In Praise of the Libertarian Party

by Harry Browne

June 4, 2004         

With the Libertarian Party (LP) on television last weekend choosing its presidential nominee, itís time for the smug, superior types to come out of the woodwork and tell us what a sorry spectacle the party is.

Every four years around this time we get statements like these from libertarians who arenít in the party:

"The Libertarian Party has finished its regularly scheduled exercise in futility."

"The LP has displayed a genius for assigning itself a role in American politics akin to irrelevance."

As though that werenít bad enough, disgruntled party members also level broadsides when they donít get what they want:

"The LP attempted to shoot itself in the foot by not nominating [Aaron Russo] for president."

I recently received an email message from someone asking, "If the LP was a stock that you (or I) had bought 20 years ago, based on its performance would you still be holding onto it?" ó as though I would choose a political party or organization of any kind in the same way I would choose a stock.

After 33 years in operation, the LP presidential candidate has never received more than 1% of the vote, the party has elected less than a thousand office-holders, and currently has no one in Congress or a state legislature.

The armchair quarterbacks inside and outside the party know just what the party needs to do to reverse its fortunes. It must focus on a particular issue to the exclusion of all other topics, stage the right kind of media events, conduct a campaign thatís more "in your face," merge campaigns with another third party, tone down the message, or find a celebrity to carry the partyís banner.

If only it were so easy.

The armchair quarterbacks pay no attention to the obstacles that the LP is up against. Nor do they recognize the tremendous good the LP does.

The Obstacles

America today is without question a two-party country. But this isn't because public opinion has demanded it, because itís more convenient to have only two parties, or because thereís any inherent benefit to the country.

America is a two-party nation because the politicians have used the force of government to make it so.

The Republicans and Democrats have imposed the two-party system on us with five major types of laws. These laws not only place direct obstacles to electoral breakthroughs, they also affect the way the media and the public perceive third parties ó thus creating enormous resistance to Libertarian breakthroughs.

Here are the five types of laws:

1. Campaign finance limits: The $2,000-per-person donation limit (formerly $1,000) works to the advantage of Republicans and Democrats. They can promise large governmental benefits to industry leaders, who in exchange will promise to collect large numbers of $2,000 donations for the candidates. We have nothing similar to offer, and so we have to raise the money one person at a time.

2. Reporting requirements: Because virtually all campaign donations must be reported, major donors can be afraid to finance anyone who challenges the existing two-party system. (The disclosure laws also inspire many wealthy interests to donate to both Republican and Democratic candidates ó so as not to be vulnerable to retribution for helping only the loser.) There is no practical, ethical, or historical reason to make the reporting of donations mandatory. Each candidate should decide for himself what his reporting policy will be. Every voter can then consider that policy when deciding whether to vote for him.

3. Campaign subsidies: Around $200 million of taxpayer money will go to the two major parties this year. Most third parties accept smaller sums from the government when they qualify ó but Libertarians would be hypocrites if they condemned corporate and personal welfare and then accepted political welfare. I probably would have received close to a $1 million subsidy in the 2000 campaign (which would have increased the funds available by better than a third), but I obviously wouldnít do so.

Real Campaign Reform is working very hard to overturn the various campaign finance laws.

4. The debates: The Debate Commission is comprised solely of Republicans and Democrats. Enough said.

5. Ballot-access hurdles: The two old parties have placed enormous hurdles in the way of third-party candidates wanting to be on state ballots. In 2000, we raised $2.6 million. Of that $250,000 ó almost 10% ó was consumed just trying to get on the ballot in Pennsylvania and Arizona alone.

Because people in the media recognize these hurdles intuitively, if not explicitly, they know we have virtually no chance of affecting the outcome of a presidential race. Thus they wonít cover a Libertarian presidential candidate the way they do a Republican or Democrat.

And because thereís so little media coverage, most people in turn consider a vote for a third-party candidate to be largely a wasted vote.

Opportunities

So why does the Libertarian Party run a presidential campaign?

Even though the candidate has a slim chance of getting a million votes or more, he can do a great deal for the party and the libertarian cause:

ē He can promote name recognition for the word ĎLibertarian,í so that millions of Americans realize that there are people trying to get the government out of our lives. This should be the major purpose of any Libertarian political campaign. By labeling specific proposals as "Libertarian," the candidate is telling hundreds of thousands of people that thereís a party, a movement, a particular group of people offering to free you from the tired big-government proposals they hear from the Democrats and Republicans.

ē On national TV and radio, the candidate provides great help to local candidates by promoting Libertarian ideas ó and labeling them Libertarian ó giving a headstart to each local candidate who presents himself to the public as a Libertarian. Local candidates canít get the kind of coverage a presidential candidate can get, so the national candidate must lay the groundwork for them.

ē The presidential campaign can help build the partyís membership, so that someday we have the numerical strength to fund a first-class campaign that can bypass the normal media channels and reach the public directly with advertising. Not just a handful of ads here and there, but ads repeated over and over and over and over again ó that let the public know thereís a huge movement promoting the message of smaller government.

Itís important that the candidate emphasize the positive side ó the better life the listener can enjoy if we get the government out of health care, out of education, out of Social Security, if we repeal the income tax, if we end the Drug War, if we stop the government from meddling in foreign affairs. These are permanent issues that can create permanent libertarians ó whereas railing against the latest big-government proposals might attract short-term attention but not long-term converts.

The candidate must be able to provide short, persuasive answers to questions on current issues, and then point out the principle underlying his answer ó thereby making the case that we must keep government out of all areas of our lives.

Achievements

The Libertarian Partyís presidential candidate can get exposure that simply isnít available to any other libertarian ó within or outside the LP.

Between February and November 2000, I appeared on 53 national TV shows and 90 national radio shows ó and had a total of 852 media appearances ó along with making dozens of speeches.

Those appearances told millions of Americans that there was something well beyond the big-government proposals of George Bush and Al Gore. People heard that it was possible to have an America quite unlike anything they had seen in their lifetimes.

It is an America in which the government stays out of your life ó and government is so small that you don't pay any income tax at all. An America in which you're completely free from the oppressive and wasteful Social Security tax. An America in which the government doesn't foster gang warfare and violence through an insane War on Drugs. An America at peace because its government isnít threatening foreign countries or stirring up terrorists. An America in which government doesn't interfere in any way with your ability to defend yourself, your family, and your property.

It is an America of charity hospitals, free clinics, doctors who make house calls, low-cost health insurance accessible to almost everyone, and hospital stays that don't bankrupt you ó in short, the kind of health-care system we had before the government systematically destroyed it with Medicare and Medicaid.

If there had been no Libertarian presidential candidate, how many times would Americans have heard ideas like that on television and radio?

That's right: not once. No one else was describing possibilities that go beyond the narrow, depressingly pessimistic choices offered by Democrats and Republicans.

No one else was on TV and radio across the country proposing to reduce government dramatically. No one else was giving specific examples of government failing to achieve what it promises, or explaining libertarian proposals to large audiences.

Having a Libertarian candidate lets millions of Americans know that there's a large number of people who think as they do ó who want to get government out of their lives, who want them to be free to live as they think best, not as George Bush or John Kerry thinks they should. Such a campaign gives hope ó no matter how faint ó to people who had long since given up on the idea that anything would ever change or that government could ever be cut down to size.

It's true that other libertarians appear on TV and radio. But those appearances are very rare compared to those of a presidential campaign. More important, a non-campaign appearance is linked almost always to a specific issue of the day ó and usually an issue in which the Libertarian is being asked to argue against some new proposal, rather than presenting a picture of a better life.

During the presidential campaign, most of the time the Libertarian candidate can raise the issues he wants ó talking about a better world that would come from positive change toward truly smaller government.

The truth is that no other element in the libertarian movement gets the media exposure that an LP presidential candidate can generate.

And it can be exploited without compromising a single libertarian tenet. In the entire 2000 campaign, I never said a single government program was either effective or justified. In fact, one of my favorite approaches was to ask a host or talk-show caller to name one government program that works (I never got a single convincing answer).

Fortunately . . .

Yes, sometimes it seems that the LP is nothing but a debating society, although thatís the case far less often than it might appear.

And itís true that malcontents within the party often spread malicious rumors and do their best to sabotage party programs. But thatís true not only of all political parties, but of most membership organizations that are engaged in business its members take seriously.

But I consider these to be small drawbacks when compared with the good the party does.

If the Libertarian Party didnít exist, we would have to invent it. But, fortunately, we donít have to.

It does exist, and it achieves a great deal that isnít accomplished by any other libertarian organization. The party is by no means the entire libertarian movement, but itís a vital part of it.

Whether or not you decide to join the Libertarian Party, donít overlook what it does ó and give thanks that itís there.

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Click here for a complete report on the 2000 campaign, as well as my daily journal of campaign activities.