In Defense of the Libertarian Macho Flash

by Thomas M. Sipos



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A slightly edited version of this article originally appeared in Liberty, May 2001.



The Libertarian Party stands for the private ownership of nuclear weapons. That was how LP officials first explained the party to me.

A high school buddy and I were trolling New York's third parties, partly from morbid curiosity, but mainly to expand our campaign button collections with some exotica. At the offices of the Free Libertarian Party (as it was then called in NY) we found a group of middle-aged white guys, just shooting the breeze. None of the tenseness or paranoia we found at the SWP and CPUSA and LaRouche's US Labor Party.

The FLP guys welcomed us with cordial disinterest. So that our button quest not appear entirely mercenary, we feigned interest and asked questions. One FLP official responded by plucking a copy of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress from a shelf and reading aloud a passage. Unrelated to anything we'd asked, he added that Heinlein defended the private ownership of nuclear weapons.

We'd been macho flashed.

I should mention, we were flashed at a time when the Soviet Union was still extant. An era when unilateral nuclear disarmament was the Left's "non-negotiable" moral issue of the moment. And here was a party that made the GOP look like peaceniks. A party with shock value, the sort beloved by teenaged boys. If nothing else, the FLP's pro-nuclear macho flashing cinched the Beavis and Butthead vote.

But Beavis and Butthead don't vote. Their soccer moms do. And those moms, some LP members caution, don't vote for macho flashers.

For those new to LP terminology, the macho flash is an in-your-face flaunting of the most extreme libertarian hypotheticals. No soft-peddling or sugar cube to make the medicine go down. Should a soccer mom ask about drug policy in a hypothetical libertarian society, the non-flasher will discuss medical marijuana, the failure of Prohibition, and the benefits of treatment over prisons. The macho flasher will defend the right to erect crack cocaine vending machines in daycare centers.

The admonition against macho flashing comes from what may be termed the LP's Activist faction.  Activists are primarily concerned with electoral victory. They advocate marketing the more popular LP positions, and downplaying the "scary" ones. They favor a prioritization (if not compromise) of issues, based on voter appeal. Combining the party of principle with the politics of polling.

Polling with principle. Sic.

Opposing the Activists are the LP's Purists, who scorn any compromise to the pledge or platform or message, even at the cost of electoral victory. Purists worry that prioritization leads to compromise. Issues downplayed today will be discarded tomorrow, compromised away in a corrupt bargain in exchange for political power. Purists contemn a Pyrrhic victory, while Activists counter that an 80% proof Libertarian Congress is better than a 100% LP forever in exile.

[Activists and Purists were the two primary factions in 1990s Los Angeles libertarian circles. In the 2000s those factions became known as Reformers and Radicals. -- T.S., 4/17/12]

The Activists may be right -- assuming a majority LP Congress is achievable. Or even a sizable minority. Or even ... something. But I doubt the LP will make any more electoral gains in the next 20 years than it has in the past 20. But it may yet make significant gains for liberty.

Especially if the LP utilizes the macho flash.

My case for the macho flash, premised on the assumption that the LP cannot win electorally, is that the LP should make full use of the unique media attention directed at political parties by advocating the full spectrum of liberty.

Of course, Activists augur imminent victories whenever any local LP vote tally rises from 2% to 3% -- surely 34% in a three-way race is just a few election cycles away? If correct, Activists have plausible rationale for asking Purists to stop flashing Randian diatribes at soccer moms.

But if the LP is forever doomed to lose, and lose badly, then to flash or not to flash is only relevant if one cares whether the LP loses by 98% or a mere 97%.

Because macho flashing loses votes, it can only be useful to the LP if the LP had a use other than vote-getting. It does. As an educational tool.

Rather than a Purist, I am primarily an Educationist. (Those two party factions probably overlap significantly.) I believe the LP should focus on educating the public about liberty. High vote tallies are nice, I too would like to find them under my Christmas tree. But as I don't believe in Santa Claus, I think the LP should concentrate on the doable.

The LP cannot win, but it can influence. But only on issues it dares to address. Advocating any form of drug legalization was macho flashing in the 1970s. Hippies did it, but not "serious" parties.  But today that position no longer shocks. Calls for drug reform come from all quarters, from pundits and voters if not from politicians. And the politicians hear even if they don't speak. In time, they will respond.

We won't have an LP Congress by 2010, but we will have legalization of medical marijuana, nationwide. It will be enacted by Demopublicans, not the LP. Yet partly, it will be an LP victory, because the LP helped plant the idea into voters' minds. [I was right about the first prediction. Wrong about the second. -- T.S., 4/17/12]

Today's Activists see medical marijuana as one of the LP's most popular issues. Yet ironically, had the Purists heeded the Activists 25 years ago, the drug issue might have been deprioritized "until such time that the LP controls both houses of Congress." Following this strategy of "polling with principle," not only would the LP still be silent on the drug issue, but medical marijuana would not be as close to legalization as it is today.

Voters cannot support ideas they have not conceived. Before there can be a policy, there must be the vision of that policy. By mentioning the unmentionable, you enable people to think the unthinkable. What was unthinkable yesterday becomes debatable today, and doable tomorrow.

Once, most everyone assumed racial inequality was ingrained in reality. Unable to conceive an alternative, it never occurred to anyone that state enforced inequality could be otherwise. Then someone thought it, and said it, and shocked everyone by his macho flash. But the seed was planted, and in some minds took root and spread its pollen.

Howard Roarke said something about the first man to invent fire, and much else. Quite the macho flasher, Roarke. Ayn Rand was a macho flasher.

Activists wax hysterical when I call the LP an educational tool. They say I should quit and join a think tank or journal, that the LP is a political party and political parties are about getting votes. Well yes, you can call the LP a political party. You can call it spaghetti, but that won't make it any more competitive with Chef Boy-ar-Dee.

And yes, think tanks and journals are useful in disseminating ideas. But political parties enjoy unique opportunities for influence, opportunities unavailable to think tanks and journals. Candidates receive free media access. State-funded voter guides publicize party principles and ideas. Thus, although a failure as a vote-getter, the LP usefully complements the Reason Foundation, Cato Institute, and Liberty.

But even assuming the LP has advanced the cause of medical marijuana, still, is it necessary to macho flash about crack cocaine vending machines? No, not necessary. But helpful. For apart from being both fun and funny, such macho flashes enable our Demopublican allies to appear comparatively moderate. If the LP cannot repeal the income tax, it can help make Bush's modest tax cut appear ... modest.

Demopublican allies! Sic! Sic! Sic!

By Demopublican allies, I mean any Demopublican politician who poaches popular libertarian positions from the LP. Poaches and enacts them (even if in diluted version), and thus moves the nation closer along the spectrum to liberty.

This is not mere theory. Empirical evidence shows that the major parties have historically co-opted popular third party positions, thereafter sapping such third party of its supporters.

It is easy to see why this is so. Because only the major parties have the power to enact voters' demands (however imperfectly, and however unjustly at the expense of other voters), voters disdain "wasting" their votes on an impotent third party. And because the major parties maintain their power through coalition-building, through a constant tug-of-war for voters, any significant voting bloc who feels their wishes ignored will soon be courted by one or both parties.

This may be called the Co-Option Factor.

Activists crow over every minor LP vote gain, but even assuming the LP can overcome the Wasted Vote Syndrome, the Co-Option Factor ensures that any significant new LP voting bloc (one not motivated by Pure libertarian ideals) will soon be poached by the majors. Non-ideological voters support third parties only when their concerns are entirely ignored by the majors. Should the Demopublicans offer even 1/2 a loaf, most such new third party voters will switch. LP Activists may be willing to offer 3/4 of a loaf (to the disgust of Purists), but the Demopublicans own the bakery.

Yes, there are many "young new voters excited" about the LP. But there have always been "young new voters excited" about this or that third party. Most antiwar demonstrators became Demopublican yuppies after Vietnam. Most hemp activists will become Demopublican Dot-Comers after hemp is legalized. They say not, but empirical evidence says otherwise. Libertarians, who claim to be rational, should always heed empirical evidence.

But this same evidence also reveals how the LP can advance liberty: By authoring the Demopublicans' agenda. Largely unprincipled, most politicians would sooner enact any policy than lose office. Clinton mastered this art of triangulation, stealing and enacting diluted versions of his opponents' proposals.

Okay, let these hollow suits steal away. The LP should do the doable: Popularizing libertarian ideas so they become worth stealing. Rather than waste its free media access by strategizing how to raise its vote totals another 1%, the LP should fully use its spotlight by advocating liberty, undiluted. It should measure its success not by votes, but by the number of people who stammer, "I never knew anyone could believe such things!"

Ideas expressed often enough lose their shock value, so that whenever the LP's advocacy of a stand overcomes the smears of its opponents, there shall come a Demopublican to harvest the votes. Activists will complain that victory was rightfully theirs, and Purists will complain that the Demopublicans diluted their ideas. Both will be right.

But the LP should not constrain its educational influence by chasing the chimera of electoral victory. It should be the Johnny Appleseed of politics, planting the purest seeds of liberty into voters' minds, so that the major parties might spread a richly libertarian harvest before America.

My sole worry is that Demopublicans will not steal enough of our bounty. Liberty is too dear for any one party to horde.


Article copyright 2001 by Thomas M. Sipos. It originally appeared in Liberty.