Infighting: The Libertarian National Pastime

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Baseball is America's national pastime, or so the saying goes. I can say something similar for the libertarian movement. Not a day goes by that two well-known libertarians don't have a fight on Facebook or Twitter, each accusing and condemning the other and seeking to persuade the other to leave the libertarian movement entirely. On some days, in Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other. All of these people self-define as "libertarian"!

Why does this happen? I think one explanation is that, to be a "libertarian," one must (probably) possess certain core beliefs about freedom, capitalism, etc., and have a certain attitude toward government and individual rights. The Non-Aggression Axiom is a nice summary of that attitude. But that leaves room for many positions, on many issues — which means that there are many issues about which libertarians have passionate feelings. Since core libertarian values don’t clearly define what your position on these issues should be, there are going to be many people in strong opposition, within the same tent.

In Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other.

For example, a libertarian can be pro-choice or pro-life, can be minarchist or anarchist, can be for open immigration or closed borders, can be pro-GOP or pro-LP or pro-anarchy, can be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I would even say that a libertarian can be anti-Union and pro-Confederacy (from opposition to centralized government) or anti-Confederacy and pro-Union (from opposition to slavery) — although it is curious that this quarrel is still considered relevant, more than a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

So, let's be frank. Take, for example, abortion. Pro-life people believe they are crusaders against the murder of babies. Pro-choice people believe they are crusaders for women's rights, and that the government’s taking control of a woman's body is the moral equivalent of rape. These people hate each other. But, within the big tent of libertarianism, both types of people exist, often in even numbers.

Because this issue is so important, fighting is inevitable. But note that libertarians, as a group, tend to be people who define their identity by means of their political positions. As such, libertarians will tend, not merely to argue, but to try to say that theirs is the position that should win, that it is the "one true libertarianism," that it is logically necessary from libertarian core principles (which it never is, because the core principles don't define these positions), and then kick everyone who disagrees out of the movement. To continue my example: the pro-life libertarians will accuse the pro-choice ones of being liberals who should go join the Democratic Party; in return, the pro-choice libertarians will call the pro-lifers closet conservatives who should call themselves such. And then, to each other, they will say GFY, GTFO, and other rude, insulting acronyms I only learned after spending some time on Facebook Groups.

A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom.

And do you know what I think? I think this is necessary because of the structural foundation of the libertarian position itself. Liberty specifies a few core positions and then leaves gaps and room for individuals to think through their own beliefs on each specific issue. And you know what else? I think that this is how things are always going to be, and any alternative would be no better, even though this state of affairs has some toxic consequences.

What would be better? For some master leader of the movement to choose his position and impose it on every other libertarian, so that the movement could have ideological purity and unity? A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom. And, in the absence of someone forcing everyone else to conform to one position, the diversity of positions will persist, and from them follows the necessary infighting.

But what are the toxic side effects? Libertarians can't agree on specific political issues, hence cannot rally around one candidate. If all the libertarians who are registered Republican, and all the ones who are registered Libertarian, and all sympathizers of both, could vote on one unity candidate, that might be enough votes to pose a threat to the establishment. But it can't happen, because there is too much disunity to unite around one candidate. With libertarian votes split between GOP, LP, and people who don't vote as a matter of principle, we just don't have the votes to elect our own candidates. Furthermore, constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

What is the solution to this problem? As I see it, there isn't one, and if there were it would be worse than the problem. In a free-for-all, there is fighting, and unregulated capitalism is, among many other things, a free-for-all.

Constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

But, to conclude on a note of hope, the candidacy of Trump proves that charisma is far more important for getting votes than party unity. If the Libertarian Party would nominate a candidate with great personal charisma and a cult of personality, then he or she could win the White House. If Trump can win then anyone can. But until that happens, we'll just wait on the sidelines of politics and kick one another in the teeth for disagreeing about which color of mouthwash is correct for libertarian dental hygiene. And, of course, both sides will think that the color of their mouthwash is defined by the Non-Aggression Axiom or Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul, and that they themselves are obviously correct, and that everyone else can JGTFO.




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Defying Convention

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This year’s Libertarian National Convention is indisputably the most widely covered in Party history. Walking the halls of the Rosen Centre today, you would have seen CNN reporters making video diaries with Austin Petersen; a Spike TV team filming a documentary on John McAfee; MSNBC interviewing Gary Johnson and his handpicked veep candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld; a gaggle of onlookers from ABC, CBS, and regular NBC; and an extremely bored-looking crew from Vice News that probably expected rather more sex and drugs, and rather less parliamentary procedure. And that’s just the TV folks: there’s also reporters on the ground from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, Huffington Post, FiveThirtyEight, et very much alium. All seem to agree that the event matters this year in a way it previously hasn’t, though the exact matter of that mattering is up for debate. And all those without prior experience of the LP seem a bit unsure exactly what to cover, or how.

Some, like the Vice crew, clearly came to confirm some stereotype that doesn’t reflect the actual makeup of a crowd much more inclined to policy wonkery than debauchery. (If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, guys, you should have tried the Republican Convention.) Some came to document grotesques, only to find that the most outr√© LP members—like Starchild, resplendent today in a translucent polyvinyl poncho over a black Speedo; part of his quest to encourage “transparency” in Party dealings—are also often their most erudite and well-spoken.

If you wanted coke-fueled rentboy orgies, you should have tried the Republican Convention.

Many of the reporters resorted to hanging around the back of the main ballroom, trying to wend their way through the Byzantinia of LP procedure; others wandered in a daze around the exhibit area, latching onto T-shirts with Ayn Rand’s face on them, or booths advertising some sort of holistic healing, as proof at last of the dogmatism or crackpotdom of the attendees. (Not knowing any better, they already missed the story there evident only through absence: the lack of booths devoted to the 9/11 Truth movement or other conspiracies—all those types having already jumped ship to Trump.) Most, though, bounced around campaign events for the three high-profile candidates, trying to get some sort of comment. And this is odd, because in the three conventions I’ve now covered, I can’t imagine a convention where it is less necessary to get vox spots from the mainliners, given what’s already on the public record.

Start with Petersen. He’s a fresh-faced Seth Macfarlane-looking guy, barely old enough to fulfill the constitutional requirements to serve as president. He has a stable of press-ready statements about how he is the “outsider candidate in the outsider party”—though he has worked within the LP apparatus for years now. He presents himself, especially via his personal pro-life beliefs, as the option for outreach to conservative #NeverTrump-ers—but his main method of limiting abortion would be through expanded access to contraceptives: a sensible approach, but not one likely to seduce those Catholics left unhoused by events in the GOP. In the past, he’s been goaded into boastful, callow statements by people he should handle easily; though he claims to have “grown” since then, one wonders just how much difference a year can make—and likewise, how much difference it will make to the national press, who can and will harry him with that comment should he ever become relevant.

McAfee, on the other hand, seems to be carrying out some sort of publicity stunt. I actually don’t doubt the sincerity of his beliefs—few people have seen firsthand the dangers of government like he has—but whether under his own steam or others’, he’s involved in this quest to rehabilitate his image through what must be one of the last outlets open to him. He’s a striking figure, to be sure, and even a brief talk with him provides glimpses of a rogue and roguish intellect, but given his past troubles and present unpredictability, few I’ve talked with can actually envision him as anyone’s standard bearer; even his threat to leave the Party if the “boring” Gary Johnson gets nominated is met with a resounding, “So?”

Given McAfee's past troubles and present unpredictability, few I've talked with can actually envision him as anyone's standard bearer.

Johnson is boring, don’t get me wrong, as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be. Firebranding doesn’t come naturally to him, and his stump speeches labor, as if he has to remind himself continually what emotions are, and which one he should be showing at any particular point. There are legitimate concerns about his campaign expenditures, and the percentage of funds going to consultant services or servicing past debt. (And here I note the sad lack of an R.W. Bradford to scour spreadsheets and turn up the story behind the story.) And there is an argument to be had about whether the LP can claim to be the “party of principle” when it serves as landing pad for career Republicans on the outs. But it’s evident also that Johnson must be the choice if the party wishes to take advantage of an election whose likes, God willing, we will never see again. And whatever happens here, it seems unlikely to produce the sort of recrimination or schismatic bluster of the 2008 convention.

All the media I’ve talked to without prior LP familiarity are confused by the idea that Johnson wouldn’t be the nominee—after all, why wouldn’t you want the person clearly best positioned to maximize your returns in this cycle? But they underestimate another libertarian stereotype, one more deeply grounded: that inherent anti-authority stance, the perversely impish bird-flipping to anyone or anything telling them what to do, even (or especially) if it’s in their best interest. In Orlando, you can see this most clearly in the response to Weld, whose VP candidacy is under fire from Petersen and others wondering why the Libertarian newcomer didn’t endorse Johnson this time or last. Johnson’s reply, that Weld was “the original libertarian,” was met with the scorn it deserved; even if the ex-New Mexico Gov. gets nominated, it may be without his fellow gubernatorial alumnus. Catchphrases like “taxation is theft” clunk off Weld’s tongue, and he was vastly outperformed in the evening’s VP debate, by black veteran Larry Sharpe in particular—though Weld did still take the straw poll after; much of the drama of this convention could well cohere in the vice-presidential election.

Johnson is as boring as an Everest-climbing pot baron can possibly be.

Enough about them, though. In Party news of actual note, if there were any GOP takeover on the cards, it proved abortive on the day. The Radical Caucus was in full force at the bylaws and platform meetings, with several members patrolling the ballroom aisles with neon lightsabers and signs emblazoned with thumbs—if the caucus supported a motion, the sabers glowed green and the thumbs turned up; if not, then a red gleam and thumbs down. Their biggest success on the day was defeating an effort to delete the “personal conscience” abortion plank in the LP platform—led, many suspected, by Republican refugees, although there was also a group seeking to delete that plank in order to replace it with one more explicitly supporting a pro-choice position. The assembly also rejected the addition of “Parental Responsibilities” to the “Parental Rights” plank. While one would hope that very few attendees would speak for the rights of parents to abuse or neglect their children (or as one speaker put it, to prostitute their 2-year-olds and give them heroin), the plank itself was considered too vague, with even such words as “child” lacking a clearly delineated, legally valid meaning.

Platforming and electioneering, and Liberty’s coverage of it all both here and on Twitter will continue on the morrow.



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Election 2014: The Ballot Measures

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Libertarians should take encouragement from some of the ballot measures in the Nov. 4 election:

Medical freedom

Arizona voters passed Proposition 303, which seeks to allow patients with terminal illnesses to buy drugs that have passed Phase 1 (basic safety) trials but are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

To libertarians, this is an old and familiar cause and one in which it is easy to find allies if people are paying attention, which most times they are not. The movie Dallas Buyers Club provided an opening, and this year legislatures in Colorado, Missouri and Louisiana passed what are now called “Dallas Buyers Club” laws. In Arizona, the cause was promoted by the Goldwater Institute.

Opponents have said that such laws will give many terminal patients false hope, which is surely true. But it is better to give 90% false hope if 10% (or some other small share) obtain real benefit, if the alternative is an egalitarian world of no hope for all. And it ought to be the patient’s decision anyway.

What the FDA will do about the “Dallas Buyers Club” laws is a question; as with marijuana, the matter is covered by a federal law, if one of questionable constitutionality. At the very least the Arizona vote, a whopping 78% yes, should give other states, and eventually Congress, a political shove in favor of freedom.

Marijuana

Legalization measures were first passed in 2012 by the voters of Colorado and Washington (the two states that had the Libertarian Party on the ballot in 1972). They have been followed this year by the voters of Alaska, which passed Measure 2 with 52%; Oregon, which passed Measure 91 with 55%; and the District of Columbia, which passed a decriminalization measure, Initiative 71, with 65% yes.

Alaska and Oregon were early supporters of marijuana for medical patients, as were Colorado and Washington. When the opponents say medical marijuana is a stalking horse for full legalization, they are right. It is — which means that more states will join Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado.

On Nov. 4 Florida rejected medical marijuana, but only because it required a 60% yes vote. Florida Amendment 2 had nearly 58%.

Taxes

In Massachusetts, which several decades ago was labeled “taxachusetts,” voters approved Question 1, which repeals the automatic increases of the gas tax pegged to the Consumer Price Index.

In Tennessee, Amendment 3, forbidding the legislature from taxing most personal income, passed with a 66% yes vote. Tennessee is one of the nine states with no general income tax, though it does have a 6% tax on interest and dividends, which will continue.

In Nevada, 79% of voters rejected Question 3, to create a 2% tax on adjusted business revenue above $1 million. Proponents called it “The Education Initiative” because the money was to be spent on public schools; opponents called it “The Margin Tax Initiative.” The measure was put on the ballot with the help of the Nevada branch of the AFL-CIO, which then changed its mind and opposed it. Good for them; most people and organizations in politics never admit of making a mistake.

Debt

In Oregon, Measure 86 would have created a fund for scholarship grants through the sale of state bonds. The measure was put on the ballot by Oregon’s Democratic legislature and supported by the education lobby. It was opposed by the founder of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute and by the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, because of the likely increase in public debt. It also would have allowed the legislature to dip into the fund for general spending if the governor declared an emergency. In this “blue” state, the measure failed: 59% no.

Regulation

In Massachusetts, which has had mandatory bottle deposits on carbonated beverages since 1982, voters rejected Question 2, an initiative to extend the bottle law to sports drinks, juices, tea and bottled water (but not juice boxes). The vote was a landslide: 73% no.

Abortion

Libertarians are divided on abortion, depending on whether they consider a fetus to be a person. Voters in Colorado rejected Amendment 67, which would have defined an embryo or fetus as a “person” or “child” under state criminal law. The vote was 64% no.

In North Dakota, a “right to life” amendment the state legislature put on the ballot as Measure 1 was rejected, also 64% no.

In Tennessee, voters approved Amendment 1, which asserts state control over abortion but would leave to the legislature what sort of control it would be. Opponents called it the “Tennessee Taliban Amendment.” It got 53% of the vote.

All of these measures are probably symbolic only, because the question has been coopted by the U.S. Supreme Court under Roe v. Wade and later decisions. Still, symbolism can matter.

Alcohol

In Arkansas, where about half the counties are dry, Issue 4 would have opened the entire state to alcohol sales. It failed, with 57% voting no. That’s a loss for freedom if a gain for federalism.

Guns

Washington voters passed Initiative 594 to require background checks for sales of guns by non-dealers. The measure was bankrolled by Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and a liberal Seattle venture capitalist and given an emotional push by shootings at a nearby high school. Washington remains a concealed-carry state.

Minimum wage

Politically, this is a lost issue for libertarians. On Nov. 4, Arkansas voted to raise its minimum from $7.25 (the federal minimum) to $8.50 by 2017; Alaska, to raise its minimum from $7.75 to $9.75 by 2016, and index it to inflation; Nebraska, to raise it from $7.25 to $9 by 2016, and South Dakota, to raise it from $7.25 to $8.50 by 2015, then index it. These measures passed by 65% in Arkansas, 69% in Alaska, 59% in Nebraska and 54% in South Dakota.

In Massachusetts, voters approved Question 4, mandating paid sick days in private business. The yes vote was 59%.

Governance

In Oregon, voters rejected the sort of “top two” election system operating in neighboring Washington. In that system, anyone can file in the primary and declare their party allegiance, and the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party, advance to the November election, which becomes a run-off. California has a similar system. Little parties like the Libertarian Party hate it, because it keeps them off the November ballot except in some one-party districts.

Oregon voters were offered a top-two system in 2008 and voted 66% against it. This time, for Measure 90, they voted 68% against it.




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The Politics of Yes

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President Barack Obama’s victory was secured by a politics of yes. Telling voters yes is essential to victory since most voters do not like to be told no. The key to political victory is figuring out how to tell the most people yes and the fewest people no. The president secured a second term by successfully employing this strategy.

There are two groups of voters that gave him a second term: women and Latino voters. Women voters do not want to be told no when it comes to their bodies. What put women voters in the president’s camp was such social issues as abortion. As long as abortion is put in terms of women’s health and rights, Republicans will not be able to capture a large enough portion of independent women voters in swing states to win the White House. The Republicans have three options: (1) adopt a pro-choice stance, (2) let the issue fade into the background so that it no longer plays a pivotal role, (3) reframe the debate over abortion from a woman’s health issue to a fetal health issue.

The first option will not, and perhaps should not, happen. Option number three will be a difficult maneuver and may prove too nuanced to change anyone’s mind. This leaves option number two as the only good option for capturing the votes of women who voted for President Obama because of the Republican stance on abortion. At a minimum, though, Republicans need to do a better job of keeping people like Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri from making inane comments on the topic.

Latino voters, either in fact or in rhetoric, were told yes by Democrats and no by Republicans. Whether it was Arizona’s controversial immigration law SB 1070 or Mitt Romney’s policy of self-deportation, Latino voters saw the Republican Party telling them, “We don’t want you here.” Rick Perry was crushed by the Right during the primary season for his decision as Texas governor to support a bill that would offer in-state tuition to some undocumented students. In other words, when a Republican tried to say yes to the Latino community, the base of the Republican Party turned against him.

Latino voters understood the Republican Party to be telling them no, which is why they went with the president by a 75-23 margin nationally. In an up for grabs Colorado they went his way by a margin of 87 to 10; in Ohio by 82 to 17. Just as with women voters, the GOP needs to find a way to appeal to Latino voters by either changing its stance on controversial issues, emphasizing new issues that may appeal to Latino voters, or reframing the existing debate. The most effective and consistent strategy would be for Republicans to find issues about which their ideas align with the Latino-voting population and push those to the center of the debate.

The evidence is clear; voters want to be told yes. Colorado voters want to be told that, yes, they may smoke what they want, while Maine and Maryland voters want to be told that, yes, they may marry whomever they choose. Victory in 2012 went to the party that told more people yes and fewer people no. The point is not which party has policies that are better for the country, but it is about which party makes voters feel as if they were being told yes.

For those who care about the quality of the proposals this is problematic in that there is no assessment of what is good but only what is politically expedient. Some ideas that are good are not expedient. This is an inherent problem with popular government. James Madison, the author of The Federalist No. 10, knew this to be true, which is why he argued for a republican form of government rather than a democracy: only within a republic where power is divided horizontally and vertically can the capricious nature of the electorate be tempered. Perhaps the safeguards have eroded over time or they were insufficient to begin with, but it appears that Madison's “factions” have found a welcome home within the American political process.

Nobody wants to hear that it is in the nation's best interest, or in the best interest of liberty, to let an industry go bankrupt, to let housing prices fall, or to tell retired people that their financial stability is not the government's responsibility. What most voters want to hear, according to what happened on November 6, is that when we need help we should ask the government and the government should always pronounce a resounding yes!




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