On Principle and Pragmatism

Should we comprise principle when necessary to reach moderate and independent voters or stick unswervingly to the strictest of libertarian principles to avoid losing the moral high ground?  The debate rages on with Libertarian Party regulars. 

One of the most recent examples was our nomination of Bob Barr for President in 2008.  The pragmatists argued that Barr, a former US Congressman, was a recognized name who could raise money and get press coverage.  He had always been strong on many constitutional issues and his recent conversion to the Libertarian Party was press-worthy.

The idealists cringed at Barr’s reputation as a Republican who, among other things, was wrong about same-sex marriage and weak on opposition to the drug war.  Mary Ruwart, a Ph.D, and an articulate activist of many years, was a thought-leader. She was completely reliable on principle, even when it was controversial like some of her writings on minors and victimless crimes. 

On the fifth ballot, in a back-room bargain worthy of Lyndon Johnson, Wayne Root who was running third, switched to Vice President in favor of Barr.  On the sixth ballot the Party of Principle voted to nominate the Barr-Root ticket.

No one can say what would have happened if Ruwart had been nominated.  In terms of vote totals and money raised she may have done about as well as her predecessors which was not too well at all.  How did Barr do?  In terms of vote totals and money raised, he did about as well as his predecessors which – as I said – was not too well at all.  And he left a lot of disillusioned idealists within and outside the party.  Was it worth the gamble?  Ruwart and the idealists didn’t make the case that anything would be different this time.  Shouldn’t we try something new?

I voted for Ruwart on all six ballots. I have nothing against Barr.  I think he taught us a lot.  I watched an encounter between Barr and Ernie Hancock wherein Ernie pressed Barr to accept a more radical “principled?” position in opposition to the drug war.  Barr responded ‘You can’t scare the American people. You need to say – what we are doing hasn’t worked. We need a change. Nothing is off the table’.   In my opinion Barr’s response was smart practical politics.  You can’t expect new kids to go all the way down the rabbit hole all at once.  Few of us made it out of the government school system as full  blown anarcho-capitalists (if that’s the goal).  For most of us education (re-education?) was/is necessary to understand some of the more radical (principled?) positions.

I rest my case for pragmatism – now for my case for principle.

Barr’s nomination disillusioned many of the hard core and alienated many idealists and members of groups that have issues in common with us such as gays and victims of the drug war.  I spent a lot of time back-tracking and defending our decision even though I didn’t agree with it. And I spent a lot of time working on social freedom issues that might reduce the damage done by the LP’s lurch toward Republican-lite.

If the LP is just a bunch of socially liberal Republicans why shouldn’t we just work within the GOP to fix it, just as so many of our “Ron Paul Republican” friends are doing.  Then we might not need a Libertarian Party at all.  Good luck guys.  I hope it works. I’ll help where I can.

But I’m not holding my breath. I thought we were headed in the right direction when Reagan slashed taxes and even when Clinton said the era of big government was over.  Surprise!  What’s to stop the GOP establishment from momentarily mouthing the right words right up until they get another majority and then giving us a few more wars, bubbles, Medicare expansions, and Patriot Acts.  Obama ran the same con on the Democrats right?

If we really are something different then it’s faulty marketing to hide the differentiation by nominating partially reformed Republicans or partially reformed Democrats for that matter.  It might make practical sense to run multi-party tickets but only with differentiated candidates. That is, run libertarians as Democrats and Republicans, but don’t run Republicrats as Libertarians.

We may need to make pragmatic decisions to make progress. But as soon as we compromise principle in the name of pragmatism we will tack left, or tack right. The LP’s engines don’t have the horsepower to steam directly into the wind.  To avoid getting blown hopelessly off course you have to site something fixed that you can see and that you can recognize and that is close to your ultimate destination on the opposite shore.

We won’t get to the other shore by sticking, pig-headed to principle and steaming directly into the wind.  We will run out of gas, our engines will seize and we will be swept downstream, powerless against whichever criminal gang happens to control the government this year.

But we will never reach our destination, or even get closer to it, if we lose site of it altogether.

5 thoughts on “On Principle and Pragmatism”

  1. Ron – As a candidate, I’ve always felt that I have neatly surfed between the fiscal conservative elements and the socially progressive left without compromising principle. I’m always against war and never back down from a free market stance. It can be done effectively. In fact, they always bounce me from the ballot. I figure that’s the bellwether of success. When an opponent spends more on their lawyers then your entire campaign.

    Ballot access is a bigger factor than any marketing campaign, compromise of principle or some high minded appeal for hope. Of course the question becomes, do we compromise for the sake of the latter ? This is why I think Redlich will be a good option. He’s pro choice, gay marriage and wants to end the drug war. With the exception of pro-choice Weld wasn’t talking like that 4 years ago. The other factor is us going against them in their own sandbox, hopefully with the help of a furious tea party crew. They do attract media and controversy and trying to reign it in could prove difficult.

  2. Hi Eric, Thanks so much for your comment. The mission of the Manhattan LP isn’t to win elections. It’s to win hearts and minds. Somebody said something like ‘cultural change comes before electoral change’. Somebody else said, ‘if the people lead, the leaders will follow’. We don’t persuade people to believe in freedom so that we can win elections. We use elections to persuade people to believe in freedom. I disagree that ballot access is more important. If we get on the ballot with the wrong people it actually hurts us. That doesn’t mean we “stick pig headed to principle” all the time. It means we make sure to make clear the principle if we have to compromise. e.g. Audit the Fed. Let’s be clear the goal is to end the Fed and to have free markets in money. But I’ll accept an audit in the short run. Warren Redlich is an example of a good multi-line candidate. He is a libertarian running as a Republican.

  3. I read your article on Princilpes with interest, however when I finished I still did not know what the Principles of the Libertarian party are. Would youknindy furnish those for me.? Thanks Anne Cleveland

  4. Hi Anne,

    Great questions – thanks for your post as well. You can boil down libertarian principles to 2 simple rules.
    – No initiation of force
    – no fraud
    Anything else is up to consenting individuals. Government’s only role is to protect it’s citizens against initiation of force and fraud.

    As an extreme example, if someone carrying a loaded gun wants to shoot up speed thats ok. If he then becomes hostile and robs someone that’s not ok.

    That means government has no authority to wage aggressive wars or tell you what to smoke, or shoot or who you can employ or work for. Nor does it have the authority to tell you how much to pay or how much you can work for. It’s authority is strictly limited. As a matter of practise libertarians sometimes refre to strict adherence to the constitution and the 9th and 10th amendments which limit the US government to specific powers.

    To expand further libertarians generally beleive that regular people who make their own decisions and their own agreements to cooperate with others will do a lot better for themselves than if politicians interfere. We also beleive that people will help those around them if the government doesnt tax away the resources we need to do so.

    There is a lot of writing about all this. mises.org and independant.org are good places to start. Mary Ruwart has also written a lot of good stuff in particular “Healing our World” and “Short Answers to Tough Questions”. if you want more email me a ron (at) ManhattanLP (dot) org

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