Decentralizing The National Libertarian
A Modest Suggestion By Jorge Amador - 1981
"This is what I've been looking forward to all weekend", said a certain member of the Libertarian Party National Committee at its November 8, 1981 meeting, as she opened her remarks on the national LP's goals for 1982. All weekend, she bad been looking forward to NatCom discussion and debate over what should be the aims of other libertarians across the continent. After her preface, she proceeded to recite a list of fourteen items, representing what she thought the Libertarian Party ought to do in 1982. There ensued the formal opening of the meeting floor for debate. After nobody was left who wished to say his or her bit on the matter, the Chair asked for someone to move to close debate. Someone did, and another NatCom member seconded the motion. The Chair then asked for a vote on these proposals for goals: yes--no--abstain.
Meanwhile, as thirty or so of the world's best libertarian activists plumbed the depths of the following year's grand national-strategy alternatives, draft resisters hid in fear of Selective Service; economic experts blamed the recession on the capitalist business cycle; policemen imposed fines on speeders, and arrested pot smokers and prostitutes; while rightists railed against the Communist threat, calling for ever higher military budgets even as leftists clamored for more welfare and spoke of the future socialist world of peace and justice. And the libertarian movement's best and brightest were debating the proper goals for each other to follow.
A visitor from liberated Mars, upon hearing of the terrestrial libertarian movement, might clap and say to herself, "All right! I'm going to hover over Earth for a while to root for these people as they move their planet toward our same advanced stage of Liberty. They're finally going to rid their world from the blight of politics." But upon reaching the sites of libertarian gatherings, she sees the Libertarian earthlings busily engaged, not in writing libertarian articles, or hanging out libertarian leaflets, or protesting the most recent State depredation... but reading Robert's Rules of Order, handing out "Vote for Me" buttons to other libertarians, shouting "I move to reopen debate on the amendment of the second degree", and protesting the most recent tactic by the opposing libertarian faction which led to overturning a previous resolution. Our free Martian shakes her antennae and says to herself, "So this is how they intend to liberate the rest of the Earth from politics: by politicking against one another. Their rulers must feel snug in their power, knowing that the libertarians are using their scant resources to fight each other rather than to fight the State.''
Fascination with all-encompassing national strategies; impassioned debates find earthshaking manifestoes; feverish maneuvering that leads to dramatic votes giving final sanction to a long-sought proposal. These characteristics, exhibited by the NatCom member referred to earlier, are very commonly found among today's libertarians. They were evident at the 1981 National Convention in Denver. Hundreds of delegates sat at the endless parliamentary wrangling of the platform proceedings. They sat and witnessed the frenzied electoral lobbying of candidates for national LP office that occurred before and during the balloting. They sat, overcome with the excitement of a horse race, as the votes poured in from the various delegations, giving Candidate A or Candidate B a momentary majority. Yes, they sat, instead of marching on the IRS. They argued with each other, instead of with the street dweller who's unaware that his problems are caused, not by greedy capitalist pigs, but by idealistic socialists (and greedy union workers). And they spent thousands of dollars lobbying and propagandizing each other, giving rise to a biennial debating society known as the National Convention.
Indeed, internal politics is a costly matter. One estimate placed the cost of the 1981 race for LP National Chair at over $30,000. That's thirty thousand dollars. How many Position Papers, press releases, radio ads, and campus demonstrations could have been produced for what it cost to elect one person to the top banana position on an organizational flow chart? And how much acrimony and divisiveness were created or exacerbated amongst libertarians who would otherwise have only a common interest in promoting the arrival of Liberty just to get "their" candidate into that post, as they competed for votes and attacked each other's candidate, his/her faction, motives, and qualifications? How much time and effort did they put into debating each other, that they could have spent debating Statists; campaigning among other libertarians for Candidate A or B, rather than campaigning among the public for Liberty?
The financial costs of having a central apparatus aren't limited to every two years, when elections are held for national offices and National Committee members. The NatCom itself, which meets roughly every three months, is a substantial quarterly drain on the resources of libertarians who could other-spend this money to promote libertarianism directly. At the aforementioned meeting in Maryland, for instance, there were approximately thirty NatCom members, alternates and officers in attendance, plus several nonmembers with something to propose to NatCom. Some live in the Washington DC area, so they spent relatively little to attend (though whatever the expense may have been , the same time and effort could have gone toward the direct furtherance of libertarianism rather than toward laying political games). Others, however, coming from as far as California, Alaska and Hawaii, came not to march on the Pentagon, but to bicker and be hated. Assuming $70 for two hotel nights, $50 for meals Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday I and an average of $200 for round-trip transportation (all low estimates), the November 1981 NatCom meeting cost nearly $10,000 in libertarians' resources. This would buy a quarter of a million Issue Papers from Society for Individual Liberty! Multiplied by four NatCom meetings a year, we begin to appreciate the lost opportunity to reach literally hundreds of thousands of people a year with libertarian messages, in favor of having a couple of dozen "representatives" passing resolutions and arguing with each other.
I can hear the grumbles already. We believe in freedom, so people ought to be free to spend their money and time in whatever way they please. The LP is not a government; it doesn't use coercion; it is a voluntary organization, and anything that's voluntary is OK. And so forth. All of these observations are true, but they all miss the point. Yes, we believe in freedom. But if it is truly freedom that we are after (not merely playing politics amongst ourselves), then we would do well to examine our present methods of going after Liberty, and see whether we can use our freedom seeking resources more efficiently--whether we can put our resources to uses that will have more impact, more effect for Liberty per dollar (and hour) spent. Of course people are free to spend their money as they please; but if Liberty is what they want, then they might find better ways to spend their money than by supporting a divisive and expensive central decision-making machinery.
Yes, the LP is a voluntary organization. But just because an organization is voluntary does not make it sacrosanct. If we are interested in bringing about the triumph of Liberty, we would do well to see what we could do to bring it about more quickly and efficiently. To argue against changing the structure of the LP on the grounds that it is "voluntary", is like arguing against changing a slow, wasteful Acme's Pony Express into a fast, cheap Acme Motorized Mai1, on the grounds that it is "voluntary": the argument is simply irrelevant to the question, which concerns find g the most economical, efficient way to accomplish the desired task. So what if the LP is voluntary? That does not free it from being a waste as it is now conceived and operated. A waste it is, and not just financially. We have mentioned but a few of the monetary costs that the present structure brings about, and alluded to some of the non-monetary costs it leads to. These non-monetary costs are riot any less significant just because they aren't directly calculable in dollars. Often they do lead directly to monetary expenditures--such as the expense of putting out a newsletter to criticize another faction, but much more frequently they are losses of the sort that make rough the progress of the libertarian movement and even threaten its public image (Remember our Martian observer.) To these costs we now turn.
Central Decision-Making Hinders Libertarianism
Having a Party organized around a central decision making apparatus (national officers, NatCom, National Convention) presents certain obstacles to the smooth, effective functioning of the movement. Since the National Chair, the National Director, the NatCom, and the National Convention make decisions that affect the allocation of the resources that Party members have contributed, these positions or bodies have considerable power over the fate and direction of the LP. The National Director's decisions, to cite one example-can make or break a state Party, depending on whether he/she allocates money for its ballot drive. (The same can be said if a committee instead of one person were to allocate ballot-drive money. The central power remains.) The Convention charts the course of the LP by electing NatCom members and national officers, who in turn decide what goals the LP will seek and what strategies it will adopt (see the first paragraph). The fact that these posts (national officers) and collective central bodies (Convention, NatCom) make such important decisions, makes the control of these positions and bodies crucially important to those libertarians who have a national goal to pursue or a strategy to promote. If they don't elect their personas Chair, somebody else might be elected who'll have different views or will ignore them, and the Party's resources will be denied them for their goal (and used for the victor's goals). If they don't control the NatCom, their proposals might not get adopted and, if an opposing faction gains control, then in the view of the former group the Party will "go down the tubes" because of the fools in the opposing faction.
As a result, libertarians engage in lobbying to gain votes for their candidate or pet project. Since all individuals are different, in any arrangement where different people make or are subject to one collective decision, the inevitable outcome is conflict; conflict over goals, over strategy, over candidates. Where the achievement of a person's goals can depend more on approval by the collective, central decision making machinery, there that person wi11 more energetically attempt to have his/her goal approved. The more people there are in the organization, the more pet projects and goals there are to propose, and consequently the fiercer, more complex, and more costly the battle becomes. Factions arise as persons with compatible views band together to map parliamentary strategy; to fight for passage of their proposals; or to prevent passage of others' proposals, which they may view as potentially ruinous. Control of the apparatus becomes of paramount concern, and the dickering and haggling over this control worsen.
Where the alternative to control is to be controlled, competition for power and influence replaces Liberty-seeking activity, and hostility among libertarians replaces amicable relations among kindred minds; foes of the State become foes of each other. The ruling class, if it looked for ways to render its opposition ineffective, could hardly do, any better for itself than to get us to fight with one another instead of to present our ideals to the rest of the people.
Personal differences, punctured egos, clashes over inclusion in the Platform of obscure ideological points all become obstacles to the friendly, cooperative effort toward Liberty. Enmity is created, and libertarians, fellow libertarians! find it ever more difficult to work together on projects for actually advancing libertarianism, thus hindering the progress of libertarianism. Some become disillusioned or disgusted with the situation and resign from the Party or the movement altogether, while those who remain find themselves spending time and energy battling each other rather than the State.
The effect of this on people's perception of the libertarian movement is also a cause for worry, This is the example we're trying to set, huh? A lot we're doing, riddled by politics ourselves, to get people to believe humanity can get along without politics and live in greater harmony! Potential recruits become acquainted with the internal politicking and conclude that libertarians, far from being the hope of the world, are just as factional and repulsive as run-of-the-mill politicians. The public picks up on internal goings-on, concludes that Libertarians are just like everybody else, and rejects the Libertarian Party. Thus the prospect of attaining Liberty is destroyed by those who claim they seek it. Furthermore, the LP's current structure of centralized decision-making runs in peculiar contradistinction to our professed advocacy of a decentralized free market. More seriously, it points to a lack of understanding of free-market dynamics on the part of the proponents of the free market.
Aping the State
The LP resembles, structurally, a State: the funds are received by the central hierarchy and bureaucracy, then are politically distributed according to who whines the loudest for the goodies, or who commands the greatest influence in the decision making machinery. The structure rewards rhetorical and manipulative persons adept at parliamentary maneuvering. and lobbying as it ignores people who, while action and performance oriented, lack the skills or taste for effective pulling of the levers of power. Hence the system feeds on itself, creating more politics and more diversion of resources from action to politics, as it provides a playground for the lobbyists and manipulators and drives away the performers. It ties up capable activists in internal political battles, removing them from libertarian outreach, and inhibits the development of Liberty-aiming activists and activity.
The centralized structure makes it necessary to spend prodigious amounts of resources trying to get things passed, so that then they can get done. This is the way of socialism and, indeed, of all Statism. Moreover, because of the way in which the LP raises money through dues and contributions which are tendered in exchange for nothing in particular those in the Party bureaucracy who receive the money have a diminished incentive to put out goods and services of value to their consumers (libertarians at large). Because the link between production and income is obscured, it is difficult to know what is valuable to produce for consumers. Because National Committee members, for instance, do not accrue income directly from their allocative actions, they are little influenced by demand (consumer values) considerations when al locating LP funds. This is the way of Congress, in which politicians need have little regard for the market value of whatever they decide to do with the money at their disposa1. The money they use for, say, a dam is not raised by them in exchange for anything, and they will get no payment in exchange for providing the dam so the cannot know its value. So it is with the NatCom, which needs have little regard for the demand for, say, a public opinion poll. The money they have at NatCom's disposal was not obtained in exchange for anything in particular, and they will get no payment in return for providing the poll, so they cannot know its value. There simply is an insufficiency of market signals to determine whether, in fact, they are putting the money to its most valuable use: they do not themselves bear the cost of the poll (or , in Congress' case, of the dam) nor do they use money that was put up specifically for the project.
Of course, while taxpayers can't easily. refuse to pay for the dam, LP dues-payers and contributors can stop contributing. But in nearly every case of stoppage of contribution, the reason for its occurrence remains unknown, precisely because dues and donations are made in lump sums. When paying lump-sum dues, one "pays for" everything the LP does and, at the same time, for nothing in particular; so that LP officers do not know which of their projects are valuable and which are not.) The upshot is that libertarian moneys are spent with little consideration for the value of that which they obtain, and waste occurs with higher frequency than would occur under a system of exchange.
This is one of the major reasons why socialism is a less-efficient economic system than the free market. Yet, what are we doing in the LP? We practice socialism. We are aping the clumsy ways, not only of the States we oppose, but also of our collectivist foes' own private organizations. We are fighting socialism with socialism.
We, who command far fewer resources than our fat Republican and Democratic opponents, can ill afford to whittle away our assets as wastefully as they do theirs. To do so means to give up the opportunity to make our few resources count for more, dollar for dollar than their brimming coffers. It is as if a small guerrilla force were to operate in the same unimaginative, conventional, frontal-warfare method as its Establishment enemy: it would be overwhelmed. And we are being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of our opposition. But we need not be. By utilizing our wherewithal more efficiently than they, we can out maneuver them and get more for our money and efforts. This decentralist, "internal capitalism" perspective was first proposed by Mare Joffe and myself at the 1981 convention of Students for a Libertarian Society, in the booklet The New While the response was heartening, there was much to be appalled at, and that is because we became aware of the currently poor understanding among libertarians of the practical superiority of decentralized decision making, and of market relations, over collective decision making processes.
One of our proposals was to encourage the SLS National Director to raise funds by establishing a link between his/her income and the income of the association he/she operates with a commission based on a percentage of SLS revenue. As I wrote in the September 1981 issue of Individual Liberty:
... It was a curious experience to hear so many arguments for statism and against the market-at a convention of libertarians! One objection was that under an incentive system the SLS Director would not have his income guaranteed: a strange objection to hear at a gathering of so-called supporters of the free market. In the free market a person's income is not guaranteed but rather depends on his ability to satisfy the values of his customers (in this case, student libertarian activists).
Another delegate said he would not give any money to SLS if he knew that a certain percentage of it were going into the Director's pocket rather than to fund SLS activities. Since the Director is a paid staffer, a certain portion of SLS' revenue necessarily goes into his pocket anyway; in any case, it was odd to hear this particular objection at a meeting of people who supposedly favor a free market system in which producers do seek to profit from their endeavors. Several people attempted to depict the proposals for an incentive system as an invalid analogy between State organization and voluntary organizations, arguing that while State organization is illegitimate because it is coercively funded, voluntary organizations are acceptable because they are voluntarily funded. Those who took this position assumed the argument for the incentive plan was a moral argument rather than an argument based upon the most efficient use of activists' resources.
What these objections show is that, while the libertarian movement has apparently succeeded in making a moral case for the free market, it has largely failed to explain, even to libertarians themselves, the benefits and advantages of market relations. Thus we find people with a moral commitment to the depolitization of society and to smashing statism and establishing a free market, who propose to depoliticize society through a politics-riddled structure and to smash statism and establish the free market by relying on private bureaucracies that are shielded from the necessity to survive by producing valued goods. Instead, they propose fixed and guaranteed salaries, and they propose to fight inefficient structures by imitating those structures.
It is the emphasis of libertarian education on morality, instead of on
economics (that is, praxeology*) that leads to the situation whereby so many
libertarians profess to support the free market, but then practice and advocate
collectivist organizational modes amongst themselves. Many libertarians
apparently advocate the free market as being moral, but do not know why it is
better. Is our commitment to, and our understanding of, capitalism so narrow
that we call for it as a moral idea to the public , but are reluctant to use it
as a practical device for ourselves? This indicates an area where internal (as
well as external) educational endeavors would pay off handsomely for the purpose
of promoting Liberty.
* the study of human action and conduct
OK, Then What?
An internally politicized structure diverts our resources away from campaigning for freedom and into campaigning against each other. It leads to the expenditure of vast amounts of resources on activities which have little to do with educating the public as to the evils and disadvantages of Statism. It creates hostility where none would exist, and it creates a climate of conflict where, in the absence of mechanisms to "implement" one's strategy at the defeat and expense of another, amicable discussion of strategy might take place. It makes cooperation difficult. It makes activists look to the central apparatus rather than to them selves and their colleagues for resources. It leads to wasteful use of resources in obtaining and/or producing commodities that have no demonstrable value to those who pay for them (since they didn't choose to pay for them)-- or to those who get them (since then didn't pay for them). It hurts the special image of libertarianism as a movement to end political competition, and exposes our all-too-human features by enmeshing us in the same quagmires that we see lead to so much disutility in the world at large. But, just as Statists ask us "what are we going to replace the State with?", what are we going to replace the Organization with? The answer is the same in both cases: market relationships. To begin with, we can get rid of the National Committee, as L. Neil Smith has suggested. But to replace it with a council of state LP chairs, as Smith has also proposed, is merely to substitute another central collective decision making body for an earlier one.
"Abolish" the National Committee outright. Do it immediately or gradually if that's deemed preferable; I refuse to get involved in a "gradualist" vs. "abolitionist" controversy at this level! Make the national staff's income dependent on their providing valuable commodities to Libertarians; give them commissions on LP products and services. The National Director can, for instance, become an entrepreneur rather than a bureaucrat by receiving the commission salary alone, with him being able to hire additional staff (if and when necessary) with his income. He can "farm out" fundraising for contributions by offering commissions to national LP fundraisers. In this way, LP Headquarters will have an effective incentive to produce valued goods and services for Liberty.
All other "national" functions can be taken up by ad hoc committees (non-profit or profit-seeking) formed by people (1) who join by virtue of their being interested in doing a job, without need to lose time and resources seeking appointment by some parliamentary body; and (2) whose qualifications for being in the project are that they want to work, and not that they are blessed with political favor from The Powers That Be. Indeed, as the public in general is accustomed to looking to government to do all things that can be done better by capitalist enterprises, so too we are accustomed to looking to the National LP to perform certain functions ... but it is easy to visualize them being carried out by efficient independent (even profit-seeking) services that exist to fill the demand for, say, ballot-drive assistance, campaign materials, etc. That all of this sounds "kooky" serves only to demonstrate how far we, the champions of free enterprise, are removed from entrepreneurial habits of mind. It shows how strongly we, the proponents of a thoroughly revolutionary ideology are dominated by traditional, State-like patterns of organization.
Now, what about the Platform? Some may ask. ("What about the environment? What about the poor? Won't they starve? What about defense?" the Statists also ask.) Scrap the Platform. It is redundant as an expression of libertarian ideals and positions. There already are plenty of libertarian associations, books, pamphlets and publications stating libertarian perspectives on every issue under the sun and in every degree of detail imaginable. In fact, because we libertarians ourselves disagree on a number of issues, the Platform; since it is voted on collectively as the whole Party's "official" position, serves as a focus for disaffection rather than unity.
Platform hearings and debates serve as another forum for the creation of hostility and acrimony. Due to the limited amount of time in which they operate, they are a poor place for reasoned, constructive discussion of the substantive issues of disagreement. Let the battles be fought instead, in a tranquil and profound fashion, in libertarian journals and newsletters.
How would the LP presidential candidate be chosen'? (How would you decide court suits? But how would you build highways? But how would you ... ?") This is a trickier one, but it does not present insurmountable problems.
In 1979, Ed Clark and Bill Hunscher, two active candidates for the LP Presidential nomination, could have one around trying to gain the backing of individual Libertarians (as they did) who then would have gone on to support their respective candidacies for the Presidency in their own states. (Competing candidates of similar ideology are not a new phenomenon. In fact, in 1976 and 1980 this was the case, when the American and the American Independent parties, as well as the Socialist and Socialist Workers parties, each ran presidential candidates. In some cases only one from one or each pair got ballot recognition in a given state, but often both were on the ballot in the same state, with slight differences in the names of their respective parties.) It is possible that, in a given "race," the two strongest candidates might decide amongst themselves that one of them will become the presidential candidate and the other the vice-presidential candidate, with the possible effect that the resulting "ticket" will be the one with the most widespread support among Libertarians and will include the two most capable candidates (in terms of money and/or commitment to campaigning).
The splintering of the Libertarian Party would be an unwelcome development only if one believes that the only or the most effective way to bring about freedom is b an actual takeover of power by Libertarian Party candidates. However, it is to be noted that this (election of Libertarian majorities to legislatures) will come about only upon a majority of voters' becoming attracted to libertarianism. By the time that is ready to occur, individual and non-Party resistance to the State, and opportunistic politicians' shifts toward libertarianism, will have already brought society close to full Liberty. People will not vote for Libertarian candidates unless they approve of libertarian positions; once they approve of libertarianism, though, we have accomplished our goal and the days of government are numbered.
Furthermore, the existence of more than one libertarian party can only foster a healthy competition in the efficient promotion of libertarianism; and it provides alter- native outlets for those who are not satisfied with a given party's approach, services, or performance. (Imagine a "Cranian" or "gradualist" party and a "Rothbardian" or "radical" party.) Nobody need get stuck with a candidate he or she does not like or would have a hard time defending, as many did in trying to defend the Clark campaign's unfortunate and often embarrassing inconsistencies with libertarian tenets. Nobody need waste time bitching and moaning about the "wrong" candidate's being nominated: they can use their money, of which they would possess more because of the absence of a central dues collector to put the accumulated capital tit the disposal of unwanted strategies, and thanks to the savings incurred from not having to travel to collective decision-making meetings, to launch a candidate more to their liking, thereby devoting their resources to libertarian education rather than to internal complaining.
On the other hand, a splintering of the LP, permanent or otherwise, is not at all a necessary outcome. If libertarians agree that one certain candidate has more possibilities than another, and believe it would be wasteful to expend resources getting both on the ballot, they can choose to work together to place the former a1one on the ba11ot. If they deem it too expensive to try to get a competing candidate on the ballot, they can also refuse to support or work for the other candidate, and concentrate on other libertarian activity, even political, like Congressional or local races. In fact, many Libertarians did these very things in 1980 when their candidate, Bill Hunscher, lost the LP presidential nomination, or when they perceived the Clark campaign in their eyes as being blight on libertarianism.
The decentralized scenario being offered here does not preclude any of the constructive possibilities available under the present structure. It merely removes most if not all of the costs and negative, destructive results that stem from it, and opens up new alternatives, or makes them easier to find.
The Market Is Not Farfetched
Does all this, or at least the discussion of presidential candidate selection, sound farfetched? If it does, it is only because libertarians--who have been adept at proposing clever ways of handling functions that currently are botched by government, have been, as a rule, conventional and unimaginative in their approaches to actually going about creating the free society. Our innovative, capitalist ideology is exceptionally suited to innovative, capitalistic methods of bringing forth Liberty; our present overwhelming disadvantage in numbers and resources make innovative means almost a necessity if we aim to succeed. Many who hear of decentralist sentiment within the Party or movement attempt to dismiss it by claiming "you want the movement to go back to the old days when all we did was talk to ourselves." Yet, just talking to ourselves is precisely what we do when we hold decision-making conventions, NatCom meetings, state chair meetings, committee meetings, board meetings, policy meetings, strategy meetings, and write articles attacking other factions, organize factions, search for the latest "dirt" on opposing factions, etc., etc. ad nauseam.
We cannot afford the cumbersome ways of our collectivist opponents. If libertarians wish to spend their resources laying political games with each other, they tire of course free to do so. The State certainly won't mind that we use our money to bicker with each other and to foist our strategies upon one another; or that vie use our time to seek the All-Important Approval of our Glorious Representatives, through the Holy Vote, for our latest pet libertarian project, rather than simply going out and doing it (and raising the money to pay for it from exactly those who want it). The State won't mind that we shout at each other instead of sticking one more jab into its slimy flesh.
We have our democratic, centralized structure to blame. Those Libertarians concerned about the crippling disunity within the movement are advised to examine the origins of the problem they abhor: collective decision making that confers control on a central structure, which people understandably seek to influence in order to get "their way" approved, almost necessarily in opposition to the proposals of others.
If it is Liberty, and not an imitation of the Establishment, or a playground for rhetoric and parliamentary politicking -that we wish to attain, then we would do well to rethink our internal-politics riddled ways. Let's marketize the Party. Let's use capitalistic means to achieve capitalism.
The Market for Liberty!
This article appeared in original form in the February 1982 issue of Caliber, newspaper of the Libertarian Party of California, 9550 Warrner Avenue/Suite 250, Fountain Valley CA 92708.