This will be a reply article to Steve Kerbel’s article entitled “Libertarians Must Learn To Welcome Newcomers” which can be read here.
Steve Kerbel is a former presidential candidate for the libertarian nomination, and a person for which this author has great respect for.
In an article published the other day Steve Kerbel announced what he thought was a good way to grow the liberty movement, and though I agree with some of his points I feel I either disagree or simply see a lack of information regarding his opinion. In this article I’ll break down what Steve has to say and give my thoughts and opinions.
What is a Libertarian? This is the key question that can spur intense and sometimes vitriolic debate among those who call themselves Libertarians. According to Webster, the following is the definition of a Libertarian:
- an advocate of the doctrine of free will
- a person who upholds the principles of individual liberty especially of thought and action
- capitalized : a member of a political party advocating libertarian principles
I think it’s important to note Steve intentionally capitalizes the word libertarian, which most people note as a sign one is talking about a Libertarian party member and not necessarily an adherent of the libertarian philosophy. He then lists three separate definitions of the word libertarian.
The first being the definition coined by William Belsham as a pejorative for those who believed in free will. This definition is really rather irrelevant to the context of the libertarian philosophy or Libertarian party. The second and third definition properly, if vaguely, describe what a libertarian is. The second describes ( again vaguely) the philosophy, and third the party that was born from it.
Personally I’ve always found it helpful to generally describe the philosophy, but I think all of these definitions fall short. I think the best definition of who a libertarian is in the context of the Libertarian party and philosophy, is simply:
A person who generally advocates against government intervention in life, liberty, and property.
This definition I think gives the most inclusive answer, and while vague enough to be inclusive adheres closely to the values of the libertarian philosophy without contradicting them.
Mr.Kerbel goes on to say:
Within the Libertarian community, there is a very real concern of infiltration which would result in a change in the principles of Libertarianism, thereby negating the purpose of the formation and growth of the party. Why would people have this concern? For good reason… The Libertarian Party has built a formidable organization that has the skeletal structure in place to allow for the movement to actually be implemented. There is no other third party in the USA that is in this position, so others may look to the Libertarian Party as a potential of a “hostile takeover” of sorts.
It is this sensitivity to the reality of this threat that keeps the “so and so is not a Libertarian” argument alive and well ad nauseum.
What Mr.Kerbel is describing is the tactic of entryism. A political strategy employed by the communist Leon Trotsky in which people enter a political party or philosophical movement and attempt to change it slowly from within by advocating or growing generally opposing elements of a group until it’s actual adherents can be denounced and removed. This is what happened with the word liberal in the 1920s and 1930’s. FDR and many progressives infiltrated and basically stole the word. Actual liberals from then on came to call themselves “classical liberals” or “libertarians.” So you can see why libertarians are wary of an influx of new people who aren’t properly vetted, especially when the party has been so closely linked with the philosophy for so long. So I’d say there is quite a good possibility that with the combination of people who are looking for advancement inside the party and the ever growing threat of entryists that the claim “so and so is not a libertarian” could be correct. However, at the same rate it’s just as likely to be abused by those same individuals. It’s a rather tough dilemma.
To me, this situation has created a problem for the party… Growth is improbable when the first question a person is asked is: “How long have you been a Libertarian?” This question itself seems innocent enough, but the inevitable follow up is the damaging part. That follow up manifests itself in the form of a put down or insult. When we fail to welcome new members (and many times alienate them), our growth is restricted. One by-product of that restriction is that it keeps us small enough to be a viable take-over target from one of the old parties.
I completely agree here with Steve, as a party we have to be inclusive and we can’t denigrate people’s opinions or motives because they are new, or more new to the movement or party than you are. This is a great way, as Steve said, to make sure we can’t grow as a party but I think entryism can happen no matter how large you are. Look at what happened to the Republican party.
On the other hand we can’t be openly hostile to our own values just to be inclusive. We should vigorously defend libertarian ideals even against people in our own party. You should never kowtow to popular opinion if you don’t think it’s libertarian. If we throw away key tenants of the philosophy just to gain a foothold, we’ve already lost before we’ve started. If we wanted to appeal to the mainstream with populism we already had that chance in Rand Paul and libertarians saw fit to let that option fall by the way side, stupidly so in my opinion.
So how do we balance a need for inclusivity and retain our values?
I think a good general rule is that if someone can argue from a particularly reasoned position that something isn’t necessarily libertarian we should be open to at least discussing it. If they can’t and instead use tired cliches or classic leftist or rightist argument in favor of something clearly not libertarian I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that we must entertain such behaviour.
A simpler definition of the basics of Libertarianism should be all the requisite “glue” that is required to hold us together. In essence, our own bickering and posturing, put downs and insults, lack of finite definition of Libertarian from within our party, willingness of some to support candidates from other parties, and cannibalistic tendencies of some of us… result in a group of people that agree on 80% – 90% of all pertinent issues that is perfectly willing to publicly impugn others based on a small minority of a person’s platform. After all, we are very different from the old parties and even an 80% agreement with a Libertarian will far outweigh supporting a Republican or Democrat which may share our views 20% of the time.
I completely agree and my definition, as stated above, does this quite well. At least it does, in my estimation. Libertarians have a penchant for holding other libertarians to a higher standard than they hold Republicans or Democrats for the simple reason that it’s what we’ve come to expect from them, to be traitorous awful human beings and rightfully so we’ve rejected them. However, what we have to get away from this idea, that if we disagree with someone 10% of the time, that we can’t or shouldn’t support them. It is foolish and will ensure we remain irrelevant and more oppressed than if we had simply came together.
This drove even the founder of anarcho-capitalism, Murray Rothbard up a wall. He and I both can not understand this:
We aren’t talking about electing a lesser of two evils here. Someone with whom we agree with 90% of the time is decidedly not evil, we just disagree. There are degrees of disagreement, there must be. Just as the United States isn’t North Korea, a libertarian who wants a government court system, isn’t a totalitarian. The all or nothing style of libertarian thought must come to an end less we become totally and irrevocably irrelevant. I think even the most hardcore anarcho-capitalists would agree that they wouldn’t have many complaints under a solidly constitutional or articles of confederation type government. We have to realize we’re on the same train, some people just want to get off sooner than Ancapistan, and we should be ok with that for now, as long as it gets the damn train moving up hill instead of continuing to roll down it.
In 2016, the eyes of the nation are upon us. In our attacks of our own candidates, we provide fodder to the Republicans and Democrats in the constant attacks against them, many of which are on finer points or impossible realities. In essence, we give the impression to others that we would rather not see the Liberty movement successful at all unless it is precisely on all of our own terms. The damage in that position is that we never overtake the Republicans or Democrats because we are too busy discrediting our own members and candidates over some trivial detail (it may not seem like a trivial detail to whoever is repeatedly espousing it, but in the reality of our nation today, it is trivial or likely to never be addressed in the first 20 years of Libertarian administrations.) I believe that there is a solution to this.
While I understand Steve’s point here, I have to say I disagree with the premise that as libertarians we shouldn’t be vetting our candidates with criticism. It happens in all party structures and it’s a very good thing. It allows us to see the candidates for who they are and what they believe and allows us to make a better, more informed decision as to who we want to represent us on the main stage. If your preferred primary candidate can’t handle the heat of a bunch of small time libertarian critics how on Earth can they take the criticisms of the mainstream? This process is important and must continue, less we become exactly what Steve here is alluding to, a party totally engulfed by another ideology.
In conclusion, I’ll just say that while Steve is right that if we ever want to change anything we must be willing to welcome new people, we must also be reasonably wary about losing who we are.