Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In a recent column, I discussed the disaffection of libertarians within the conservative coalition, suggesting many might be more at home on the political left. A number of readers wrote to say they agreed with my analysis and had left the Republican Party for the Libertarian Party (LP). Among these is former Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr, who officially joined the LP last week.

Of course, people are free to do what they want to do. And if they want to join the LP, that’s their business. But if their goal is to actually change policy in a libertarian direction, they are making a big mistake, in my opinion. The LP is worse than a waste of time. I believe it has done far more to hamper the advancement of libertarian ideas and policies than to advance them. In my view, it is essential for the LP to completely disappear before libertarian ideas will again have political currency.

The basic problem with the LP is the same problem faced by all third parties: They cannot win. The reason is that under the Constitution, a candidate must win an absolute majority in the all-important Electoral College. It won’t do just to have the most votes in a three- or four-way race. You have to have at least 270 electoral votes to win, period.

Theoretically, this is no barrier to third parties at the state and local level. But in practice, if a party cannot win at the presidential level, it is very unlikely to achieve success at lower levels of government. In short, the Electoral College imposes a two-party system on the country that makes it prohibitively difficult for third parties to compete.

Furthermore, to the extent third parties exist, they invariably hurt the party closest to them ideologically. When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 and 2004, for example, he didn’t hurt George W. Bush, he hurt Al Gore and John Kerry. Maybe a few of Mr. Nader’s voters wouldn’t have voted at all if he hadn’t run, but the vast bulk of his votes came from Mr. Gore’s and Mr. Kerry’s totals. Needless to say, Mr. Gore and Mr. Kerry are certainly closer to Mr. Nader generally than the man he helped elect.

Over the years, I have known a great many people who have flirted with the LP, but were ultimately turned off by its political impotence and immaturity. C-SPAN runs LP conventions and viewers can see for themselves how unserious and childish they are. They show the LP is essentially a high-school-level debating club where only one question is ever debated — who is the purest libertarian and what is the purest libertarian position?

At times, serious people have tried to get control of the LP and make it a viable organization. But in the end, the crazies who like the LP just as it is have always run them off. However, they have also run off millions of voters who have supported libertarian candidates at one time or another. After realizing what a waste of time the LP is, many became disengaged from politics and don’t vote at all.

The result has been that libertarian-leaning activists have been drawn away from the Republican Party and the Democratic Party by the LP, leaving the major parties with fewer libertarians. In other words, both major parties have fewer libertarians than they would without the LP, meaning the net result of the LP has been to make our government less libertarian than it would otherwise be.

My conclusion is that for libertarian ideas to advance, the LP must go completely out of business. It must cease to exist, period. No more candidates, no more wasted votes and no more disillusioned libertarian activists.

In place of the LP, there should arise a new libertarian interest group organized like the National Rifle Association or the various pro- and anti-abortion groups. This new group, whatever it is called, would hire lobbyists, run advertisements and make political contributions to candidates supporting libertarian ideas. It will work with both major parties. It can magnify its influence by creating temporary coalitions on particular issues and being willing to work with elected officials who may hold libertarian positions on only one or a handful of issues. They need not hold libertarian views on every single issue, as the LP now demands of those it supports.

I believe this new organization would be vastly more influential than the LP and give libertarian ideas far more potency than they now have. As long as the LP continues, unfortunately, it will an albatross around the necks of small-L libertarians, destroying any political effectiveness they might have. It must die for libertarian ideas to succeed.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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