Monday, May 21, 2007

Principles, purposes and parties


I hadn't intended to reply to Dr. Carl Milsted's latest piece, "Party of Principle -- the Inherent Contradiction." We've been around similar trees several times.

But, what the hell. Third Party Watch excerpted Dr. Milsted's article, and, as I am wont to do I got mouthy in the comments, and ended up writing what looks to me like a fairly well-rounded article. I also think that a couple of older pieces (preceding, I think, Dr. Milsted's public debut as a "reformer") might be of interest on the topic. My own thinking has evolved some since writing them, but they are here and here if you're interested. And now, that extended comment (with one edit, noted by a strikeout and replacement -- I mixed up two related words myself!):

Here's the thing: Dr. Milsted has it wrong from the second paragraph, as soon as he posits winning elections as a "purpose" of the LP.

"Winning elections" is not a purpose. It's a goal, the achievement of which is supposed to advance the purpose.

The purpose of the Libertarian Party is "to implement and give voice to the principles embodied in the Statement of Principles."

Dr. Milsted may not think that is the appropriate purpose of a political party. For that matter, I may not think so, either. Nonetheless, that is the purpose of the Libertarian Party. If you don’t believe me, read the bylaws for yourself.

The purpose mentioned above is followed by the word "by," and that is followed by a list of various activities which the party is to engage in to achieve its purpose.

Listed goal #1: "[F]unctioning as a libertarian political entity separate and distinct from all other political parties or movements ..." This goal has arguably been achieved in spades, and it has contributed to the purpose (giving voice to, etc.).

Listed goal #2: "[M]oving public policy in a libertarian direction by building a political party that elects Libertarians to public office ..." The LP has made some progress on this goal -- not nearly enough, but some.

Listed goal #3: "[C]hartering affiliate parties throughout the United States and promoting their growth and activities ..." The Libertarian Party has, or at least had (I've heard that some have become defunct, but don't know it for a fact) affiliate parties in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Most of us would freely admit that the "supporting their growth and activities" part of the goal has been achieved unevenly over the years.

Listed goal #4: "[N]ominating candidates for President and Vice-President of the United States, and supporting Party and affiliate party candidates for political office ..." This would presumably really be a subsidiary goal of #2. The LP has engaged in various support activities for its candidates, from "candidate training" seminars to ballot access assistance, over the years. Whether the goal has been routinely satisfactorily achieved is a matter of opinion.

List goal #5: "[E]ntering into public information activities." Once again, how well this goal has been achieved is a matter of opinion, and that opinion has varied over time and between individuals.

BUT ... let's get back to listed goal #2.

The only reason to have that goal is to use it to fulfill the PURPOSE of the party.

Dr. Milsted frequently attempts to smuggle in the subsidiary goal as the purpose, because if he can do so, he doesn't have to discuss the purpose ... something he doesn't want to do, since the purpose is at odds with many of his stated goals.

The purpose of the party is to "implement and give voice to the principles" of the following:

We, the members of the Libertarian Party, challenge the cult of the omnipotent state and defend the rights of the individual.

We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.

Governments throughout history have regularly operated on the opposite principle, that the State has the right to dispose of the lives of individuals and the fruits of their labor. Even within the United States, all political parties other than our own grant to government the right to regulate the lives of individuals and seize the fruits of their labor without their consent.

We, on the contrary, deny the right of any government to do these things, and hold that where governments exist, they must not violate the rights of any individual: namely, (1) the right to life -- accordingly we support the prohibition of the initiation of physical force against others; (2) the right to liberty of speech and action -- accordingly we oppose all attempts by government to abridge the freedom of speech and press, as well as government censorship in any form; and (3) the right to property -- accordingly we oppose all government interference with private property, such as confiscation, nationalization, and eminent domain, and support the prohibition of robbery, trespass, fraud, and misrepresentation.

Since governments, when instituted, must not violate individual rights, we oppose all interference by government in the areas of voluntary and contractual relations among individuals. People should not be forced to sacrifice their lives and property for the benefit of others. They should be left free by government to deal with one another as free traders; and the resultant economic system, the only one compatible with the protection of individual rights, is the free market.


If you read the above to prohibit (for example) coercive taxation, you're reading it right. Dr. Milsted doesn't have to like that, but that's the way it is.

"Winning elections" is a laudable goal -- but unless winning elections "implements and gives voice to" the above, it does not support the purpose of the Libertarian Party.

Dr. Milsted wants the party to have a different purpose than it does, among other reasons because he disagrees with many of the implications of its current purpose ...

... but his way of advocating that is dishonest: Instead of hitting the issue head on, he chooses to pretend that the party already has a different purpose than it does, and hope that nobody calls him on it until can present the transformation of the party as a fait accompli and let the broken rules fall under their own weight.

Oddly enough, I agree with Dr. Milsted on a number of things.

For one thing, I believe that the Libertarian Party should rethink its purpose early and often, whether it chooses to change that purpose or not after doing so.

For another, I believe that the Libertarian Party should seriously consider whether or not the various subsidiary goals listed in its bylaws are compatible with and/or advance the purpose. To take it a step further, I believe that the LP is in a three-way, not two-way (as per Milsted) bind. It's trying to use "educational" tactics and a reformist strategy to support a revolutionary purpose.

Dr. Milsted would ultimately like to see the purpose of the party changed, and its tactics and strategy brought into supportive line with that purpose. He shouldn’t be ashamed to say so.

On one point, he is right: We are never going to achieve the goal purpose in question by "winning elections," nor will we "win elections" routinely and ubiquitously if we approach elections as "the" way of achieving the stated purpose. Translation: In the current system, American majorities aren't going to vote for the agenda outlined in the Statement of Principles, nor for a platform which is correctly derived from that Statement of Principles, nor for candidates who unabashedly advocate said Statement and said platform.

The LP needs to change its purpose, or change its tactics and strategies for achieving that purpose, or change the system. Maybe some combination of the three. Dr. Milsted (surreptitiously) advocates changing the purpose. I'm torn between changing the tactics and strategies or changing the system. The difference between Dr. Milsted and I is that I don't try to pretend that the purpose is something other than what it is. That pretense has been going around for some time, and like all pretenses, it serves only to confuse the issues.

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