There exist, among libertarians who support the existence of the Libertarian Party, two quite different views as to its purpose. According to one, the party exists to gain political power by winning elections; it differs from other parties only in wishing to use that power to eliminate or drastically shrink government. This seems to be the dominant view at party conventions, at least the ones I have attended. While I have not yet heard a libertarian presidential nominee predict victory, several have given the impression that it is only a few elections away.
One difficulty with this strategy is that it may be inconsistent with the internal dynamic of political parties. Before asking whether a libertarian party can win elections, one should first ask why the Libertarian Party is libertarian and under what circumstances it will or will not continue to be libertarian.
A party is not a person. It does not have beliefs; it cannot be persuaded by philosophical arguments. To say that a party holds certain views is an abbreviated way of describing the outcome of the internal political processes of that party, the processes that determine what positions are published as the party’s platform and, often more important, what positions are pushed by the party’s candidates and acted upon if they gain office.
A libertarian rejects the idea that simply because the government says it exists for the general good, it actually acts that way. He should equally reject the idea that a party that is named ‘Libertarian’ will automatically continue to advance libertarian positions. To understand what either a government or a political party will do we ought to start by assuming that the individuals within the organization rationally pursue their own ends, selfish or otherwise, and then try to predict from that assumption how the organization will act.
A political party, in order to campaign or even to exist, requires resources. It gets them in two different ways. It receives donations of money and labor from people who want it to succeed because they support its ideology; when a party first starts, that may be all it has. But once it becomes large enough to win, or at least affect, elections, a party also acquires political assets with a substantial market value. The political game is played for control over the collection and expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Even a relatively weak player in that game—a party, let us say, that gets five or ten percent of the votes in a national election and holds a few seats in Congress—has favors to dispense worth quite a lot of money.
A political party is driven by two objectives. It wishes to proclaim positions and take actions that appeal to its ideological supporters. But it also wishes to attract as many votes as possible in order to maximize its political assets. Having attracted these votes it wishes to act in such a way as to maximize its long-run income. On some issues these objectives may prove to be consistent. On others they will not.
When I say that a party wishes something, I am again employing a convenient abbreviation. Consider a small ideological party such as the Libertarian Party. Initially, all it has to offer to potential workers, officers, or candidates is the opportunity to achieve their ideological objectives. As long as that is true, its members, officers, and candidates continue to be people whose main objective is ideological and the party continues to ‘believe in’ libertarianism.
Suppose the party begins to win elections. It occurs to some people that positions of power within the party may, in the long run, be worth quite a lot of money. Some of the people to whom this occurs may be nonideological and willing to proclaim any ideology they find convenient. Others may be vaguely libertarian but with a greater commitment to their short-run private objectives than to their long-run public ones. What these people have in common is their willingness to make a profession of gaining power within the party. In the long run, in the struggle for power, professionals will beat amateurs. It is as certain as anything can be in politics that once a party achieves substantial political power it will eventually swing towards a policy in which ideology is a means, perhaps an important means, not an end. It will become a vote- and income-maximizing party, taking positions dictated by its ideology when that seems the best way of getting votes or the volunteer labor and money it requires in order to get votes and taking actions inconsistent with its ideology when such actions yield the party a net profit, in votes or dollars. We already have two parties like that; I see no advantage to having a third.
I began this essay by saying that libertarians who support the existence of the Libertarian Party hold two different views concerning its function. If the purpose of the party is not to put libertarians in office, what is it?
I believe the answer is that we should learn from our enemies; we should imitate the strategy of the Socialist party of the early Twentieth Century. Its presidential vote never reached a million but it may have been the most successful political party in American history. It never gained control over anything larger than the city of Milwaukee but it succeeded in enacting into law virtually every economic proposal in its 1928 platform, a list of radical proposals ranging from minimum wages to social security.
We should regard politics not as a means of gaining power but as a means of spreading ideas. That does not mean we should never win an election—a libertarian in Congress, even in a state legislature, might get a lot of attention for libertarian ideas. But we should regard winning an occasional election only as a means, a publicity stunt if you will, never an end. As long as our objective remains ideological we will not have to worry about winning very many elections.
As our ideas spread they will bring votes for libertarian ideas but not necessarily for the Libertarian Party. We can trust the other parties to adopt whichever parts of our platform are most popular, leaving us with the difficult task of getting votes for a party differentiated from the others precisely by those libertarian positions that most of the voters have not yet accepted.
If this strategy is successful it will, in the long run, self-destruct. If we are sufficiently successful in spreading libertarian ideas, eventually even a consistent libertarian will be able to get elected. When that begins to happen, the Libertarian Party will finally become a major party—and promptly begin to pursue votes instead of libertarianism. The transition may be a little difficult to recognize, however, since at that point pursuing libertarianism will finally have become the best way of getting votes. It is a defeat we should all look forward to.
More realistically, the Libertarian Party can be expected to go the way of other parties long before the population is entirely converted to libertarianism; even a minor party has valuable favors to sell. That is no reason not to support it. Very few things last forever; if the Libertarian Party does something to spread libertarian ideas for another decade or two before succumbing to the temptations of politics, that is a good enough reason to work for it. A container may be worth producing even if its ultimate destiny is to be thrown away.
When this essay was first written it was an exercise in pure speculation, the application of public choice theory to the Libertarian Party. Some years later, part of my analysis was confirmed by a minor scandal within the Libertarian Party. The story as I heard it was that a Libertarian candidate for state office had accepted a substantial amount of money from his Democratic rival and used it to run a campaign apparently designed to draw conservative votes away from the Republican candidate.