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.
Labels: popularity contest