The Libertarian Party and the liberty movement, in general, must contend with some potent opposition… from the dismissive nature of mainstream media to the unshakeable duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, our philosophy faces an uphill battle to achieve recognition and credibility with American voters. Nevertheless, it seems the greatest threat to our values is not found in the overwhelming opposition of statists, but rather lurking in the minds of our fellow libertarians.
Ours is a coalition of fierce individualists; an entire spectrum of freedom-loving citizens identify with our principles. Yet, apart from our general distaste for authority, it seems at times we agree on very little. Minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, left-libertarians, classical liberals and moderate centrists all manage to unite around our central axioms of non-aggression and voluntary interaction but engage in mutual excommunication when a variation in beliefs is revealed. The infamous Dallas Accord of 1974 left the LP without a clear stance on the prolonged existence of government, in theory opening the party to a wider audience (and perhaps inviting the disunity we experience today). We fail at times to recognize the broad spectrum of allies we’ve built since then, and in our efforts to stand up for our principles, we frequently alienate and attack our own. The toxic infighting from such disagreements almost invariably results in one party asserting the other does not match their personal definition of libertarianism and are thus not a libertarian.
While there is something to be said for the passionate defense of one’s beliefs, it is unproductive for otherwise cooperative allies to turn on one another over arguably unimportant philosophical and economic disagreements. Such struggle is inherent in the building of a political movement, particularly one composed of radicals and pragmatists as ours is. It is the belief of your humble writer that, if we are to represent our philosophy well in 2018 and 2020, we must learn to debate and disagree gracefully. We do not serve our principles by making enemies of friends; if we truly believe in a free marketplace of ideas, should we not embrace freedom-lovers of all backgrounds?
I recognize how this might come across as preachy. There is hypocrisy in this text; I’ve been guilty of the “No True Libertarian” fallacy myself. When a fellow activist strays too far from my own interpretation of the philosophy, I have a tendency to become condescending or unpleasant. I’d argue it is important for all of us to understand how rational, educated libertarians can reach such wildly different conclusions about social and financial issues; we cannot simply draw lines in the sand and attack one another. If we truly hope to diminish the authoritarian state and achieve meaningful victories against the two-party dichotomy, we must act upon our common interests and not our disagreements.
But, who am I to make these claims? Such a study requires the opinions of libertarians more experienced than myself. To better understand the civil war within the LP, I reached out to some noteworthy politicians and activists, hoping to learn about the friction they’ve experienced in their time as libertarians. The opinions expressed below do not necessarily represent the beliefs of your humble writer, nor Think Liberty in general.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Zoltan Istvan, an author, transhumanist philosopher, and Libertarian candidate for governor in the upcoming 2018 California election. Zoltan is a newcomer to the LP and is already intimately familiar with the volatile nature of our alliance. As a left-leaning libertarian, Zoltan has proposed a “Federal Land Dividend”, a plan to offset the impact of industrial automation and reduce poverty by providing a basic income to Californians. This would be funded not through taxation, but by monetizing federal lands and distributing the profits to CA residents. Zoltan believes his plan will have a positive impact on the economy and the lives of citizens while remaining tax-neutral and potentially removing the need for burdensome state welfare programs.
Shortly after revealing his strategy online, Zoltan became the target of displeased libertarians. The aggression seemed to come from folks who hadn’t actually studied his plan but rather opposed the idea of UBI in general. Far from offering legitimate critiques of Istvan’s proposal, the typical accusation was that he was simply ‘not a real libertarian’.
“…I get a lot of people telling me that I’m not Libertarian and to go to hell – despite the fact that I can bring people into the libertarian movement…” – Zoltan Istvan
Zoltan admits he finds the tumult somewhat distressing. He believes his platform may serve to advance libertarian ideas, and that his work with major media outlets makes him a valuable asset to the LP. Yet, he encounters opposition from libertarians who outright refuse to hear him out, or dismiss his proposals out of hand. I asked Zoltan what advice he would offer to libertarian activists who worry about this troubled communication, and he said the following:
“If the Libertarian movement wants to grow, it should be more open-minded to variations and different shades of libertarianism. It should try to welcome people that have libertarian leanings, even if they don’t fit exactly with their versions.”
[More information about Zoltan’s proposal can be found at https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/10/is-monetizing-federal-land-the-way-to-pay-for-basic-income/ ]
When I set out to write this article, I immediately thought to contact my friend Yaakov. He’s a photographer, activist, all-around nice guy, and perhaps the most eloquent critic of the LP I’ve ever encountered. He’s been involved in this scene far longer than I, and has been debating the topic for years. With his reputation for unrestrained political commentary, I knew he’d have something to contribute to my study.
I asked Yaakov what he thought about our struggle to achieve unity, and his response was unexpected, to say the least:
“*Political* unity is the antithesis of libertarianism. As libertarians, we ostensibly believe in individual liberty, free markets, and the non-aggression principle… Uniting us under a political banner was never the goal of the LP because it’s the diametric opposite of our own core beliefs.”
I wasn’t really prepared for such an answer. I’d come looking for ways to unify our movement, and my friend seems to suggest that effort is not only meaningless but in direct opposition to our philosophy.
“It’s past time that libertarians recognized the uselessness of the LP in today’s educational/informational era.” Says Markel. “We simply don’t need it anymore, and it has become detrimental to the success of real liberty.”
I find it challenging to refute my friend’s position. If indeed we favor the abolition or minimization of the state, it does seem counter-intuitive to pursue these goals through traditional political means. Yet, I felt I had to press him further on the issue… what of young activists who, like myself, still believe the LP may serve as a useful means of communicating our philosophy to the masses? If not through the LP, how should one go about changing the world?
“Make use of your strengths, hold fast to your principles, and do your best.”
Yaakov didn’t confine himself to mere platitudes; he went on to offer some sincere advice to the next generation of libertarians:
“As I’ve said before, entrepreneurial ventures have done more for real liberty than the LP (nationally or locally) has ever or could ever accomplish. Such opportunities for undermining the state entrepreneurially are literally endless. If entrepreneurial ventures aren’t your strong suit, but you feel that your strengths lay in education, do that! Become a “Big Brother”, lead a Boy Scout troop, coach little league – and influence the next generation with true moral principles. Or whatever… anything but politics.”
‘Anything but politics’… a sentiment which still makes me chuckle. I’m a young, naive man, still so optimistic about the future of the world. But, perhaps in a few years, when asked for advice, I’ll find myself repeating ‘anything but politics’.
In closing, Markel offered one last bit of advice to those of us stubborn enough to stick with the LP:
“Try to be someone that others look to for guidance. Be the “rock” upon which they stand. Build relationships and trust… *live* the philosophy. Lead by example.”
In my quest to better understand our internal controversy, I contacted the chairman of the California Libertarian Party, Ted Brown. He’s been running as a Libertarian in every election cycle for nearly 30 years and has served countless roles in the local, state, and national Libertarian Parties. He’s been on the frontlines of the libertarian movement since before I was born and offers a unique perspective into this ages-old conflict within the party.
“While we (libertarians) agree on liberty, we often disagree about how to achieve it. What we need is upright debates, and for people to approach these disagreements with as much good-will as possible.” – Ted Brown
Brown explains that often, minor disagreements have a tendency to deepen and create rifts between allies. Our party sees petty squabbling and bickering all the way to the national level; if someone doesn’t get their way, they have a tendency to turn against their own team in retribution. Brown goes on to say some people act poisonous in their dealings, which in turn casts our movement in a negative light.
When asked what advice he would offer young libertarian activists, Mr. Brown gave my favorite statement on this topic, one which I expect I shall quote for the rest of my days:
“Be positive. We are supposed to be fighting the state, not each other.”
[More information on Brown’s political philosophy can be found at http://www.tedbrown.org/ ]
Of all the battles currently playing out within our movement, one, in particular, has been getting a great deal of attention lately; the tension between 2016 Vice-Presidential Candidate Larry Sharpe and LNC Vice-Chair Arvin Vohra. Arvin made a series of inflammatory Facebook posts about the military, which eventually prompted Sharpe (who is himself a veteran of the US Marine Corps) to call for Vohra’s resignation.
Both Sharpe and Vohra have since received criticism from within the party: Vohra, for potentially alienating libertarian veterans, and Sharpe for potentially silencing our more radical constituents. With such a current example of libertarian infighting at the highest level, I reached out to Larry Sharpe for his thoughts on the situation.
Sharpe began by addressing a valid concern within the movement. He notes that, as the libertarian party appeals to a wider base, our radical elements compose a much smaller percentage of the party than they once did. As such, there is a growing feeling among anarchists that minarchists are looking to dominate the party. This fear, Sharpe acknowledges, is entirely valid.
It is for this reason he believes his dispute with Vohra was perceived as an attempt to silence disagreement in the party. Larry believes his criticisms of Arvin were taken to be criticisms of the entire anarchist element, which he says was not his intention.
“The issue isn’t what Arvin said,” Larry explains, “it’s that when he was asked to clarify what he meant, he doubled down in calling all veterans murderers and accomplices.”
Here Larry drew a line in the sand, not over anarchy or radical thinking, but over what he describes as “lack of empathy, and poor judgment.” Larry argues that when in a position of leadership, you act as a representative of more than just your own beliefs. He believes leaders at the LNC have a responsibility to choose their words carefully, so as not to damage the reputation of our already misunderstood movement. Sharpe says such conduct is simply not tactful.
The Libertarian Party has long struggled to strike a balance between its various factions. Sharpe reminds us that we must “maintain a strong internal culture”, to avoid the failures of the Republicans and the Democrats.
Finally, as with my previous conversations, I asked Larry what advice he would offer to young libertarian activists:
“Look local!” was his enthusiastic response. “Involving yourself in your local party is the best thing you can possibly do. Try to show up to local, city, or statewide gatherings. Talk to people, make these issues matter locally. Small victories are our future; it’s nice to think about the big picture, but it all starts locally.”
He says we should not be discouraged by the infighting we experience:
“Look at the positives; we’re seeing more young people in the party than ever before. We’re seeing small victories at state and city levels, we’re seeing the largest Libertarian conventions ever. We are on the move! These are just growing pains; if you keep showing up, we’ll keep winning.” Sharpe argues that if we stay on track, we may, in fact, overtake the Democrats in number within the next 20 years – and I hope he is correct in that prediction.
We ended our chat on a humorous note:
“Don’t worry, I’ll handle the LNC battles. You get out there and win in your community!”
[Follow Larry Sharpe for more: https://www.facebook.com/LarrySharpe4Gov/ ]