Furthering Anti-Dead Horse Sentiment: The Ages-Old Purity/Pragmatism Debate

While we were debating transsexuals and socialism, Thomas Knapp made some really good points.

If we agree on those things, then there’s a final bridge to get across: We need to realize that libertarians are not the only political group, and that we don’t have to shoulder the burdens of the other, competing groups. One of our objectives is reasonably affordable, &c. health care. As libertarians, our means for achieving that goal is reducing the size, power and scope of government. That’s the means for achieving all of our goals, because it’s the only means we have “” it is the essence of our political movement. Lots of groups seek reasonably affordable, &c. health care by other means “¦ but if we use their means, then we cease to be what we are and become what they are.

This is not, of course, limited to healthcare. But let’s use the healthcare example because it’s the one at hand. Outside of Tim West, I don’t know too many libertarians who have serious philosophical issues with the typical free market approach to healthcare. Pragmatists like myself tend to accept the futility of getting a free market system at this stage, and are content to suggest compromise proposals that move towards liberty… but we still agree that the free market system is ideal.

But what’s going to work? Because that, ultimately, is the biggest question of pragmatism-not what’s philosophically pure, not what’s the best incremental compromise, but what will work. In this case, what will work to get Libertarians elected, and what will work to actually advance liberty.

Clearly the majority of the party is against socialist healthcare. But how to make a difference? Take a steadfast stand against it, or try to influence the powerbrokers in Washington to make it suck less? A majority of Americans want socialist healthcare, so it’s likely that we’ll have it in twenty years. The Democrats can’t get their shit together NOW, but they’ll have it together in twenty years, and they’ll be supporting socialist healthcare. Do we try to change that 65% who want socialist healthcare or do we try to turn them towards our purposes?

20 years of Libertarian failures has conclusively shown us that “educating the voters” doesn’t work. But will taking an unpopular stand work anyway? Such stands can gain us respect, if not agreement, from the majority of voters. It can also mobilize our base-which is the purists. For all the naughty things I’ve ever said about purists, they are most likely our strongest donor and activist base into at least the near future. And honestly, except for the tinfoiled minority, most of these purists are not opposed to political success. While this isn’t an asset locally, in national races we can concentrate our efforts on one campaign, a la Michael Badnarik-and the majority of our support for those races will be coming from the base.

On the other hand, all the money and activism in the world means nothing if the voters consider you batshit insane, a la Pat Buchanan in 2000. The guy raised about 1/4th of the money that the majors did, got… decidedly less than 1/4th of the votes. But then again, most voters aren’t theocratic blowhards. Now, Buchanan was in the Reform Party, not the LP-but the principles are the same. Stray too far from the mainstream of the electorate and you’re never getting elected above dogcatcher. Some embrace of pragmatism is also necessary.

So there quite clearly needs to be a balance here. We’re seeing that the majors are doing both incrementalism and purity as well; it all depends on the area. A pragmatic Republican would welcome the government to take his gun from his cold, dead fingers in Montana, but would welcome the government to take everyone else’s guns as soon as possible in Manhattan. A pragmatic Democrat is for the war in Nebraska and against it in California. They’re doing quite well for themselves with this system… perhaps we ought to learn from them?

In liberty’s strongest areas, it might be possible, perhaps even preferable, to run on purity and win. I’m primarily thinking New Hampshire here, but it could also work for *most* issues in the West. The idea is that we’d have a strong enough “base” to compete with the bases of the other parties, so long as we can fire them up. You see the Republicans doing this with the gay marriage flag-burning bullshit they’re trotting out.

In other areas, we’re going to need pragmatism in spades. Having lived in Maryland, I know that Kevin Zeese’s views on socialist healthcare are the best deal we’re gonna get for liberty there. The fact is that we’re going to have to win people over to liberty one step at a time in a place like that. People who like us except for socialist healthcare will take a look at the Zeese campaign and think “well, maybe they’re not so bad.” We open the door and start scoring political successes, become a political force and people that wouldn’t even listen to purity are now willing to consider it. The good news is that this model is currently succeeding in Indiana, where moderate libertarians are being radicalized while still welcoming newbies who might be libertarian on most, but not all, issues.

Ultimately, though, we have to realize as a party that one size is not going to fit all here. But why would it? A party that believes in states’ rights for government ought to believe in states’ rights for its own self. Incrementalism on gun control simply will not fly in Idaho, just like free market healthcare won’t fly in Maryland. We need a national party that’s flexible enough to fit both purists and incrementalists into its tent, and more than we need purists or incrementalists, we need pragmatists, people who know their district and know how to get elected there. We also need a platform that can accommodate all these goals, and a party more tolerant of different shades of “libertarian,” especially the lighter shades.

24 Comments
  1. There is a lot of healthy realism in this post and I commend the author for viewing “pragmatism” in its’ proper venue — practical politics vs. philosphy debate. Early in my current campaign I was asked by a former Republican legislator to explain my position on the drug war. I explained that when elected I would support the same legislation for medical marijuana that a prominient Republican put forward last session as Texas was simply not ready for more than that. I won his vote.

    Now I want to challenge one thought in the piece. The first is that the purists contribute more money. I see no evidence for this and lots of evidence for the opposite stance. If you break it down by person/months of membership (whatever that means these days), then it is particularly glaring that donations come disproportionally from pragmatists, but that the pragmatists are simply outnumbered at this point in time. This is doubly true in campaign donations where many purists don’t believe in winning.

  2. Being somewhat a purist with a pragmatic approach to things (try selling vacuums door to door). We need to learn that different issues and audiences need different approaches. One size does not fit all.
    But on healthcare if I may. One of the biggest problems here is the lack of information regarding pricing. I do not know how to solve the problem, but am willing to listen if you have ideas. Here’s an example. I am on another email list and people were comparing CAT scan prices. One person head a quote for $7500 and there was a low price of $850 and then everything in between with an average of about $3500, but this information is not available to the general public. How do we get it out?
    What restricts the flow of this information?
    Comments please.
    M.H.W.

  3. Rock’s point on the participation by purists is a very good one, and it stands for the Libertarians & the Greens here in Maryland.

    It is the pragmatists who realized the opportunity for the Zeese Unity campaign, that Libs and Greens can/should work together, the purists do attempt to stop us and they work in tandem with people who would rather not run candidates for office. It is the pragmatists who realized that they should tolerate our smaller differences and focus on the larger issue, i.e. our government is no longer of by or for the people.

    The purists try and write the other side off as “crazies”, but most libs are not gun touting rednecks and most greens are not fascist hippies. The pragmatists know better.

    Working together has lead to a wealth of new ideas, I only have to look at the discussion boards on this website that have been forced out due to my fathers stance on healthcare and lets face it, that is a very good dialogue. We should continue to work with eachother

  4. You have to remember that in MOST cases the health care consumer is notfree at will to roam about and shop. They have a serious medical condition or illness like me and as the system is now, theres little way to introduce market forces in these situations bcuae the decisions made ARE NOT MADE BY COST. THEY ARE MADE BY FEAR, both on the part of the patient and by the part of their care team.

    Until the adversarial nature of the system is changed, you wont change anything else an mke it more libertarian. The first thing that has to be done is legal reform, so that every part of the industry does not live in mortal fear of every other part for which it’s survival depends it spite of itself. Easier said than done, but this has to be the first step.

  5. You keep saying that, Tim, and it’s a good point. I guess my only question is HOW?

  6. >Stuart Richards: 20 years of Libertarian failures has conclusively shown us that “educating the voters” doesn’t work.

    David Tomlin: The experience of one party over two decades proves ‘conclusively’ that slavery was never abolished and Prohibition was never repealed?

    >Rock Howard: If you break it down by person/months of membership (whatever that means these days), then it is particularly glaring that donations come disproportionally from pragmatists, but that the pragmatists are simply outnumbered at this point in time. This is doubly true in campaign donations where many purists don’t believe in winning.

    David Tomlin: Excellent! With all that money, the ‘pragmatists’ should have little difficulty starting a party of their own.

  7. >Alex Zeese: It is the pragmatists who realized the opportunity for the Zeese Unity campaign . . .

    David Tomlin: Libertarians missed an “opportunity” to support the equivalent of an “Apollo Program” or a “Manhatten Project” for “energy independence”? Fancy that.

    > AZ: The purists try and write the other side off as “crazies” . . .

    DT: I think you have that backwards.

    >AZ: . . .but most libs are not gun touting rednecks and most greens are not fascist hippies.

    DT: What on earth is this about?

  8. There is a difference in enacting socialized healthcare and supporting medical marijuana. One is an absolutely unacceptable pro-government act that will pass and the other is a fantastic incrementalist pro-freedom act that may or may not pass.

    In other words, you still fail like so many “reformers” to understand that some pragmatism is good and moves us towards our goals and some is antithetical to our cause. When you have a positive government proposal it stands a higher chance of happening than when you have a negative government proposal. That’s why liberals and conservatives have almost built the total State. For liberals to get their big government, they have to put of with conservatives big government.

  9. Devious Dave is correct when he says “When you have a positive government proposal it stands a higher chance of happening than when you have a negative government proposal.”

    For years, people urged support for the Libertarian Party even if it can’t win elections, on the grounds that the LP would influence the Republicans, the way the Socialists influenced the Democrats since the New Deal.

    Actually, the Socialist Party opposed some government programs – conscription, various wars, and militarism in general. New Deal leader FDR pushed through a draft and got America involved in a world war. So the Dems did not go along with the Socialists when the Socialists opposed bigger government. They only went along when the Socialists favored bigger government.

  10. You know, I just obtained a history of the US Socialist Party… I think when I’m done reading it, I’ll post whatever information I gleaned. But that could take a while.

  11. For years, people urged support for the Libertarian Party even if it can’t win elections, on the grounds that the LP would influence the Republicans, the way the Socialists influenced the Democrats since the New Deal.

    Lot o good that did us. Lets try winning elections and see if that works.

  12. Stuart,

    only way to start is with complete tort reform. Until the legal system quits being a lottery system, it wont change. There’s other things, but it’s too much for on here.

    it’s probably also the hardest reform that would ever be attempted by anyone.

  13. This ‘Up With Pragmatism’ type campaigning, is not only insulting, it is dangerous. One might as well throw-out all principle, because that is what would be needed when accepting compromise. In compromise, the good always conceeds, while the evil always gains ground. Principles are CALLED principles, because they are never compromised, for a vote.

    Go down the road of pragmatism and you become no better than the big-two parties of powerlust. Cause and effect is more than ten-levels deep, so I would suggest to any pragmatists to discontinue scimming the surface, one or two levels only.

    Stop ignoring the philosophical side of libertarianism as though it were a thorn. It is the IGNORANCE of it that holds back our progress. The philosophical is the life’s-blood and backbone of the practical side.

    Good thing Jefferson and Franklin aren’t around to hear this talk of ‘The end justifies the means.’

  14. Thomas Jefferson was a complex person. When it came to politics he could be quite a devious SOB.

  15. If you’re right about Jefferson, Mr Tomlin, nothing has changed and my words still stand. The principle is still true. Right is right. Concede on principle and you have no principle. There is no room for comromising on principle… only on details.

  16. No matter what LP candidate runs, the opposition will paint them as a wingnut or an extremist – that is called doing “real politics”. Voters don’t read pledges or platforms – most don’t even read the friggin newspaper. I’m not so sure most voters even care a lot about the issues or even understand the issues. We can tinker with platform and argue about the pledge, but I’m willing to bet we will not further our cause.

    Voters want happy talk, a simple message, consistency, and constant repitition. The LP offers none of these things. A positive message could include promises of better education, national security, cheaper healthcare – no explanation is required, although we should have answers to these issues available as policy papers that advocate actual libertarian solutions.

  17. It is time to quit talking about tax cuts, estate taxes, gun rights and personal responsibility. People think they are hearing Republicans. Likewise, talking about drugs and immigration, people think they are listening to the evil liberals. We need our own lingo, catch phrases, and buzz words so that there is no confusion that libertarians are not conservatives or liberals. First it might help if libertarians figured this out – forget the little bit liberal little bit conservative crap.

    The LP needs to focus on the really big issues such as war & national security, long term financial solvency, and quality of life issues. National priorities and the role of government need to be introduced into the national debate. It is time to tell voters the truth – that is unless America makes some big changes, even radical changes, our children and grandchildren will likely be living in a bankrupt police state at war with much of the world.

    The good news is that the LP has solutions.

  18. One last thought: TV, TV, TV. Forget the LP News, forget the Watergate office, forget the endless mass mailings.

    The LP needs to advertise on TV – not talk radio.

    The LP needs to be on TV constantly. 15 second ads that
    give a simple message and web address.

    Examples:

    1. The Libertarian Party believes that America shouldn’t
    be the policeman of the world (end)

    2. The Libertarian Party believes the national
    debt shouldn’t $8.4 trillion (end)

    3. The Libertarian Party believes that America can have national security AND liberty (end)

    At the end of each ad, a simple message:

    Join the Libertarian Party and restore the American dream.

    It really is time to wrap ourselves in the flag and ask the Republicrats what is it they don’t get about the Constitution.

  19. Jefferson and Franklin would never support modern day libertrianism. Jeffferson believed in taxes, self government, and despised anarchy in any form. He would look at the pledge
    and call the LP an enemy to freedom, not a help to it.

  20. Stuart writes: We’re gonna need money for all that.

    No shit! And tons of it. And that calls for energizing the base with a dynamic message – perhaps even radical.

    As for speculating about what Jefferson and Franklin would think about the LP, I think they were far more radical than Tim suggests. Did they call for incremental baby steps towards independence from King George?

    How ironic that Jefferson supported self-rule as that is the very definition of anarchy. Compared to the system as it now exists, the Constitution is closer to anarchy than most minarchists currently advocate. I think Jefferson and Franklin would be appalled at the current state of affairs.

    I’m only surprised that more libertarians don’t have any sense of urgency to roll back the slide into the mess we have allowed America to become. If they would think the LP is an enemy of freedom, it would only be because the LP is too moderate in the face of current affairs.

  21. RE TP No19:

    1. The Libertarian Party believes that America shouldn’t
    be the policeman of the world (end)

    2. The Libertarian Party believes the national
    debt shouldn’t $8.4 trillion (end)

    3. The Libertarian Party believes that America can have national security AND liberty (end)

    AZ: You can replace Libertarian with Greens and Populists for all this. Those are pragmatic comments that anyone not in the 2 party oligargchy can honestly make.

  22. RE: >David Tomlin: Libertarians missed an “opportunity” to support the equivalent of an “Apollo Program”…

    AZ: Missed opportunity? I think you missed something about who won in MD. Raze your hand if you would like to stop paying your electric bills? There is no Manhattan project needed, people are already able to put power back into the grid, but it requires investment. Getting off fossil fuel= end of War on Terror.

    > AZ: The purists try and write the other side off as “crazies” . . .

    >DT: …you have that backwards.

    AZ; The crazies try and write the other side as purists?

    >AZ: . . .but most libs are not gun touting rednecks and most greens are not fascist hippies.

    >DT: What on earth is this about?

    AZ: a simplified example, people opposed to working together try and fight about differences rather then solving problems we agree on, ie: War on Drugs/Terror, Nat Debt, ect.