What can 20,000 Liberty Activists Accomplish?
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
What Can 20,000 Liberty Activists Accomplish?
by Jason Sorens December, 2001
Note: A significant revision of this article entitled "What Can 20,000 Liberty Activists Accomplish in New Hampshire?" (April 12, 2004) is available here.
Thanks to Caroline Dufour for helpful comments!
The Free State Project (http://www.freestateproject.com/) calls for 20,000 libertarians and fellow-travelers to move to a single state of the U.S. to create a free society there through the electoral process. The purpose of this essay is to examine more closely exactly what 20,000 people could accomplish in a state. The first part will examine the question from the perspective of mathematical possibilities, while the second part will involve speculations about how to take advantage of those possibilities.
The figure of 20,000 was derived from the fact that it represents about half of paid Libertarian Party membership. Obviously, many of the people participating in the Project are not LP members, so that the pool of potential participants in the FSP is much larger than just 40,000. Thus, 20,000 seems like a realistic and attainable goal, though it will require much effort and dedication to get that many signatures.
Now to the primary question of this essay: What can 20,000 people accomplish? One way to look at this question is to examine membership figures for other parties around the world and how these figures translate into votes. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has a similar, first-past-the-post electoral system and in any given geographical region, basically two competitive parties. In Quebec one of those two parties is the Parti Quebecois (PQ), which advocates independence for Quebec and contests provincial elections only. The PQ seems to be an appropriate analogue for the FSP. What can the FSP learn from the PQ's electoral success?
The PQ was started in 1968 by dissidents from the Liberal Party of Quebec, which is still today the other of the two major parties in Quebec provincial elections. These dissidents had realized that the reforms they wanted could not be enacted while Quebec remained a part of Canada. Accordingly, they joined with smaller pro-independence parties that already existed in order to form a major sovereigntist force. By the provincial election of 1973, the PQ was the second-largest party in the province, although it still trailed the Liberals by a wide margin. This was an important development, because it meant that voters dissatisfied with the Liberals' performance in government were likely to turn to the PQ rather than to other parties, which had no chance of winning. The PQ also allayed voters' worries about sovereignty by promising that they would not declare independence unless the voters gave their approval to the idea in a referendum. Accordingly, the PQ benefitted from dissatisfaction with the Liberals in the 1976 election and won a majority of seats in the provincial parliament with 41% of the vote.
At the time, the PQ had a paid membership of roughly 100,000, while the population of Quebec at that time was 6.2 million. (In 1973, paid membership was 60,000.) In other words, having a paid member for every 62 citizens of the province gave the PQ a parliamentary majority. Applying the same ratio to the FSP's membership goal, we get 1.2 million population for a state in which 20,000 party members could win majorities at the state level. The following states have less than 1.2 million population: Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island (Hawaii, Idaho, New Hampshire, and Maine are close). [Note: on August 31 the Research Committee decided to include all states under 1.5 million population on the final state ballot - except Rhode Island and Hawaii, which were eliminated outright due to their hopelessly statist political cultures. The 10 states meeting the Research Committee's criterion are Alaska, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Delaware.] Obviously, this is a very rough figure and not to be taken too precisely, but it does indicate that there are several states in which the FSP should be large enough to win elections. Furthermore, after the PQ's 1976 victory, they showed the voters that they were capable of governing, and membership and vote totals rose in future elections. Though Liberals won back a majority in the mid-1980s, the PQ governs Quebec today.
Of course, Quebec has some differences with American states. Most importantly, their parliament is unicameral, and they have no independent executive: the Prime Minister of Quebec is chosen by the National Assembly. In most American states legislatures are bicameral, and all American states have an independently elected governor. This means that while in Quebec all provincial parties focus all their resources on winning a majority in the National Assembly, in American states parties have to divide their resources among winning the governorship, the lower house of the state legislature, and the upper house, not to mention federal offices. The implication for the FSP is that by focusing most of our resources on winning just one of the branches of government at first (I would suggest the state lower house), we would have even better odds than the PQ did in 1976. Winning a majority in the state legislature would provide respectability and a base of support that would allow the FSP's political vehicle eventually to secure all the branches of state government.
But the data from Quebec are far from conclusive; it would be much better if we could predict the FSP's success from American data. One way of doing this is to look at campaign expenditures. While victory does not always go to the highest spender, votes and spending are correlated in American elections, all else held constant. If the FSP's political vehicle could continuously outspend both the Democrats and Republicans at the state level, its chances for eventual victory are high. How much could the FSP's political vehicle spend in the beginning? The national Libertarian Party spent $5.2 million in 2000 with 40,000 members. If that ratio holds for the FSP, then the FSP's political vehicle could spend $5.2 million over a two-year cycle with 20,000 members.
Accordingly, the FSP should be looking at states where Democrats and Republicans regularly spend less than $5.2 million each election cycle. According to FEC data, in the following states Democrats and Republicans combined spent less than $5.2 million on federal races all of the last four election cycles (1993 to present): Wyoming, North Dakota, Vermont, Hawaii. In the following states Democrats and Republicans combined spent less than $10.4 million on federal races on all of the last four election cycles: the above four plus Alaska, Delaware, Idaho, New Hampshire, Mississippi (Montana: $10.9 million). Several notes here: these figures include only federal elections, not state elections. But state elections aren't currently very expensive (with the exception of gubernatorial races, which can range up to $1-2 million in some states), so that the total state and federal figures probably aren't much larger. In addition, these figures are for all the last four election cycles: in almost all these cases, the numbers were much smaller in three out of the four cycles. Finally, these numbers include PAC contributions, not just contributions from individuals. Currently, the LP receives the vast majority of contributions from individuals, but if a libertarian party were to have a chance of winning, undoubtedly contributions from PACs would increase.
Accordingly, it appears that there are several states where the FSP would have a chance of winning majorities in the state legislature and the governorship. States that fulfill the criteria of less than about 1.2 million population and less than $10.4 million or thereabouts major-party spending in any of the last four election cycles are all potential targets: Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, Delaware, Hawaii, Montana, Idaho, New Hampshire. Of course, some of these states may be less desirable on other grounds: in socialistic Hawaii it's unlikely that any libertarian party could get many more votes than its core membership number. [See note above.]
So much for the mathematical possibilities. Possibilities, however, are not the full story: they must be actualized. The histories of the PQ and of American third parties give some indication of what we should try to effect. In 1960s Quebec, the population was moving dramatically to the left and toward sovereignty. The conservative, autonomist Union Nationale disappeared, while the formerly left-wing and pro-Quebec Liberals found themselves relatively conservative and anti-nationalist in the new milieu, as the PQ staked out a social-democratic and pro-sovereignty ideological position.
The one American third party that has succeeded in becoming a major party, the Republicans, likewise accomplished their feat by destroying an existing party, the Whigs, but in a somewhat different manner. The American political system in the late 1850s had become polarized, with the Democrats as defenders of slavery and states' rights. The Republicans were more radically anti-slavery than the Whigs and also incorporated anti-immigrant elements via fusion with the Know-Nothings. The Republicans became even more radical through the War between the States and into the Reconstruction period.
What lessons can we derive from these two examples for the FSP? They present two possible scenarios: if the Quebec analogy holds, the FSP's state moves dramatically liberty-ward, making the Democrats irrelevant with the Republicans left as relative defenders of big government and centralization while the FSP's political vehicle stakes out a libertarian, pro-autonomy position. If the Republicans analogy holds, the FSP's state becomes polarized, with the Democrats stubbornly defending the status quo but failing to win elections, the Republicans disappearing, and the FSP's political vehicle becoming more radical with time in government.
The latter scenario is, I believe, more likely. The Democrats are closely tied to labor unions, government employees, and the black establishment. I cannot see these special interests moving to the Republican party, which is more reliant on support from middle-class individuals and small business. It is more likely that the Democrats will hold onto their core demographic, while marginalized from the majority, and most of the former Republicans will migrate to the FSP's political vehicle.
I have so far been cagey about describing what the FSP's political vehicle will look like. The truth is that no one can predict exactly what it will look like at any given point in time. The FSP itself is a coalition among libertarians, classical liberals, constitutionalists, and others who believe that, at maximum, the role of civil government should be "the protection of citizens' rights to life, liberty, and property." This principle should guide the FSP's political vehicle throughout; however, there will undoubtedly be internal debates over issues like abortion, children's rights, and immigration. There may also be internal debates over how far to push the issue of autonomy or even sovereignty. However, much more will unite the participants in this Project than will divide them. The FSP's political party will be a bigger tent than the current Libertarian Party, because its goal is winning major elections, not just education, but the radicals can well hold out hope that over time the party will be forced to move their way.
The FSP's political party will also differ from the current Libertarian Party in its decentralist and cultural emphasis. One of the roles of the FSP will be to help build a genuine local culture of liberty, without which our gains will never be secure. Protecting this culture will involve appeals to the state's particularism and its rights vis-à-vis the federal government. In a sense, decentralization represents a "stealth libertarian" strategy, because it can command support beyond those who adhere to certain abstract moral principles, yet it ends up favoring a regime of fairly pure liberty-under-law insofar as it is fully pursued. Intrusive governments usually also have to be distant, centralized government. Radical decentralization dismantles apparati of state control.
What are some other "stealth libertarian" strategies? The ingenious idea of Bill of Rights Enforcement (http://www.lneilsmith.com/bor_enforcement.html) is one. It's not as stealthy as decentralization, but almost. Who's against the Bill of Rights? Another good strategy would be to defend the autonomy rights of Native American tribes. As colonized peoples, Native American tribes essentially enjoy a right to independence under international law if they desire it. The federal government has been doing their best to downplay this possibility. If we stand up for Indians' rights, they could become a key constituency for us. The PQ has had problems with the Indians of Quebec, mostly because they want to build huge hydroelectric projects on their land. A "small is beautiful" libertarian party shouldn't have such problems. Finally, another "stealth libertarian" strategy is institutional reform. To break the two-party establishment and to cultivate a "modernizing" image among the voters, we should favor changes in the electoral laws and make it easier for citizens to promulgate initiatives for referenda, recall petitions, and the like.
The question of electoral laws is sufficiently interesting as to deserve its own discussion. Proportional representation would not be the way to go. PR is a great idea for the U.S. as a whole, but not for our state, because we will be trying to win majorities. PR would make it likely that the Democrats and Republicans would form coalitions to oppose us, gridlocking the system. PR would be a good thing to institute after we've made all our policy reforms, because it sets up so many checks and balances and instabilities. But when our goal is radical reform, we don't want PR's frequent coalition requirements standing in our way.
A better kind of electoral reform would be "alternative vote" or "instant runoff voting." This kind of system allows you to give preference rankings to all of the candidates. The candidate to get the least number of first-preference votes is eliminated, and his second-preference votes are distributed. Then the candidate with the least number of first-preference votes after this distribution is eliminated, and his second-preference (after the first distribution) votes are distributed. And so on, until a candidate gets an absolute majority of first-preference votes. This method eliminates the "wasted vote" problem, because if your favored candidate doesn't have a chance of winning, you can still vote for him, and your second-preference or third-preference vote will still count for someone else who may. In addition, there's already a significant nonpartisan institute in the U.S. pushing this reform, the Center for Voting and Democracy (http://www.fairvote.org/). The danger in this system is that Democrat and Republican voters could team up to oppose us. However, I think this is unlikely -- currently, third-party candidates do very well when they are facing just one other candidate, because many (most?) Republicans and Democrats would rather vote for a third-party candidate, any third-party candidate, than the candidate of the opposing party. I anticipate that those voters who don't give the FSP's political party their first-preference votes will give them their second-preference votes.
Notwithstanding all these strategies for electoral success, it will be best for the FSP to begin humbly, by participating in the existing structures that we find in our state. FSP members will become active in whatever community activities they currently favor and will participate in whatever political vehicles to which they are currently accustomed. No one can dictate a single strategy to everyone, but ultimately, history provides ample support for the idea that a single, new political party, designed to replace one of the existing parties, will eventually be a necessity for the movement. I have no doubt that it will arise naturally, as events demand. When it does, the evidence indicates that, if we choose the right state, it will succeed.
The views expressed in this essay do not necessarily represent those of Free State Project, Inc., its Directors, or its Officers.