Steve G.

Why Libertarians should avoid the ‘conservative’ label – and the ‘liberal’ label, too

In Libertarian on August 5, 2008 at 6:32 am

I listened to the last ten minutes or so of an interview with Thomas Frank last night:

He’s a bit annoying, but if you can stand to listen to him, there’s an important message for Libertarians here. He points out that, despite the fact that many *conservatives* are good and decent people who really do believe in making government smaller and less intrusive, the Conservative political movement has *never* been about those things. From the introduction to his book:

Fantastic misgovernment of the kind we have seen is not an accident, nor is it the work of a few bad individuals. It is the consequence of triumph by a particular philosophy of government, by a movement that understands the liberal state as a perversion and considers the market the ideal nexus of human society. This movement is friendly to industry not just by force of campaign contributions but by conviction; it believes in entrepreneurship not merely in commerce but in politics; and the inevitable results of its ascendance are, first, the capture of the state by business and, second, all that follows: incompetence, graft, and all the other wretched flotsam that we’ve come to expect from Washington.

His thesis – and I agree with him – is that Conservatism as a political movement isn’t so much about laissez-faire as it is about enlisting government on the side of business. By yielding to the temptation – and it’s a powerful one – to get a few more votes in any particular race by painting ourselves (or perhaps worse, allowing ourselves to be painted) as ‘true conservatives’, we Libertarians deeply alienate the people who see easily the naked emperor of corporate greed through the curtain of ‘constitutional conservatism’.

We also put ourselves at the REAR of a movement that is clearly at outs with perhaps the majority of the population, and certainly with the majority of youthful idealists that we must set ourselves to attract in the next decade. Our party becomes a refuge for ‘true conservative’ politicians who either can’t get elected as Republicans or (to their credit) can no longer stomach the Republican Party. We get branded as yet another “Party of Big Business” without even getting any of the money that flows so easily to both Republicans and Democrats from big business. That’s a rotten deal! And what do we gain? Not as many votes as we might expect – because as flawed a vehicle as it may be for conservative values, the Republican Party does have the thing that most conservatives really crave – political power. The Libertarian Party simply cannot offer that to voters at present, so to stay with us people need to have a strong ideological commitment and belief that real change is possible – and a reasonably long time-horizon for change. So we’ll get perhaps a few votes from disaffected conservatives looking to punish their home party or a few recruits who (again, to their credit) can no longer believe that the Republican Party shares their values. The new folks are welcome, and we should work hard to help those who can make the transition from ideological conservatism to libertarianism. But for many the gulf will be too wide to leap, because conservatism really isn’t about individual freedom. It’s about better government, not self government.

And, yes, the same criticisms and observations apply to liberalism or ‘progressivism’ (as understood in current American politics). However, at this moment the conservative movement is on the ‘outs’ in American politics. Perhaps not coincidentally, as we political Libertarians seem to have a talent for catching a wave after it’s broken, the Libertarian Party is (arguably) fully embracing the conservative label at the national level at least. If we simply wanted to jump in front of the biggest and bestest parade, calling ourselves ‘progressive’ would seem to make more sense than calling libertarianism ‘conservative’.

This tension between libertarianism and conservatism plays out large and small. At the national level, the obvious example is Bob Barr. Whether he is an example of the first sort of conservative described above (washed-up Republican politician) or the second (deeply disaffected Republican), or some combination, is irrelevant. The fact is that Barr consistently sells himself as a ‘true conservative’ and is consciously targeting voters who find John McCain too ‘liberal’. Whether he does this out of conviction or because it makes using his old fundraising lists a more attractive proposition, is again irrelevant. Already we see the weakness of this strategy – Barr is simply “McCain’s Nader” to the media. When given a chance and when isolated from fawning uber-conservatives, Barr can do a decent job of representing the libertarian position on many issues. But he will always stick at ‘conservative values’. It’s not the state’s interference in abortion or drug rights that Barr is fighting – it’s simply the federal government’s attempts to control state governments that he objects to. Since when is THAT a libertarian value? Sure, smaller, more local governments are better than a federal behemoth, and almost any Libertarian would say so. But the NEXT words out of his mouth damn well ought to be “And those smaller, more local governments MUST place individual rights at a premium.” Barr consistently fails this test, even acknowledging that he would vote against individual rights in his state, in order to further his ‘conservative values’.

But even at the local level, the flailing conservative movement is pressuring the Libertarian Party to help carry its guttering torch. In my own home district where I am running for State House, for example, there is no Republican candidate against the Democratic incumbent. So naturally I have been approached by Republicans who want my campaign to stand for conservatism against my opponent’s liberalism. These are almost universally fine and dedicated people, strong in their beliefs and welcoming to me personally and (as they see it) as a ‘fellow conservative’. I like them. I want their help in spreading my message. I want them to embrace – fully – the ideals of freedom which keep me so engaged. It is incredibly tempting to simply go along with their understanding of me as a ‘fellow conservative’. Tempting and simple. After all, I just need to avoid the ares where we disagree – the death penalty, immigration, drug legalization, to name a few – and stick to the areas where we agree. The trouble is that these issues are important to me – and, more than that – they’re a big part of what it means to be L/libertarian. What good do I do – myself or them – by collecting a few votes and failing to shake them from their comfortable notions that Libertarians are just too-trusting conservatives who think the proles should be allowed to have actual opiates, rather than just religion, as their opiate?

So whose votes – and whose loyalty – do we get by sticking to the term – and the ideas behind the term – ‘libertarianism’? The answer sounds tautologous, but here it is: libertarians, of course! Whenever I talk to 25 people in one room, perhaps as many as 23 or 24 will have decided that they are ‘conservatives’ or ‘liberals’ – and I can try to get the votes of either group by carefully casting my message to suit the audience. Of course people are not generally stupid, and a closer examination should reveal to them that I’m not really either ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’. But say several of them, for one reason or another, accept me as ‘conservative enough’ and vote for me on that basis. Their votes will not win me the election, and their interest in me – and whatever message they thought they heard from me – will quickly fade. They’ve delivered their ‘message’. But what about the one or two folks I didn’t account for above? Those are the libertarians – those who value individual freedom as a governing principle. They may not call themselves libertarian, and they may not be completely libertarian – but the germ of the idea is there. And they care! There’s nothing that moves humans to greater passion than the longing for and love of freedom. It’s pure oxygen, waiting for a spark to ignite it. If I’m carefully selling myself as a ‘conservative’, they hear blah-blah-more-of-the-same, the oxygen gets sucked out of the room, and they then associate “Libertarian” with “Republican Lite”. If I stand up and actually SAY what I mean by ‘libertarian’ and the conditions are right, the spark falls, the oxygen ignites, and another passionate activist for freedom is found. He may simply vote. He may – at that time or later – become active in the libertarian movement. But he’ll know he’s not alone, and he will know there is a mechanism – several, many! – for him to help move the freedom movement forward. And he will – finally! – actually be represented by someone he chooses to cast a vote for.

That is, incidentally – and I was not thinking of it when I started this bit of writing – the effect that hearing Ron Paul (in that room of about 25 people) had on me back in ’88. I’d like to think that Bob Barr is having that same effect on at least some folks, but I am not confident that is the case. In my campaign, though, that is what I will aim at. I will ‘preach to the choir’, because so many of the choir members don’t even yet know that they can sing.

  1. Susan, a thoughtful column. My two cents is that Libertarian vote totals reflect what the voters think a Libertarian is, not what any particular candidate says that could be labeled progressive, conservative or liberal. I think the LP has not done a good job over the years in educating the American public on libertarian values; this leads to our candidates always trying to appeal to values their audience may already hold. Surely in 36 years the LP has had candidates using all sorts of appeals – from anarchist to left libertarian – and should know by now which works and which doesn’t.

  2. Cripes, Roscoe. You put me to shame! I took 1500ish words to say what you put so well into one sentence:

    “I think the LP has not done a good job over the years in educating the American public on libertarian values; this leads to our candidates always trying to appeal to values their audience may already hold.”

    BINGO!

  3. What Susan Hogarth has provided for us, whether longer than necessary or not (I don’t believe that it is), is a strong basis for the existence of the Libertarian Party.

    Many of us (myself included) have made some of the points which Susan has very eloquently detailed here, and Susan has made some points which have NOT been made here as well. Thank you Susan for putting it all together, and writing it for all to see.

    What I take from this article is that, trying to reinvent the LP as a “regular” political party, like the Dems and GOP is a mistaken strategy. True enough, Barr CAN and has, as a conservative make libertarian arguments from time to time, but his emphasis on disaffected conservatives voters, and vote totals over principle, (49.7% (324 of 652) of the Denver delegates bought into this strategy) will largely be a failure in promoting, educating and significantly moving the political debate toward libertarianism.

  4. All successful politicians seek to appeal to values their audience already holds, and claim to represent those values. When believed, they get the votes, when not believed, they don’t. By successful, of course, I mean the ones who win elections.

    Given the percentages Susan indicates in her essay, of 23 or 24 out of 25 holding progressive or conservative views, and only one or two being libertarian, it is then no surprise that the Libertarian Party candidate doesn’t win election. Which is, of course, not the point of running a libertarian campaign.

    The point of running a libertarian campaign is to take a stand for freedom. A candidate with a consistent libertarian message is very unlikely to win election, but is very likely to influence the minds in the room. Which is itself a blessing.

    The difficulty of being a sincere and consistent libertarian and running a campaign that emphasises only those parts of the platform one thinks would work for the majority of voters in one’s district is simply the highly tuned bullsh!t detectors that Americans have developed. Insincerity is detected. Hypocrisy is detected. People aren’t going to believe that a committed libertarian is a progressive nor are they going to believe she is a conservative. So, again there won’t be a victory. But, the effectiveness of that candidate in educating the remnant who are liberty enthusiastic is also destroyed.

    Finally, there is the insincere and inconsistent candidate who picks the libertarian label because, conveniently, there are dozens of effective libertarians willing to work to put libertarian candidates on the ballot. Barr seems to me to be such a person, not a libertarian at all, but simply exploiting the party for its ballot access, and maybe picking up its mailing list from the headquarters staff. “At a price, Ugati. At a price.”

    “But am I so vile, providing a service at a price less than is charged by the Prefect of Police?”

    “It isn’t a parasite that I object to, Ugati, it is a cut rate one.”

    Well, you can get the exact dialog off any “Casablanca” fan site. My point is, parasitizing the LP to get ballot access also won’t get the candidate past the BS detectors of the voters. So, again, no win is going to happen.

    The insincere candidate who isn’t a libertarian won’t succeed by posturing as a libertarian. The committed libertarian candidate won’t succeed by posturing as a conservative, progressive, or anything else.

    And while the committed libertarian candidate who addresses the public sincerely may not win election, either, at least that person is understood, has the opportunity to educate, and has the virtue of being true to herself.

    The only question remaining is: what value is there to being a candidate delivering the libertarian message without any significant prospect of winning election? I happen to think that there are a great many things that can be accomplished in this sphere of activity. Or I wouldn’t be here.

    One reliable fact is: every four years Americans pay an inordinate amount of time thinking about politics. If, during that window, we can get them to think about liberty, as well, some of them may come over from the dark side.

  5. Jim writes:

    “The difficulty of being a sincere and consistent libertarian and running a campaign that emphasises only those parts of the platform one thinks would work for the majority of voters in one’s district is simply the highly tuned bullsh!t detectors that Americans have developed. Insincerity is detected. Hypocrisy is detected. People aren’t going to believe that a committed libertarian is a progressive nor are they going to believe she is a conservative. So, again there won’t be a victory. But, the effectiveness of that candidate in educating the remnant who are liberty enthusiastic is also destroyed.”

    Another BINGO.

  6. Jim has stated the essential reason Nolan gave way back in 1971 in making his case for a Libertarian Party: use the soap box afforded candidates to advocate ideas of Liberty.

    The LP should use its vote totals to measure progress toward
    Americans adopting the liberty message. If the trend is higher, then we are doing great – if we are staying on message. Unfortunately, some candidates go off message and do well at the polls. We should treat this as an aberration, not as a reason to continue off message with the next candidate. While it is well-known in politics that votes are counted and not weighed, the LP should always be “weighing” its totals to see if the voting public is really adopting our liberty message or just responding to a pretty face or strong personality that has merely told them what they wanted to hear as a conservative or a liberal or etc.

  7. But he will always stick at ‘conservative values’. It’s not the state’s interference in abortion or drug rights that Barr is fighting – it’s simply the federal government’s attempts to control state governments that he objects to. Since when is THAT a libertarian value? Sure, smaller, more local governments are better than a federal behemoth, and almost any Libertarian would say so. But the NEXT words out of his mouth damn well ought to be “And those smaller, more local governments MUST place individual rights at a premium.” Barr consistently fails this test, even acknowledging that he would vote against individual rights in his state, in order to further his ‘conservative values’.

    The counterargument is that, as a federal candidate, we need not worry what he thinks of local and state issues.

    Problems with the counterargument:

    1. Technical. Congress is in effect DC’s legislature, and the potus signs or vetoes acts of congress.

    2. More importantly, however: Barr is rather unlikely to win, so what we are concerned about is not so much what he will do in office or its jurisdictional boundaries, as it is what overarching message of libertarianism he projects to the larger public.

    Decentralization of government power to a more local level is a strategy which can aid in the achievement of liberty, but it is not the whole of liberty or its essence.

    The presidential candidate defines, in many people’s minds, what libertarianism is. It would be a shame if the picture after this year is that it is defined as getting the federal government to stop interfering with States Rights to impose their own tyranny.

    If that becomes the overwhelmingly accepted definition of libertarianism, no true libertarian can effectively continue to use the word in self-description without confusing most listeners. If we must deal with that level of confusion, we may as well call ourselves liberals, especially now that progressives have largely run away from that term.

  8. From http://essentiallibertarian.blogspot.com/ . . .

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008
    A steaming plate of . . . lasagne?

    I just ran across a presentation by a Libertarian from Oregon, who said “Politicians are the members of the organization who make change comfortable to the average voter”.

    Over and over, this is what it boils down to – we must make voters comfortable with change, otherwise they are not going to vote for change. They will continue to vote for what they know, what they are comfortable with.

    What makes them feel safe.

    We’ve all heard it, “better the devil you know, ????”

  9. Conservatives and liberals would LOVE to kill the word libertarian and excise it from reality. It’s already being watered down in dictionaries from radicals for freedom to people who just want more freedom. There is no such thing as a conservative or liberal libertarian. There are just conservatives and liberals who are fairly libertarian on selected issues.

  10. I suppose some people probably consider me an annoyance and a nag because I complain frequently about the lack of public relations. Well good for them, because I will continue to be so until such time as we, that is the LP, does develop a public relations program.

    It has long been my believe, at least since I was a candidate in the ’80s that we needed to do a better job of getting the message out. Until we do get that message out we will be identified as another group, regardless of what it is known as presently such as the conservatives. Quite frankly our candidates and those planning to be candidates should demand that we do a better job. I have again long believed that the party needs to do both outreach to existing libertarians and improve our public relations to the general public during the off years and bring those two efforts together to provide support for the candidates during election years.

    BTW someone once asked me if I wasn’t a communist because of what I believed.

    MHW

  11. Roscoe, I think that’s correct. We do know that people spend a fabulous amount of time every four years focused on politics. Thus, there is some reason to suppose they might learn a thing or two during that window. And a smaller chance every two years.

    Yes, the vote totals for the libertarians are a way of measuring our success at getting our ideas across. That is an excellent thought, thank you for posting it.

  12. SH: His thesis – and I agree with him – is that Conservatism as a political movement isn’t so much about laissez-faire as it is about enlisting government on the side of business.

    BC: I’m not sure there IS a “conservative movement.” There are elements of people who are conservative who are corporatist, I agree. Some — maybe most — are not.

    Depending on the situation, I might explain to some that libertarians are somewhat “conservative” on economics, somewhat “liberal” on social issues, and are generally anti-war. Liberty is the root word for libertarian, so we believe in maximizing liberty for all.

    I prefer to persuade by first finding common ground, and then addressing the many “what ifs.” Others prefer to challenge by holding high the banner. It’s all good.

  13. I don’t agree with your headline, Susan.

    While we’re not conservatives (and should reject that label), we are liberals. The Libertarian Party is the liberal party in American politics. The Republicans are the conservative party, and the Democrats are the socialist party.

    Some prefer “classical liberal,” but that’s just muddying the waters. The LP is the liberal party, in that we oppose government power as a dictate and prefer that individuals make their own choices about their own lives, freed from the interference of the state. We choose not to interfere in any of the decisions they make.

    Conservatives believe in the maintenance and growth of “traditional” state powers, while socialists believe in the creation and sustaining of new powers for government, both “for the common good.”

    Liberals believe in the power of the free market and the wisdom of individual choice. That’s why individuals and groups who oppose government central planning (and UN central planning) in non-western countries are so despised by the planning directorates and referred to as “neo-liberals.”

  14. I don’t disagree with Brian, but I prefer to say that the LP is the libertarian party. To say it’s the “liberal” or even “classical liberal” has too much baggage for the general public, IMO. To say the LP is “liberal” = the LP is for MORE government in the contemporary nomenclature.

    Poor positioning.

    Language changes, for good or ill. Rather than fight rearguard actions over language, why not fight over substance?

  15. I like to say Libertarians are both conservative and liberal — and neither.

    BRIAN IRVING
    Libertarian / NC Senate 17
    LibertyPoint.org
    ****************************************************************************
    I support reducing the size, scope and power of government at all levels and on all issues, and oppose increasing the size, scope and power of government at any level, for any purpose.

  16. Robert Capozzi on August 6, 2008 at 8:22 am

    Depending on the situation, I might explain to some that libertarians are somewhat “conservative” on economics, somewhat “liberal” on social issues, and are generally anti-war

    I thoroughly dislike this characterization. It puts “conservative” and “liberal” in a position of “primary” belief systems. Unless libertarianism is equated with liberalism, this making liberal and conservative primary is entirely wrong. Liberty, or a complete lack thereof, i.e. slavery are the primary polar opposite concepts of any relation of individuals with coercive authority. Thus, the PRIMARY concepts of the relation of the individual vs coercive authority is “libertarianism” and “authoritarianism”.

    Conservatism, and liberalism of the modern variety rip out pieces of libertarianism for themselves. It is not, I repeat NOT the other way around, that libertarianism is part conservative and part “liberal”.

    Until and unless libertarians frame political positions and discussion in these terms, I believe that our movement will go NOWHERE! I believe that libertarians, at the very least must cease framing libertarianism as part conservative and part liberal. It relegates libertarians to being kooks who “take” what they want from the various forms of statist belief.

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