Sheldon Richman: Are Libertarians Looking for Results or Self-Congratulation?

Sheldon Richman

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Are Libertarians Looking for Results or Self-Congratulation?
There’s a big difference between trying to win people over and merely trying to feel good about ourselves.

By Sheldon Richman
January 25, 2015

When I was researching my recent article on Nathaniel Branden, who died last month, I came across an audio file of a talk Branden gave at the 1979 Libertarian Party national convention in Los Angeles. I was at the convention, but I don’t remember attending the talk. I might have been busy with other things; on the other hand, I find it hard to believe that I had anything more important to do during that hour.

At any rate, the talk, “What Happens When the Libertarian Movement Begins to Succeed?,” is remarkable in more than one respect. For one thing, Branden was commenting on all the attention libertarianism was getting—in 1979! At that time, the media were covering the libertarian movement more than ever, although that isn’t saying much. Ed Clark, a libertarian who was listed on the ballot as an independent, had run quite a successful campaign for governor of California the year before, by libertarian standards, winning 377,960 votes, 5.46 percent of the total.

The party in California had also gotten publicity earlier that year for supporting ballot Proposition 13, a cap on the state’s property tax, and for opposing Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, which would have denied jobs in the government’s schools to gay people. The LP’s position prevailed in both cases. Because of things like this, the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to the convention, and other prominent newspapers and magazines later published stories. The 2,000-plus conventioneers were filled with excitement.

So Branden was justified in thinking that something good was happening. It wasn’t the first time some of us felt that way. In 1971, the year before the first LP presidential ticket, John Hospers and Tonie Nathan, got an electoral vote, the New York Times Magazine published a five-thousand-word article by two libertarian college seniors: Stan Lehr and Louis Rossetto Jr., later a co-founder of Wired magazine. The article was titled “The New Right Credo—Libertarianism” (I gag on the title too), and it discussed the political and economic ideas of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and others.

You can finish the article here.

38 thoughts on “Sheldon Richman: Are Libertarians Looking for Results or Self-Congratulation?

  1. Andy Craig

    A very good article, which isn’t quite as negative as the headline reason put on it.

  2. Andy Craig

    Richman’s a good guy. Had the chance to meet him a couple of times when I was going to school in the same city in Arkansas where he lives. He’d meet with our combined two-campus libertarian group and entertain us with movement stories over pizza and beer. He might not be a huge name to those outside of libertarianism, but for a young student libertarian he was our local celebrity.

  3. paulie

    Was that Conway? And what years? I worked the shit out of that campus a few different times. Andy Jacobs did also, we worked it together.

  4. Mark Axinn

    My wife published a few articles in Freeman when Sheldon was the Editor. He is truly dedicated to the cause of freedom.

    He has moved on from FEE.

  5. Andy Craig

    Yes, Conway. I was attending Hendrix, Sheldon teaches some classes at Univ. of Central Arkansas, though I didn’t have much occasion to be on that campus. This would have been around 2009-2011.

  6. Andy

    University of Central Arkansas in Conway. Paul and I helped start the libertarian club on that campus in 2011 (as in we gathered contacts of interested students, and we also found a professor who said they’d sponsor the club).

  7. paulie

    I don’t think we ever did much of anything at Hendrix. May have raided it briefly before getting bounced (we have no rights since it’s private) or left because too many out of state students. I did work both Walmarts there a few times. I think at least one time I was able to last all day without getting kicked out. Oh, and Toad Suck festival. Those are the only things I remember working in Conway off the top of my head.

  8. Andy

    I never petitioned at Hendrix College. Thought about trying it, but figured it was too small and had too many out-of-state students.

  9. paulie

    I think I did try it, but only very briefly. I did run into quite a few Conway people in LR also though, it’s only what, like a half hour drive or something like that? So I think people there go to LR quite a bit.

  10. Robert Capozzi

    money quote from NB: You engage in a lot of flaming rhetoric—you talk about statists, you talk about looters, you talk about parasites in contexts where you know this language is Greek to your listener. Why should you care? Your dialogue isn’t directed to him anyway—it’s directed to the spectator-you watching you being a hero. He knows what you mean—don’t get confused over the fact that your listeners don’t. The show isn’t for them anyway.

    me: Very little has changed since 1979!

  11. Scott Lieberman

    I am surprised that Paulie and Andy Craig agree with me that this is a very good article.

    If you have the time, I suggest you listen to the entire 72 minute talk:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZiE_jcShXg&x-yt-cl=84503534&x-yt-ts=1421914688

    Branden is introduced by David Henderson.

    I posted this article to the LNC e-mail list, but only one LNC member has replied to my e-mail. If you think that solving this problem will help increase the number of donors to the Libertarian Party and help elect more Libertarians to public office, then ask your LNC Representative to put this topic on the front burner, either as an e-mail discussion topic, or as an actual agenda item for our March session in Arizona.

  12. Wes Benedict

    The word “parasite” is only on LP.org once, and in a sentence with the word Malaria.

  13. langa

    The word “parasite” is only on LP.org once, and in a sentence with the word Malaria.

    Yes, but it’s on IPR hundreds of times, all courtesy of Mr. Robert Capozzi.

  14. Andy

    If Paul ever petitioned at Hendrix College it must have been when he was in Conway with somebody other than me. I did look at Hendrix College, but I never collected any signatures there.

  15. paulie

    I am surprised that Paulie and Andy Craig agree with me that this is a very good article.

    Why? I’ve been saying this for years.

    I posted this article to the LNC e-mail list, but only one LNC member has replied to my e-mail. If you think that solving this problem will help increase the number of donors to the Libertarian Party and help elect more Libertarians to public office, then ask your LNC Representative to put this topic on the front burner, either as an e-mail discussion topic, or as an actual agenda item for our March session in Arizona.

    I’m not sure it’s a problem that the LNC is capable of solving, insofar as it is a “cultural” phenomenon among many within the libertarian movement (not only the party), although I did encourage the LNC to do something along the lines of creating “Success 99” type seminars or even promoting the existing materials we have along those lines more before and during my term.

    If anyone would like to pass my thoughts on the issue to the current LNC they are welcome to do so.

    How do you see the LNC being able to solve the issues Sheldon Richman discusses in the article?

    Very little has changed since 1979!

    I think more has changed than you realize. “Statists” is still in some vogue, but I rarely ever see “looters” or “parasites” in libertarian discussions these days.

    See also: https://independentpoliticalreport.com/2013/03/the-libertarienne-how-not-to-people-about-liberty/

    https://independentpoliticalreport.com/2011/01/video-how-not-to-bring-in-new-libertarians/

  16. paulie

    If Paul ever petitioned at Hendrix College it must have been when he was in Conway with somebody other than me. I did look at Hendrix College, but I never collected any signatures there.

    My recollection on it is hazy but I think you were in Conway at the time, but that I walked down there by myself, tried it for a few minutes and walked back. I could be wrong.

  17. Robert Capozzi

    Actually, it’s this part of the quote that sums up the current state of play in the LM, at least from my perspective:

    “Your dialogue isn’t directed to him anyway—it’s directed to the spectator-you watching you being a hero. He knows what you mean—don’t get confused over the fact that your listeners don’t. The show isn’t for them anyway.”

    This is reflected by the generally continued fringe positioning one sees among Ls. Those who put forth plausible alternatives are often pilloried as unprincipled sell-outs, and such.

  18. paulie

    Ironically, that could also describe the approach you take with your intra-movement critique. A lot of times you come off as battling shadows and ghosts of debates past. Or maybe as you’ve said your own younger self way back when.

  19. Robert Capozzi

    It’s a hobby of mine…like talking people down from a bad trip. 😉

    But, yes, from the perspective of a gathering on the fringe, conversing with someone on the edge sounds “way out there.” Relativism takes a lot more work sometimes, and isn’t as nice and neat as a b/w worldview.

  20. paulie

    It’s a hobby of mine…like talking people down from a bad trip.

    Maybe using ineffective language that does not connect with its supposedly intended audience seems that way to those employing it.

  21. Robert Capozzi

    Yes, great point, PF. OTOH, sometimes, sterner, sharper language is required for those trapped in a box of thought.

    I attempt to connect by acknowledging that I too used to be a NAPsolutist. It may not be enough. And, of course, I make no claims of being a miracle worker, just a dude who mostly asks a lot of questions.

    And I have indicated that I’m open to the possibility that there actually IS a cult of the omnipotent state. I seek evidence, however, as a condition for my second reversal. Thus far, the only one to take up my challenge has been TK, who claims that the Ba’ath Party is precisely that. My sense is they are in decline and have not been to the US in force to date.

  22. paulie

    Yes, great point, PF. OTOH, sometimes, sterner, sharper language is required for those trapped in a box of thought.

    Stronger language…like statist, looter and parasite?

  23. Robert Capozzi

    pf, no, I don’t use those terms, for the most part. It’s my sense that NAPsolutists are pre-disposed to radical thought, which I believe is a great quality. Unfortunately, the pioneers of L thought were not radical enough, so my attempts to help deprogram my fellow NAPsolutists is to expose the pedestrian flaws in NAPsolutism.

    It may well be a futile effort. And it may be that NAPsolutism is 100% the perfect thought system. However, given the defenses for it seem weak and often involve ad hominem deflections, at the moment I’m still somewhat hopeful that the box will burst open for a newer, more serviceable approach to liberty. It’s of course a longshot, and I’m certain I’m not the ideal exponent for a truly radical approach to L-ism.

    This is a tough crowd, which helps me hone the message.

  24. paulie

    I don’t use those terms, for the most part.

    No, you don’t, except that you claim other people use them a lot more than they actually do. But I didn’t say you use them (except for putting them in the mouths of others), only that those who do use them may justify that approach by saying or thinking something like “sometimes, sterner, sharper language is required for those trapped in a box of thought” (in their case, they would mean the broader public by those who are trapped in a box of thought).

  25. Robert Capozzi

    PF, OK, but I think that NB was correct that terms such as those are too obscure for general consumption. More importantly, NB’s diagnosis was that such an approach is really only designed to appeal to “spectator-you watching you being a hero.”

    I think he’s more than onto something there, and my sense is that the macho flashers of today are more about appealing to their inner spectator-you as well.

  26. Andy Craig

    Neat to see the Conway chatter- it’s a great town, and I loved my time at Hendrix. We tried to get a YAL chapter going, but that didn’t really take of. More it was just a small handful of folks who knew each other as libertarians, and would on occasion tag along with the UCA group, though they weren’t very active either at the time. As noted, Hendrix is a small private campus with over half out-of-state students though, so I wouldn’t expect it to be ideal for petitioning. I do recall seeing paid petitioners doing a couple of state initiatives coming around to the off-campus apartments, I signed one and declined the other, I forget what they were for. Paulie’s also correct that a lot of the shopping, etc. is done in nearby Little Rock.

    @Lieberman. I don’t know why it’s a surprise to see me approve of the article. I’m also not sure what LP HQ has to do with it- they’re generally pretty good about not speaking in obscure, cranky-sounding libertarian-code with talk of “statists”, “moochers”, conspiracy nonsense, explicit anarchism, etc. I think the article was more directed at individual Libertarians, and perhaps some candidates, than it was the party’s official messaging. To the degree it was focused on the party at all, and not just the broader movement.

    “If you’re not trying to win people over, you’re not accomplishing anything” is good advice for anybody in the business of selling ideas, and particularly good advice for Libertarians. It shouldn’t even be controversial. We’ve all seen Libertarians who try to work a booth or something like that, and are more prone to get into arguments and insult or rant at a questioner than present a sane, desirable, amicable, open and inviting face of the party. It has nothing to do with whether or not they’re articulating the Libertarian position, it’s a matter of personality and people skills. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and a more-righteous-than-thou martyr, as Sheldon puts it, puts off a strong whiff of vinegar to most people. And ideological minorities, like Libertarians but also other third parties, tend to attract more such personalities (or perhaps aren’t as good as weeding them out as public representatives, which amounts to the same effect.)

  27. paulie

    I posted links to the older discussions earlier, but here are a couple of really good videos making the same general point as the article (well worth watching, or watching again if you saw them before):

  28. Andy

    “Andy Craig

    January 27, 2015 at 7:24 pm

    Neat to see the Conway chatter- it’s a great town, and I loved my time at Hendrix. We tried to get a YAL chapter going, but that didn’t really take of. More it was just a small handful of folks who knew each other as libertarians, and would on occasion tag along with the UCA group, though they weren’t very active either at the time.”

    The Young Americans for Liberty at the University of Central Arkansas was very active when I was there in 2013. Hopefully they have kept that momentum up.

  29. Michael H. Wilson

    Let’s see. Hmmmm. I have heard a state LP officer call a state senator a communist and another referred to a state representative as being corrupt without shred of evidence. I also remember a man who was working a booth with me call Nixon a Nazi. That’s just for starters.

    Wonderful management teams we get sometimes.

  30. Andy

    I volunteered to help run an outreach table with a Campaign for Liberty type of group one time. They were well meaning folk, but several of the people there really needed a lesson on how to run a successful outreach table.

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