Contra Randy Barnett on the Libertarian Party

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Friedman on Intolerance: ACritique

Randy Barnett recently wrote this article in the War Street Journal: "The Mistake That Is the Libertarian Party; Voting the LP line could swing the election to the Democrats. That’s not an outcome libertarians should hope for."

This is a frontal attack on the Libertarian Party. As a long term supporter of this organization (I ran for New York State Assembly in 1969, have addressed dozens of LP state conventions, and hope to do more of the same in future; I was an advisor to Gary Johnson in his 2012 campaign), I am happy with this opportunity to respond. Before I do, let me put matters in context.

This Georgetown Law School Professor says: "As a young libertarian, I was very enthusiastic about the formation of the Libertarian Party. I proudly cast my vote for Roger MacBride for president. I attended the 1975 national convention in New York that nominated him. But, while I am as libertarian today as I was then, I have come to believe that the Libertarian Party was a mistake. "

I don't regard Randy Barnett as a libertarian any more, although I readily acknowledge that in his earlier truly libertarian days he made important contributions to our philosophy, and was a confidant of no one less than "Mr. Libertarian," Murray Rothbard.

With that background out of the way, what is Barnett's case against the LP?

He states: "The reason is simple. Unlike a parliamentary system in which governments are formed by coalitions of large and small parties, our electoral system is a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all one in which a winning presidential candidate just needs to get more than 50% of the vote. This means each contending “major” party is itself a coalition that needs to assemble enough diverse voting groups within it to get to 51%. Hence the need to appeal to the so-called moderates and independents rather than the more “extreme” elements within.

"To the extent that a third party is successful, it will drain votes from the coalition party to which it is closest and help elect the coalition party that is further removed from its interests. The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty, and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty."

Let me make my own position clear before responding to these specifics. Although I am a staunch supporter of the LP, and have been for 43 years, I do not look upon this organization as any sort of end, in and of itself. Rather, I see the LP merely as a means. To what end? To liberty, of course. If the LP is the best vehicle for liberty, I support it. If the GOP turns out to the best one, as it was when Ron Paul was running for its nomination in 2008 and 2012, then I support him, and it. But, when Romney won the Republican nomination, then for me, the LP, and Gary Johnson, came into its own. (If, slim to none chance, Ron Paul had won the Republican nomination, beating out Romney, then I would have hoped and expected that the LP would also have endorsed him. That is why it is absolutely crucial for the LP to hold its convention after those of the two major parties.)

Barnett continues: "The small-“l” libertarians in the tea party movement identified the Republican Party as the coalition closest to their concerns about fiscal responsibility and the growth of government power, and they have gone about making the GOP more libertarian from the grass-roots up. They have moved the party in a libertarian direction, as has the Republican Liberty Caucus.

"Despite all this, some libertarians continue to insist that, because the Republican and Democrats are equally bad for liberty, it makes no difference who gets elected. However true this once was, in recent years Republicans have been better for liberty and Democrats have been worse."

Again I disagree. I concede to Barnett that the Republicans are slightly better on economics, and, who knows, maybe even, for the sake of argument, they are an improvement over the Democrats on personal liberties. But with regard to foreign policy, curiously not mentioned by Barnett, in my judgment, Romney was more of a war-monger than the war-monger Obama, and this is a more important issue than both of those others put together. (The anti war left, it would appear, only opposes unjust Republican wars, not Democratic invasions; a disgrace.)

Post election commentary

Now that the election is over, perhaps a bit of stock taking is in order. My own strategy is that if a Ron Paul or even a Gary Johnson or a Rand Paul is running for the nomination as president on the GOP ticket, I would support that person in the nominating process, and certainly in the general election. But if, as per usual, the winner of that run-off is a person like Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, Giuliani, Paul Ryan or Chris Christie, then I would favor whoever is the LP's candidate. That is why it is so important for the LP to hold its nominating convention after the conventions of the two major parties are held. In that way we can maximize the LP's effectiveness. If we had done that this time, we might have had Ron as the LP's candidate, again, and we would have had a far better chance of getting that very elusive 5% of the vote which would enable us to get matching funds (for more on this issue see here.)

My advice to Gary in this election was to take positions as close to Ron's as he possibly could, so as to get the votes of Ron's supporters.  He did do a bit of this in my estimation, but not enough. My hope is that if Gary, or Jim Gray, runs for the LP nomination in 2016, that they take the next four years, well, three years, to become more acquainted with libertarian theory. Here are the books, I think, to start with:

Note that the first three of these are available for free on the Mises web.  While I'm unburdening myself of post election thoughts, I think that the LP should spend the next three years on internal education for all its members. We could all do worse than start with these four books.

Our choice in 2008, Bob Barr, was an absolute disaster. This man didn't have a libertarian bone in his body. As but one indication of this, Barr supported Gingrich in this election cycle, when he could have done so for Ron Paul. If that doesn't indicate where his heart is at, then nothing does.

Last night, I was rooting, of course, for Gary Johnson to break that 5% barrier. But, as between Obama and Romney, I favored the former. I did so for precisely the same reasons as I supported Obama vis a vis McCain in 2008: foreign policy. My fear was that if elected, Romney would start a war with China, Iran, and who knows who else. In contrast, Obama had four years to do that, and refrained. Another reason: at least we can trust Obama to be the socialist, interventionist, moderate war-monger that he has proven himself to be. In contrast, with Romney, he has been on every side of every issue; you just can't trust that man to cleave to any principle. Also, I'll never forgive Romney for what he did to my man, Ron Paul. Yes, yes, Romney might have been better on economic policy than Obama. And I shudder at Obama's likely Supreme Court nominations (although I'm not much of a fan of those chosen by the Republicans, either). But foreign policy is more important than domestic. It murders far more innocents. And, also, it informs domestic policy. As Randolph Bourne said, "War is the health of the state."

So, I look forward to four more years of Obama rule with some (small amount of) equanimity. Things could have been worse. We could have, horrors!, had Romney and his neo-con puppet masters. And this is the time for all of us, whether inside of the GOP or as supporters of the LP, to step up our efforts to promote liberty. We should do so, preeminently in my view, by supporting the Mises Institute, which just celebrated its 30 year anniversary, and has been an undeviating, uncompromising beacon for liberty in each and every second of those magnificent three decades.