third party politics simply is not an effective way of promoting libertarianism in the “first past the post” American political system. That system makes it almost impossible for a third party to win any important elected offices. And such a party also can’t be an effective tool for public education because the media isn’t likely to devote much attention to a campaign with no chance of success.
Libertarians have had some genuine successes over the last 35 years. These include abolition of the draft (heavily influenced by Milton Friedman’s ideas), deregulation of large portions of the economy (of which libertarians were the leading intellectual advocates), major reductions in tax rates (facilitated by libertarian economists, libertarian activists, and the legislative efforts of libertarian-leaning Republicans), the increasing popularity of school choice programs, increases in judicial protection for property rights, gun rights, and economic liberties (thanks in large part to advocacy by libertarian legal activists), and heightened respect for privacy and freedom of speech (promoted by libertarians in cooperation with other groups). Libertarian academics and intellectuals have also done much to make libertarian ideas more respectable and less marginal than they were in the 1960s and early 70s.
What all these successes have in common is that they were achieved either by working within the two major parties or by efforts outside the context of party politics altogether. The Libertarian Party didn’t play a significant role in any of them.
Libertarians often emphasize that failed enterprises should be liquidated rather than kept going on artificial life support. That enables their resources to be reinvested in other, more successful firms. The point is well taken, and it applies to the Libertarian Party itself. For 35 years, the Party has consumed valuable resources, both financial and human. The money spent on the LP and the time donated by its committed activists could do a lot more to promote libertarianism if used in other ways.
I won’t use this space to dispute Somin’s analysis of the LP’s influence. Instead, I’ll point out that he makes two mistakes that are very common in the libertarian movement.
First, he assumes that the resources of libertarian activists are fungible, and that there are no opportunity costs to erasing the choice labeled “Libertarian” from the ballots of more than 100 million voters. In fact, most Libertarian candidates self-finance their campaigns, and few of them would be willing to divert much of that money (to say nothing of their time) to the libertarian organizations (like Mercatus and IHS) that help support libertarian academics like Somin. While it is indeed hard to measure the educational impact of the LP’s efforts on the electorate, there is no doubt that the LP has attracted many more people to the freedom movement than it currently retains as dues-payers. Electoral politics is a very cost-effective way to put the Libertarian label in front of a lot of people who otherwise would never hear of it. Only in the last decade has the Web made the Libertarian label a deep portal into the freedom movement, rather than just a curious name associated with an 800 number. And only in the last six months has this portal led to a party that doesn’t demand personal secession and immediate non-enforcement of all tax laws.
Second, Somin assumes that the purpose of the LP must be to win elective office or to educate the public. In fact, the purpose of the LP should be to unite all the voters who seek both more personal liberty and more economic liberty behind the choices available to them that will most move public policy in a libertarian direction. Even if you don’t believe this effort will move policy much, it still should be useful to publicly measure how much electoral demand exists for more liberty. LP candidates for federal and state legislature regularly poll 3% to 6% here in California. Such a bloc of votes could be very influential in close elections, and there might be more such elections now that Prop 11 (redistricting reform) just passed. Even a little leverage can go a long way. Richard Winger reminds us that the Prohibition Party candidate for president earned only 1.19% in 1916, but he caused the Republicans to lose (by tipping California) and thus persuaded congressional Republicans to pass the 18th amendment in 1917. In ten Senate and gubernatorial races from 1998 to 2006, the LP candidate’s vote was more than the margin of victory. In each case the Democrat won, but that’s nothing to lose sleep over. The Republican Party must either become a force for limiting government, or be punished. The freedom movement should not put all its eggs in the basket of internally reforming the two parties that are in the grip of the Nanny State Matrix.