First, he assumes that the resources of libertarian activists are fungible, and that there are no opportunity costs to erasing the choice labeled “Libertarian” from the ballots of more than 100 million voters. In fact, most Libertarian candidates self-finance their campaigns, and few of them would be willing to divert much of that money (to say nothing of their time) to the libertarian organizations (like Mercatus and IHS) that help support libertarian academics like Somin. While it is indeed hard to measure the educational impact of the LP’s efforts on the electorate, there is no doubt that the LP has attracted many more people to the freedom movement than it currently retains as dues-payers. Electoral politics is a very cost-effective way to put the Libertarian label in front of a lot of people who otherwise would never hear of it. Only in the last decade has the Web made the Libertarian label a deep portal into the freedom movement, rather than just a curious name associated with an 800 number. And only in the last six months has this portal led to a party that doesn’t demand personal secession and immediate non-enforcement of all tax laws.
Second, Somin assumes that the purpose of the LP must be to win elective office or to educate the public. In fact, the purpose of the LP should be to unite all the voters who seek both more personal liberty and more economic liberty behind the choices available to them that will most move public policy in a libertarian direction. Even if you don’t believe this effort will move policy much, it still should be useful to publicly measure how much electoral demand exists for more liberty. LP candidates for federal and state legislature regularly poll 3% to 6% here in California. Such a bloc of votes could be very influential in close elections, and there might be more such elections now that Prop 11 (redistricting reform) just passed. Even a little leverage can go a long way. Richard Winger reminds us that the Prohibition Party candidate for president earned only 1.19% in 1916, but he caused the Republicans to lose (by tipping California) and thus persuaded congressional Republicans to pass the 18th amendment in 1917. In ten Senate and gubernatorial races from 1998 to 2006, the LP candidate’s vote was more than the margin of victory. In each case the Democrat won, but that’s nothing to lose sleep over. The Republican Party must either become a force for limiting government, or be punished. The freedom movement should not put all its eggs in the basket of internally reforming the two parties that are in the grip of the Nanny State Matrix: