Thursday, May 29, 2008

Barr none

At its national convention in Denver, the Libertarian Party nominated former Representative Bob Barr as its presidential candidate this past weekend, and I think the delegates took a wise step in doing so. I've publicly identified myself as a radical libertarian, so I suppose I'm supposed to object that Barr isn't purist enough, that his status as a one-time drug warrior and social conservative should disqualify him, but that's not the case.

In fact, I'd have been just about as happy if former Senator Mike Gravel had been nominated, even though he's as "impure" as Barr, though on different issues. That's because maintaining ideological purity is the job of philosophers and hard-core factions, while achieving political impact on selected issues is the job of politicians and political parties. Both roles are important, but they're very different.

To my mind, this interminable political season started with the war and civil liberties as the main issues. Over the past year, the war has faded a bit, while economic policy has risen in importance. Maintaining the ideological line across the board is less pressing than presenting the case for peace, expanded civil liberties, restrained government spending and free-market economics.

Barr is good on these issues and has the political experience and savvy to run a professional campaign and make a credible case for pro-liberty positions. I think Gravel might have done the same. Knowing how to present your case and build a political apparatus are vital skills.

On the issues where Barr was especially bad -- gay marriage and drug prohibition -- he has explicitly repudiated his former positions and adopted a more tolerant and libertarian stance.

This is not to say that Barr has become a radical libertarian. But I think he's a credible advocate for freedom at this point.

I don't want to diminish the importance of the purists. We need individuals and organizations who are willing to hold the line so that the definition of "libertarian" doesn't drift too far. We also need philosophers who are willing to take libertarian arguments to extreme conclusions so that we're ready to debate the possible consequences of our positions when our enemies attack.

But philosophers and purists make for difficult political candidates. Mary Ruwart's speculations about child sexuality may have been defensible from a purely intellectual point of view, but what makes for provocative theoretical discussions are distractions or embarrassments in a political campaign. Journalists will inevitably latch on to such passages, to the exclusion of issues that actually matter. And voters are going to be shocked by such discussions; they'll never even notice the candidate's positions on trade and the Patriot Act.

That's why a division of labor between candidates and philosophers makes sense.

As for purists ...

We're so far from a really free society, in a year when both major-party presidential candidates glorify the state, that arguments over who is libertarian enough make no sense to me. The Republicans have chosen an authoritarian militarist as their standard bearer and the Democrats have (nearly) selected a nominee who may not be as much a control freak as their usual candidates, but who wants to expand the size of government and disparages individual achievement. Libertarians need a broad-church effort to reach as many willing fans of increasing liberty as possible.

Even in countries that are especially open to small political parties, it's difficult for purist libertarians to gain traction. New Zealand has proportional representation and the hard-line Libertarianz Party. The kiwi version of the LP does worse than its American counterpart. But ACT New Zealand, a classical liberal party, is represented by two seats in parliament (and held nine at one point).

And the U.S. doesn't have proportional representation.

Some libertarians take the above argument to different conclusion than me. Wendy McElroy, for instance, sees electoral politics as a dead-end -- really, a moral wrong -- since it requires participation in a system that inevitably leads to violations of rights. I respect that point of view even though I haven't adopted it. I think voting and political participation can be valuable tools, so long as you don't let them displace other important efforts for achieving liberty through non-political and non-coercive means. In other words, don't take election season so seriously that you miss the opportunity to free a victimless "offender" through jury nullification.

So I'll maintain my radical line. But I'm also happy to see pro-liberty candidates bring in supporters and raise interest among people who might not be willing to take matters as far as I'd like. I'd rather win allies for achievable targets than hold out for the moon and get nothing.



Anonymous John Shuey said...


Your comments are "spot on" as the British say.

I am a member of the Reform Caucus, and the most difficult job we have had has been to convince radicals/purists that we do not wish to dilute the LP's principles (see the '08 "reform" platform) but rather present those principles in a form and tone that does not drive voters away.

In the LP's 36 years, liberty in this nation has been significantly diminished. With cooperation and realism like your's, maybe we can begin to restore what has been lost.

May 29, 2008 10:34 AM  
Blogger Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

I don't know whether Barr is "really" a libertarian. I'm skeptical. What does matter is that he run as though he were a libertarian. We'll see whether that happens.

May 29, 2008 1:08 PM  
Anonymous sunni said...

As another pro-freedom radical—one who rejects the electoral process—I'd like to think you're right, Tooch. But, matters of purity aside, the LP ticket should at least have a whiff of face validity about it. From the admittedly little I've followed this story in the news, the DOMA-authoring, ex-CIA, Patriot-Act-supporting, drug warrior Bob Barr just doesn't have it, even considering his so-called repudiations. Anybody can spout words—where are his deeds that show he has changed?

In other words, I think that for an LP candidate to effectively spread pro-freedom ideas, he ought to at least look a little different than the Dems and Repubs. And Barr doesn't. He further muddles the freedom message presented by the LP to voters.

May 30, 2008 7:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What makes you think Barr is a former drug warrior? He said nothing in Denver to indicate that. His answer may have waffled a bit but it was no different from the one he gave on Fox. He said that the "federal" war on drugs is a failure and that it should be turned over to the states. He merely wants a different level of government fighting the war on drugs. On Fox he said he wanted that done because the states would be more "effective" in the battle.

So what he wants is more effective arrests, more effective raids, more effective prosecutions, more effective incarcerations. He wants to devolve the war on drugs into order to ratchet it up several levels. You think that is better?

On gay marriage he was trying one tact that wasn't working at the convention -- the one where he said the DOMA was really libertarian. Only when he was getting nowhere, and suffered some very loud embarrassing "boos" from the audience did he have his last minute conversion. Only hours before the vote he suddenly decided he "was wrong" on DOMA. Convenient but how sincere will he be when he goes out to try to win conservative votes.

He and Viguerie took over the LP in order to form a Right-wing party to hurt the Republicans and push them to the far right. Do you think they will promote libertyarian ideas on social issues in order to do that?

In reply to our friend from the Deform Caucus. If you aren't trying to dilute the LP platform in order to placate conservates explain something. When I spoke to the young man who ran your booth at the convention he informed me that he is a member of theocratic Constitution Party as well as the LP and is trying to get them to take similar views. Wouldn't that include the LP watering down its social liberalism and running someone with a history of social conservatism -- who really hasn't moved on that very much at all?

May 30, 2008 10:40 AM  
Anonymous claude said...

I dont think i can vote for Barr. Something just aint right with that boy.

May 30, 2008 4:45 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Hey folks,

I think the proof will come -- or not -- in the message Barr presents on the stump. If he can make the case that he was wrong in the past and had a come-to-Jesus transformation along the road to taking more pro-liberty positions, he'll do some good. More than that, he'll demonstrate that there's room for authoritarians (and let's face it -- that's most of our neighbors) to change their minds.

It's a messy process though, so I can understand your discomfort with politics, Sunni. I just think the political process has to remain one tool -- though certainly not the only one -- among many.

June 3, 2008 4:44 PM  

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