"First, sign this oath!?"
A Summary Opinion against requiring the LP Oath
by Lloyd Sloan (October, 1999)
What can I do? What if I already signed the oath? Use this Form to Revoke the Oath
Libertarians for an Open Party was founded in 1999.
Why object to signing the oath? What's wrong with it?
How is signing the oath defended? Empty Arguments, Fraud and Mistrust.
Why remove the oath? What's the problem?
Beyond Utopian Politics.
1. By itself, the LP Oath has strong anarchistic implications based upon an unqualified prohibition against all "initiation of force" (for "social goals").
2. The LP oath imitates writings by Ayn Rand, for example-- "no man may initiate . . . the use of physical force against others" (Atlas Shrugged, This is John Galt Speaking) Rand used the phrase several times, such as in For the New Intellectual p. 55-57, and The Virtue of Selfishness p. 36, 112, 126, 135. Murray Rothbard, a disciple of Rand, considered this "non-aggression axiom" to be the fundamental Libertarian belief. (For A New Liberty, 1973, p. 23)
In addition, Rand considered all taxes to be "initiation of force" and therefore prohibited. (The Virtue of Selfishness, Government Financing in a Free Society) Rothbard went even further and considered the non-aggression axiom to prohibit all government.
Rand generally wrote "physical force against others". This was shortened to "force", but removing "against others" makes the ethical nature somewhat less clear. "Force", by itself, sounds like physics-- and a person uses "force" merely to farm wheat or to hunt deer!
The party also added a qualifying phrase to Rand's original principle-- "for political or social goals". Why was this phrase added? It unintentionally creates an exception for things like rape. Even though rape is an "initiation of force against others", rape is not a "political or social goal"-- Thus, the original version prohibited rape, whereas, with the phrase added, the "new and improved" version allows rape! At best, this seems rather strange.
By analogy, consider the rule, "thou shall not kill". Suppose I change this to "thou shall not kill, for political goals". Have I improved the doctrine? No, I have permitted killings which were previously excluded. (At best, people might be more likely to apply the newer version to war and such things, although in theory, it's the same. To accomplish this subtle effect without the downside, change it to "thou shall not kill, including for political goals".)
Many Libertarians consider the oath to be a "great ethical principle". This is wrong. Rand's original statements are the true ethical doctrine. Upon inspection, the party oath makes a poorly considered exception for things like rape. If the oath is an "ethical principle", it's a sloppy one.
For those interested in such things, I believe this wording repairs the damage-- "I do not advocate the initiation of force against others (including for political or social goals)."
It restores "against others" and it adds emphasis rather than qualifications for "social goals". The implication is that government is not an exception to the rule against harming others. (Even better would be to simply state this directly.)
3. The LP Oath limits government-- without also providing any basis to justify government. The LP Oath ignores the unique and ultimate nature of government (force) in society. The result is a dead-end quagmire.
Contrast this with a more constructive jeffersonian foundation which both justifies and limits government. Jefferson wrote-- "a wise and frugal government . . . shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits . . ." (1st inaugural address, 1801)
It is natural to first justify government for certain ends, and then to strictly limit government within those ends only. A reasonable Libertarian might reject the LP Oath in favor of more constructive first principles of government, such as Jefferson's.
In addition, there are other principles beyond the oath which are just as important for Libertarians. For example,
The need for additional principles is further shown by the disagreements over abortion in the LP. Both extremes in the debate are consistent with the oath. It depends upon the answer to this question-- When should human life begin under the protection of law? It is utter nonsense to say "it all follows from the oath".
4. The following shallow excuses for the oath are often made and easily refuted.
If you want to require the oath, then be prepared to honestly defend it-- with clear answers for some obvious questions, "What does it mean?" and "what good is it? why is it needed?"
Second, Why make a "no bombs oath" so hard to understand when it is quite trivial to make this clear? For example-- "I do not advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government." If this is what the LP thinks is so important, then say so in plain words, and I shall gladly sign-- once I stop laughing at the absurd stupidity!
6. Some Libertarians admit the oath is anarchistic, but they consider it to be only an ethical ideal, or a utopian goal. The oath is only saying "there would be no taxes in the perfect world-- and no need for government". What's wrong with that? (If the oath were phrased that way, there would indeed be nothing wrong with signing it.)
The LP oath is not stated as an "ideal goal". The oath has the form of a simple promise-- "I will not do . . . [whatever]" By signing, the person is making a promise.
So if a Libertarian promises "I won't advocate taxes", does this mean only "it would be ideal if I didn't advocate taxes"? Obviously, this sort of excuse could be used to break any promise! It's a neat trick, if you don't want anyone to trust anything you say!
As a general observation about government, Madison expressed a similar (utopian anarchist) sentiment in the Federalist Papers when he wrote "if men were angels, no government would be necessary". Most Americans agree with Madison that anarchy would be the ideal state, but my question remains-- so what? Suppose everyone in the party is now a utopian anarchist-- so what?
If Jefferson and Marx agree that "anarchy is ideal", should we then conclude they belong in the same political party?! This sort of far-sighted utopian vision makes for a politically inept party which can't see the trees for the forest.
There is a mistaken belief among Libertarians that 19th-century liberalism failed to socialism for lack of utopian vision. Not exactly-- liberals and socialists actually shared the same utopia-- both agreed that anarchy would be ideal in the perfect world, and this only confused the real question-- which way is utopia? (In removing the laws of property, socialists argued they were actually closer than liberals to the ideal anarchist utopia! So why did all their solutions increase the government?)
A more clearly utopian form of the LP oath might be written as "the less initiation of force in society, the better"-- or simply use the old American saying, "that government is best which governs least" (quoted by Thoreau). In theory, both are anarchistic rules, but they are formulated so that a person could advocate "lower taxes" and not only "no taxes" without breaking their principles.
Anarchistic principles (like the oath and others) should be used as a compass or guiding light. They are "far off" and useful to point in the basic direction we want to go. If you want to go from New Orleans to Chicago, it is useful to follow the North Star most of the way-- but after Peoria, Illinois, and as you get closer to Chicago-- you'll need to make some adjustments or find yourself in Lake Superior. (Not to mention all the adjustments you'll need to make along the way to avoid lakes, hills, etc.)
Yet the party coddles anarchists, because it sees them as more "pure" than others. (The party avoids the "A-word". So what's wrong with saying?-- "I am not an anarchist. I believe that justice requires government.")
Whereas the average person rejects arguments which "lead to anarchy" (considering them absurd)-- many Libertarians conversely reject arguments which do NOT "lead to anarchy", considering them impure or misleading.
An argument is not invalid simply because it does not reach the same "ultimate" conclusion as yours. And this advice cuts all ways-- an argument is not invalid because "it might lead to anarchy" nor because "it denies anarchy is the ideal". Two people may argue for lower taxes, one using arguments which may lead to no taxes, another using arguments which may justify some taxes. They may not convince each other, but let them work together to convince whoever else they can. The point is-- they both have arguments which lower taxes. So be it.
Some Libertarians believe anarchy would work and others don't. Who cares? It is entirely absurd and inept that any Libertarian would consider anarchy to be a political issue. Obviously, the real question is not whether anarchy is workable-- the real question is whether the Libertarian Party is workable!
(And the party will not be workable so long as it requires an anarchist oath.)
7. The oath is corrupting the party. It was intended to keep the party principled, and ironically, it has encouraged fraud and hypocrisy. Inevitably, when honesty is unhealthy, the remedy becomes corruption. Does anyone actually expect the party to honestly defend an anarchist oath?
You deny the oath is corrupting? Ask someone who signed it-- "what does it mean?" and "does it deny all taxes and the constitution?" I predict you will get no answer. People sign it, then ignore it-- if pressed, they don't know what it means. The party leadership is no different.
Yet these same people remain unwilling to openly challenge the oath and remove it. If asked to defend their oath, then "it's not important-- stop wasting time with this". When pressed to follow this logic and thereby remove the oath as a requirement?-- they can't be bothered with such unimportant things.
Personally, I would call that cynical, corrupting and unprincipled. I'm sorry, but to people with integrity, such matters are important.
8. Without the oath, many believe the party would become "unprincipled". This is misleading and arrogant, because it forgets-- people are principled, not parties.
Put simply-- the oath is dogmatic, and it naturally leads to ideological purity. Most thinking people of integrity will avoid a party oath for this reason alone. ("There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy".)
For decades, the Libertarian Party has struggled with a widely acknowledged "purity problem". People are repeatedly accused of not being a "true" Libertarian-- so leave! The oath does not solve this problem-- the oath is actually the root of this problem. If only Libertarian anarchists thought more like Thoreau, the purity problem would disappear along with the oath.
The real problem is the underlying question-- can the party agree on issues but for different reasons? or must all Libertarians share the same ideology?
Shouldn't a political party allow different (long-term) principles in support of the same (short-term) goals? If people agree on the issues, why isn't that good enough for political purposes?
The party needs to grow up and accept people on their own terms. The oath keeps away effective leaders. We need people who can defend their own principles in their own terms. We don't need every Libertarian to conform their principles within the official language taken from Ayn Rand.
In the end, perhaps the following statement says it all-- the Libertarian Party requires a no-tax oath which Thomas Jefferson would not have signed! Consider well what this says about the party.
Is the oath purple?
There was a man who dyed his hair purple. When asked "why?" he replied "it keeps away the elephants". "But that's ridiculous. There's no elephants anywhere near this place!"
"Exactly, see how good it works!" was the confident reply.
The party sees "elephants" where others see a purple-haired "jackass".
9. The oath contradicts an issue-based political party.
To outsiders, such as potential voters, the party naturally defines itself based on issues (the customary "Nolan-chart quiz"). If people agree on the issues, we call them Libertarian. Then, if they join the party on this basis, we expect them to "grow"-- otherwise they violate their oath, and they don't belong! They are not "true" Libertarians.
This contradiction should end. The party should adopt the same rules for both insiders and outsiders-- "what you tell voters is who you are". Otherwise, it is a "bait-and-switch" shell game, and it is lying to voters about the party.
Every Libertarian voter should be considered a rightful member, the differences are in their respective participations, contributions, and abilities. "Ye shall know them by their votes" according to Harry Truman. The rule is simple-- If you vote Libertarian, then you are Libertarian. Welcome! You should help the party as best you can, for your own benefit. This is the party which puts your conscience on the ballot, and you owe it something.
The LP likes to say that it welcomes anyone who wants (much) smaller government. If you're going the same "direction", then you belong in the party. And so long as we are all pulling the same "direction", it is reasonable and beneficial to work together, which makes a lot of sense.
We're told-- like a train, we can all ride together, even with different destinations. The rule is "All aboard for the next stop!" And each person then freely decides "Is this train taking me closer to where I want to go?"
And yet-- before anyone can ride the Libertarian train, they must first buy the last-stop ticket to Anarchy-- in principle!
Is it any wonder that most people will not ride such a train, even when it's going the same way? Is this any way to run a railroad?
Removing the oath represents a new outlook for the Libertarian Party. The culture of the party would change from the "Pure" Utopian approach to the "Open" Political approach.
There has always been a distinction between the Ideas and the Party-- between "small-l" libertarians and "big-L" Libertarians. So how come the Party-Libertarians (ostensibly joined for mere political purposes) are fewer in number and somehow more pure than the idea-libertarians? This is exactly backwards and it makes no sense at all. There should be more Libertarians than libertarians.
For another example we often hear-- "I don't care if the party wins, so long as the ideas succeed." This is commonly observed, and quickly agreed upon, and it is almost never explored further.
HOWEVER-- why would the party fail while its ideas are gaining for years?
If the ideas are winning and the party is not, shouldn't Libertarians join with those who are actually accomplishing the ideas? Working outside the party would then be more effective, whereas working within the party would be wasted.
The diagram illustrates the possible success or failure of both the ideas and the party. There are two approaches to achieving the ends-- Open or Pure, either with or without the party as the means. The difference lies in these questions, "How do Libertarians envision their success? What role will the party have?"
The "Pure" Libertarians believe--
The "Open" Libertarians believe--
There is always the possibility that the American experiment with jeffersonian democracy is over and the majority of Americans have now rejected small limited government. If so, we need to know this as soon as possible. It's not just a question of how to win; it is also a question of how to lose.
If we lose, we must be able to conclude "the American people have rejected these ideas". We must build the party such that if it loses, it is then a clear warning to the wise that the ship is sinking and it is time for the lifeboats.
Unfortunately, a "pure" approach is dangerous, because it leaves false hopes if it fails. If "purity" fails, we can't rule out the chance that people wanted "less" government, but simply not as much "less" as we chose to offer. They rejected a giant step, but they might have accepted a smaller step. We simply don't know, and that's not good.
The "open" political approach concentrates on winnable races. It offers small steps toward less government, but always a larger step than the established parties (which is easy enough). If we win these races, we discredit the "pure" utopian approach, and we build the party toward greater "winnable" races in the future.
But more to the point, if we make the honest best effort and we still lose ground, then it means the nation is (politically) lost. The "open" approach provides little (false) hope or comfort if it fails. "Open" takes guts. It is hard for any of us to pursue such a "moment of truth".
The "wasted vote" trap is the most difficult obstacle for any new party in the American "two-party system". And Libertarians have generally failed to address this challenge. Instead, the party too often gets trapped into a "purity" argument to justify itself.
Before anything else, new parties must show that the old parties are a "wasted vote", because otherwise most people will remain working "within the system"-- because ". . . all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed."
Until you show the old parties have failed, you are wasting time on a new party. The rule for new parties is simple-- "kill or be killed". Up until now, Republicans could have most likely killed the LP by "simply" cutting back government. (By contrast, smaller goverment would destroy the Democratic party and its "New Deal" coalition.)
The traditional Libertarian answer has been the "LP Quiz" (Nolan chart). This widely-used chart is based on "two-dimensional" rather than "one-dimensional" issues. The LP is neither "left" or "right". The LP takes the best from both parties, etc.
The chart shows where Libertarians "fit" (or don't fit)-- but it does not establish the need for a new party, because it still needs to attack the established parties and knock them down. (It avoids the real question-- why aren't the established parties "workable" and "good enough"? Have you no answer?)
Americans have always fit multiple issues into only two parties. (for example, Slavery and Tariffs) People do not expect to agree with any party on all the issues. So what? Do you expect enough parties so that every voter will find one in total agreement? Then in theory, two issues would imply four parties, three issues would need eight parties, etc. Why should this be taken seriously?
Is the Nolan chart a dead end? Not at all-- because it shows where the established parties contradict themselves!
Put simply-- There is no real difference between personal freedom and economic freedom. That whole distinction is false. Libertarians did not make this distinction to form a new party-- rather the established parties created this phoney distinction and Libertarians formed against it! Historically, intellectual progressives (i.e. socialists) made exceptions for economic freedom in order to regulate business and "run the economy"-- but they saw themselves as defending individual liberty and even creating a "New Freedom". By keeping free speech, they could excuse income taxes, empire building, forced charity, alcohol and drug prohibition, and other basic contradictions with jeffersonian liberalism. (Not surprisingly, they eventually decided that "commercial speech" was not "free speech" afterall.)
So why would "personal" liberties be good, but not "economic" liberties? why the one and not the other? It's all phoney, because there's no real difference. A prostitute sells what others buy-- which freedom is that?-- and for whom?
Does the chart find other Libertarians? Yes, as would any quiz on a few key issues. But after we find these "issue-based" Libertarians, we already know the real obstacle towards unifying them-- I agree with you, but I don't want to "waste my vote".
To which I reply-- "Good! Then don't vote for lies and hypocrites. Don't vote for what you believe is a contradiction. It's wasted."
Those who wish to remain consistent for liberty must leave the established parties-- or else be "corrupted" and "lost" within them. Until you leave, you are self-defeating. You are wasting your vote and your conscience as well.
A new party is also needed because "institutions matter" and because "a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." (Jefferson) Reform by the pope is not the same as forming a new church, even if that pope is Martin Luther. America has gone far enough astray that major changes are needed, and I believe in an honest approach-- therefore I require a new party.
The old parties will never go very fast or far in a new direction. They are held back by the inertia of history and their controlling interests. While Democrats adopted many socialist ideas, it would have been better for America if a new Socialist Party had enacted the same ideas instead. For the simple reason that "honesty is the best policy". Republicans may someday enact some Libertarian ideas, in some form and measure, but they will never go as far or as straight as a new Libertarian Party would go. How should posterity judge us if we lie about what we are doing?
American elections are winner-take-all which naturally results in a two-party system. The problem is not with the "two-party system"-- the problem is with the two lousy established parties we have now!
America needs a dynamic (unstable) two-party system. The existing parties are too secure and too entrenched. The system is too static. America should be creating new parties and losing old ones with each generation, just as a snake sheds its old skin as it grows.
America has not lost an old party and formed a new one since Lincoln (in 1860, although 1896 and 1912 came close). This is a national failure. Whatever defined these existing parties has long since been resolved, abandoned and forgotten, so Americans must now inherit their party rather than choose their party. By contrast, America created five major parties before the Civil War (Federalist, jeffersonian, Democrat, Whig and Republican)-- three of these died out (or split) as new ones formed.
In the end, America needs a new party because the established parties are broken. It's a matter of trust. They have contradicted themselves-- and "a house divided against itself can not stand."
The party is defined by a short prioritized list of eight important and unique issues. This includes only those issues which require a new party-- because the old parties agree with each other. (Abortion, for example, would not make the list-- the issue is important, but the established parties already contain opposing positions, and thus a new party is not needed.) Perhaps not surprisingly, these issues also expose deep hypocrisies within America's ruling class.
For historical and institutional reasons, only a new party could reasonably be expected to accomplish these goals. I provide the list in my own order for the party to change, add or subtract. [(*) These issues are included in the "LP Quiz".]
Perhaps the LP could style itself as opposing the major wars of recent time-- the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war in Vietnam, etc. (Korea, Iraq, Balkans)?
The point is-- after 30 years, we need an answer-- where is the defining short list for the Libertarian Party?
In conclusion, there are two questions for each Libertarian--
Laws should either be justified or removed-- and the oath is no different.
Those who want to remove the oath do NOT need to answer "what's wrong with it?"
Those who would require the oath need to answer-- "what good is it?"
Since most of the party signs it, presumably they see nothing wrong with what it says. The question becomes-- do they acknowledge any reasonable objections to the oath from others? What is the gain for the party in ignoring these reasonable objections to exclude people with the same goals?
Where is the gain which outweighs these major problems?
1. The rule is dogmatic. There exists a "purity problem" in the LP. There exist reasonable objections to the oath.
2. The rule is utopian. It contradicts "political" thinking. The major issues which require a new party should be the unifying goals.
3. The rule is corrupting. There exist fraudulent reasons for the oath provided by (some in) the party leadership.
There is only one possible benefit for a required oath-- to keep the party "pure" by keeping out people we don't want.
Here is a person who agrees that marijuana should be legal, social security privatized, the constitution restored, the IRS abolished, the welfare-state and government schools dismantled-- BUT, this same person believes the oath is anarchistic and will not sign.
Does the party want to keep out such a person? What good is it?