Thomas L. Knapp

Tom Knapp is the publisher of Rational Review.


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Time for a new Dallas Accord?
Anarchism, minarchism, big tents and strange bedfellows
by Thomas L. Knapp

In 1974, a seldom seen phenomenon manifested itself in Dallas, Texas: Libertarians, who only three years before had managed to form their own political party, agreed on something for a second time.

The Dallas Accord seems to be lost in the fog of history. I don't know the names of the principals who hammered it out, or in what official manner it might have been endorsed, but it came down to an agreement that anarchists and minarchists would set aside their fundamental disagreement over the legitimacy of government per se. While working for more freedom and less government, the Party would, in its official operations, make no comment on the ultimate question of whether government should be dispensed with entirely or kept alive, albeit as a shadow of its former self.

The Dallas Accord was not insignificant, however much it may seem so to those not familiar with the libertarian movement. As recently as 1998, a survey by Liberty magazine found that 13% of libertarian respondents were anarchists. That's down from 31% in 1988, but it still represents an influential bloc.

The survey was heavily weighted toward members of the Libertarian Party, as it was in large part conducted at that party's conventions in both 1988 and 1998. While there were other respondent pools, it seems likely that some of the anarchist groups -- Movement of the Libertarian Left, the Western Libertarian Alliance, etc. -- were underrepresented.[To read a response from R.W. Bradford, publisher of Liberty magazine, click here.]

The issue boils up and simmers down, never quite going away and never resolving itself in the form of a purge or a repudiation of the Dallas Accord. It's omnipresent and the subject of ongoing discussion.

In recent years, however, the argument has been taken up by newer Libertarians whose views don't readily fit the old mold. The Libertarian Party's appeal has expanded beyond the anarchist/minarchist population to constitutionalists looking for a group that, to the extent that it recognizes "social contract" at all, insists that it be adhered to; paleoconservatives who have become disgruntled with the Republican Party's slide to the "left;" and anti-authorian liberals who have become equally disgruntled with the Democrats' slide to the "right."

I don't want to put down newcomers, mind you, especially for no other reason than that they are recently arrived. I'm fairly new to the Libertarian Party myself, having joined it in 1996.

And I understand that a political party is a dynamic institution, continually re-shaped by the people who comprise both its active membership and its electoral base.

Reforming and reshaping, however, require an understanding not only of where one wants to go, but of where one has been. While it would be incorrect to say that the LP is an anarchist organization, it would be equally incorrect to portray it as inherently opposed to anarchism. History says otherwise.

I am an anarchist. I don't think anyone who didn't already know that will find it surprising. I believe that, ultimately, government always does more damage than it does good; that that's its nature. Eventually, I hope that we will arrive at the point where we can choose to shrug it off entirely.

I also recognize that we aren't there yet; therefore, unlike some anarchists, I choose to involve myself in the political process. Limited government is conducive to minimal government; minimal government allows the question to be raised, in an environment where it can be considered seriously: do we really need this institution at all? I don't expect that to happen within my lifetime, nor do I feel the need to pursue it as an immediate goal.

The Libertarian Party is a train that is going in my direction. I recognize that the bulk of the passengers will be disembarking at stations somewhere east of the one for which my ticket is stamped.

Some will get off the train when we've reached their notion of "limited government." Others will keep their seats until we arrive at their conception of "minimal government." At each stop, those disembarking will have the opportunity to urge their fellow passengers to join them. At each stop, those hanging on for the whole ride will have the opportunity to urge those getting off to buy another ticket and go a little farther down the track.

I don't have to be a minarchist or constitutionalist or disgruntled paleoconservative or anti-authoritarian liberal in order to work with people who are. Nor should they have to be anarchists to work with me.

I propose a new Dallas Accord -- one which actually requires more sacrifice from the LP's anarchists than it does from their compatriots in the Party.

The Libertarian Party still shouldn't take a position on whether or not we'll have a government when we get where we're going. There are plenty of other things to take positions on -- things that command the unanimous, or near-unanimous, support of the Party's membership and electoral base. Limited government vs. minarchism vs. anarchism can wait until the choice between them is relevant, i.e. until we've reached one of them and must choose whether to stop or to stoke the boilers and keep chugging along.

The Libertarian Party should become an open organization, not only representing, but welcoming, all people who want less government and more freedom.

That means doing away with the "membership certification," a pledge with which I, as an anarchist, am comfortable, but which non-anarchists must be kept in the dark about or fudge on in order to become signatory to it: "Members of the Party shall be those persons who have certified in writing that they oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals." (Bylaws of the Libertarian Party, Article 7, Section 1)

There's an old saw about theatrical productions, the provenance of which I am unaware, but which holds true: If you show a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must be fired before the end of the second. The membership certification, and the ominous language of LP members who seek to expunge anarchists from the LP, are both guns in that sense. If a new accord is not reached, one faction is eventually going to have to purge the other -- probably before even the most minimal goals have been reached -- weakening the Party as an institution.

I can't speak for my fellow anarchists. We're anarchists, see? We don't have authorities to speak for us. I can only speak for myself, but here's what I propose:

I will personally welcome anyone into the Libertarian Party who wants more freedom and less government. In return, I expect those among them who want more government and less freedom than I do, having purchased a ticket on the same train I did, to refrain from throwing me from that train.

My presence does not stop them from reaching their destination (indeed, it could be argued that my ticket purchase helped make it possible for the train to run at all). Their presence does not stop me from reaching mine.

All aboard.

Shortly after the publication of the article above, I received the following response from R.W. Bradford, publisher of Liberty magazine and, therefore, an acknowledged expert on the Liberty Poll, the survey cited. The correction is much appreciated. Bill replied as follows:

"Actually, the surveys were NOT weighted toward members of the LP at all. While a portion of each survey was conducted at the LP national convention, the bulk of responses came from non LP-members, at least in the 1998 survey.

"The 1998 Liberty Poll was mailed to a list of individuals randomly selected from Liberty's subscriber list. It was also published in the magazine and distributed at the LP convention. About 20% of responses came from the LP convention. About 30% of Liberty's subscribers were LP members at this time, and only about 85% of those who responded at the convention were LPers.

"Because the respondents from convention attendees and from the survey published in the magazine were self-selected, those data were kept separate and compared with the responses from the randomly selected group. There were slight variations among the three groups of respondents, but no substantialvariations except, unsurprisingly, on questions that directly involved the LP or political activism (convention responses were higher) and on questions involving reading habits (non-LP-convention responses were higher).

"The 1988 Liberty Poll was also distributed at a national LP convention as well as sent to a randomly determined cross-section of Liberty subscribers. As with the 1998 survey, the responses were kept separate because of the self-selection involved in the responses from the LP convention. And, as with the 1998 survey, the only significant differences between the two groups were on matters directly involving the LP, political activism, and reading habits.

"None of this, of course, undermines your point, which I think is a good one.