Apr 112010

John Demetriou has responded, with equal reasonableness and clarity, to my post from earlier today. I wrote before that I have a lot of sympathy with his position, and after his response, I find that I have even more. I feel I understand better what is driving his actions on this question of libertarianism, libertarian bloggers, and the public image of the Libertarian Party. In fact, after reading his post, I find I understand my own position somewhat better, and that is one of the reasons why, despite our arguments, I continue to have a lot of time for JD.

And so there is a further point I wish to make.

In his post, JD says:

What is important is that libertarianism, for the first time, became sort of ‘incarnate’ once the [LPUK] came into being. The day the party was formed, it was like the soul and future purpose of libertarianism was hoisted up off the ground and placed upon the shoulders of this vehicle.

Well, why else would it form? It must have had a purpose? This purpose was surely to seek out electoral popularity and success, in the long term. Libertarianism does not really exist in other parties (I do believe that for a fact), and so people like me and other like-minded liberty lovers look at the LPUK and think ‘please succeed and please advance our philosophy’.

Since this is his view of the LPUK, his position on Old Holborn and other libertarian bloggers and everything else is perfectly justified. If I shared this point of view, I would be behind JD one hundred per cent.

But reading his words, I realise that I don’t share this. I’m not saying he’s wrong; just that I don’t feel this way about the LPUK.

Partly this is because I think political parties, to a very real extent, inhibit true democratic representation. Parties, because they are large, necessarily have to moderate their policies and make compromises in order for their candidates to get elected. They promote a handful of generalised, core values that are broad enough to appeal to large numbers of voters and vague enough not too put too many voters off. In practice, they end up chasing the ‘centre ground’, and in practice end up standing for nothing in their pursuit of populism and inoffensiveness. I would much rather see individual candidates lay out their individual views and intentions and for the voters to choose based on the merits of those individual candidates. But because of the way the British government is structured – in which the party with the majority of candidates elected to parliament forms the Government and controls the business of the legislature – what I would like to see is not practical. So although I understand the practical necessity of having a Libertarian Party, especially as none of the other parties promote anything remotely like libertarianism, I have no great faith in the concept of political parties in general.

Moreover, as an American I have witnessed the evolution of the Libertarian Party there, and it does not inspire much confidence. I’m not saying the same will happen to the LPUK; I hope it doesn’t. But the Libertarian Party in the US has endured several regrettable developments. For a time, it was popularly known as the Party of Stoners because of its capture by single-minded advocates of marijuana legalisation. I am entirely in favour of marijuana legalisation, of course, but their harping on the point to the virtual exclusion of all other aspects of liberty made them appear to be fringe cranks who cared only about their desire to smoke a doob. More recently, they have fallen victim to the ‘populist and inoffensive’ trap, to the extent that their presidential candidate in 2008 Robert Barr, a former advocate of drug prohibition and one-man-one-woman marriage who voted for the Patriot Act in Congress, was widely believed to be so un-libertarian that many LP members absolutely refused to campaign for him. He is also a total moron. Here he is in Reason talking about why he voted for the Patriot Act:

Carlson Meissner Hart & Hayslett, P.A. discussing criminal defense in Tampa, gave us personal assurances that the provisions in the PATRIOT Act, if they were passed and signed into law, would be used judiciously, that they would not be used to push the envelope of executive power, that they would not be used in non-terrorism related cases. They gave us assurances that they would work with us on those provisions that we were able to get sunsetted, work with us to modify those and to look at those very carefully when those provisions came up for reauthorization. The administration also gave us absolute assurances that it would work openly and thoroughly report to the Congress, and by extrapolation to the American people, on how it was using the provisions in the PATRIOT Act. In every one of those areas, the administration has gone back on what it told us.

No intelligent libertarian would be this stunningly naive.

Quite apart from the inconsistencies of the US Libertarian Party, I also see that most of the real progress of the libertarian movement in the US in the last five years has been achieved by people who are not members of the party. Ron Paul has won hearts and minds for libertarianism all over the United States, especially in that all-important ‘young voter’ group who were unengaged in politics. In late 2007 it was not uncommon to see first-time voters at Ron Paul rallies bearing signs that read ‘Ron Paul Cured My Apathy.’ To my total bewilderment, he received a lot of criticism from the higher-ups of the LP for, of all things, being a Republican. That only served to reinforce my view that political parties do more harm than good: for who cares what party a libertarian is in, as long as he is a libertarian?

The Tea Party is another entity that has out-libertarian’d the LP in the United States. They’re not a political party (yet), they have only the most basic shared ideology, and they do not call themselves libertarians; but the vast majority of what they advocate is libertarianism by the back door, slipped into public discourse without the terminology that has become so tainted by faction and party hypocrisy, such that millions of people have rallied around them and so become libertarians without even realising it.

Given all of this, then, I do not hold the idea of a Libertarian Party in the UK in quite the same hopeful regard as John Demetriou. I support them in the ways that I can, I believe in them so far, I hope they win electoral success by the bucketload, and I would vote for them if I could. But if the LPUK fails, or splits into factions, or becomes associated with fringe nutjobs, I don’t believe it will necessarily set back the cause of libertarianism. For failure, factionalism, and fringe movements are exactly what has happened to the Libertarian Party in the US, and yet libertarianism as a politico-philosophical position is more popular and more successful there now than it has been in my lifetime.

In short, I want the LPUK to enjoy tremendous electoral success while maintaining their ideological integrity. But if they don’t, well… no biggie. Libertarianism abides.

  7 Responses to “The UK Libertarian Party and libertarianism”

  1. Very clear and thoughtful posts from both yourself and John Demetriou.

    Perhaps you are right – it’s about the ideas rather than the parties. I’ve begun to think that we should consider this as a movement, perhaps a bit like the Fabians, and in that context it doesn’t matter who promotes the ideas as long as the ideas are being promoted. It helps to have a single place to rally behind, just as the Fabians had their “Labour Party”, but if that disappears, it can be replaced.

    However, I am aware that the Tea Parties are frequently attacked by the mass media. I remember it was the same during the Ron Paul campaign. Like the Tea Partiers, his supporters came up with all sorts of ways to get the ideas into the mainstream, but the media worked hard to discredit them. The associations with “Fox News” and Sarah Palin have been particularly damaging. People are unwilling to join a cause if it means being counted amongst Palin supporters and Glenn Beck fans. Paultards, tea baggers, Randroids – I often hear these insults being thrown.

    I’ve no idea what can be done about this, other than a Fabianist persistence. Time and pressure.

    • After this morning’s experience at the Big Questions, I’m starting to believe that libertarians will always be viewed as cranks by the general populace. For all that we’re accused of selfishness, we seem to be unique in that we think liberty is a necessity from which all other benefits derive, whereas other people believe liberty is a luxury to which all other benefits lead. People fear risk, and freedom involves risk – so people fear libertarians, who would permit the awareness of risk to intrude into everyone’s lives.

      I’m really leaning toward the view, these days, that libertarianism is a philosophy, not a political position, and that trying to get votes is putting the cart before the horse. We do indeed need to adopt the same methods as the Gramsco-Fabians. Once libertarianism saturates the culture, the votes will come on their own.

  2. “I would much rather see individual candidates lay out their individual views and intentions and for the voters to choose based on the merits of those individual candidates. ”

    I often wonder why politicians don’t emerge who exhibit, as I see it, the twin virtues of honesty and non-partisan spontaneity. It seems plain that the public would gravitate towards individuals who were just that; individual. It may be that this is the very trait political parties take the greatest pains to exclude from their selection process, as though the aims of a political party are somehow taken as valid de jure and the more inchoate nature of an individual inimical to party politics. It’s why politicians are like player-pianos, afraid to deviate from stock phrases and concepts approved in the sterile laboratories of the focus group. You know, like the Monty Python scene where Brian says ‘You’re all individuals’ and the assembled throng parrot ‘Yes, we’re all individuals.’ Consensual politics and resulting manifestoes will always be bland and anodyne; I think it requires the individual genius – in the sense that you, as a Latin scholar, would understand ‘genius’ – to establish politics on a local footing [which is where I think it belongs] and guide political discourse away from one-size-fits-all mundanity.

  3. But if the LPUK fails, or splits into factions, or becomes associated with fringe nutjobs, I don’t believe it will necessarily set back the cause of libertarianism.

    ‘Necessarily’, yes, you are right. However, I would suggest that a failed Libertarian Party would set back the wider movement (if there is such a thing, yet) – even if it only gives the statists and their supporters a strawman to mock.

  4. I caught up with DK’s ‘Big Questions’ appearance on the net late last night.

    I’ll do a piece on my thoughts on that this evening.


  5. […] yourself. One debate that has been really interesting is the exchange between John Demetriou and Bella Gerens over the future of the Libertarian Party. The exchange got me thinking, as a new member of LPUK […]

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