue" why does our Libertarian Party Vice Presidential Candidate (I didn’t enjoy writing that, either) even mention it? And what, pray tell, about the victimless crime of recreational marijuana, to say nothing about the harder drugs?

What of Congressman Barr on these two issues? Look at this site; it shows Mr. Barr in a very poor libertarian light, to say the least, not only on foreign policy and drugs, but on a whole host of other important issues; see, also, in this regard here, here and here. Most telling is a recent appearance of his on Fox television. See here for Barr on Hannity and Colmes. For once, I was actually rooting for Hannity (will we in the future see him running for president on the LP ticket? He favors free enterprise, does he not?) Hannity was trying to get to the bottom of Barr’s views on drugs, but the latter was too canny for the former.

Now that we have discussed some of the major indications that LP has taken a sharp right turn toward conservatism, here are some minor ones:

  • one of the speakers at the banquet to celebrate the Barr-Root victory (the mayor of a small town in Wisconsin? Minnesota? He had a failed run at the governorship of that state) had a slip of the tongue; instead of saying "We libertarians…." He said "You libertarians…"
  • the treatment of Anthony Gregory. I regard Anthony as one of the most notable of the younger generation of libertarian theoreticians. Indeed, his very numerous (he has contributed no fewer than 160 columns to LewRockwell.com) and highly impressive publications, his magnificent insights, his brilliant and inspiring lecturing ability, already in my opinion render him one of the leaders of the entire libertarian movement, young as he is (27 years old). I knew and was a friend of Roy Childs, Jr., all during his life. Had Roy not been taken from us at an altogether too young age, would have made even more signal contributions to the cause of liberty. In my opinion, Anthony shows all the promise of equaling, or even surpassing, the contributions of Roy Childs.

How was Anthony treated at this convention? Well, he was offered no fewer than three speaking opportunities, which is fine. Indeed, it is perfectly consistent with his accomplishments. But, two of them were scheduled for small breakout rooms, with a total capacity of about 20. His third talk was at a plenary session, but it was scheduled during a dinner break on Saturday, May 24, right before the momentous presidential debate. I was in the room; it had a seating capacity of about 1000; I would estimate that only about two-dozen people were in attendance. Fortunately, his magnificent extemporaneous talk was based on this column, his 160th LewRockwell.com entry, and thus is available for posterity. All three of his presentations are available here, here and here. (Editor’s note: the speeches given by Gregory, Block and Edelstein are not yet available; they will be inserted in the spots indicated when they are. Look at these spaces in about a week or so, except for Gregory’s, which will be up within a few months).

But my favorite talk of his (of course I attended all three of them) was the one where he attempted to wrestle with the question of when is a political compromise pro-liberty, and when is it anti-liberty. There must have been, oh, 8 people in attendance, roughly the same size of his third audience. I also very much liked that analysis of his of rights and privileges, with a similar sized audience.

  • my own experiences. I was treated in roughly the same manner. I was scheduled for two talks, both in breakout rooms. I volunteered to give a third speech. My first, on economics for libertarians, had an overflow in the small room with room for 20. Fortunately, we were able to move to a "large" hall, where I had an audience of about 60. My second two speeches, on libertarian punishment theory and fallacies, misconceptions and controversies in libertarianism, had audiences of 3 and 7, respectively. No, those numbers are not misprints. My three talks are available here, here and here.
  • there was a motion to thank U.S. servicemen for tasks performed abroad. It was approved overwhelmingly; there were no objections. Since their military activity takes place mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had a hard time reconciling this with the libertarian non-aggression axiom
  • Dr. Mary Ruwart offered a motion to thank Dr. Ron Paul for his services to libertarianism. This was not approved of overwhelmingly. Instead, there were calls to examine the verbiage, because some of the words "needed more careful study" in the (paraphrase) view of a delegate who objected. Fortunately, this was beaten down in a vote by the assembly.
  • Vince Miller, proprietor of Laissez Faire Books, told me that they had sold more publications at a recent meeting attended by 80 libertarians, than the so called Libertarian Party convention which had almost 2000 attendees. When told by someone that it was surprising that so few sales were made to libertarians, he corrected the speaker and said that most of the delegates were conservatives, not libertarians. By the way, a grand total of 11 copies of my book Defending the Undefendable were sold, as were a total of 3 of my new book Labor Economics from a Free Market Perspective: Employing the Unemployable.

Enough with the negativism. What are some of the positive elements of the LP convention experience, 2008?

First and foremost was Dr. Mary Ruwart. She was magnificent. I can think of no better way to say this than that Murray Rothbard would have been proud of her. She was the leader of the radical (non Barr-Root) caucus. Her every spoken word was a credit to our movement. My favorite statement of hers was when she nominated Steve Kubby for the party’s vice presidency, saying something to the effect that we should have at least one libertarian on the ticket, someone who favors legalization of all drugs, not just marijuana for medicinal use.

Second is another libertarian woman, Christine Smith. She was also a candidate for the presidency, and did yeoman work in supporting libertarian principle all throughout the proceedings. The highlight of her contribution from my perspective was when she made an impassioned plea to the assembly to the effect that Congressman Barr was not a libertarian; his views on foreign policy, drugs, and several other issues were entirely incompatible with libertarian principle. It was difficult for me to hear her, though, so loud were the boos and hisses from the conservative delegates. Well, I suppose, if you can’t refute an argument, the conservative tactic is to make it impossible for the speaker to be heard. (In contrast, when the libertarians were expressing outrage with the Republican credentials of Pinkerton, we were not trying to drown out his introduction).

I got to hang around my very good friends Anthony Gregory and Michael Edelstein. I got to hear magnificent presentations by both of them (Michael spoke on libertarian feuding, burnout and public speaking: see here; available soon). I renewed ties with dozens of friends and acquaintances I haven’t seen in years and even decades (boy, did they look old); for example, Dave Walters, Joe Cobb, Dean Ahmad, Vince Miller, Jim Elwood, Jim Peron, Jim Lark, Manny Klausner, Sharon Harris, David Nolan, Willie Marshall, Michael Cloud, George Phillies. I met, oh, another two-dozen interesting libertarians with whom I will now be in contact

I did greatly enjoy the libertarian twists placed on the state by state voting announcements: "we’re from the state of X, home of bad guy Y, but we apologize for that." "We’re from the state that has the lowest taxes, the greatest growth in LP membership, etc." One of the most moving of these announcements was made by my own state LP chairman from Louisiana, Adrien Monteleone, who thanked the assembly for the voluntary help afforded us in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and attacked FEMA.

Another positive element of the 2008 LP Convention is that Barr will take more votes from McCain than Mary Ruwart would have. I am already on record as favoring socialist Obama over mad dog McCain, so this is all to the good. If Mary Ruwart had won the LP nomination, and Obama beat out Hillary for the Democratic one as seems likely as of this writing, Mary might have attracted the votes of many (non-ideological) women, but this probably would have been more at the expense of the Democrats than the Republicans. Look, if you are determined to find a silver lining in this LP debacle, here’s one; don’t blame me that it is so pathetic.

What of the future? What should libertarians now do? Quit the party en masse? Set up a new party? If so, should we call it the Real Libertarian Party? Flock to the banner of the Free State Project? This all depends in my view upon what happens in the next few months, but, before we consider any of that, let us rehearse the reasons for having a libertarian party in the first place.

Why have a libertarian party at all? To promote liberty, of course. But how? Through education! When the party was started in 1971, the knowledge of the electorate of libertarianism was, how shall I say this, non existent. It was commonly confused with libertinism, librarianism, Liberianism, Liberace and libertoonianism, whatever that is. Come to think of it, while matters are much improved since then, there is still more than quite a bit of that going around still. (Evidence: Hannity and Colmes of course are no libertarians; but, they are supposed to be at least knowledgeable about politics; they show little indication of this in their interview of Barr.)

But if education is the goal, why create, of all things, a political party? Why not just start a school, for goodness sakes? For two major reasons.

First, the overwhelming majority of people are simply not interested in political issues for most of the year. Instead, they are concerned with earning a living, taking care of their children, and with their golf, tennis or garden clubs, with pizza, beer and bowling, with professional sports, movies, television, American Idol and, of course, sex. It is only once every four (or two) years that their focus turns in this direction to even the slightest degree. Then, they will at least pay attention to politics, and the LP was designed to address this educational opportunity.

By and large the Libertarian Party has acquitted itself pretty well in this regard. Although at the top of the ticket we have garnered only somewhat less than 1% of the vote, we have attracted more publicity than otherwise would have accrued to us via lower-level successes such as with wins for small town mayors and city councils, and by being the balance of power in close elections between the two major parties in congressional and governorship races. We are still confused with libertinism, but not, I think, with libraries, Liberace, Liberia or libertoonianism.

As for more narrowly construed education, there are already think tanks such as the Mises Institute, and others, many others, that publish libertarian writings and focus on encouraging young scholars to obtain their PhD degrees, so as to be able to venture into the often unwelcoming (to libertarians) academic world.

The second case for a Libertarian Party is that it is practically costless in terms of manpower. What else could be done with the large number of highly educated and motivated libertarians who are either unable or unwilling to join a free market think tank or become a university professor or journalist, the "secondhand dealers in ideas" of Hayek? Think of all the doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects, computer programmers and, yes, plumbers, carpenters, waiters, artists and cab drivers who can only promote libertarianism as amateurs; that is, they are not paid, as part of their profession, to engage in the promotion of our ideology. What are they to do? Yes, they can and should donate some of their money to libertarian think tanks, and those very few universities that actually promote liberty on net balance. However, in addition to finances, these people also have energy that, without the vehicle of a libertarian party, would have no outlet. Well, I suppose they could write letters to the editor, and place flyers on windshield wipers, but an LP is surely a better vehicle to utilize their talents than that.

With this background, we are now ready to consider the future of our beloved LP (I say this as a long-time member and supporter of the party; in 1972 I ran for the New York State Assembly, the lower house of the New York congress; my motto? "Block for DisAssembly." Since then I have run, once, for the LP Vice President candidacy, and have given dozens of lectures, all around the country, to state LP annual meetings). What should we now do? This depends, in my opinion, entirely on what ensues in the coming months.

Here are several possible scenarios:

1. Barr shows great improvement as a libertarian, whether through osmosis by interacting with libertarians, by reading some libertarian literature, or perhaps by patterning his campaign after Ron Paul’s. If this happens, we can thank our lucky stars that he and his minions have taken over the LP. They will likely bring in their train a professionalism lacking in our past. Barr is sometimes considered the second most libertarian oriented member of any recent congress. Perhaps this scenario is within the realm of possibility. He has announced himself as being willing to listen to long time members of the LP, to engage in dialogue with them. Hey, stranger things have happened! But, since there is no evidence of this actually occurring, at least as of yet, let us at least consider some less optimistic scenarios.

2. Barr does not become any more libertarian than he now is; old dogs, new tricks. He gets 1—3% of the vote, and leaves in disgust. Not so bad. We can then have our party back. More, this would serve as a warning to other professional invaders of the LP: libertarianism is not transferable to non-libertarians. We have already seen an analogous demonstration of this. After Ron Paul had such great success with his money "bombs," other Republican candidates (e.g., Fred Thompson) tried to emulate him. Instead of the millions raised by Dr. Paul, these pale carbon copies attracted only a few pitiful thousands of dollars.

3. Barr’s ideology does not move in our direction, and he gets 5—10% of the vote. Then, we will have lost our party. Here, we have the model of the Conservative and Liberal Parties of New York. They cannot win an election, but the Republican and Democratic Parties have great difficulty in succeeding without their support. The LP would then be turned into a king maker, e.g., have a veto over a Republican candidate who was not sufficiently similar to the Barr version of conservatism, that is, one with a libertarian emphasis.

Under this assumption, would it pay to start a new (real) libertarian party? Well, maybe. The biggest asset of the LP is its ballot access. If we succeed, again, with the Real Libertarian Party (RLP) would we not set ourselves up for another takeover by some future Barr? Maybe the RLP should be local in nature only, so as to not set up as tempting a target, as we were in 2008.

My bottom line, at least for the moment, is one of wait and see. The ball is now on Barr’s side of the net. Let us see in which direction he smacks it. By all means, let us attempt to change his mind on issues of importance to us. He won the election fair and square. Well, sort of, what with all those Johnny-come-latelies to libertarianism. At least he did so within the rules we ourselves had set up. Let us give him a chance. We need not demand ideological purity. We would have been deliriously happy with Ron Paul as our LP candidate. But, Ron’s stances on immigration and abortion do not comply with that of most libertarians. For my own views on the first of these two contentious issues, see here, here, here and here. For the second, see here, here, here, and here. We cannot expect more of Barr than Paul offers. Heck, we’ll take less, far less, and be content. But, surely, if no congruency on at least foreign policy and the drug war emanate from Barr, then we cannot enthusiastically support him, in my opinion. Whether we can support him at all remains to be determined, as I see matters. In the meantime, I urge the strategy of calling/emailing the Barr campaign, offering reasons to end the war now, legalize all drugs, abolish the Fed, etc. He says he is open to such communication; let us test this hypothesis.

I wish to acknowledge the help of Michael Edelstein and Lew Rockwell in writing this essay.

Walter Block Archives