- O Libertarian, Where Is Thy Sting?
With the 2008 Democratic National Convention slated for Denver, the libertarian concerns of Western voters, denizens of the so-called purple states, are suddenly of high interest. Pundits and commentators see in the "live and let live" ethos of the West a chance for the Democracy to reshape its faltering coalition and enter the twenty-first century rejuvenated and strong. Ryan Sager, a critic from the right, notes that from the Democratic perspective, "the West looks abundant with opportunities. And the same might be said of a long-neglected, long-suffering political demographic: libertarians."1 This optimism in part underlay the party's choice of Denver over the traditional Democratic bastion of New York. Colorado is often identified as a libertarian-leaning state, and it was where the Libertarian Party was founded. But what exactly is libertarianism? What role has it played in American politics in the twentieth century? Is libertarianism truly the wave of the future or has its moment come and gone?
In this article I investigate these questions by looking at the first libertarian moment, the ferment of intellectual and political activity in the late 1960s and early 1970s that produced the modern Libertarian Party. Richard Hofstadter famously observed that "third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die."2 By this standard, the Libertarian Party seems to have been born without a stinger; its impact on national politics has been negligible, certainly far short of its nineteenth-century counterparts the Know Nothings, the Anti-Masonic Party, and the Populists.3
But if the Libertarian Party failed to disrupt politics across several states, alter the outcome of significant elections, or midwife a major political realignment, it has not been without influence. Indeed, a better comparison may be with the Socialist Party, a group that achieved little electoral success but still flags for us the presence of a broad-based sensibility that [End Page 452] shaped politics and social institutions throughout the beginning of the twentieth century.4 Socialism was far more powerful than the Socialist Party. This distinction between party and movement is key. The Libertarian Party may have been a failure, but its very failures ensured the success of a broader libertarian movement.5 Today, that libertarian movement must capitalize on the broader libertarian sensibility if it is to fulfill the dreams of its first political organization.
Throughout the 1970s, the decade in which the party was most active, the Libertarian Party helped members of the libertarian movement mature and grapple with the realities of social change in a democracy. By the end of the decade, key operatives within the party had traded in an emphasis on converting the population to "end state" libertarianism, focusing instead on a "general direction" strategy.6 They had also left the Libertarian Party, but not the libertarian movement. Ensconced in Washington think tanks, business careers, or the Republican Party, libertarians went on to spread their ideas through more durable political vehicles, leaving the Libertarian Party to its fate as a small band of fiercely warring ideologues.
The Libertarian Party was founded in Denver in 1971 by a few young professionals who had previously been active in the Ayn Rand–inspired Objectivist movement, the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom, and Young Republicans.7 The party grew out of the subculture that had flourished around Rand's ideas and libertarian activism within the broader conservative movement, but the immediate event that galvanized the Denver group was President Richard Nixon's August 1971 speech announcing wage and price controls. Party founder David Nolan characterized the controls as "economic fascism" and was spurred to action in outrage. Once the intention to start a party was firm, the Denver group drew on the libertarian subculture to announce its first 1972 convention. This was how Edward Crane, a subscriber to "a lot of small, mimeographed libertarian newsletters," heard about the party and made his way to the first convention.8
The Libertarian Party's inaugural event was tiny—about eighty-five people—and its followers were, by all accounts, a strange lot. Crane remembered "Flakes. . . . A lot of people in black capes and...