Is The Libertarian Party Bad For libertarianism?

Randy Barnett thinks so:

In hindsight, I think that the creation of the Libertarian Party has been very detrimental to the political influence of libertarians. Some voters (not many lately) and, more importantly, those libertarians who are interested in engaging in political activism (which does not include me) have been drained from both political parties, rendering both parties less libertarian at the margin...

While some libertarian political activists are certainly Republicans and Democrats, the existence of the Libertarian Party ensures that there are fewer activists and fewer voters in each major party coalition than would otherwise exist. Therefore, each party's coalition becomes less libertarian.

I agree with this, though I think the number of politically active libertarians is so small that it doesn't really make much of a difference what we do electorally. The Libertarian Party may fail in politics, but at least it accomplishes something in terms of outreach and introducing people to libertarian ideas. I very well might not be writing this post if it weren't for my introduction to libertarianism through the advocacy of Party loyalists.

The question remains whether the Libertarian Party is the best forum for reaching out to potential libertarians who aren't familiar with the political philosophy. Some argue that time, money and other resources would be better spent elsewhere, boostering organizations like Cato, Reason, the IHS, or the Mises Institute. Perhaps. But while I am personally not that interested in electoral politics (in the same way I am not that interested in organized sports), I recognize that many others do find these sorts of activities interesting, and insofar as they do, the Libertarian Party serves a vital purpose in attracting these people and giving them something to focus on. All of us benefit from a socio-political division of labor and specialization, for each of us can then focus on our comparative advantages.

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As you recognize, the

As you recognize, the question is not whether the LP has brought people in, but whether it has done so more than if effort had gone to other places. Well, here's one analysis:

The LP has no chance at really changing anything. It doesn't take long for practical people to realize this (although idealistic people never do). Hence, the LP will tend to some degree to attract, and to a greater degree to retain, the impractical and the idealistic. It may initially turn people on to libertarianism, but then what impression does it give them? In my admittedly harsh opinion, the impression of foolish idealists who aren't accomplishing anything.

You say: "the Libertarian Party serves a vital purpose in attracting these people and giving them something to focus on"

But they're being asked to focus on something hopeless. Don't you think that drives people away? If people instead were attracted to organizations like the FSP, to successful activists like the institute for justice, or various pro-gun-rights groups...heck, even to the academic wing of libertarianism, who may not be practical but at least aren't claiming to be...well, maybe they'd stick around.

I think the LP serves

I think the LP serves another useful purpose by serving as a check against the extremism of the major parties.

I think that many people are largely libertarian but tend to identify with one of the major parties as the lesser of two evils that have a chance to win; and they are interested in participating in elections so they vote. But, if their party becomes too extreme in the areas they don't care for, the LP gives them somewhere else to go to protest the betrayal.

Without the LP, the major parties could basically write these people off and appeal to the extremists of their bases, because the social liberals and fiscal conservatives really wouldn't have an alternative to vote for.

"It may initially turn

"It may initially turn people on to libertarianism, but then what impression does it give them? In my admittedly harsh opinion, the impression of foolish idealists who aren’t accomplishing anything."

That's a tough question to answer without any empirical study. But regardless, the crucial step in the process may be the initial turning people on; if they later become dissatisfied with the LP as a way of attaining libertarian goals, or the political process in general, then that's for the best, since we are unlikely to attain our goals through the political process. But, nevertheless, if the LP has at least turned people on in the first place, then that's an important step in drawing people to our cause.

"If people instead were attracted to organizations like the FSP, to successful activists like the institute for justice, or various pro-gun-rights groups…heck, even to the academic wing of libertarianism, who may not be practical but at least aren’t claiming to be…well, maybe they’d stick around."

I agree. The danger is in people becoming enamored of the idea that the LP will accomplish something, which is not particularly likely. As long as people are aware that their political chances are nil, then there's no harm in party participation--but once they start diverting resources to the LP instead of other places, in the futile hope we're going to win an election, such daydreaming becomes detrimental. This diverts them from other areas where their efforts might be more productive (e.g., collaborating on seasteading ideas).

Patri's argument may explain

Patri's argument may explain why the LP (and other libertarian organization) have an abnormally high kook/non-kook ratio.

I've long held that the

I've long held that the kook/non-kook ratio is due to the fact that the plurality voting system discourages moderate voters from voting for third party, as it's a waste of their vote (spoiler effect and all that). This moves third-parties to the fringes in order to try and attract voters who are already disaffected with the two parties.

After all, third parties tend to receive press and attention in proportion to their vote totals.