Liberty movements in the United States have enjoyed a remarkable degree of success, from the freeing of slaves to women’s rights, and from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s to the recent successes of the LGBT rights drive. The War on Drugs is grinding to a halt, and prison/sentencing reform is in the headlines.
Yet the Libertarian Party flounders. Big time. Why?
To be sure, some of the causes mentioned above were supported by the LP, and have consistently appeared in its platform. To what extent the Party can claim credit for any of the said successes is open to debate however.
For one thing, the LP has never been able to clearly define its brand. Even among those who have heard of it there is a good deal of confusion as to what it stands for.
Part of the problem is that too many Libertarians are content to spend their time debating the political equivalent of the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin. They seldom pick fights where the side of liberty is clear and easily explained. Rather, they fill their major campaign document with phrases such as “As Libertarians, we seek a world of liberty; a world in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and no one is forced to sacrifice his or her values for the benefit of others…Our goal is nothing more nor less than a world set free in our lifetime, and it is to this end that we take these stands.” A bit shallow by “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” standards.
Not to forget the poetic and inspiring “We, the members of the Libertarian Party, challenge the cult of the omnipotent state…” Sure to get the blood flowing in the teacher in Biloxi, the steam fitter in Chicago, and the barber in Phoenix.
Nor can Libertarians agree on its meaning and limits, if any. While Liberty and personal responsibility over our own lives sound great, what do they mean? How can they be translated into a government and society that both recognizes and respects personal boundaries and at the same time establishes limits that protect the lives, liberties, and justly acquired property of all concerned?
Calls for no government at all, and/or abolishing the income tax and replacing it with nothing, sound great, even desirable. But what would such a society look like (other than weed for all and private police and roads), and where is the picture explaining how it would work and what benefits would flow to all members of society from such schemes. I am not saying this Libertarian Utopia is undesirable, but the inability to sell it to the public at large makes arguing for those incremental changes we could do now far more difficult.
Libertarians have stretched the meaning of Liberty to unrecognizable and undesirable ends. Parents should be allowed to turn their children into disease carry missiles aimed at the public health because, well, it a matter of choice. Ten year olds should enjoy the freedom to engage in sex with 40 year old men. We should pay for our national defense with voluntary contributions. Bush was behind 9/11, and GMOs are a plot to kill everyone. There is no end to the silliness, and some of it is vile. All, of course, in the name of Liberty.
Why not throw up my hands and find a new political home? Where? For all the illogical and irresponsible silliness, the Classical Liberalism at the heart of Libertarianism is non-existent in every other party in the U.S. Indeed, the major parties consider it subversive.
And so it is.