Thursday, February 24, 2005

Libertarian Politics and Coalitional Form Games

In a much-linked post, Randy Barnett argues that the Libertarian Party weakens the influence of libertarians. His basic argument is that the LP drains libertarian activists from the ranks of the major parties, reducing their ability to influence the Democratic and Republican platforms.

Given the number of bloggers who’ve responded to Barnett, I’m sure the point I’m about to make has already been made. But I haven’t seen it yet, so here goes.

It’s true that the LP attracts a disproportionate share of nutjobs and cranks, thereby sullying the public image of libertarians. It’s also true that in any democratic system, you have to work within coalitions in order to get anything done. A rigid adherence to purist principles is a good way to make sure your principles never become policy in any form.

But one does not wield power within a coalition by becoming a reliable part of it. On the contrary, coalitions are usually ruled by their marginal members – those most likely to be lost as a result of platform changes. People who can be counted on to vote with the coalition, no matter what, get taken for granted. Black Americans, for example, get treated as a wholly-owned subsidiary by the Democratic Party. They would only wield real influence within the party if they could credibly threaten to bolt to the GOP or a third party.

Likewise, libertarians will only wield influence in a major party if other members of the same party believe they’ll lose libertarian votes, to the other major party or to the LP, for making the wrong choices. So Barnett’s recommendation that libertarians should abandon the LP and join the major parties only works if these libertarians are willing to change their allegiance from time to time. That is, libertarians aligned with the GOP must be willing to vote Democrat under some circumstances.

But I know a lot of libertarians who simply cannot stomach voting Democrat under any circumstances – and for these libertarians, the LP is the only outside option. If the LP were dissolved, such libertarians would become de facto property of the GOP and lose whatever influence they might have had. (The same goes for Democrat-aligned libertarians who could not stomach voting Republican under any circumstances, but I’ve met fewer of them.)

I also, sadly, have to agree with Micha Ghertner that “the number of politically active libertarians is so small that is doesn’t really make much of a difference what we do electorally.” That is, there are too few of us to exercise meaningful influence in a coalition anyway.


Gil said...

I made (or tried to make) the same point in a comment to that same Catallarchy post you link to.

Great Minds...

Anonymous said...

Yup. I think the Libertarians make the libertarians look bad. But my boss who is a Republican/libertarian (who tries to convince me weekly) definitely votes Republican even if the LP exists because he thinks the candidate for the Libertarian Party are out there in space.


Tom W. Bell said...

I certainly agree that the marginal member of *a* political coalition can weild power more effectively than a core member, Glen. But I wonder if your analysis focuses unduly on marginal members of *two* political coalitions. That is, you speak as if someone who exits one party must of necessity join another.

Consider, for instance, this passage: "Black Americans . . . get treated as a wholly-owned subsidiary by the Democratic Party. They would only wield real influence within the party if they could credibly threaten to bolt to the GOP or a third party."

When I read that, I immediately thought, "But don't they wield a *considerable* amount of power within the Democratic Party? Yes. Why? Because they can credibly threaten to *not vote for anyone*!"

Ditto, of course, for libertarians. They can wield some influence simply by threatening to *not vote.* They would wield *more* influence, albeit at some additional cost, by threatening to defect from one party to another. Ditto, in spades, if they threaten to switch between only the two major parties.

Bottom line: I agree with you that libertarians do not *plainly* err in voting for their own party, but would extend your analysis to libertarians who choose to not vote at all. All such choices have costs and benefits.

Gil said...


Don't you think it would have a greater impact on a major party if they lost some voters and they saw that the LP got more voters (especially if the LP vote count exceeded the difference between the major parties)?

It seems to me that voting for the LP signals the reasons for bolting more effectively. It helps to distinguish the lost votes due to disagreement rather than due to apathy.

Otherwise, the major party might conclude that they just didn't endorse their bad policies enthusiastically enough to motivate people come out and vote for them.

Caliban said...

There's only two ways libertarian ideas will gain traction in the modern American political system:

1. Inertia. The major political parties will drift towards libertarian ideas because they work better, provide them with political leverage or to undercut the opposition. This has the added virtue of having actually happened.

2. Infiltration. Get a charismatic and sneaky libertarian to pretend to be a Dem/GOP by campaigning on the few libertarian principles that the given party endorses. Then, once in power, unveil your true nature. Ideally, this would be a position of executive power. Ron Paul (R-TX) is basically a libertarian, but since he's only one legislative vote, it doesn't mean much.

Tom W. Bell said...


I agree that leaving a major party to vote for the LP sends a clearer signal than merely withholding a vote for the Republicrats. As I said, those who move from one party to another exercise more influence than those who merely drop off the voting rolls. But that benefit comes at some cost. How the ratio works out depends on many factors; actuarial mileage may vary.

Russ Diamond said...

Just to share the experience of one LP member who has 'jumped ship'.

I ran as an L for State House & Congress in PA last year. State House incumbent was an R, and there was no D. I spent $35,000. For Congress, there was a D incumbent and an R challenger. I spent about $250 on that race.

Fact #1: I was able to get support from people of both R & D affiliations because I was literate and articulated the issues, but many wouldn't vote for me simply because I was an L. (nitwits)

Fact #2: D's simply did not vote in my state house race. The numbers proved it out. Subtract an equal percentage of R's who pulled the big R lever, and the incumbent only beat me, a total political neophyte, by 52-48%. I got 30 times as many votes as we have registered Ls, and 50% of those Ls didn't even vote. Not bad.

Fact #3: Now, every move I make is front page news. I joined the Rs, and they are seriously pissed because they know next time around, I can win without their committee endorsements. Also not bad.

Fact #4: I strictly avoided two distinct topics during the campaign - drugs and open borders. Not because I don't agree in principle, but because the current climate is not appropriate.

Fact #5: I 'jumped ship' because I live in a 2-1 R county and the voters are largely big-lever-pulling-nincompoops. The real elections here are the primaries. The R ALWAYS wins - only two exceptions in over 50 years, and one of them switched to R before the next election.

Fact #6: I convinced two other Ls to do the same thing and we're all running for local offices this year. Should be fun.

Fact #7: In spite of the good people who run the state LP, it is completely impotent (PA is one of the worst states for 'third parties'). I'm not impressed at all with national leadership. All one needs to do is read the national LP press releases to get a feel for what's going on there. Ugh.

Fact #8: Most people are actually Ls, they just don't know it.

Fact #9: Before I ran, every other LP candidate here was, even by my standards, a whack-job.

Anyway, I stumbled upon this blog by sheer chance & thought I'd add my two cents.

Last thought - the LP ticket is a great place to launch a political career. I hope someday to reunite with my L brethren, but I simply can get much more L business done as an R. (sigh)

Keep the Faith...