When Will the Libertarian Party Have Its Moment?

Last week, I started posting about my investigation into the apparent implosion of the Libertarian Party. You can read my previous posts here, here, and here. In this post, I try to draw some conclusions, and I hope to hear your reactions.


When you talk with leaders from each side of this conflict it’s clear that even though both camps are much, much closer ideologically than they’d admit, ultimately Aristotle was right – humans are fundamentally political creatures.  The entire episode reminds me of a conversation I had at one of my first Liberty Fund conferences when I was hired, directed by Pierre Lemieux.  I was talking with a conferee who was eyeing me suspiciously and asked me, which economist I preferred, Mises or Hayek.  I told him that as a political scientist I was more drawn to Hayek, and this prompted him to label me a socialist, turn away from me and find someone more “orthodox” to chat with.

The broad contours of a liberty-based political movement would be simply less government and more personal freedom and responsibility in realm x.  One would hope people could compromise on the range of constriction on government and expansion of individual freedom somewhere between 100% and 5%.  But for more than 5 decades the Libertarian Party has been unable to create a broad consensus on how to pursue those goals.  That leaves the world without the prospect of seriously considering more liberty during public deliberations over governance alternatives.  Elections, admittedly highly imperfect ways to decide governance, are worse for not providing voters with a wide range of options and choices.  The frustration for observers and non-combatant libertarians in this conflict is that we face an upcoming election featuring two deeply unpopular, anti-liberty candidates. The fear that libertarians will find no representation in this election is not invalid. 

Before the infamous Aleppo moment, there was a world in which Gary Johnson and Bill Weld might have done even better in 2016, regardless of who won.  But after the meltdown, Weld’s statements were hardly consistent with what most libertarians believed. Frustration and unrest caught up with the Old Guard.  Conversely there’s no reason to believe that maintaining a hard core, don’t tread on me, Rothbard/Paul line is the only way forward for the party.  The question has been how to bridge that gap and maintain the energy and enthusiasm that the Mises Caucus brings with the mainstream demand for a more professional, unified LP during national and state elections.  In theory, the two sides need each other.  If Nick Sarwark and Steven Nekhaila are both right, the energetic, idealistic, younger crowd complements and needs some of the experience and pragmatism of the Old Guard.  Conversely, the Old Guard won’t win by strategy alone.  There won’t be success without a motivated core.

If recent events tell us anything it is during crises, periods in which voter dissatisfaction is at its peak, that non-mainstream alternatives are taken most seriously.  For evidence of this, look no further than Javier Milei, who just became the president of Argentina, armed with many of the ideas of intellectual libertarian economists.  His election only happens in a context that creates the unique conditions for a highly unconventional alternative – an economic basket case.  Is libertarianism likely to win in the short term?  No. But one can easily imagine current fiscal and monetary policy leading us closer to a crisis, if not of Argentine proportions.  Might that be the LP’s moment?

One unique feature of the US is our federal system, and the LP’s decentralized nature will provide an interesting experiment for comparing the two approaches.  In theory, we should see if one model, the Old Guard or Mises Caucus, is more successful in state and local races over the next few election cycles.  That might be a useful guide for the future of the party, and allow for different versions of the ideas to flourish is the remarkably diverse political geography in the US.

Or perhaps libertarianism, or the liberty movement generally, is ironically, simply unsuited to solve collective action problems.  A group of strong-willed individuals- whether they are raised on Austrian economics, Ayn Rand’s novels, or John Stuart Mill’s defense of liberty with limits, will frequently disagree on the foundation of individual freedom and limited government, and not be amenable to compromise and consensus building.  It is not merely cat herding; it is the equivalent to teaching a group of cats synchronized swimming.

Libertarians will be well served to heed the prescient words of James Buchanan on this matter.  Buchanan wrote in 2005, that while collectivist ideas at that time were largely in disrepute, he believed that the appeal of such governance was undeniable because individuals typically want to evade personal responsibility for their personal circumstances and challenges.  If the participants in this conflict looked in the mirror they might very well know deep down who to blame for the failure to coordinate and compromise.  It’s not the other side; it is themselves.



Mar 21 2024 at 1:50pm

I’m with Buchanan on this one, the LP will never have its moment not only for the reason he stated but more fundamentally because people are (I forgot who coined this) FOOLs (Fear Of Other people’s Liberty), i.e. they would rather knowingly curtail their own liberty than risk their neighbor having the freedom to do some they condemn personally hence the LP at it’s core ideology can’t ever appeal to the masses. It’s the same problem all ideological political parties have, they exist to further an innately unpopular issue, hence why it’s an issue, as opposed to get elected; the Greens suffer the same problem.

I’m not saying in a perfect world the LP shouldn’t exist nor that it couldn’t influence the conversation but that would need a Western European style multiparty coalition political system where they could get including to the winning coalition but after over two hundreds years of that not developing in the US at even a local level, the fact is we never will.

Is that to say the LP shouldn’t exist in the US, no. If nothing else having it’s name on the ballot in all fifty states exposes the term itself to voters and I’d like to think some minut fraction of the Americans have learned, maybe even adopted, libertarianism after seeing the term on the ballot and then curiously decided learned more. Exposure is good for libertarianism even the LP isn’t.

Scott Sumner
Mar 21 2024 at 8:09pm

“Before the infamous Aleppo moment”

It’s interesting that Biden and (even more so) Trump say even dumber things quite frequently, without budging their poll numbers at all.  And they have each been elected president.  We expect more of a candidate with no chance of winning?  I would have expected the opposite.

Mar 22 2024 at 12:00am

I didnt know what Aleppo was until that moment.  I dont get the criticism, Im not going to criticize someone for not knowing something I dont know.

Thanks to the Aleppo moment, I now know twice as many cities in Syria.

Mar 22 2024 at 12:42am

that while collectivist ideas at that time were largely in disrepute

Is that really true though? Collectivism and central planning never went away. Socialism is more popular than ever. Free trade and capitalism were receving plenty of criticism in the media and academia even during the Nineties. It seems “neoliberalism” was mostly a politically expedient reaction to 1970s stagflation rather than a real ideological shift. And once “neoliberalism” became politically inexpedient is collapsed mighty quickly.

Pierre Lemieux
Mar 22 2024 at 12:08pm

Pat: You raise important questions. It’s easy to be pessimistic à la de Jasay (from Against Politics):

It is to history taking its time that we owe thanks for the brilliant but passing nineteenth-century interlude in Western Civilization, with limited government and assured-looking private sovereignty of everybody’s own decisions over crucial domains of economic and social life.

Too easy? I think Buchanan remained optimistic for the longer term; or he had faith.

Warren Platts
Mar 22 2024 at 1:03pm

The reason the Libertarian Party can never seem to get any traction is simply because of the economic & geopolitical doctrines they espouse. On the economic front, the advocated twin policies of unilateral free trade 100% of the time combined with open borders & mass immigration just aren’t working out for the majority of voters. And geopolitically, the LP stance towards totalitarian revisionist states like Russia & China is fundamentally unserious.

The only cure I can see would be some sort of Libertarian nationalism: emphasize free trade, deregulation, and free movement with maximal individual liberty within our borders, meantime recognizing that countries that are invading or threatening to invade our allies while deliberately poisoning our population with illegal drugs are not our friends. But would such an LP even count as “Libertarian”?

R R Schoettker
Mar 22 2024 at 3:57pm

All political parties exist to control and filter access to the presence on ballots. All current members of the State as well as all those potential wannabe candidates to fill positions in the State are, by definition, seeking to obtain the power of rulership over others. As rulership is the plain and simple abrogation of individual freedom to act and is instead the imposition of coercion and outside control over such personal liberty, it seems evident that small l libertarians will not attain their goals by participation in a political process that in its essence is the absolute negation of their principles.

June Genis
Mar 23 2024 at 3:40pm

I, and I believe other Libertarians, do not participate in the political process to “the power of rulership over others” Instead it is to freee them from the control of others, namely those in currently in government who would impose those restrictions.

R R Schoettker
Mar 24 2024 at 10:25am

“Those who learn don’t seek to rule. Those who seek to rule don’t learn.”

— Doug Casey

Jim Glass
Mar 24 2024 at 3:04pm

“The penalty for the good declining to participate in governing is rule by the bad.”

— Plato


David Henderson
Mar 22 2024 at 7:22pm


I thought what you thought about the Aleppo question: that it was infamous.

But an antiwar friend who follows elections closely and was in touch with antiwar voters told me that a number of them voted for Johnson because of the Aleppo question. He told me that they couldn’t believe that anyone didn’t know about Aleppo and so they assumed he did know and that his question “What is Aleppo?” meant that he didn’t care about it and didn’t care so much that he wanted the U.S. government to stay out of the conflict.

Comments are closed.


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Last week, I started posting about my investigation into the apparent implosion of the Libertarian Party. You can read my previous posts here, here, and here. In this post, I try to draw some conclusions, and I hope to hear your reactions.   When you talk with leaders from each side of this conflict it’s c...

Read More