Practical Political Anarchism

It’s an old debate within libertarian circles, but it keeps getting rehashed because it has never been truly resolved. This topic recently resurfaced as an offshoot about the controversy over the Libertarian Party Iraq Exit Strategy. Hopefully, the responses to this posting can be kept to the general issues, as opposed to the specific policy questions debated about the IES or immigration. Some of the related questions in the crossfire are:

Which subsets of the libertarian movement actually move the party (or the movement) forward and which ones hurt us? Are we to be a political organization or an educational one? Should the Libertarian Party be more engaged in political or educational issues? Is the Libertarian Party detrimental to libertarian election results which might be better obtained by Republicans or Democrats?

Last night, I made the following comment:

Some of the best political consultants (for Rs and Ds) that I know are closet anarcho-capitalists. I’m a consultant and an anarcho-capitalist. The two are not mutually exclusive.

B-psycho responded with a good question at Psychopolitik — and opened the door for much needed conversation on the topic. I’ll try to respond.

B-psycho initially responded to my comment:

..Que? This would be news to me.

To Steve: how do these “closet anarcho-capitalists*” explain their job as seemingly working against their long-term interests? Are they just spying on their opposition, or do they think that the more that each “side” undermines the country the sooner a stateless society* will be accepted?

For the purpose of this debate (as the term is used several times by B-psycho and me), I’ll use the general Wiki definition of anarcho-capitalist. I prefer the term Free Market Anarchist. I should also make it clear that while this is my personal belief system, I don’t believe our society is immediately ready for such a utopian solution. It is clear to me that too many people are intellectually and financially dependent upon the nanny state for such a political system to be established without initially starting with some considerable educational efforts and incremental political changes — those preferring serious bloodbaths notwithstanding.

I’ll begin by stating there may be more anarcho-capitalist political consultants out there than people realize. Unlike me, most are “in the closet” — for obvious reasons. One name I think I can provide (as he is getting out of the political consulting business and shifting toward libertarian video production) is David McElroy. McElroy has worked behind the scenes on a variety of Alabama GOP races, yet is about as anarchistic as one can be. We had lunch together a few weeks ago and discussed this very topic (the primary topic was documentary video production and distribution) a bit. He asked for my opinion about distribution of his new documentary, “We’re the Government — and You’re Not” — a film which I thoroughly enjoyed viewing.

Both McElroy and I would agree that we are not working against our long-term interests if we are incrementally moving politics in a direction of less government. If America ever approaches the point that are politically inline with the signers of the Dallas Accord, we can rehash the issue. Until such time, we are all fellow travelers.

To me, the issue is simple. Which brings us closer to a libertarian solution — not being engaged in the political process or promotion of small government candidates who are opposed to the initiation of force?

It’s my view that B-Psycho covered some good ground and raised important questions with this statement:

The old guard sees their desired end result & thinks simply offering that to the public whole-hog is the best way to convince people, while the reformers think that’s a pipe dream.

In a way, I agree with both the anti-politics group AND the ones trying to get us “in the game” so to speak. As I’ve said in the past, I realize that the essential goal of libertarianism is to abolish politics-as-we-know-it.

After a whole lot of debate on this topic, I don’t see this as an old guard issue. Both anarchists and minarchists were involved in the reformation of the libertarian movement in the early seventies. After writing the article linked above, I wrote another to determine if the division between the party could be better defined. I divided people into multiple potentially conflicting groups, and again missed the mark. These groups were:

    Ideologues v. Political players
    Purists v. Pragmatists
    Activists v. Institutionalists
    Radical platform reformers v. No major platform overhaul supporters
    Anarchists v. Minarchists

What came out of this conversation was an opinion by Thomas Knapp which I find generally compelling. While the topic was the LP’s IES, I believe the true dividing line within the libertarian movement was established.

It portends the LP jettisoning its ideological faction and becoming a political party. So far, it is engaging in incrementalism, but not compromise. This rubs the outgoing ideological faction the wrong way, because they regard accepting anything other than an instantaneous jump to the final state envisioned in the platform as a “compromise.”

The LP may experience increasing political success, or abject failure, if it begins to actually operate on a political model. But at least it will have the chance to succeed or fail instead of simply being held back from doing either (and thus failing by default).

It is possible that the ideological wing may be able to pull the political wing back from the edge of following the course it has obviously set for the party, which would mean a return to the status quo ante, albeit in a weakened position with respect to credibility. Parties of any type don’t release plans, and then denounce themselves for what they’ve just done, if they want to be taken seriously; sometimes you just have to have some balls and forge full speed ahead even at the expense of schism.

To put it more succinctly, as Knapp and I learned over the course of a few e-mails, the dividing line seems to be between those who wish to effectively engage in the political process and those who don’t. Both sides can include purists, pragmatists, incrementalists, anarchists, minarchists, constitutionalists, Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, activists, institutionalists and even philosophers.

There are some ideologues who can work well within the political system. These folks tend to (this is not a requirement) compromise some value from time to time as long as the general trend is incremental. As an example, I work with a local Republican city council member (there are currently no Libertarians on the council) who votes 99% libertarian (the local dominant newspaper even calls him “Dr. No”). When he is pushing an idea with which I disagree, I’ll either remain silent or oppose him on that idea — but not his entire candidacy.

There are other ideologues who won’t work with any political entity that is not 100% (by their own opinions) libertarian. There’s so much ongoing debate within libertarian circles that it is unlikely this sort of ideologue will ever find 100% agreement with any candidate or even multi-issue organization within the movement. For an ideologue to work within the political system, it seems they either have to be willing to compromise (it is rare, if not impossible, for one to ever find a group of libertarians in absolute agreement) or to accept incremental solutions.

As an anarcho-capitalist, I certainly support medical marijuana legislation, as it is an incremental step in the correct direction. Likewise, I don’t know any purist who would oppose a 50% cut in government spending. There are principled libertarians in other parties; Ron Paul and Frank Gonzalez serve as examples. Certainly there are many examples of activists and (probably fewer) philosphers who don’t find conflict between their ideas and engagement in real world politics.

B-psycho’s conflict between those who wish to engage politically within the system and those who are “anti-politics” is natural, and this is where he essentially states the same thing Thomas Knapp did. What’s interesting to me is there need not be such a conflict.

There are a variety of single issue organizations with which uncompromising or non-incrementalist ideologues can work. They can even pick a political issue(s) and work with MPP, IJ, NTU, GOA, KABA or others and do something positive without challenging their value system. Others who choose pushing ideas as opposed to politics can work with organizations like CATO, the Heartland Institute, Reason Foundation or the von Mises Institute. Other organizations communicate about libertarian politics, issues, causes and ideas. Reason and Liberty are the obvious examples, but the options are unlimited. This website, Free Talk Live and countless blogs serve as examples of libertarian communicators.

In addition to policy organizations and libertarian media, there are political parties. The general mission of a political party is to get its candidates and policies advanced. While there are a few examples of libertarians within the Democratic and Republican parties, I’ve not (yet — but getting close) lost hope in the potential of the Libertarian Party.

B-psycho perhaps stated it best:

While the political warriors get into the State & cut it down, libertarian culture warriors should be bringing up the people. In that way, we both give each other space to work. The sooner we stop thinking we’re at odds and realize we compliment each other, the sooner true progress can be made. Get on it.

My advice for each of you is to take a hard look at your personal value system and find the role or roles where you can best promote the issues you find most important to you. If you consider yourself “anti-politics” or don’t wish to be a political player, this role can’t logically be playing politics. If you can’t agree on enough of the issues, work with issue groups to effect political change in the arenas you find important.

We can truly succeed if we spend our time doing that at which we are best, spend less time fighting with our allies (especially the ones with whom we only agree 99.99997% of the time) and open the lines of communication between the various sorts of libertarian organizations which should be coordinating efforts in the fight for liberty. As long as we continue to fight among ourselves, we will only continue to fight one losing battle after another.

Stephen Gordon

I like tasteful cigars, private property, American whiskey, fast cars, hot women, pre-bailout Jeeps, fine dining, worthwhile literature, low taxes, original music, personal privacy and self-defense rights -- but not necessarily in this order.

  1. Stephen Gordon writes: “Are we to be a political organization or an educational one?”
    I’ve run into this before and I find it a bit frustrating.
    We are a political one, but we also need to inform the electorate about issues that are being ignored by the press and most, if not all, politicians. Two examples if I may. How many people know the history of inflation in America?
    How many politicians discuss it? Most people do not realize that only in the last fifty years has the dollar declined in value. Unfortunately most Libertarians probably don’t know the history either.
    Example number two. How many know what it cost annually to keep over 280,000 troops spread around the world? Most don’t and again most politicians will not discuss this issue.
    So if we discuss these issues is it education or is it information? And how do we define the two?
    In my oppinion we need to use every tool we can and if some call it education then so be it.

  2. I’m willing and happy to discuss ideas such as those put forth by LRC et al. There are some ideas floating around in there that are good, and some aspects of the presentation that are an improvement of the status quo. There should even be a little room for flexibility within the platform.

    But I am tired and weary of being blamed and referred to as a problem. And I do not appreciate it at all either. If there is such a big problem with principal – why don’t you people just leave for god’s sake and start another party? In fact, if you are interested in starting a “coalition” party that is supposed to unite libertarians and green etc, I’ll throw some money your way. If you abandon principal, you are not only going to (for now) lose anyway, but you will also lose your compass and destroy the very reason you set out on your journey to begin with.

    Harry Browne was the prime perfect example of a Libertarian candidate. He wasn’t a sell out.

  3. If you and Knapp et al. are such hotshot Jimmy Carville wannabes that can win elections and know what to do, then prove it. Go start a party and make it work. Make it happen. Without “Us”. Thank you very much. Maybe CATO will sell you… err I mean help you out.

    I keep hearing this rubbish over and over and I’m sick to death of it. America has no incentive or interest in limited government right now. This is going to be a long arduous struggle. Why do free markets, privatization etc have to be given a bad name in the meantime? That is another risk you are running. The Republicans are doing a fine job of that with out you.

    Your time preference needs a serious adjustment. All you will wind up with is a pyrrhic victory if you do win – and you won’t anyway.

    All you people keep doing is giving us the Republican treatment, wanting to know why we don’t go join THEM to help them out to fulfill their “Libertarian” agenda. ROFL. Of course, it’s never Republicans joining US to fulfill ours

  4. What I am saying here is that I am tired tired tired of people who are too smart and sophisticated for the barbarous relics of principle and unity. I am tired of being treated as an impediment.

    I am willing to let people like you have your word and participate as long as we are infact moving towards the same goal. Bear in mind that some things that are supposedly moving towards liberty are just a waste of time and energy stepping sideways (FairTax for example) and not worth pursuing. But you are unwilling to let people like me participate; you’d rather have me purged.

    Buck up or shut up. Go start your own party and show us how it’s done. If ludicrous compromise is your game go be a genunine Losertarian in the GOP or DNC.

  5. Devious David, I think you misconstrue what some “reformers” have said with what most of us really think. Most of us, I think, feel pretty adamant that those folks who want Libertopia next Wednesday are something of a idealogical compass and are very much a necessary and needed part of the greater political libertarian movement. I have only seen very, very few reformers suggesting that those who want instantaneous movement to some form of anarcho-whatever society should not be in the party at all. ‘ve seen the opposite quite often, which is that those who think we should move to anarchy now often suggest that the reformers are somehow “not libertarian” and that they don’t belong. They should go play in some other sandbox, etc. Feelings get hurt on both sides… fine. Just please try to remember that those are the stands of only a very few and I think it is only of a very few on boty sides of the table. The rest of us think we can make this whole thing work.

  6. Let me also say that I think Stephen’s assertion here is an important one that I hope folks will look past rhetoric to see. Many of us do NOT see trying to influence the current poitical structure to move incrementally towards libertarianism as somehow being a compromise. It’s just moving us towards liberty incrementally. For example, currently marajuana is illegal in this country. If I support legislation to make marijuana legal for medical purposes, is that compromise or an incremental move towards liberty? For me it is an incremental move because I’m not stopping there. I would intend to also push next for legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes and continue pushing on from there. Is that a compromise? In one light it is, but I think it will be a more effective way to get us towards drug legalization then trying to push for immediate legalization without restriction on all drugs. I just don’t see many non-libertarians voting for that. (Although I would if it came up!)

  7. “we are not working against our long-term interests if we are incrementally moving politics in a direct of less government.”.. That was exactly the point I was making in the other post comments when the other “anarchists”(The ones who DONT want to “do politics”) could do nothing but attack “reformers” and call stupid names..Anyone who doesn’t want to overthrow/dismantle the government in one swift move is a “socialist, Democrat, compromise,etc”-Sounds like the type of attacks and language Bush kool-aid drinkers use. I AM an anarchist that believes in an incrementalist political agenda. Libertarians wont get anywhere by 1. attacking other libertarians as “socialists” and behaving like complete lunatics and 2. Thinking you are so much better/smarter than everyone else because you believe fully in something less than 1% of the pop does ( think you are “top 1%”)and attacking everyone else as “sheeple.”

  8. Despite being a libertarian and a Democrat I find reasons to disagree with both sides of this argument. I agree that we can work for our long term interests by moving incrementally toward less government. But I feel that we can’t do it without some type of long term vision about the best ways to move toward less government. We need to pick our battles. I’m not exactly sure of the details, but this whole catfight inspired my own post on the subject:

  9. Just got back home and hitting the comments in reverse order.


    From your comment and what I’ve read from you before, I fail to see how we disagree at all. We do have to pick our battles, and concentrate our forces at the point where the enemy vulnerablity is the greatest.

    I’ll try to cover your good blog entry as soon as I catch up.

  10. DD,

    I do win both issues and races, so long as the “L” word isn’t attached. All I’m trying to do is to apply what works to candidates with the “L” word. Unfortunately, oftentimes libertarians are a greater obstacle than the Rs and Ds in this regard.

  11. Graham,

    As a generalization, anarchist means one who wishes no government — but this has nothing to do with how one might achieve that goal or the timeline involved.

    Change can be revolutionary or incremental. I strongly prefer the incremental approach and am fighting for it. But I’m not scared of revolution, either.

  12. Lenny,

    1) Thanks.

    2) The dividing line for me (each of us has our own moral decisions to make) is whether I have to violate my own principles. I won’t. As I stated in the article, I’ll remain silent or even oppose my own team. If I have to oppose my team more than once or twice on major issues (again, the definition of major is subjective and personal), I’ll make a new team. Been there and done that quite a few times; it’s not all that tough.

  13. DD,

    I never suggested that you are an impediment. Each of us has our role, and we SHOULD be allies in a generally common cause.

    The suggestion with which you might reasonably take offense is that your role may not be a political one, but an educational one. That is for you to decide; I cannot ever know what is in your heart or mind.

    My point is that all of of have various attributes and detriments, and if we work better as a team (perhaps a pipe dream for a bunch of individualists) we can accomplish more.

  14. MW,

    Why not let CATO, von Mises, et. al. inform the masses and let the LP concentrate on winning. My proposed tactic is to concentrate our forces at the points where they have their greatest weaknesses. That isn’t generally done by education, but by use of every political weapon we have available with some strategic (party) and tactical (race) plan in mind.

  15. Stephen,

    Don’t think we disagree at all, was just throwing in my opinion as support and disagreeing with the sentiments of others who seem to be attacking you from both sides.

  16. Logan,

    If I wasn’t being beaten upon by at least two sides, I’d feel that my politics were too monogamous. :)



  17. MW,

    If we (the LP) discuss an issue with the goal of convincing the public at some time in the future that we were coreect, it may have strategic implications. For the most part, a political party has to be concerned with winning THIS election — or if we get the balls the GOP did in ’94, a decade of elections.

    Unless troop counts or inflation issues win the next election, I’d suggest that the LP ignore the issue and let CATO or von Mises handle it.

  18. Stephen

    I am right there with you on all this. We basically need at least two wings of the libertarian movement, an educational one and a political one. The political one should be the party and the educational one can come in a variety of forms such as CATO, Mises, educational wing of the party, etc.

  19. Stephen I don’t disagree that winning the election at hand is our most important function. However, the LP does have a history of running candidates for offices that are not going to be won any time in the forseeable future, i.e. President, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives. In those cases I belive that the candidates function is one of education ( depending on how you define education, or define it down ;>} ). The LP’s website functions as an educational tool and if the LP chooses to put out media releases then they too can function as educational tools. Pamphlets, fliers, newsletters, “The Viewpoint” if it is still around, all can be educational tools paving the way for or candidates to bring up issues not currently in vogue.
    Basically I see it as “guerilla politics”. Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, including the rule book, but be sure to learn all the rules in the book first. That way it is easier to break them.:)
    M.H.W. Just another functionary

  20. Quoth “Devious David” —

    “If you and Knapp et al. are such hotshot Jimmy Carville wannabes that can win elections and know what to do, then prove it.”

    Actually, I don’t have a very good win/loss record — just a better one than most LP campaign workers, and a willingness to learn what works.

    When it comes to what works, I’m interested in the technical and tactical, not in ideological compromise (I don’t regard incremental improvement as “compromise” — compromise is when you give something up, not when you get less than you’d like).

    I’m not sure who this “us” is that I’m supposed to make it “work” without. I’m not opposed to anarchists or “purists,” because I’m both. All I’m really looking for from LP members is to understand that having the right ideas and hoping for a miracle is not a political strategy.

    Tom Knapp

  21. That was worth requoting:

    Throw everything at the wall and see what sticks, including the rule book, but be sure to learn all the rules in the book first. That way it is easier to break them.

  22. Tom,

    While I won’t compromise on most political issues, all of us with independent thought processes compromise on candidates virtually every time.

    I know you did (as did I) when we worked for Mikey. Our obvious first choice was Russo, and I’m also aware that we both had issues with some of his platform concepts and political statements.

    To some degree, unless we are to forever remain a group of individuals taking potshots at advanced aircraft with our peashooters, we will have to better learn the art of compromise.

    To me, all candidates are the lesser of three or more evils. The only way to change that is for me to run for every possible office at each election. I choose to pick the best of the bunch, but that is a compromise.

  23. >Both sides can include purists, pragmatists, incrementalists, anarchists, minarchists, constitutionalists, Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, activists, institutionalists and even philosophers.

    I think this statement bears repeating.

    Or taking a similar notion from a slightly different angle, my experience, as a ‘purist’, is that most of the ‘pursits’ that I’ve dealt with have little to no objection to the idea of taking incremental/compromise positions when given a situation where it is appropriate to do so.

    The reason the case so often appears to be othewise is that we are usually quoted in the context of responding to someone, who calls himself a ‘pragmatist’, but is in actuality just an idiot who thinks that shutting up on the one anti-pet issue that rubs that particular person the wrong way is the holy grail that will save us all.

    As in “if we’d just back off the drug war”. Or “if we’d only support the war”. Or “if we’d just agree to militarize the border”…

  24. I am a pragmatist. I have no particular “pet issue” beyond simple encouragement of unity in the party as a whole.

    I’ve gotten a little flack for the few mentions (not here) I’ve made of the fact that I believe simply winning elections with a “big L” would be good for the party. Amazingly to me, there are far too many who believe a high-profile electee with the “L” next to his name would be more of a potential for disaster than a win. Mostly I suspect it all falls down to simple antagonism in nature (people who fight merely to fight.) End of the day — we need to be higher profile. Elections and education both make that happen.

    On another — semi-related — note; I have been wondering this thought for a while now: what, structurally, are the D’s & R’s doing that we’re not, that is compatible with the Libertarian ideology? (cont’d)

  25. (cont’d from previous)

    The thought began in my head with one simple realization; despite what they are now and the tactics they use to retain power now, both parties gained power *before* the “time of tax hand-outs” et al. I know, for example, that the republicans and democrats use “political clubs” from which activism (education?) is done, and the political body itself remains a political body.

    I’m not certain what I’m really trying to say here — coupled with a lack of personal experience on the matter — but I really feel that there’s something to this that needs to be examined by a better informed mind than my own.

  26. Libertarian “purists” haven’t got the best records…and that’s judging both the purity and effectiveness of the most distinctive party bellweathers of the past: Rothbard, Evers, Raimondo, Garris, Pillsbury-Foster…the list goes on. Most became Republicans, and have variously backed Reagan, both Bushes, Buchanan and Nader.

    Some people like to point fingers and go to conventions where they can point fingers as part of a mob.

    Finger pointers are unseemly, rude, and unpleasant. Go to any LP convention, and you’ll find them. Meetingists are not activists.