July 18, 2000
To my friends, associates, and others in the libertarian movement:
The time has come to end my 24-year association with the Libertarian Party of the United States and/or its affiliates. It has taken me the better part of a year to come to this decision, and it is not taken without trepidation. For the benefit of those who are curious as to my reasons, I will explain them now.
I first learned about the Libertarian Party roughly a year after I discovered the writings of Ayn Rand. I was delighted to discover a political party which promoted the ideals of individual rights and responsibility which I had only recently claimed as my own. LP members introduced me to a wide variety of important libertarian writers, which gave me a broader and deeper understanding and appreciation for liberty. I was troubled to find that Rand herself rejected the LP, but as I disagreed with her on a few other points I also dismissed her objections to the LP's lack of an explicit philosophical base. As things developed, this may have been a mistake.
I still cherish my memories of the first LP National Convention I attended, the one held in Los Angeles in 1979. I found a virtual Who's Who of the libertarian movement in attendance (at least at a speakers' panel or two if not in the business sessions proper), with discussions on a wide range of topics ranging from fundamental philosophy, to in-depth examinations of various issues, to the nuts-and-bolts of political campaigning. The atmosphere was freewheeling, fun, and revolutionary. I came away from that convention charged up and ready promote both the Party and its cause.
The contrasts starkly with the most recent National Convention in Anaheim, as well as the last three California LP conventions I attended. I was struck by the number of libertarian luminaries who were NOT in Anaheim. I was struck by the general lack of interest in exploring and promoting the philosophy of freedom. I was struck by the convention's supposed "theme" of "Liberty, Responsibility, and Community." Community? But mainly, I was struck by overall _dullness_ of the event. Except for the moving tribute to Peter McWilliams, and the comedy of Tim Slagle, there was precious little presented at this convention to stir my libertarian soul. The overwhelming focus here was on the mechanics of political campaigns, the contest for the Presidential nominations and LNC leadership posts, and backroom maneuvering.
(Ah, the backroom maneuvering. I happened to have a ringside seat for the backroom maneuvering with regard to the Arizona LP affiliation debacle. I wound up sharing a hotel room with a fellow L. Neil Smith fan, Michael Haggard, who is vice-chairman of the "Arizona LP in Exile," the long-standing state affiliate that LNC disaffiliated in late 1999. What I learned from that business told me not just how far the Party culture has fallen from the principles it was formed to promote, but that it cannot even effectively implement its "pragmatic" strategies; and it confirmed a decision I had pretty much already made. The details of _that_ caper are too complex to repeat here but the bottom line was that both the old and new LNC leadership have failed to retain the LPUS Presidential campaign's ballot status in Arizona.)
When I joined the Party, it was populated largely by young idealists who saw the LP as primarily an educational vehicle, and I easily fit in. As the Party moved through the 1980s, it became populated more and more by people who see it as primarily a vehicle to get candidates elected to office, or at least pull in a "respectable" losing vote total. Most of the early idealists had left the LP for other vehicles, and most of the new people were "pragmatic" in the sense that they liked free enterprise and tolerance, but weren't really clear regarding why. From there through the early '90s as I worked in local Party endeavours I fell into the "get votes" mode of thinking without understanding what happened -- not even libertarians are immune to peer influence.
As I pursued the "get votes" agenda I found myself suffering burnout time and again. I found it increasingly difficult to discuss my politics with non-libertarians, having an ugly self-conscious feeling, as if I didn't really believe in what I was trying to do. And reflecting back on those times, now I don't believe I did. But it wasn't my philosophy that was faltering, it was my belief in "getting votes" for the Party.
In 1994 I started down a road to understanding a basic fact of life: If we accept that popular opinion is what it is, then we will never elect libertarian "Libertarians" to any significant public office. The best we'll ever do is one or two state assembly seats in a handful of states at a time. Because most people are NOT libertarians who just don't realize it yet. Our political principles are not taught in the government schools, and not very much in the popular media, and are not intuitive.
I have also noted in the past two decades of events outside the Party or the movement that, not to put too fine a point on it, the powers that be are not very nice at all. They steal elections. They use regulatory and tax bureaucracies to harrass and destroy their adversaries. Sometimes they kill a whole church full of people who piss them off. Do we think we can win playing their game, jumping through their hoops (at considerable expense, I might add)?
If we got real libertarian "Libertarians" elected to Congress now, without creating a strong passion for liberty among at least a third of the public, they would be squashed either politically, financially, or physically. Only when a plurality of the public learns and understands general libertarian principles will any electoral "success" be sustainable.
So I left the "get votes" contingent and rejoined the "educate" contingent.
"Educate" and "get votes" are are not compatible as simultaneous goals. They require conflicting strategies, and competing demands for activist resources, and those conflicts are a major cause of the "purist" versus "pragmatist" factionalism which manifested in the "Draft LNS" and Hornberger nomination campaigns, and consumes our online listserv discussions.
With the recent events at the National level, as well as the California level, it has become clear that the vote-seeking contingent now completely dominates the Libertarian Party's active member culture. In fact, this contingent now has its own internal factions, represented in the Presidential contest by Barry Hess, Don Gorman and Harry Browne.
It has also become clear to me, at least, that this general shift in the Party's focus is not due mainly to personality conflicts, nor to chance outcomes of events which could easily have been different. It is due to a fundamental imperative of functioning political parties: they are constructed and exist to put forward a group of pleasant faces and voices which are hoped to attract the attention of the less attentive portion of the population long enough for them to vote, then lull them back to sleep again. Modern U.S. political parties are not designed to educate people -- at least, not if they are functioning as political parties in much more than name.
So I leave the Libertarian Party to the vote-seekers. The trepidation I have only concerns what may happen to the term "libertarian" as the LP continues to morph into a "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" glob of mush. At one point I had hoped to persuade the Party to abandon the term, offering what I considered the ultimate "pragmatic" justifications, but that idea failed to take root. The libertarian ideals I've devoted my life to promote may have to survive under a new name.
Whatever name we use, just maybe if we work smartly enough, using our best talents and skills, we can bring enough people around to our point of view that vote-seeking libertarians, in the present sense of the term, can begin to have real relevance in their arena.
I make this decision for myself without inviting my fellow "educationists" still in the Party to do the same. Every individual's situation is different, and in many cases staying with the Party may still be a rational position. But in my situation, with my particular sets of skills and talents, I know that I can be much more effective promoting LIBERTY in other pursuits besides electoral campaigns. So to better focus these energies in the most effective manner, I am severing my official ties to the Libertarian Party. I resign my "unified membership" in the LPUS and LPC. I'll keep my voter registration with the LP until it does something truly embarrassing (if that Platform plank endorsing concealed-carry gun licensing had passed, that would have done the trick). I am unsubscribing to all LPUS and LPC listservs. I may answer e-mail regarding Party matters, or not, as it suits me. I hope to maintain most of the friendships I've made through the Party over the years, though this lengthy essay will test some of them.
I'm going to start doing useful things for a change.
Thank you, Libertarian Party, and goodbye.