Why I failed to be Libertarian, and why we still need a better way

In recent posts, I’ve been discussing the idea many of my friends and family have–one I truly would like to be able to support–that supporting the Libertarian Party is the best response to the fecklessness of the GOP against both the lunacy of a corrupt, fascistic Reality TV showman’s con game and the brazen lawlessness of the Party of Death. I cannot disagree at all, and do not want to disagree, with their rejection of these false alternatives.

But it is impossible to ignore the fact that the Libertarian Party platform does now, and has as long as I’ve known of the Libertarian Party, specifically call for the legal protection of the slaughter of unborn babies.

I’ve discussed my evolving response to “least-worst” political choice scenarios:

  1. Always advocate the top-shelf good, that is, call for and demand just action on the highest priority issue for which you are able to articulate some proximate just action, some corrective to evil that promotes the common good, in the near term.
  2. When apparently stymied on top-shelf issues, then advocate a temporary and tentative settlement for a “least-worst” if and only if the approach, person, or party you settle for does not advocate against the top-shelf good (or for intrinsic evil).

And I’ve discussed the philosophical appeal of libertarianism, and its fatal flaws, concluding:

Because I believe that humans must be governed according to their natures, I cannot subscribe to the metaphysical nonsense that is adduced to justify Libertarian Party libertarianism.

This leaves me with two points yet to cover: party politics and pragmatism.

  • Libertarianism has appeal as an alternative to typical partisan politics, and in fact positions itself precisely as the refutation to the nonsensical “If you don’t vote for Donkey One you support Elephant Two” zero-sum game.
  • Libertarianism also appeals to our desire for a pragmatic response to a rapid and disastrous slide into fascism in our society, to an ideological and bureaucratic focus on the utterly isolated and atomized individual made naked in every department of life to the unrestricted surveilling and intervening regime.

Party Politics

Most of us are sick of the foolish zero-sum arguments that cynics and zealots use to browbeat us into decisions based on partisan interests that do not reflect our own interest, such as protecting basic human dignity or having authentic opportunities to earn a living from honest work.  “A vote for [better but less “electable” candidate] is a vote for [unacceptable opposition]” or “if you don’t vote for [unacceptable candidate], you’re voting for [unacceptable opposition]” is the kind of crass consequentialism that we ought to reject, not only because it is practically wrong but because it suborns our reason in service of ends unworthy of the name.

Backing the Libertarian Party seems to be–is intentionally positioned to be–a practical way to reject this meretricious rhetoric.  And I agree that this is actually possible, insofar as one is merely registering a protest vote, that is, casting a vote for a candidate that cannot win in order to add one more vote on the record as having been cast against another candidate–in this case, both the donkey and the elephant candidate.  It can matter in some sense that you vote in a national race for the Reform Party, the Green Party, the Constitution Party, or the Libertarian Party, but it is has for many decades been unlikely to affect the outcome of the election (except in rare instances where third-party candidates bled support from those who would usually be part of their coalition, improving the odds that their more profound opposition would win).

Further, backing a viable third party–one that could at least reliably spoil one or another party’s chances–can seem like a durable way to weaken the two-party system, thus substantively and consequentially rejecting the binary logic partisans try to impose.  Most attractively, being part of the smaller and narrower coalition that founds a party does actually offer greater hope that one’s preferred changes can be made.  I certainly see the appeal of that!

We are beset with problems, however, in using this logic to justify actually supporting the Libertarian Party, rather than considering it a protest-vote option precisely insofar as it cannot win.

First, if the Libertarian Party does become a viable party while maintaining its present platform and philosophy, then there would be no obvious difference between the party-politics argument in favor of this objectionable compromise choice and another objectionable compromise choice.  I can and do reject the argument that I have to support whatever the GOP puts forward, merely because a Democrat is going to be worse; but then why ought I support a Libertarian Party candidate that is even worse on a top-shelf issue than a GOP candidate so appalling I will not even consider supporting him?

The forms of the argument available to pressure me into adopting a party-politics rationale for supporting a potentially successful Libertarian Party are pretty much identical to the forms of argument required for pressuring me into voting for a donkey or elephant:  “Don’t be a single-issue voter” or “Politics is the art of compromise” or “art of the possible” or “Vote for results, not to express your wishes” and so on and so forth.

Every one of these arguments ends up proving too much:  should I vote for a terrible candidate who is untrustworthy but has made significant public concessions on the top-shelf issue because “Politics is the art of compromise,” or a candidate who is utterly abhorrent on numerous issues but likely to at least be a competent fascist and unpopular enough to attack because I “Vote results”?  Or should I vote for a candidate exceedingly unlikely to win, who has a long history of being reliably and emphatically wrong on the top-shelf issue, because…uh…”Don’t be a single-issue voter”?

So far, every reason I can adduce for attempting to ignore the utterly unconscionable elements, and the philosophically incoherent elements, of the Libertarian Party platform has always been a better reason to keep pushing forward those elements within the GOP that can and have made effective changes, while also shoving back at worthless fellows like Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, and maintaining my freedom to criticize the GOP when it’s wrong.  And under current circumstances I have been regularly calling for the defenestration of GOP leadership, so a fortiori what will I do with the current and longstanding Libertarian Party leadership?

We seem to be left with a Catch-22:  While the Libertarian Party remains ineffective, any argument against “protest” or “symbolic” or “identity-group” voting, made in terms of consequential political compromise, seems to favor leveraging sympathetic elements of a viable party rather than hoping to simultaneously change and boost an ineffective party that is wrong on top-shelf issues; and should the Libertarian Party become viable, its being emphatically wrong on the top-shelf issue would make it unconscionable to support it.

So there is one way to make the case to me for allegiance to the Libertarian Party on party-politics grounds:  Convince the Libertarian Party to become consistently and emphatically opposed to the slaughter of unborn babies (and to bring other elements of its platform in line with the logic of such convictions).

Otherwise, what do I gain by modifying my standoffish relationship with both GOP and Libertarian leadership, and my open opposition to the Party of Death?

Pragmatics

Finally–and most briefly, because by now I have said enough on the subject that it will be hard not to repeat myself in this section–we come to the possibility of deliberately using the Libertarian Party to achieve movement on one policy or another, in hopes that Libertarian success in that policy item will make it more possible to use some other strategy to advocate for our top-shelf policy item, later.

OK, I understand the logic of this.  I understand it well, because it is precisely the logic that scores of politically-active folks have used in supporting various candidates from the Party of Death and the Elephant Patrol for decades, now.

How has that been working out?

More to the point, what exactly is it about Libertarian Party candidates that make it likely that they can achieve viability as a party without exactly the same sorts of preoccupation with power, deal-making, and in-group behavior that most of my LP-leaning friends object to in the “Beltway elites”?

I mean, we have just seen a sizeable minority of the elephant-leaning electorate choose the trust-fund baby of a slumlord, a politician whose gravest political concern has always been to appear to be “one of them,” to be a big deal and to be seen hanging out with people who can prove he’s a big deal, in order to protest againt “Beltway elites”!

(I forgo correcting the barbarous usage of “elites” here.)

We are looking at the same dilemma as I just described with regard to party politics, from another angle, here.  We can justify this second-intention strategy only if the useful elements of the Libertarian Party platform missing from the other party’s platforms or priorities–which are, ipso facto, elements those parties do not believe are desireable or politically useful to them–are more likely to be realized than the objectionable elements–which are, again by the very fact that we might turn away from the other parties on their account, elements those parties do believe are desireable or politically useful to them.  Furthermore, even if the useful elements are more likely to be realized than the objectionable elements, we have to believe that they can be realized without self-defeating compromises, such as making the element we intend finally to oppose an actually affirmed part of the platform and a way the public can recognize and approve the Libertarian “brand.”

In other words, supporting the Libertarian Party now so that we can oppose abortion later is morally and logically no different than supporting the Party of Death now so that we can be in a position to restrict abortion later, or supporting a GOP committed to a candidate who is utterly unreliable on abortion so that we can hope to actually enforce campaign promises against a candidate who has been forced upon us in the first place.  In fact, it is pragmatically–strictly in terms of the likelihood of the stratagem achieving its end–worse than supporting the GOP (though in every imaginable sense still better than supporting the Party of Death).

In other words, the moral argument against supporting the GOP’s Trumpery candidate, or a party leadership that tries to compel us to support him, is strong enough to overcome the pragmatic case for supporting the GOP on the subject–and a fortiori it is overwhelmingly strong against the pragmatic case for a second-intention strategy in supporting the Libertarian Party.

So, if you think–as I do!–that there are many libertarian principles that are either true, or “best in show” among conscionable but flawed American political arguments, and you think (as I do not, at present) that the Libertarian Party can be reshaped so that I ought to support it, then your work is cut out for you.

What you should do?  Change the Libertarian Party so it can be worthy of support.

What you should not do?  Advocate that we support the Libertarian Party, as it is, in hopes it will change.

We’ve been down that road for a long time, already, friends.  If you didn’t like it the last time, why not choose a different rationale for political engagement, this time?