L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 329, July 24, 2005
"You've GOTTA be kidding"
Pragmatic or Pure?
Special to TLE
Libertarians have long argued whether a pragmatic approach (generally defined as advocating gradual progress toward liberty) or a purist approach (generally calling for the final goal and explaining the moral reasoning behind it) should be pursued by the Libertarian Party. This argument has come to a head in recent weeks with the release of the LP's Exit Strategy for Iraq, which has appealed to (some) pragmatists by proposing a gradual and perhaps realistic plan for withdrawing from Iraq, while offending purists (and others) by violating the LP platform and libertarian principles in calling for foreign aid to Iraq and moving some of the withdrawn troops to other Mideast bases.
Pragmatists point to the lack of success achieved with a purist platform in the past thirty years, while purists argue that gradual proposals surrender libertarian principle in exchange for nothing, since victory would likely remain elusive with all but the most gradual and mainstream offerings, hardly worthy of the name "libertarian." (Some purists contend that the LP's lack of electoral success comes from never having been pure enough.) A remarkable compromise appeared to be at hand with the recently reworked LP Platform, which clearly spelled out libertarian principles and goals while leaving the door open for offering gradual improvements. Unfortunately, the Exit Strategy document abandoned the reworked platform, and re-ignited the feud.
Yet, many American voters want smaller government and greater liberty, and are getting neither from the Republicans and Democrats. It should be possible to offer candidates for election under the Libertarian label who make campaign promises that are both pragmatic and pure, by focusing on what a candidate could actually deliver if elected. If every Libertarian candidate made the following promises to voters, wouldn't it improve their chances for success dramatically?
1. LP candidates, if elected, will vote against all tax increases.
Who wouldn't want a candidate like that representing them in Washington? (Well, some pro-government socialists wouldn't, perhaps.) Couldn't a candidate making those promises defeat mealy-mouthed Republicans and Democrats who say one thing and do another? Don't Americans want someone to stand up to the bipartisan assault on their liberty and their pocketbooks?
If the LP candidate would like to see government reduced by 90%, or 99%, or 100%, couldn't he or she still support the 8 points above? Aren't those 8 points something he or she could actually deliver on, if promised to voters? Libertarian candidates wouldn't have to repudiate radical libertarian goals, or contend that half-measures are good enough, but could focus on what they would actually DO if elected. Libertarian activists inside and outside the LP could continue explaining libertarian principles and advocating libertarian goals to all who would listen. When the Libertarian Party achieved a majority in Congress, the question of how far to go in dismantling government would become relevant to voters.
Come to think of it, isn't this the platform that Congressman Ron Paul runs on? He is a libertarian purist, or nearly so, but he doesn't promise to dismantle the federal government overnight, because he can't deliver on that promise. He promises instead to uphold the Constitution, and vote against any bill that violates it, no matter how many of his colleagues support it. How popular is Dr. Paul? No one filed to run against him in 2004, because they had no chance to defeat him.