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.