It's hard to remember now, but back in the spring and summer, some libertarians were optimistic about Bob Barr's presidential campaign under the Libertarian Party banner. Barr's eventual failure exemplifies the flaws of the LP as a vehicle for promoting libertarianism.
As a former prominent Republican congressman, Barr was probably the best-known politician ever to run on an LP ticket. And libertarian-minded voters might have been expected to flock to his standard in a year when the Democrats nominated a highly statist candidate like Barack Obama, and the Republicans went with John McCain - a nominee whom most libertarians and pro-limited government conservatives viewed with great suspicion. Supporters hoped that Barr would win many more votes and raise much more money than previous LP nominees, and would effectively spread the libertarian message.
As Brian Doherty documents in this interesting recent article, Barr and the LP didn't even come close to meeting the high expectations. Barr only got about 500,000 votes, and his percentage of the total vote was lower than that achieved by three previous LP nominees, including the lackluster Harry Browne in 1996. Barr's fundraising results were also disappointing.
Brian's article discusses numerous possible causes of Barr's failure that were specific to his particular campaign. Some of these theories may be correct. In truth, however, Barr's failure is of a piece with the more general failure of the LP throughout its entire 36 year history. In that time, the Party has never gotten more than a miniscule share of the vote, and has failed to increase its share over time (the LP's best performance in a presidential election was back in 1980, and its performances in state and local races have also stagnated over time). The LP has also failed in its broader mission of fostering greater acceptance of libertarian ideas. There is little if any evidence that its efforts have increased public support for libertarianism to any appreciable extent. Such consistent failure over a long period of time can't be explained by the personal shortcomings of individual candidates. Barr's performance undercuts claims that the LP can do better simply by nominating a candidate with greater name recognition and more political experience than its usual selections.
For reasons that I explained in this post, the truth is that third party politics simply is not an effective way of promoting libertarianism in the "first past the post" American political system. That system makes it almost impossible for a third party to win any important elected offices. And such a party also can't be an effective tool for public education because the media isn't likely to devote much attention to a campaign with no chance of success.
Libertarians have had some genuine successes over the last 35 years. These include abolition of the draft (heavily influenced by Milton Friedman's ideas), deregulation of large portions of the economy (of which libertarians were the leading intellectual advocates), major reductions in tax rates (facilitated by libertarian economists, libertarian activists, and the legislative efforts of libertarian-leaning Republicans), the increasing popularity of school choice programs, increases in judicial protection for property rights, gun rights, and economic liberties (thanks in large part to advocacy by libertarian legal activists), and heightened respect for privacy and freedom of speech (promoted by libertarians in cooperation with other groups). Libertarian academics and intellectuals have also done much to make libertarian ideas more respectable and less marginal than they were in the 1960s and early 70s.
What all these successes have in common is that they were achieved either by working within the two major parties or by efforts outside the context of party politics altogether. The Libertarian Party didn't play a significant role in any of them.
Libertarians often emphasize that failed enterprises should be liquidated rather than kept going on artificial life support. That enables their resources to be reinvested in other, more successful firms. The point is well taken, and it applies to the Libertarian Party itself. For 35 years, the Party has consumed valuable resources, both financial and human. The money spent on the LP and the time donated by its committed activists could do a lot more to promote libertarianism if used in other ways.
In the current economic and political environment, libertarians face many difficult challenges, including a potential massive expansion of government. Now more than ever, we can't afford to fritter away our limited resources on failed political strategies. The time has come to admit that the LP is a failure and spend our precious time and money elsewhere.