Restoring the Libertarian Brand Name

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In 1985, the Board of Directors of Coca-Cola committed one of the biggest marketing gaffes in history. After decades of establishing their product as "The Real Thing," they accepted the findings of their research team that discovered a taste people preferred in blind tests, and proudly announced that they had improved the formula.

The New Coke was an absolute disaster. The anger of the consuming public was so great that they had to eventually accept hundreds of millions in losses and figure out a way of reversing their course. They announced the return of "Coke Classic," to give people a choice, and then quietly shelved the New Coke once they had gotten rid of as much of the stuff as possible.

Now, far be it from me to describe the Libertarian Party of 1971 to 2000 as a best-seller like Coke. Anyone who measures success by the election of LP members to office should have long ago given up and gone somewhere else (the Republican or Democratic parties, if they have any common sense). Still, it was a far more effective brand than people think it was: it served as a feeder organization for the entire movement, and many non-political libertarians of today can trace their first contact with libertarianism to the Libertarian Party. It had and has an intellectual respectability within the field of academia and the blogosphere, and some within the field of journalism.

Well, we blew it. In a year that screamed for an alternative, we were virtually ignored, and in a year that had thousands of young, idealistic people energized, we failed to convince them that we are the only logical home for the Ron Paul Revolution. I think it is because we failed to defend our brand.

We don't all want exactly the same thing, but we're reasonably close. What I want is a society with as little aggression as the real (not a fantasy) world can provide. In my view, the most practical society will be based on private property anarchism, but if you put me in a room with Libertarian Party Founder David Nolan, who is explicitly a limited government libertarian, you'll probably find that there isn't a dime's worth of difference in our actual positions (with the possible exception of immigration), and our differences are mainly in how we predict societies with libertarian sensibilities will address security, dispute resolution, and collective defense. In my view, a society of people committed to mutual respect will find a way to resolve these issues peacefully, and one reason I'm an anarchist is that I don't believe we can come to a single agreement: limited government is the theory that free market capitalism is best protected by a socialist monopoly. As an admirer of Friedrich Hayek, I don't think any of us CAN know how a free society will solve all the serious problems facing a free society, and I don't trust anyone who claims to know. Even me.

What all members of the Libertarian Party want is an appealing and DISTINCT brand that will attract people to libertarianism. Now, I happen to think that anyone who works within the LP has already made a decision to forego electoral success, but I wouldn't mind being proved wrong and, in any event, neither an educational nor an electoral strategy has a snowball's chance in hell of succeeding unless libertarianism is an inspiring and unique brand, incapable of being confused with either Republican conservatism or Democratic progressivism. I don't think we've ever tried hard enough to brand it properly.

Our radical past is a myth. The LP before 2006 was NOT the product of decades of explicitly radical campaigns based on the Rothbardian platform of the LP. To this day, there has never been a presidential campaign that promoted anarcho-capitalism, and LP candidates who internally identified as radicals have, with rare exceptions, pretty much been as loathe to campaign on their ideal society as non-radicals (I blame the misinterpreted and now-dead Dallas Accord for some of this, but not all). Similarly, the 2008 presidential campaign is NOT an example of the strategy recommended by the "reform" wing of the LP, as I understand it: they are every bit as eager as radical members to have libertarianism stand out, and not be viewed as merely a principled version of conservativism.

My view is that we must renew and strengthen our brand as the only consistent advocate of liberty, and that we must remain absolutely vigilant that we not appear to be a form of conservativism (or progressivism). To my fellow radicals, I think it is time we accepted the less comprehensive platform on a permanent basis, working only to improve it where it strays from plumb-line libertarianism (as I believe it does implicitly in the tax plank and explicitly in the immigration plank). To my friends in the reform wing, I think it is time you accepted the pledge and the Statement of Principles as keys to our brand, the Party of Principle.

Applied to issues, let me sketch out what I see the implications on a national level of a libertarian who wants a brand that is neither conservative nor progressive.

Foreign Policy — An end to military intervention in other countries AND an absolute stand in favor of global free trade.

Health — The abolition of restrictions on drugs and treatments AND the abolition of government subsidies for health care expenditures.

Economics — An end to coercively financed poverty welfare AND an end to corporate welfare.

I do think reformers should acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences. I have enough respect for many of you to know that you didn't want the absurd platform that came out of Portland in 2006 but, absent your strategy, it wouldn't have happened. Many of you didn't want Barr to be our nominee but, absent your strategy, he wouldn't have been the nominee. Acknowledge that.

Let me also caution my fellow radicals about People Who Live in Glass Houses. You talk a good game about other people not being open about the full implications of libertarianism, and you were eager to fight for a comprehensive platform in Denver, but I spent a lot of time browsing candidate web sites and reading newspaper clippings, and with rare exceptions, I couldn't tell you which candidates were the radicals if my life depended on it. When it comes to radicalism, either put up or shut up (for the record, you are all hereby invited to hold my feet to the fire on this issue as I expand my site, Anarchy Without Bombs, over the next several months: I'm human, and sometimes I'm weak, so if you catch me waffling at www.anarchywithoutbombs.com, I will be ever-so-grateful for your correction of my heresy).

I think the Ron Paul Youth are still up for grabs: their idealism will not be given a chance in the Republican Party, and they are largely pro-choice and pro-immigrant, inspired by Ron Paul primarily because of his courageous advocacy of a non-interventionist foreign policy. They are not conservatives. We still have the opportunity to inspire them to our side (especially once the Obama Presidency gets going and starts disappointing). We'll only do it if we restore the libertarian brand.

November 13, 2008