Be Libertarian: The Case for Our Own Party

American politics has devolved into competing colors of populism, with impossible promises and fear completely displacing substantive policy differences. There may have been a time when issues drove voter opinion, but team loyalty has pushed values and policy aside. Now the only relevant question for supporting a policy is whether the candidate or official supporting it is on the right team. Republicans will support gun control, trade protectionism, and farm subsidies if imposed by a Republican. Democrats will support deportation, mass incarceration, and corporate welfare so long as a Democrat’s in charge.

How should a libertarian, someone who wants peaceful people to be able to pursue their own happiness free from government interference, respond to this toxic political environment? Registering to vote as a Libertarian, joining and supporting the Libertarian Party, and being a Libertarian candidate for public office are three actions you can take that will have a positive impact on our political environment and move our society in a more libertarian direction.

Due, in large part, to the Cold War fusionism of conservatives and libertarians against the communists, along with lip service to libertarian principles by a few Republicans, there are loud voices who advocate that libertarians should not join the Libertarian Party. Their core thesis is that libertarians can have greater political impact in trying to change the Republican Party from the inside. If the experience of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012 was not sufficient evidence that the GOP hates libertarians, the complete takeover of the GOP by a protectionist president should provide the final nail in the coffin of that theory.

This is not exclusively a Republican problem. Both of the two old parties are ideologically unmoored, making them completely unstable vehicles to advance libertarianism. In the same way that a few idealistic vegan fry cooks are not going to stop McDonald’s from selling meat, libertarians working inside the Republican and Democratic parties are not going to get anything that party leadership doesn’t approve of. Insurgent candidacies will be put down, committee appointments stripped, primary challengers supported. Just ask Justin Amash, among others.

Since we have evidence working within the old parties doesn’t work, why not decline to affiliate with any political party? There is a certain allure for an individualist in declaring political independence from any political party or tribe. By not declaring any political affiliation, one cannot be held to any standard of political belief or have to defend any politician or political position. This is the advantage of independence and its fatal flaw.

Being a political independent sends no clear signal. Some people are independent because they are too progressive for the Democrats. Some people are independent because they are too conservative for the Republicans. Some people are independent because they are too libertarian for the Libertarians. But to politicians, they all look the same.

Registering and voting Libertarian sends a clearer signal than any other alternative. While parties are coalitions and nobody knows why someone casts a vote, the Libertarian platform is clearer than any other national political party. There are only 34 planks and fewer than 3,000 words in the Libertarian Party platform.By comparison, there are 24,000 and 31,000 words in the Democratic and Republican platforms. If your vote is a signal, are you confident about what you’re signaling by voting for a Republican or Democrat?

The point has been made that Libertarian Party candidates don’t win as often as the candidates of the two old parties. That’s true, but a vote is not a wager. Unless you have a bet on the outcome of the election, there is no prize for predicting the winner or having your vote added to their result. A vote is an opportunity to send a message about what you want and what you don’t. The only person who loses when you vote for a candidate you don’t want is you.

The compromises made in joining the two old parties are not just a matter of moving slower in a libertarian direction, but actively move in an anti-libertarian direction. The decision of whether a compromise is acceptable is a matter for each individual’s conscience, but honesty requires one to acknowledge the effect of the other policies and positions that one is supporting by being part of either the Republicans or Democrats.

Groups like the Republican Liberty Caucus that exist inside the party have less leverage than a voting block outside the party. If you can’t walk away from the table, your negotiating position suffers. As a Libertarian voter, you have more influence on the positions of Republican and Democratic politicians than internal caucuses whose votes they can take for granted.

Many people still have issues with some of the positions or personalities within the Libertarian Party. So do I. However, political parties are made up of those who show up. If you are not happy with the quality of candidates or activists within the party, there is a much better chance of influencing the direction of a smaller party than a larger one. The fact that the smaller party in this case already aligns more closely with a libertarian’s political preferences is a bonus.

A positive message of government doing less, better can break through the tribalism and force a discussion about the issues that the old-party candidates would rather not deal with. Avoidance behavior is real and politicians will avoid an issue if they can. When a group becomes more visible and more people join it, the ideas supported by the group become harder to dismiss.

There is always room for working together with politicians from any political party on specific policies, but doing so from our own solid ground as a distinct Libertarian political party provides the strongest position to make progress on setting the world free in our lifetime. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Now is the time for all good libertarians to be unreasonable men (and women) and join the Libertarian Party.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Nicholas Sarwark says that now more than ever, the Libertarian Party is the best home for people with libertarian views. The two major parties are both thoroughly populist and win elections only by promising increasingly unlibertarian policies. Strategically, striking out on our own makes sense, he says, because it amounts to negotiating from a position of relative strength.

Response Essays

  • Matt Nye says that the Republican Party is the true home of libertarians, one where they will find an undeniable gift: electability. This the Libertarian Party has never provided, making it largely a wasted effort. Nye is candid about the GOP’s ideological shortcomings and its venality. But, he says, the Libertarian Party hasn’t exactly been pure itself.

  • Graham Vyse argues that libertarians need to focus on the immediate danger of a second Trump administration. Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies have remade the Republican Party, he argues, and not for the better. The time has come for libertarians to unite with their former enemies on the left, at least temporarily, to defend a minimal form of liberalism against an extraordinary threat.