Thomas L. Knapp
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Apocalypse not
by Thomas L. Knapp

"Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

"We're all dying, but I don't know that I am doing it any quicker than anyone else."

-- Both remarks aprocryphally attributed to Mark Twain

 

As each election cycle wraps up, there's a distinct group (not always composed of the same individuals, but always motivated by the same, not totally unjustified, pessimism) which dons mourning and announces the death -- or impending -- death of the libertarian movement. These announcements take the form of detailed obituaries that double as coroners' reports, pedantically analyzing the cause of death.

At times, I've been caught up in this grief cycle myself, temporizing over whether to hold a funeral or a wake. That temporizing is inevitably broken by the urgent need to jump back into a thriving and busy movement. The corpse, it walks.

This time around, events lend a certain credibility to proclamations like that issued by Joseph S. Bommarito, who holds that Libertarianism is defunct in a recent column for Strike the Root. Among the various obituaries, Mr. Bommarito's is the one I've chosen to address. I have several reasons for doing so:

  • Libertarianism is defunct appears not in a publication noted for supporting the Libertarian Party, but on a web site which caters more to the anti-political wing of the movement. That's important. It is usually in "organized" circles that the death notices pop up, and it's somewhat worrisome to find the unflappable anarchists, well, flapping.

  • Libertarianism is defunct includes some errors of fact that require correction, if for no other reason than that they tend to damage organizations I am involved with, have been involved with or admire.

  • Libertarianism is defunct strays into some ideological territory that I'd like to stomp around on myself.

So, with apologies to Mr. Bommarito (whose article, although I disagree with its conclusions, makes some important and valid points), let's begin.

Mr. Bommarito cautions the reader that he is defining libertarianism, strictly for the purpose of the article, as "a movement advocating the belief that the United States would be much better off with a lot less government involvement -- or none at all -- in our personal and economic lives." That's a fair definition of the freedom movement and arguably one that can stretch to encompass libertarianism and in turn be encompassed by it. Bommarito goes on to list various groups whose beliefs fall under his description.

TANSTAALM

Having put forth his definition, Bommarito then segues into his first point: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Libertarian Movement. Instead, there is an aggregate of smaller movements, organizations and, ultimately, individuals, who happen to be traveling under the same flag of convenience, going in the same direction but, perhaps, with different destinations in mind.

Okay, I can buy that ... to a degree. Definitions are nice things, but they get fuzzy once they get out into the world and bounce around a bit. Nonetheless, I take small issue with Bommarito: a movement is not of necessity a centrally organized, well-defined, monolithic structure. While recognizing the diversity of people and organizations traveling under the flag of convenience may be useful, it does not in any way rebut the argument that they are traveling under that flag, together.

It's my Party and I'll cry if I want to

Bommarito describes the Libertarian Party as "ineffectual, ineffective, in disarray," noting its recent membership decline and the financial straits it finds itself in at the moment.

Here I come to my first real problem with Bommarito's thesis: that the decline in LP membership1 signifies a weakening of the libertarian movement. This is a reasonable conclusion at first blush. A little poking around, however, gives lie to that conclusion.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, the LP embarked on a large-scale direct mail membership recruitment project. From 1972 to 1995, the LP went from a few people in David Nolan's living room to an organization with about 11,000 members. Between 1995 and 1999, that membership rose to about 33,000 on the strength of mass mailings soliciting membership.

All membership organizations suffer the effects of a phenomenon known as "churn." New members come in -- but there are always some old members going out. People die. People pay their dues for one year and then decide, for whatever reason, not to renew. Although the LP went from 11,000 to 33,000 members, it did not recruit 22,000 members. It recruited many more, because there were some going out the back door at the same time as others were coming in the front.

If an organization recruit a whole lot of new members, and then stops recruiting, that organization is going to see a net membership loss in subsequent years. It's just that simple. It would be safer to say that LP membership was artificially inflated at 33,000 than to say that it is failing now that its membership stands at around 24,000. Indeed, I suspect that membership will dip into the 18,000-20,000 range before beginning to ascend again unless massive recruitment efforts resume (something that I don't advocate).

Bommarito's further argument is that the LP is electorally ineffective. And he's right, so far as he goes. The LP has not made substantial headway in the statehouses or Congress; its victories are for minor office. On the other hand, there is ample evidence to believe that the LP is having a salutory effect. It may not be close to a "breakthrough" yet, but it's moving in that direction.

In the 2002 election cycle, the Libertarian Party, for the second time in a row, ran more congressional candidates, and received more votes for those candidates, than any "third party" since the Great Depression. More Americans self-identify as "Libertarians" than ever before. The news is not all bad.

And while Bommarito derides the "spoiler factor" as "throwing elections to the more socialist wing of the Republicrat Party," that statement is both unproven and short-sighted.

Depending on where, and in what kind of election, a Libertarian runs, he or she may "help" the Republican or the Democrat, depending on what issues appear on the public stove's front burner.

Futhermore, while the immediate election results may end up favoring the "worse" wing in the opinion of some, it is not the immediate election which "spoiling" is intended to affect. It is subsequent elections. The idea is that if the "better" candidate loses, his or her party will find a candidate who (from a libertarian perspective) is better yet to run next time.

The Libertarian Party is not dead. The Libertarian Party is not dying. Its national headquarters/board of directors is in a state of financial exigency, but the LP consists of 51 state parties (including DC); the "national" LP is an umbrella organization of convenience, and shows signs of saving itself. And candidates running under the LP banner are winning more elections than ever and doing better than ever in the ones they don't win.

But enough of that. There is more to the libertarian movement than the Libertarian Party.

Bommarito's "other fronts"

Bommarito moves on, evaluating the activities and prospects of a number of other organizations generally recognized as part of the "libertarian movement."

The Cato Institute -- Bommarito considers the Cato Institute to be the "primary policy wing of the movement" and feels that it has some small chance of having minor successes -- in his words, "Cato is a chip of wood in the path of the Steamroller. Might slow it up for a micro-second or two."

If anything, I believe that Bommarito is giving Cato too much credit. The Institute appears to be running full-tilt away from the libertarian movement and seeking a niche in the "conservative" wing of the Republican Party. Unless, of course, its recent panegyrics to "the legacy of Reagan" and its focus on "saving" Social Security are temporary aberrations.

Liberty Magazine -- Bommarito notes that Liberty recently sent out a fundraising letter and that it apparently can't survive on subscription fees. He refers to it "cutting staff" and wonders "if it will be around in a year or two."

In point of fact, Liberty is and always has been a non-profit enterprise that relies on donor support to subsidize its publication.

The Henry Hazlitt Foundation -- "[R]olled up its Free-Market.Net web site," says Bommarito. "Not enough money." As the former managing editor of Free-Market.Net, I've spoken to this issue before. FMN's closure was a spending issue, not a revenue issue. Expansion outpaced revenue growth. "Not enough money" can mean many things, but the Henry Hazlitt Foundation, to the best of my understanding, took in more revenue in 2002 than it had in any previous year.

The Future of Freedom Foundation -- FFF, Bommarito says, presses one (unpopular) issue, that being open borders. This is simply at variance with reality. If FFF was pressing one issue recently, that issue would appear to be the impending war in the Middle East. Of FFF's 17 January editorials, none seem to focus on Bommarito's alleged single issue. Bommarito also conflates FFF with FEE (Foundation for Economic Education) -- it was the latter, not the former, which recently discharged its president.2 Jacob G. Hornberger is still running things at FFF.

Where have all the libertarians gone?

... asks Bommarito. He holds that "[A]dmitting to being a libertarian has become somewhat embarrassing." And yet, the word carries more cachet now than ever in the media as a descriptor for opposing government power in any form. Everyone wants to be a "civil libertarian" (I'm rather proud to be an uncivil one myself).

If anything, more libertarians have emerged from the woodwork since 9/11 than were ever there before, if we use Bommarito's own definition. "They've gone to Statists, every one" might be true from a "purist" perspective, but would not be true under the terms that Bommarito set upon his own evaluation.

For example, the fact that, as Bommarito notes, 45% of LP members in an unscientific poll advocated a war against Iraq does not exclude those members from that definition ("a movement advocating the belief that the United States would be much better off with a lot less government involvement -- or none at all -- in our personal and economic lives") except very indirectly, i.e. to the extent that increased taxation and other phenomena might result from such a war.

Mothers of Invention

Bommarito then begins a very strange segue into "playing the dozens" with the libertarian movement's most prolific author, L. Neil Smith.

"[H]is adherents refer to him in print as 'El Neil,'" complains Bommarito. "I've read and liked some of his books, but 'El Neil?'--It's reminiscent of Limbaugh's 'dittoheads.'"

In actuality, there are two fairly prominent libertarian science fiction writers who hold themselves out as "Neil something-or-other with a letter before the Neil:" the aforementioned L. Neil Smith, and the formidable J. Neil Schulman. "El Neil" is a convention that was arrived at to make distinguishing between the two easier on the eye in print. A forgivable error in extrapolation on Bommarito's part, but an error nonetheless.

The next complain, however, is more substantial. Smith, says Bommarito, "has taken it upon himself to define what a libertarian is."

The horror! The horror!

Smith's definition, of course, is one which has gained some measure of acceptance, not least as the working definition here at Rational Review. And, as Bommarito notes, it doesn't stray too far from the LP's pledge (or John Galt's explanation of the proper political ethos).

We all define what a libertarian is. Bommarito defined it himself by way of opening his article. While Smith -- and I have argued this personally with him -- has no real power to arrogate a binding power of definition to himself, he's certainly free to create a working definition and attempt to rally enough people to that definition to ultimately bring about its general acceptance.

Bommarito also seems to have a problem with Smith's suggestion that the "Non-Aggression Principle" be henceforth marketed as the "Zero Aggression Principle." Why he should have such a problem, I don't know, but he seems to regard it as humorous (and then, after bitching about such a marketing suggestion, turns to opine that Smith and his "adherents" are trying to "narrow" libertarianism. Which is it gonna be, Mr. Bommarito?).

"Smith-type libertarians" (I'm one of them) are attempting to define libertarianism in a useful and explicable way. Are some "Smith-type libertarians" exclusionary by use of that definition? Sure, some are. Others attempt to be inclusive by demonstrating where certain "schools" of libertarian thought already fall within the purview of their definition or might aspire to do so.

I'm a ZAPpa, not a NAPpa. Wouldn't you like to be a ZAPpa, too?

Beat on the Boortz

Wheels within wheels, bindreth. After first broadly defining libertarianism, then chewing out LP "spoilers" for giving elections to the Democrats, then excluding a large group which his definition covers, then chewing out Smith for not being "big tent" enough ... Bommarito's back to being exclusionary himself. Neal Boortz, who is plainly a libertarian according to Bommarito's original definition, finds himself excommunicado. Why? Because he did the opposite of what Bommarito complained about LP candidates doing. He supported a Republican over a Democrat instead of a "spoiler."

Bommarito summarizes: the libertarian movement is defunct, and was never much of a movement anyway. "Still moving but dead inside, it is now barely ahead of the Juggernaut State," he concludes.

The facts belie that conclusion. The very existence of the site on which his article appears contradicts that conclusion. So does the increasing popularity of libertarian literature, the increasing inclusion of libertarian perspectives in popular media and the increasing traffic at sites like this one. If anything, libertarianism is in resurgence -- and perhaps at the threshold of breakthrough.

It is only by alternating between exclusion and inclusion in one's definitions, and by avoiding inconvenient facts, that one keep the lid on the casket Mr. Bommarito has constructed.

The corpse, it walks. And jaunty is its step toward the future.

NOTES
--

1. See membership statistics at http://www.dehnbase.org/lpus/library/membership.html.

2. J.H. Huebert, A Brighter Future for FEE, at http://www.jhhuebert.addr.com/articles/fee.html.