Thursday, May 08, 2008

Purist versus Pragmatists

Once again the battle within the Libertarian Party between the purists and the pragmatists is heating up. The case for the pragmatists is thus: what is the virtue of being pure if you cannot get elected to positions where your ideas can influence others? The case for the purists is thus: what is the virtue of getting elected when you have to sacrifice your beliefs to get elected?

There is a certain amount of logic to each position, but only to a certain extent, and the weaker case is that of the pragmatists. If sacrificing for the purpose of popularity is an effective tactic, how far should this be taken? Just how much should be sacrificed? The nether terminus of that line of questioning is to go back to the two major political parties because for the overwhelming majority of political offices the holder comes from one of those two parties.

For a long time the purists have been in control of the party, and the platform has reflected this, which is very fortunate. The platform is the end goal, the ultimate desired state, and therefore should never be watered down. The war in Iraq has given focus to the Pragmatists as many of them are also Interventionists. In 2006 the pragmatists managed to organize into a "Reform Caucus" and take control of the Libertarian Party convention and shred major portions of the platform.

Now that the task before the Libertarian Party is to pick a new presidential candidate, the rivalry is heating up again. Among the candidates favored by the purists are Mary Ruwart and Steve Kubby. Among the candidates favored by the pragmatists are Wayne Root and Bob Barr. Also this has been reflected in the Republican presidential primary as libertarians of the purist faction favored Ron Paul while prominent pragmatists have come out against him to the point where Reason Magazine actually published a hit piece in order to accuse Rep. Paul of racism.

The argument in favor of Mr. Barr is that while he’s not pure he is significantly libertarian. As was put at one point "He’s 80% but can get 4% of the vote. Ruwart is closer to 100% but will get less than 1%."

Is Mr. Barr at the estimated 80%? His detractors have asked many questions of him that would either confirm or disprove his conversion to libertarianism, but thus far there have been no answers forthcoming. His supporters say that by asking the questions in the first place that purists are sabotaging the party by insisting that a candidate be perfect.

Asking questions in not the same as insisting a candidate be perfect. All asking questions does is try to find out his positions on the issues. Has he changed his opinion on Pagans serving in the military? Has he changed his opinion on Faith Based Initiatives? Has he changed his opinion on No Child Left Behind or Prescription Drug Coverage for Seniors?

Asking those questions doesn’t mean he has to be 100% libertarian, it means that if he wants support he should come up with reasonable answers instead of non answers. Supporters of Barr, pragmatists all, insist that Mr. Barr shouldn’t have to pass a purity test of libertarianism. The truth is that while a perfect score should not necessarily be needed, taking the test in the first place is needed.

As an alternative, if Mr. Barr will not answer those questions, there is one potential running mate that could allay any worries about his deviation from the libertarian line, a candidate who while also impure deviates in precisely the opposite way and if paired could potentially create a ticket where the negatives balance each other out: Mike Gravel. Mr. Gravel could never pass a libertarian purity tests, and would never be the choice of the purists on his own. Strangely he is not the choice of the pragmatists either, even though he also has greater public name recognition than any of the other candidates (save Barr).

He isn’t thought of by them because perhaps there is some grain of truth to the suspicion that the pragmatists are hoping that Mr. Barr might be a stealth interventionist candidate, the was Mr. Root was before he discovered that being an advocate of war was the last position a potential libertarian candidate wanted if his goal is to win the nomination. Mr. Root had the potential to be pro-war after winning the nomination, and so does Mr. Barr. There is no such suspicion with Mr. Gravel.

Also many of the pragmatists, for all their dislike of Ron Paul, are often accused of being sympathetic or soft on the Republicans. If Mr. Barr isn’t pure libertarian, he is impure in a very Republican direction, which is sure to please the Republican-leaning pro-war "pragmatists". Mike Gravel is sure to displease for all the reasons they suspect Bob Barr will please.

Still, the best hope the "pragmatists" have of convincing the purists to support Barr with any degree of enthusiasm would be the precisely opposite candidate. While better candidates exist, such as Mary Ruwart, the best ticket may be Barr-Gravel.

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