Political Party or Debate Club?

It’s often asked, do we wish for the Libertarian Party to be a political party, or a philosophical debate club?  The person asking is almost always implying that the party must be a party and thus not a philosophical debate club, although conceivably, one could ask the question with the purpose of promoting the idea of having the party be not a party at all, and only a philosophical debate club.

But the question is problematic.  It implies that a party can only be one or the other, that it in fact cannot be both.  But is that true?

No, this is a false dichotomy.  A party can still be an organ for promoting campaigns and electing public officials and be a healthy forum for discussing and working out political philosophy.

No two libertarians are ever going to fully agree with one another.  That’s a given.  For that matter, not even any two anarchist libertarians are going to agree with one another on everything.  We anarchists have disagreements on a litany of topics, ranging from copyrights to abortion.  We have disagreements on tactics, whether an incrimentalist or abolitionist approach is most effective.  So it shan’t be surprising that we are going to have disagreements with our minarchist sisters and brothers as well.

For the Libertarian Party to be an effective organ for libertarian activism, it will have to be both a political party, with an eye focused on campaigning and an ear trained on philosophical discussion.  To focus solely on one or the other will either cause the Libertarian Party to cease being an effective outreach vehicle or to cease being a vehicle for the promotion of a specifically libertarian ideology.  One of the things that makes the Libertarian Party unique is that, unlike the Democratic and Republican establishment, we are interested in ideas, that we are looking for fundamental and systemic change, not simply a means to line our own pockets or gain control over the citizenry.  (Disclaimer: this is not to say that all Democratic and Republican politicians are simply power-hungry swine, only that both parties tend in that direction.)

The Libertarian Party is constantly bringing in new members, both in the form of libertarian-leaning liberals and libertarian-leaning conservatives.  This is, of course, not something to get angry about, but rather to celebrate.  Nevertheless, it is important to remember that merely getting these persons to join is not the end goal of the movement or even the party.  Rather, the goal is to move society toward the full embrace of liberty.  We Libetarian Party members would be quite remiss to say, “Okay, you have joined; I shall ignore you now and not bother to explain why government regulation of human migration is also destructive and uneconomic.”  No, discussion should be always kept alive.

This is not to say that internal debate should be or must be hostile.  Far from it.  Respectful debate is always the most effective way to win people over to your view, since hostile debate causes otherwise-open-minded people to simply stop listening.  No one wants to agree with the person who calls her an uncaring fool, for example.

Anarchists and non-anarchists within the Libertarian Party are, of course, going to disagree with one another.  But this is not a bad thing.  The position that the Libertarian Party cannot be both a political party and a “philosophical debate club”—insofar as it is used to promote the view that internal discussion should be eschewed—thus implies that anarchists within the Libertarian Party should simply never bother to discuss the ideas promoted by anarchism.  After all, if we discuss anarchism, then we become a debate club and cease being a political party.  But this is, of course, utterly silly, for as pointed out above, the position is based upon a false dichotomy.  The Libertarian Party loses nothing from having anarchists within its ranks, and actually stands to gain, given the radical dedication of the anarchist to libertarian goals and the free society.

Anarchists must remain welcome within the Libertarian Party.  Like the labour activists in the Democratic Party and the hardline Christians in the Republican Party, anarchists are the Libertarian Party’s base.  We serve the vital role of ensuring that the party does not sway too far toward centrism.  For third parties in particular, not swaying too far toward centrism is vitally important, for no one wastes her vote on a third party that looks identical to the Establishment party.  A third party is only ever effective and merits existence when it offers something offered by no other party.

Although non-anarchist libertarians disagree with us fundamentally on the desirability of replacing the state entirely with voluntary organisations, they nevertheless should not have difficulty in seeing the utility of an anarchist base within the Libertarian Party, all things considered.  Sure, that means they may find themselves listening to us, from time to time, discussing the merits of private protection agencies replacing state-monopoly police, but as long as we keep in mind that the Libertarian Party can (and must) be both a political party and a place for lively exchange, we shall lose nothing.

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