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Principles and Primaries

Party activism still has a role to play in the liberty movement.

by James Leroy Wilson
May 24, 2011

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Principles and Primaries

If you don't believe someone has the right to tell you what to do, should you vote for your rulers? Many liberty-minded people, whether they're called individualist anarchist or libertarian, believe it is immoral to do so.

I'm not a particularly dogmatic about this. Since last fall I've preferred the label "classical liberal" for the reason that I want some social goals advanced, and less interested in working out a moral and political philosophy in which consistency in doctrine is paramount. I personally have no problems with voting.

Nevertheless, I understand the logic and respect the conscience of those who choose not to vote. My one suggestion is that I don't think all voting means voting for "rulers." The party primary campaign isn't a method of selecting "rulers;" it's an ideologically-driven contest to select a nominee.

Party politics is not my favored method to spread the ideas of liberty, and it's not the only method. But it is the favored method in America today, and I understand why many people get involved with it.

I would prefer that the only means be bring about liberty is pure, non-political persuasion.

Maybe that's possible, but I haven't seen it yet.

I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today if I didn't stumble on Harry Browne's acceptance speech at the Libertarian Presidential nominee at the 1996 Libertarian Party National Convention, or see Libertarian activist Michael Cloud's speech at the 2000 Libertarian National Convention, both televised by C-Span. Their speeches motivated me to investigate different modes of political thought. My thoughts and my job don't directly relate to electoral politics; at the same time, they wouldn't be what they are if NOT for the Libertarian Party.

Many people become attracted to the Libertarian Party, and then, short of one two-year election cycle, they have learned so much about the libertarian philosophy that they become anarchists and decide it's immoral to vote. In other words, the Libertarian Party often does its job too well, guaranteeing its own electoral ineffectiveness.

It's possible that a torch of one sort or another has been passed from the Libertarian Party to Ron Paul's 2008 and 2012 campaigns in the Republican Party. The 2008 campaign received almost three times more votes in the Republican Presidential primaries than Paul's 1988 campaign as the Libertarian Party's nominee in the general election. Paul's 2008 run received more votes than even the most successful Libertarian run, that of 1980's Ed Clark and Charles Koch.

Even then, Paul's run was an electoral failure. At the same time, it was a success in introducing more people to liberty and in changing the terms of political debate.

·         Paul began making frequent appearances on the cable news and business channels, the channels of the power elite and political junkies

·         These clips, and other messages from Paul, gained even more viewers on places like YouTube.

·         Paul has single-handedly helped undermine public faith in the Federal Reserve, and for two election cycles has been the most vocal major party opponent of foreign wars, the War on Drugs, and the Patriot Act

Paul has achieved greater fame than activists like two-time Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Harry Browne, who was a much more polished speaker than Paul and a more "hard-core" libertarian.

So is party activism always wrong for freedom activists?

I respect this position, and will never urge people to do what they might not want to do, such as vote. Personally, I didn't vote in 2010.

But here are two questions . . .

1.       By what means will anti-voting libertarians and anarchists persuade a critical mass of the people to stop voting and thereby undermine the credibility of the regime?

2.       Is "incremental" success unacceptable, wherein more people like Ron Paul are elected and steer public policy toward greater liberty even if it's not total liberty?

It seems to me that one valid strategy for liberty is to vote for someone like Ron Paul in the Republican primaries. Voting in a primary doesn't mean voting for a "ruler," it means voting to eliminate the worst candidates. It seems valid to me to choose someone like Ron Paul, or classical liberals of any party, as a means to give the movement greater credibility and strength in the still-uninformed public mind. Greater voter strength tends toward greater prominence, which means the opportunity to educate more people.

And if Ron Paul (or some other classical liberal or libertarian) actually wins the nomination, and you think it's wrong to vote for your rulers even if they agree with you on 90% of the issues, then it makes sense for you not to vote. Voting in the primary to advance public understanding of liberty is different from voting in a general election to elect your rulers.

Perhaps a decade from now the communications revolution will render political involvement irrelevant as the communication revolution will make other means of education and persuasion far more effective. But I don't think we've reached that point yet.

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