Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Sound and Fury of Barr and Ruwart

In the spring of 1999, I turned 18 and joined the Libertarian Party. In the spring of 2008, while I barbecued, the Libertarian Party held its convention and decided who it would nominate for President of the United States. And Dave Weigel of Reason was there to live-blog it. As it turns out they use some sort of instant run-off system, where the delegates vote for their favorite candidate in successive rounds, the lowest vote-getter dropping out after each round. Eventually it came down to Bob Barr and Mary Ruwart tied ahead of Wayne Allyn Root, and Root's delegates ended up going to Barr after the last runoff, giving him the victory.

Bob Barr is, of course, a former Republican Congressman from Georgia, and a recent convert to libertarianism. As recently as 2000 he was an active supporter of the War On Drugs, and he voted in favor of the Patriot Act, but a recent change of heart led him to lobby for the Marijuana Policy Project and, well, seek the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party.

There are two interesting things about the doomed Ruwart campaign. The first is that it constituted a significant backlash against the Barr candidacy. His entourage drew boos at the convention, and (according to Weigel) many of her supporters believed that the Barr/Root ticket constituted some sort of outsider takeover of the party.

The second interesting thing about Ruwart's campaign is that she said this:
Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it's distasteful to us personally. Some children will make poor choices just as some adults do in smoking and drinking to excess. When we outlaw child pornography, the prices paid for child performers rise, increasing the incentives for parents to use children against their will.
Quote via the first site that came up on google.

This position isn't merely wrong - it has collateral damage. She's using an argument centered around black market unintended consequence that is deployed by all sorts of libertarians arguing against victimless crimes such as drug use or prostitution, to defend acts that most certainly have victims. One could just as easily make the argument that banning murder increases the price of hitmen, increasing the incentives for people to kill for money.

To continue to support such a candidate after such a misstep shows an incredible lack of judgment. Let's start with the media. Which headline do you suppose is more likely to make it onto the Drudge Report: "Libertarians nominate Mary Ruwart", or "Libertarian Presidential nominee wants to legalize child pornography"? For how many people would that story be their first and/or most lasting impression of the Libertarian Party? And how many of them would be reminded of Ruwart's argument next time they heard someone attack the Drug War for creating and sustaining black markets? All the Ruwart nomination would have accomplished for the LP is a load of bad press, and an immense distraction from the discussion of the issues that Libertarians actually care about.

Meanwhile, candidate Christine Smith remains incensed about the Barr nomination:
I cannot support someone for the LP presidential nominee who is former CIA, a federal prosecutor responsible for incarcerating people for laws we as libertarians oppose, a supporter of the Patriot Act, voted for the unjust invasion of Iraq, author of The Defense of Marriage Act, supports foreign aid, one whose stances are un-libertarian to the core - on immigration-gay equality-the drug war (research what he wants to do currently in Columbia and in Latin America in general--this is not a libertarian who wants to end the drug war--this is not a non-interventionist candidate). He would have much to prove, over time, before a libertarian such as myself would trust him enough to support him to hold any LP office. I cannot support Root for the LP VP as he is someone who endorsed John McCain, defines marriage as only between a man and woman, supports foreign aid, and believes war with Iran would be the right war. Now saying a few of the "right words" suddenly does not, for me, make either one a libertarian. As I told CSPAN during an interview after my initial remarks, I think Barr is a wolf in sheep's clothing (and I view Root as a counterfeit libertarian). However, to clarify, I do not think he nor Barr has deceived Libertarians so much as Libertarians know exactly what these men are - but they just do not care.

Am I misreading this, or is there a contingent out there that believes Barr is pretending to have converted to libertarianism in order to secure the nomination? That he's engaging in an elaborate coup? Here's a question, and a segue.

To what end?

Let's be fair, after all. We're not talking about the next president of the United States. We're talking about the nomination of a candidate from a third party which hasn't received more than 500,000 votes in a presidential election since 1980. The Libertarian convention more resembles a role-playing convention than an actual political convention; the primary difference is that D&D players know that nothing is actually happening.

The most consequential third party candidates of the post-Reagan era are of course, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. Perot is an interesting and unique figure who probably deserves more study than he gets; certainly more than I feel like giving him, and since his 1992 campaign occurred when I was well under 5 feet tall, I don't remember much from the time, aside from a goofy voice and a lot of charts. His wikipedia article indicates that he held a variety of positions each of which have mainstream support, but taken together are as far as I know unique to him:
With such declared policies as balancing the federal budget, firm pro-choice stance, expansion of the war on drugs, ending outsourcing of jobs, opposition to gun control, belief in protectionism on trade, his support of the Environmental Protection Agency and enacting electronic direct democracy via "electronic town halls," he became a potential candidate and soon polled roughly even with the two major party candidates.

His candidacy was completely orthogonal to all of the existing parties, including the libertarians. Being pro-choice kept him out of the GOP, and opposition to gun control kept him away from the Democrats (such a position might not be such a detriment today). And his protectionist and pro-WoD positions put him in a decidedly unlibertarian camp. Thus he arguably (and according to exit polls) drew equally from both parties.

He is the ultimate ceiling for third party candidacies, but his run was top-down from the start; he was going to spend his money to run for president, and whoever wanted to support him could do so. He did not arise from a nomination process.

The above cannot be said for Ralph Nader, whose history is much more well known, because it caused the election of our current (awful) president.

The LP has been sufficiently orthogonal and unsuccessful to avoid blame for this or that major party candidate losing/winning presidential elections, but Barr's candidacy has the potential to change both of those factors. A lot of conservatives dissatisfied with McCain may look his way, and he brings a lot more legitimacy to the nomination than say, Michael Badnarik. If he truly does what the Smith/Ruwart camp fears, and draws the party rightward away from its principles, then he would destroy the party's orthogonality, and possibly end up to blame for a narrow Obama victory over McCain.

How would that help conservatives? How would that enhance the personal fame and fortune of Bob Barr? Assuming he knows this, what possible reason could he have to pretend to convert to libertarianism, if he is not actually a libertarian?

Ultimately, these conspiracy whisperings betray the ultimate delusion of big-L activists: that the LP is actually an effective outlet for working to increase / restore the personal liberty of American citizens. It is not.

Ross Perot had success partly because he represented a set of relatively mainstream ideas, some of which ran counter to either party, and partly because he self-financed his campaign and thus did not grow out of an existing political organization. It's difficult to envision a scenario under which a candidate with his positions would arise out of a coherent political organization; and indeed, the Reform Party he spawned was never able to field another serious candidate.

Even if the LP avoids the Barr-as-Nader scenario, it will never produce a Perot. Its best case scenario is that it gradually builds support while maintaining a delicate balance of positions; not drifting close enough to either major party to siphon more votes from one than the other in a close general election. But as that support increases, it will tempt the major parties (especially when they are in the minority) to adopt libertarian positions on a few issues to draw voters away. The only reason this process did not destroy Perot in 1992, is because he came out of nowhere and built up a large base of support before they could react.

It's easy to envision the two major political parties as sinister, monolithic entities that do not respond to political opinion, but that's wrong. The parties certainly have inertia but they are ultimately organic outgrowths of the political environment of the time, and if the political winds change, they change with them. If the Libertarian Party gets a significant vote, their best positions will be siphoned off. We see that with the Republicans adopting (however tepidly) budget-cutting and free market positions, and the Democrats opposing (however tepidly) further expansions of the surveillance state. These inroads are small because libertarians are a small constituency compared to, say, the camps that want to nationalize health care or initiate a pre-emptive war with Iran. That's the reality of this country and of a first-past-the-post election system.

The reason that the LP gets a trivial amount of votes every year isn't any diabolical conspiracy, and it's not because they haven't seen your favorite candidate's name on a blimp. It's that not very many people actually think libertarians are right. The only way to change this is to argue libertarian positions on issues and convince people to agree with you. The LP does this, but only as a side project, or as a means to the end of trying to shoot the moon and win an election. It puts on a dog and pony show to select a hopeless presidential candidate. It spends hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring petitioners to get that hopeless candidate on the ballot. That's money that could go to the ACLU, or the Cato Institute, or the Innocence Project.

Many libertarians despise both relevant parties and cannot stomach voting for their candidates. That is a perfectly understandable position, which I happen to share most of the time. But supporting the LP is a waste of scarce resources. You'll accomplish just as much by writing in Batman and keeping your money. If you want a revolution, get people on your side first, and bust out the torches and pitchforks second.



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