Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Libertarian Party's Public Choice Problem

Why can’t the Libertarian Party manage to nominate someone respectable for president?  In 1996 and 2000, the LP nominated Harry Browne, who seemed respectable but turned out to be corrupt.  This year, they nominated Michael Badnarik, who turns out to be a goofball and a tax crank.

Critics of libertarianism will naturally take such poor choices as a sign of what libertarianism’s all about.  Others will blame the terminal silliness of the LP, which seems dominated by nutbars intent on making sure it remains an obscure third party (apparently they like being outside the mainstream).  I’m sympathetic to the latter explanation, but it also begs the question:  given the large number of smart, sensible, and honest libertarians out there, why does incompetence rise to the top at the LP?

I suggest a straightforward application of public choice theory.  Public choice theory observes that voters have very little incentive to become informed about issues, because the chance of any one individual’s vote swaying the outcome of an election is approximately zero.  A comparison of the costs and benefits of becoming informed indicates that most voters will remain rationally ignorant about most issues.  The concept of rational ignorance is usually applied in the context of general elections, with respect to knowledge of public policy topics.  But it also applies in nomination races within political parties, with respect to the background and personal characteristics of the candidates themselves.

In the major parties, one major factor mitigates the problem of rational ignorance:  each candidate has a very strong personal incentive to discover and publicize his opponents’ dirty laundry.  Doing so can substantially increase his own chances of winning the nomination.  Members of the candidate’s staff, who stand to get future jobs, power, and benefits if their man wins, have a similarly strong incentive to look into opponents’ backgrounds.  But in a small party like the LP, everyone knows the whole operation has very low stakes, because the LP’s candidate – no matter who he is – will assuredly lose the general election.  Even though the small numbers mean that a single delegate’s vote could actually decide who gets the LP nomination, the significance of that nomination is essentially nil.  As a result, neither the candidates nor their supporters have a strong incentive to get the goods on the other candidates.

Given the incentives, it is not terribly surprising that the LP continually nominates corrupt/incompetent/just-plain-goofy candidates.  And the problem perpetuates itself, since the risibility of past candidates contributes to the low reputation of the party, further reducing the return on investing any time or effort in the party’s nomination process.

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