Rothbard on the Libertarian Party


Excerpts from Exclusive Interview With Murray Rothbard

By The New Banner

[This interview was first published in the 25 February 1972 edition of The New Banner: A Fortnightly Libertarian Journal, Vol. I, No. 3.]

NEW BANNER:  Some libertarians have recommended anti-voting activities during the 1972 election.  Do you agree with this tactic?

ROTHBARD:  I’m interested to talk about that.  This is the classical anarchist position, there is no doubt about that.  The classical anarchist position is that nobody should vote, because if you vote you are participating in a state apparatus.  Or if you do vote you should write in your own name, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with this tactic in the sense that if there really were a nationwide movement — if five million people, let’s say, pledged not to vote.  I think it would be very useful.  On the other hand, I don’t think voting is a real problem.  I don’t think it’s immoral to vote, in contrast to the anti-voting people.

Lysander Spooner, the patron saint of individualist anarchism, had a very effective attack on this idea.  The thing is, if you really believe that by voting you are giving your sanction to the state, then you see you are really adopting the democratic theorist’s position.  You would be adopting the position of the democratic enemy, so to speak, who says that the state is really voluntary because the masses are supporting it by participating in elections.  In other words, you’re really the other side of the coin of supporting the policy of democracy — that the public is really behind it and that it is all voluntary.  And so the anti-voting people are really saying the same thing.

I don’t think this is true, because as Spooner said, people are being placed in a coercive position.  They are surrounded by a coercive system; they are surrounded by the state.  The state, however, allows you a limited choice — there’s no question about the fact that the choice is limited.  Since you are in this coercive situation, there is no reason why you shouldn’t try to make use of it if you think it will make a difference to your liberty or possessions.  So by voting you can’t say that this is a moral choice, a fully voluntary choice, on the part of the public.  It’s not a fully voluntary situation.  It’s a situation where you are surrounded by the whole state which you can’t vote out of existence.  For example, we can’t vote the Presidency out of existence — unfortunately, it would be great if we could, but since we can’t why not make use of the vote if there is a difference at all between the two people.  And it is almost inevitable that there will be a difference, incidentally, because just praxeologically or in a natural law sense, every two persons or every two groups of people will be slightly different, at least.  So in that case why not make use of it.  I don’t see that it’s immoral to participate in the election provided that you go into it with your eyes open — provided that you don't think that either Nixon or Muskie is the greatest libertarian since Richard Cobden! — which many people, of course, talk themselves into before they go out and vote.

The second part of my answer is that I don’t think that voting is really the question.  I really don’t care about whether people vote or not.  To me the important thing is, who do you support.  Who do you hope will win the election?  You can be a non-voter and say “I don’t want to sanction the state” and not vote, but on election night who do you hope the rest of the voters, the rest of the suckers out there who are voting, who do you hope they’ll elect.  And it’s important, because I think that there is a difference.  The Presidency, unfortunately, is of extreme importance.  It will be running or directing our lives greatly for four years.  So, I see no reason why we shouldn’t endorse, or support, or attack one candidate more than the other candidate.  I really don’t agree at all with the non-voting position in that sense, because the non-voter is not only saying we shouldn’t vote: he is also saying that we shouldn’t endorse anybody.  Will Robert LeFevre, one of the spokesmen of the non-voting approach, will he deep in his heart on election night have any kind of preference at all as the votes come in.  Will he cheer slightly or groan more as whoever wins?  I don’t see how anybody could fail to have a preference, because it will affect all of us.

NEW BANNER:  What other activities would you consider appropriate for libertarians during the election?

ROTHBARD:  Well, as I tried to indicate — supporting candidates.  I think there will be two main groups of libertarians this year.  One group will be the non-voting group.  The other group will be the Dump Nixon group of which I am an enthusiastic member.  I almost take the position — anybody but Nixon.  Dump him!  Punish him!  Smash him!  Retire him to the private life which he so richly deserves.  Get him out!  I think there are all sorts of reasons why, if you want to pursue it, why Nixon should be dumped.

I do not support Ashbrook, but I think it is a very interesting development, because there is a possibility that the extremists in the conservative camp are hoping that Ashbrook will run on a 5th party ticket in the general election, which is the important thing.  Because, if he runs in Ohio, California, etc., he can break Nixon by just getting 10 per cent of the conservative vote.  That is, if he has the guts to run in a general election.

NEW BANNER:  David Nolan is forming a Libertarian Party.  Its membership has indicated an interest in nominating you for its Presidential candidate in 1972.  What is your response to this overture?

ROTHBARD:  Ha, ha, ha (prolonged laughter).  I really don’t think, as lovable as third parties are, that a libertarian party at this stage of our development is anything but foolhardy.  There are just not that many libertarians yet.  There’s no finances, there’s no people, there’s nothing.  Maybe eventually we will have a libertarian political party.

NEW BANNER:  What would be the purpose of a libertarian party?

ROTHBARD:  I think if there were a libertarian party — and I don’t want to make it seem as if this is a realistic thing at this time — if there ever were a strong libertarian party it could do several things.  Tactically, we could have a balance of power.  Even better as an educational weapon.  If we had ten guys in Congress, let’s say, each of whom are constantly agitating for libertarian purposes — voting against the budget, etc., I think it would be very useful.

Also, we have a long-range problem which none of us has ever really grappled with to any extent.  That is, how do we finally establish a libertarian society?  Obviously ideas are a key thing.  First off you have to persuade a lot of people to be anarchists — anarcho-capitalists.  But then what?  What is the next step?  You certainly don’t have to convince the majority of the public, because most of the public will follow anything that happens.  You obviously have to have a large minority.  How do we then implement this?  This is the power problem.  As I’ve expressed this in other places, the government is not going to resign.  We are not going to have a situation where Nixon reads Human Action, Atlas Shrugged, or Man, Economy and State and says “By God, they’re right. I’m quitting!”  I’m not denying the philosophical possibility that this might happen, but strategically it’s very low on the probability scale.  As the Marxists put it, no ruling class has ever voluntarily surrendered its power.  There has to be an effort to deal with the problem of how to get these guys off our backs.  So, if you really have a dedicated group in Congress or the Senate, you can start voting measures down or whatever.  But I don’t think this is the only way.  I think maybe there will be civil disobedience where the public will start not paying taxes or something like that.  If you look at it, there are several possible alternatives in dismantling the state.  There is violent revolution, there is non-violent civil disobedience and there is the political action method.  I don’t know which of these will be successful.  It’s really a tactical question which you can’t really predict in advance, it seems to me that it would be foolhardy to give up any particular arm of this.

It’s incumbent upon people to come up with some sort of strategic perspective to dismantle the state.  For example, Bob LeFevre somehow works it out that it’s almost impossible to get rid of the state — from his own point of view.  He is against violent revolution — o.k. now that is a very respectable position; he’s also against voting; he’s against political parties — it becomes very difficult to really see how one can get to the state at all with this kind of procedure.  I don’t see why we should give up something like political parties.  It might be a route eventually to dismantling the state or helping to dismantle it.

The Party

By Murray N. Rothbard

[This article was first published in the March 1972 edition of The Libertarian Forum, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 1–2.]

When I was a kid growing up in New York I noticed that many of the adults I met were want to refer in awed and reverent terms to “the Party”.  It was not clear whether they were members of “the Party” or not but it was clear that this organization was the central focus of their lives.  At the time I thought that they were just unusually fervid Democrats; it was quite a while before I realized that they were speaking of the Communist Party.  Now the New York Times has printed a lengthy article about a Libertarian Party that has been formed in Colorado, a Party planning to hold a convention and run a Presidential ticket this year.  (Anthony Ripley, “New Party Makes a Debut In Denver”, New York Times, Feb. 6).  The question arises: do we have ourselves a Party?  And if we do, or even if we don’t, do we want one?

Whether we have ourselves a Party may be gleaned from some simple facts, culled from the Ripley article and from the LP’s literature.  According to Ripley, temporary national chairman of the party, David F. Nolan asserts that total nationwide membership is now 250, though the party “hopes” to have 1,000 members by the national convention in June and 10,000 members by Election Day.  The party’s literature states that it has only one state chairman (in Colorado) and advertises for people to sign on as state chairmen.  The L. P. conducted a nationwide poll of its membership to ask whom they would like to see run for President of the United States.  Your editor came in first in the poll, thus becoming the runaway plurality choice of the 52 people who participated in the voting.  The L. P. called on all of its members to swamp me with a nationwide letter and card-writing campaign urging me to run for President.  A deluge of 5 letters and calls came flooding in.

Do we have a party and is it equipped to run a Presidential campaign?  Surely the above facts speak eloquently for themselves.  Apart from ideology, which we can table for the moment, what any party needs to run a nationwide campaign are two vital elements: lots of party workers, and lots of money.  A party possessing 52 active members and one state chairman clearly has almost none of either crucial requisite.

To clear away the personal question first, while I am of course honored to be the first choice for the Presidency I have, to put it with extreme mildness, no ambitions for higher office.  Indeed, even if the party had 100,000 members and $1 million in its coffers, I can only repeat the famous phrase of General Sherman: “If nominated I shall not run; if elected I shall not serve.”

To return to the problem of the party, it is distressing that the dedicated young Coloradoans who constitute the L. P. do not seem to realize that the chances of getting any of their desired luminaries (e. g. Alan Greenspan, Ernie Fitzgerald) to run for President are zero as well.  52 activists do not a party make.  Even the Peace and Freedom Party, which had 100,000 signatories and 10,000 activists in party clubs throughout California in early 1968, collapsed very quickly even in California and never really got beyond the bounds of that state.

If the New Left, with an enormously greater reservoir of resources in money and manpower, has never been able to get a party off the ground, it should be crystal clear that the time is scarcely at hand for a libertarian political party.  To add to the problem, the growing but still relatively miniscule number of developed libertarians are so individualistic,by the very nature of their creed, that they have scarcely been able to form ad hoc organizations, let alone a disciplined party which, according to Mr. Nolan, “will require its candidates to sign specific pledges”, presumably to cleave to the party platform.  Apart from that, a large majority of libertarians, for varying reasons, are opposed to any sort of participation in the political process, so that the greater number of potential supporters would have nothing to do with such a party in any case.

It should be clear that, at the very least, any talk of a libertarian party is grossly premature, and will be for many years to come.  If the L. P. is determined to go ahead in any case, then surely the sensible thing for it to do would be to start small, in keeping with their resources, and stick to grass-roots organizing in Colorado.  Not only is Colorado the center, if not the only area of strength, for the party, but the extremely liberal electoral laws of that state require only 300 signatures on the ballot.  Let the party run, say, Mr. Nolan for the Senate this year and see what happens.  If it can get 10% of the vote, then the time will come for the rest of the movement to re-evaluate its prospects.  (Most minor parties remain at a dead end with something like 2–3% of the vote.)

Apart from the extreme unrealism of launching a Libertarian Party at this time, there are other considerations that give great pause even to those of us who are not opposed to participation in politics as a matter of principle.  The libertarian movement has only recently begun to mature, and to develop a harmony and unity of purpose among its varied and disparate factions.  The spectacle of a party convention with leftists, Randians, and half a dozen other factions at each others’ throats over platform and candidates is not one that can fill anyone devoted to the movement with delight.  Furthermore, in the possible but unlikely event of healthy for the libertarian movement as a whole or for the cause that we are all trying to promote.  There is also a good chance that the media will heap ridicule on a party whose reach is so much greater than its grasp, and this of course would be damaging to the greater cause as well.

a gread [sic] deal of publicity accruing to a party which represents only a small fraction of libertarians, most libertarians will feel called upon to take steps to dissociate themselves from a platform or candidates which do not reflect their views, either of ideology or of strategy.  None of this can be [sic]

As to the temporary platform of the party, there are, as one would expect, some very good things in it, ranging from repeal of all “crimes without victims” to abolition of the draft to repeal of the various regulatory agencies to asserting the right of secession and immediate withdrawal from Indochina.  There are, however, some glaring clinkers in the platform, even conceding that these are “transitional” demands rather than an immediate call for the full and complete libertarian program.  The major clinkers are in the vital fields of: taxation, money, and foreign and military policy.

In the crucial area of taxation, the party platform confines itself to the admirable though minor call for ending the discrimination against single persons in the income tax system, and to a vague request for some sort of reduction of taxation and government expenditures.  Surely, at the very minimum any sort of party calling itself libertarian must call for (a) an immediate and drastic reduction in taxation — let’s say 50% across the board to begin with; and (b) immediate repeal of the income tax, the despotic and critical key to the federal revenue system.  Failing repeal of the income tax, a libertarian party should at least call for repeal of the withholding system, which came in as a wartime “emergency” measure in World War 11, and is the key to any large scale depredations through the income tax.  The curious thing is that Nr. Nolan was formerly head of the Youth division of the Liberty Amendment Committee, which made its prime plank repeal of the income tax.  As such, Nr. Nolan, at least, should be alive to the importance of abolishing the income tax system.  As a matter of fact, the party could well include the other plank of the Liberty Amendment group: a constitutional amendment which would abolish all government activities that compete with private enterprise.  Where is this plank?  Is a Libertarian Party to fall behind the Liberty Amendment Committee in the extent of its libertarianism?

In the field of money, there is also a grave falling away from the pure libertarian creed.  While the party does look forward to eventual abolition of the Federal Reserve System, its concrete monetary program is disquietingly Friedmanite: it calls, for example, for the right of private persons to own gold.  Fine, but scarcely enough for a libertarian vanguard.  Where is a plea for a return to the gold standard, or more precisely for a return to the people of the billions of dollars of gold that the federal government confiscated from us in 1933 as a “depression emergency”?  In addition to the simple right to own gold, we should also have the right to get our gold back from the government’s hoard; and this means gold redemption, once again, from the presently government-dictated and controlled fiat dollar.  In Friedmanite fashion, the Libertarian Party would leave total control of our money supply in the hands of government and its fiat paper currency.  Similarly, in the international monetary field, the party calls for freely fluctuating exchange rates, again a venerable Friedmanite panacea.  Once again, the desideratum is for gold to be the money in international affairs as well, a policy which Western Europe at least would be happy to agree with.  Is the Libertarian Party to be significantly less libertarian than Jacques Rueff or the Bank of South Africa?

Even more disquieting is the party’s position on military and foreign affairs.  While it does happily advocate immediate withdrawal from Indochina and the United Nations, and an end to foreign aid and to “attempts to act as a policeman for the world”, this policy of “isolationism” is negated by the party’s call for continuing military alliance with the Western “democracies.”  Thus, we are to keep a military alliance with “democratic” England, which is still persisting in its age-old imperialist policy of shooting unarmed Irishmen.  Furthermore, there is no recognition in the party platform of the evils of domestic militarism and of the “military-industrial complex”, and the party calls upon us to retain our nuclear deterrent.  There is no hint of enthusiasm for any sort of disarmament, even for joint disarmament with unlimited inspection.  Nineteenth-century classical liberalism was wrecked largely by its failure to break with militarism and foreign interventionism, and the Libertarian Party shows no real signs of fully surmounting this age-old handicap.

There are also no attempts to cope with some of the major problems rightly agitating millions of Americans: the crises in welfare, education, pollution, urban affairs, etc.  But, as we have indicated, deficiencies in their platform is only one of the problems that confront the Libertarian Party.  Genuine progress can only come from taking one step at a time.

The Party Once More

By Murray N. Rothbard

[This article was first published in the May 1972 edition of The Libertarian Forum, Vol. IV, No. 5, p. 3.]

Mr. David F. Nolan, temporary national chairman of the Libertarian Party, writes in high dudgeon that while it is true that the party had only 52 activist members last November, that it now (March 24) has “nearly 350 members” and six state chairmen.  Anyone who thinks that his makes any difference for the viability of a nationwide party is welcome to re-evaluate our position (Lib. Forum, March, 1972).

More substantially, Mr. Nolan writes that the primary purpose of the Libertarian Party is not immediate electoral victory but to educate the public in libertarian ideas.  We never thought otherwise.  But the problem with this approach — a long-standing objective of minor parties — is that the psychology of the mass of the public being educated is overlooked.  Let us take, for example, the poor old Socialist Labor Party, which, doggedly, every four years for nearly a century, has been nominating Presidential candidates and getting them on the ballot.  What impact on the electorate has the SLP achieved?  The problem is that the party has been so small, so flagrantly unviable, that the educational impact for socialism by the SLP has ranged sternly from zero to negative.  For what is the reaction of the public?  The reaction of the average citizen is that here is a tiny collection of kooks making a mockery of the electoral process (which the average person unfortunately reveres) in presuming to run someone for the Presidency.  In short, the SLP is invariably written off as a bunch of crackpots, and their ideology often goes down the drain with them.

Why then does the SLP continue to slog along, decade after decade, even though unheeded by one and all?  Because they manage to ingest just enough funds to keep the party bureaucracy going; in short, as so often happens with ideological and social action groups, the ends have been lost sight of, and the means — the preservation of the party bureaucracy — have become the end.

The way to avoid this unhappy dead end is to confine oneself to viable parties, that is to parties whose publicly proclaimed grasp is not absurdly beyond their means.  An example are the Liberal and Conservative Parties of New York, which are large enough to have considerable weight within the state.  And because of this weight, they do have considerable educational impact as well.  But note that even they, as powerful as they are, are prudent enough not to extend their reach into any of the other states.

The Party Emerges

By Murray N. Rothbard

[This article was first published in the June-July 1972 edition of The Libertarian Forum, Vol. IV, Nos. 6–7, pp. 1–2.]

From all sides, I have been bombarded with the question: have I “sold out” to the newly emerged Libertarian Party?  Or, to put it less violently, have I shifted my position?

It is true that I have agreed to become an economic adviser to John Hospers, the Libertarian Party candidate for the Presidency, and that I have joined an Academic Advisory Board for the New York party (called “The Free Libertarian Party.”)  But I have not changed my position in the least.  My strictures against the LP were not the result of “anti-party principle”; I never believed that forming a political party itself violates libertarian principle.  My arguments against a national ticket were strategic and prudential; and these arguments still remain.  As long as the LP has gone ahead and nominated a national ticket (Hospers-Nathan) I wish it well; but realistically I do not expect much, either by way of votes or of mass conversion, to emerge from the campaign.

I remain, furthermore, more enthusiastic about campaigns the local level at this stage of the game.  The New York FLP is pursing this kind of strategy by concentrating its energies on two local races in Manhattan (Gary Greenberg for Congress and Forum contributor Walter Block for Assembly), and one on the loosely affiliated “Independent Rights” ticket, with Guy W. Riggs for Assembly from Poughkeepsie.  Greenberg and Block, moreover, are happily using the campaign to radicalize the party itself.  There are several imaginative ways by which Greenberg and Block are going beyond the rather stodgy laissez-faire platform of the official party.  In the first place, Greenberg and Block go beyond the official party call for total amnesty for draft resisters, and advocate “reparations to be paid out of the pockets of the politicians and personnel who maintained the draft.”  If the draft is slavery and is criminal, then shouldn’t the criminals be forced to compensate the victims?  Here is “radical” libertarian doctrine not to be found in the orthodox political guidebooks of Objectivism.  Greenberg and Block go on from there to another joyously radical demand: “A War Crimes Tribunal should be established to examine whether or not war crimes have been committed during the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon administrations.”  Then they pursue the logic to go beyond the mere finger-pointing of, say, the old Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal: “Perpetrators should be prosecuted.”  Here are planks truly worthy of libertarians who are not afraid to be “radical” — i.e. to pursue the logic of their position to its uttermost.

Greenberg, in his capacity of dealing with taxation at the federal level, has also had the courage to outrage objectivist sensibilities by calling for the raising of income tax exemptions to $12,000, as a concrete first step in the ultimate party objective of abolishing taxation altogether.  The objectivists complained that this exemption of lower and middle income groups would increase the degree of progressiveness in the income tax structure.  So it would; but the important question is not the degree of progressiveness, but the amount which each group has to shell out in taxes.  The wealthy would not suffer by such a program — in fact, they would be slightly better off from the rise in exemptions — and the poor and middle class would benefit enormously by the tax burden being lifted from them.  In fact, why stop at $12,000?  We need at least a $20,000 tax exemption to liberate the hard-working middle class of this country from income tax slavery.

Contrast, too, the quality of the “populism” exhibited by the tax reform programs of Gary Greenberg and the slightly better-known George McGovern.  McGovern’s is a completely phony “populism” which would soak to the ’gunnels everyone making over $12,000 a year.  Greenberg would completely free the lower and middle income groups from the exploitation and the oppression of income taxation.  For real populism, vote Greenberg and Block!

See also

The Need For A Movement And A Party

June 1973, The Libertarian Forum, Vol. V, No. 6, pp. 6–7

Libertarian Party

November 1973, The Libertarian Forum, Vol. V, No. 11, pp. 2–3

Purity And The Libertarian Party

May 1974, The Libertarian Forum, Vol. VI, No. 5, pp. 3 and 7

A Political Party, Once More

April 1976, The Libertarian Forum, Vol. IX, No. 4, p. 6

The Libertarian Heritage: The American Revolution and Classical Liberalism

Chapter one of the second edition of For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (1973; 1978)

Konkin on Libertarian Strategy

May Day 1981, Strategy of the New Libertarian Alliance, Vol. I, No. 1