“Factions: Something For Everyone” by Karl Hess

Uniting only on the principle that force should not be initiated to advance a cause, personal, political, or philosophical, members of the Libertarian Party represent widely varying approaches to social action.

The most radical of these approaches, and proudly described as radical by those who follow it, is hard-line insistence that every libertarian action should be an action directly and unambiguously intended to abolish the nation state. The radical libertarian position does not advocate any compromise, any middle-ground, any realpolitik. It urges that the Libertarian Party place the enunciation of principled anti-state arguments foremost. Campaigns for elective office, in the radical view, serve as platforms for the dissemination of radical views.

The radical view is contrasted sharply with the minarchist, or minimum government viewpoint. The position here is that the Libertarian Party, by calling itself a political party, should take “real world” positions aiming at decreasing state power where it cannot abolish it; in short, being political and practical in action even when philosophical in discussion. Actually, to some minarchists, the abolition of the state, root and branch, is not clearly desirable. They hold to a notion of social agreement regarding governance which sees a role for a public agency with at least the scope of a state to protect property rights, reduce the cost of transactions, and, perhaps, even defend the continent. Yet, if they have agreed to join the Libertarian Party, they have also agreed that this arrangement of governance would have to be accomplished without the initiation of force.

A Libertarian Party member holding the radical view would not be likely to campaign on an issue that sought to reduce the economic distortions or garrison-state security measures of the Pentagon, but would prefer to campaign on proposals to abolish the Pentagon altogether and turn continental defense functions over to private military corporations. The other Libertarian Party viewpoint would be to campaign for immediately achievable revisions of existing security laws.

From these two viewpoints, different political styles emerge.

The radical view is represented by Presidential campaigns waged on precise and ideal statements of anti-state positions. The radical style is abolitionist.

The minimum government view is represented by Presidential campaigns waged with what are felt to be practical, achievable, and publicly attractive legislative alternatives to existing policies. Further, this viewpoint animates the actions of many Libertarian Party members who have concentrated on local political campaigns even when they involve only a limited opportunity to state the widest range of libertarian positions. In this localist view, the privatization of a single municipal service is useful even though it is not accomplished in a campaign that seeks the abolition of all public service.

There is developing within the Libertarian Party another political style that could be called one of synthesis. There are those who hold strongly to the radical position as a matter of personal conviction but who are willing to engage in practical political activities, particularly at the local level, which do not or cannot fully express those convictions. Their slogan might be “think radically, act practically.”

There will always, probably, be those in the Libertarian Party who will stand only for an unalloyed radical or an unalloyed minimum government position. Their arguments will constitute some of the most exciting debates of Libertarian conferences and communication. And those arguments will, as they are worked out, form the style of specific Libertarian Party activities, such as Presidential campaigns. The view of synthesis, meanwhile, may set the agenda for many local campaigns beyond the fundamentist debates.

Beyond these positions held internally within the Libertarian Party there are positions external to the Party but vital to the movement toward individual responsibility and liberty.

There is the well-formed view that any political activity, even the act of voting itself, is an endorsement of an over-arching nation state political system which can only be described as coercive. The fact that Libertarian Party members volitionally choose to engage in politics as, one could say, an act of self-defense is not accepted in the anti-party view. In the view of synthesis, the anti-party view is treasured as an expression of liberty itself. All that is asked is that anti-party energy — although certainly not arguments — concentrate its fire as fiercely on the nation state as on “heretical” libertarians. The other side of that street, of course, is that Party members (or partyarchs) follow the equivalent course.

Particularly challenging for members of the Libertarian Party is the anti-party suggestion that any political activity strengthens the nation state system and that the election of a Libertarian school board member, for instance, although it might lead to new freedom for private or home schooling locally, inexorably supports the nationalized school system in the broader sense.

It is not the responsibility of critics to prove this. It is the responsibility of Libertarian Party members to dis-prove it, and it is an implied fundamental proposition of the Party position that this can be done. It is the responsibility of Party members, also, to come to grips with the problem presented by volunteering to engage in the election of a hierarchical internal organization that must always skate on the thin ice of possible bureaucratization. Critics will be quick to point to the problems of such such an organization, mimicking, as it does, many of the features of traditional nation state institutions. Libertarian Party members, rather than responding with anger to such criticism, again, might respond with convincing proof that the spirit of liberty can survive such an organized framework.

There is, also, the totally isolationist view that any action in the public world is an invitation to mischief and to exposure to nation state pressure. There is, of course, no conflict here with the Libertarian Party since Party members choose voluntarily to ignore the isolationist advice, at their own freely chosen risk. A slight variation of the isolationist view is that carefully guarded commercial activities, not colliding with great state power or making claims on it, is the only proper activity for a libertarian. There could hardly be a Libertarian Party position that would oppose this. The Party’s goal includes the eventual freedom for all humans to engage in absolutely unfettered free market transactions. To those who can achieve the goal already, in their personal dealings, all libertarians must say hurray. There is, of course, nothing that bars, in principle or practice, any Libertarian Party member from pursuing their free market goals here and now as zealously as they are able. Local practical political action, it is hoped, can advance that freedom even though it may not be able to perfect it. Many hold the same hope for Presidential-level activities.

The Libertarian Party, with factions within itself, is itself just a faction of libertarianism generally. It is a faction of people who have chosen, of their own free will, to engage in certain political activities which they hold can have a positive effect on the protection of or the spread of liberty. Every Libertarian Party member should be grateful for the critical assaults launched against it by other libertarians. It helps keep them on their toes. And where that criticism proves unassailable and unanswerable then, in good sense, Libertarian Party members should act upon it. Similarly, when critical libertarians outside the Party find good work done by the Party, they may wish to join, support, or at least acknowledge it.

There seem many paths toward liberty, whether those paths are called factions or philosophies. We are each of us the means to our own ends. Perhaps it is just the journey itself that beckons us all.

Originally published in the Libertarian Party News Spring 1986.