Number 853, January 3, 2016
Believe me, to get what we want to make of society, libertarians must learn not to act like Republicans.
Reforming the Libertarian Party
by L. Neil Smith
I recently joined a group, the LP Radical Caucus, that was new to me, and one of the things they asked on their Facebook page was what ideas, if any, did I have for straightening out what’s wrong with the Party. I’ve had many such ideas for years. The following essay is my answer.
I joined the Libertarian Party forty-three years ago, in 1972, the first full year the Party existed. Although I became lifelong friends with founder David F. Nolan, knew a couple other founders, and lots of famous folks associated with the Party, it soon became apparent to me that there were many potentially fatal flaws in its structure and organization.
To begin with, Dave told me that the LP was copied after the national Young Republicans. I believed then, and continue to believe to this day, that if you accept such a limitation, you won’t be able to keep from acting like a Republican, and believe me, to get what we want to make of society, libertarians must learn not to act like Republicans.
For years, obsessed with achieving “respectability”, the LP embarrassed itself by mindlessly imitating Republicans and Democrats, never realizing that a third party is a different sort of animal, that must achieve product differentiation by flamboyance and confrontation. A third party, especially a brand new third party, has no other capital.
Except, of course, the truth.
During the years of my greatest activity, the LP, governed by its comic relief National Committee, closely resembled a high school student government, with many of the same petty social jealousies and conflicts. The committee tended to try to guess what potential voters might think, instead of simply doing and saying what was right. A full and frank disclosure of what libertarians actually believe was thought to be too much for Mrs. Grundy, living in Peoria, so we all must soft-pedal it. The clever idea was to try to fool people into becoming free.
In time, this miserable substitute for an electoral strategy came to be called by its proponents “pragmatic”, a ridiculous notion that I discredited thoroughly twice by running the most radical—by which I mean “true to our roots”—campaigns, staunchly refraining from ever pulling any ideological punches, and achieving totally unprecedented results.
My campaigns consisted of prepared speeches, telling groups what they didn’t want to know—I called it the “2×4 between the eyes approach”—telling liberal university women, for example, about our position on guns, and then assuring them that that was the worst they would have to hear, and that we libertarians had reached our radical conclusions about womens’ rights by just the same kind of reasoning. I told conservatives about our position on drugs. I told old people that they has been defrauded by Social Security and that there wasn’t a damn thing the LP could do about it but abolish taxation and economic regulation to generate a vastly more prosperous, survivable future.
At the same time, I avoided conventional “wisdom” about such matters as clothing, never wearing a necktie, preferring a leather sportcoat, a western shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, instead. I showed voters what their lives could be like—what groceries and other commodities would cost, in a tax-free, regulation-free society. Unlike all the other candidates, I made my audiences growl at me, laugh with me, and, most of all, remember me. Regrettably, my results were “alibied away” by Party leaders who ignored or refused to learn from them.
At about the same time, well before personal computers or the Internet would have made it easier, I was laboriously writing and speaking passionately about the changes that my wife (and partner and accomplice) Cathy and I strongly believed needed to be made to the Party.
Its principle problem was that in a highly unlibertarian way, it was overly centralized, as if its leaders wanted to be Kings of the Libertarians. Nobody who was considered by them to be “uncool” had a prayer of seeing his ideas even considered by the Party’s august rulers. Their sublime arrogance and stupidity was best illustrated by headquartering the Party in the Watergate, infamously associated across “flyover country” with Richard Milhous Nixon and his criminal gang.
Fully as bad was the decision to place the LP in Washington, D.C., the bitter focus of everything we opposed politically. The excuse always given was access to the media—more likely to fashionable cocktail parties. But the parasitic press will always scuttle along behind you if you do newsworthy things. Better to place libertarian headquarters in real America, the center of the country, say, Omaha. Instead of a cramped but expensive suite in a notorious location, make it an answering machine in a closet. Or these days, an inexpensive laptop.
The Party’s biggest problem, the National Committee, spending unearned resources extorted from the state parties like drunken Democrats, would be abolished. It would be replaced by a Congress of State Chairs, who are elected by the grass roots, are accesible, know what campaigns need most, and have a better idea what’s really going on in the whole country. This Congress would meet at every national convention.
There would be one of those every year, giving more party members more time to meet each other, to participate in convention business, to devise various schemes, and generally to get a social leg up on Republicans and Democrats. These conventions would always be held in our weakest states, leaving a stronger state organization behind. The best part of this plan is that the Party could nominate immediately following the most recent election, giving us four years to make our candidate’s name and face familiar to the media and the public. Whenever anything politically significant happened, voters would know exactly what the Libertarian Party candidate would do and why. This would be aided by a permanent program to produce weekly press statements.
All during the period that I was most active in the LP, it was almost impossible to get copies of the national platform to distribute so that people would understand what real libertarians really stand for. Cringing weaklings among the party leadership were ashamed of a simple, direct, declaration of principle. More recently, the great platforms of the late 70s, which I helped to write, were savagely raped by the “pragmatists”, leaving nothing but unattractive pap behind.
It’s been a number of years, but one Carl Milstead, as I recall, was chief among the platform buggerers. He bragged about it openly, dismissing those who opposed his acts of vandalism as “purists” and was perversely proud of it, never realizing the wreckage he was making of the efforts of far better men and women than he could ever hope to be. Today, if he were on fire, I wouldn’t cross the street to piss him out.
Parallel with the GOP, we’re infested by LINOs who thoughtlessly and unoriginally adopted the Statue of Liberty—which I call “The Hollow Woman”—as a symbol because one or two people thought the old “Libersign”, devised by award-winning advertising man Dave Nolan, looked fascistic. I deeply dislike the porcupine—porcupines are stupid. I greatly prefer the highly intelligent and mischievous skunk—equally a creature of pure defense—upside-down in full battle array.
My experience as a candidate taught me that the more openly frank libertarians are about what they stand for, the more enthusiastic the audience and the higher the vote totals. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. People sought me out after the election to tell me that they disagreed with me about a lot, but voted for me because I spoke the truth. These are not times for timidity, or for censoring ourselves.
Dum vivimus, vivamus!
Celebrated and award-winning author of over 30 books and countless shorter pieces, L. Neil Smith is available, at professional rates, to write articles and speeches for you or your organization, providing that our principles are compatible. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: According to Wikipedia, Smith in 1978 ran for the state legislature in Colorado, and won 15 % of the vote. He had a couple other ventures into running for office, but I’m certain which one he would count as his second.