Last week, the Trump administration announced it would be pursuing a federalist approach to cannabis legislation, effectively allowing states to create their own rules about how the drug is classified and sold.
This is a big change in American drug policy. One common opinion of the Obama era is that the federal government took a relaxed approach toward policing states that were decriminalizing marijuana. The 2008-2016 administration shifted the financial language of the drug war from a law-and-order crackdown to a public safety effort, and placed a low priority on intervening in states with medical legality. Real reform was introduced like the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment which prohibited the Department of Justice from policing medical marijuana states with federal funds. However, DEA raids and reconnaissance missions continued — like in my home state, where counter-economizing Californians sold a whopping five times more weed than they consumed (often to states where it is illegal).
Under Obama, it looked like, with a president less enthusiastic about beating up stoners, American drug policy might start to approach the 21st century. Some skepticism was reintroduced when Senator Sessions was appointed Attorney General under President Trump. Jeff “Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana” Sessions is explicit about supreme federal authority for drug laws, and supported overturning Rohrabacher-Farr. This, indeed, would be a return to normalcy. For the last half century, it has not been characteristic of the federal government to stay out of drug use — rather than the Trump administration being a Republican re-installation of the war on drugs, we would be witnessing a general return to the 20th century status quo. However, Trump’s announcement makes it seem like we can finally welcome the unexpected.
Trump’s representatives have positioned this move to give up cannabis regulation to the states in a philosophy of states’ rights. Whether or not Trump cares about dual federalism, the repeal of marijuana prohibition — medical, recreational and federal — sweeping across states the last decade is a big win for individual liberty, and, since neither Party has been particularly friendly to cannabis, would seem to point to mainstream party acceptance of libertarian ideas.
What is the Party’s track record on cannabis? The Libertarian Party explicitly opposed drug laws in its first 1972 national platform. Now, in our present day, drug decriminalization is not a radical stance but something more mainstream. Failed or ex-politicians from either party have made a habit of coming out in support of legalizing marijuana the last few years, and up north, the Canadian Liberal Party may now endorse wide-scale reforms. Just yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he would introduce a bill to directly decriminalize marijuana as a federally classified substance. We’ll see how it goes. But it is now clear that in the same way Libertarians supported gay marriage decades before either partisan establishment now does, one doesn’t have to seek out a minarchist anymore to find someone who opposes drug laws or mass incarceration. (One mainstream policy position that hasn’t budged — war.)
So although we see radically unlibertarian moves nearly every day in Congress and the executive (e.g., FOSTA and Syria), some of the ideas of liberty have spread and reached mainstream status.
This raises some questions about the state of the philosophy and the Party, and more than just drug policy. What does it mean when our more eccentric ideas gain traction in the bigger political world? This question is tied to the purpose of an embedded libertarian political party in the first place.
Economist David Friedman made the point in the postscript to Machinery of Freedom that the purpose of the Libertarian Party is to not have a Libertarian Party. David’s argument is not the same thing as Austin Peterson’s brand slogan, to “Take over government in order to leave people alone.” Instead, David’s argument was built around a public choice understanding of political institutions, but the same conclusion follows from several different premises about the nature of third parties and especially those with a goal of mitigating or eliminating politics.
For American institutional reasons — codified in law and practice — a third party is almost certainly never going to win an election. David thinks, therefore, the purpose of a fringe political party is aspire to the legacy of the Socialist Party of the early 1900s. The Socialist platform in 1928 has succeeded in infiltrating establishment policy, even if the Party last election drew less than a tenth of 1% of the vote. Fringe parties are more successful as beacons of alternative policy than legitimate political competitors. The Party does not pursue political success but influence; hopefully, we will one day not need it to affirm liberty.
So, let’s return to cannabis decriminalization, where we are seeing a libertarian idea achieve mainstream political support.
Legalizing weed is a victory for libertarian ideas and a defeat for the Libertarian Party. Part of the simplistic draw of Libertarianism is “fiscal conservatism and social progressivism,” which, as a one-liner, allows recruitment from both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Now, however, if the progressive leaders, and the Republicans, are co-opting drug decriminalization, there is a lot less draw for social liberals to vote for Party alternatives more aligned with their radical agenda. (I know this, for instance, because drug legalization as an issue first drew me from Democratism to libertarianism in high school.) Hillary Clinton could have partially avoided her image as a crony neoliberal if she adopted more social freedoms, which would only leave her smears on the Left as an imperialist and capitalist.
A recent, rather strange video by AJ+ took aim at libertarianism (read: the Libertarian Party) as “ultra far-right” and spent seconds noting that libertarians are, on the flip side, “anti-NSA, anti-intervention and anti-drug laws.” These are not the only policies that small government people have to offer to the Left if they properly understand themselves. But, as libertarians, we should actually hope this list grows smaller and smaller; the more it shrinks, the more it means that establishment parties are appropriating libertarian positions. Pretty soon, being “anti-drug law” may disappear from the elevator pitch. Subsequently, the “worthwhile aspects” of the Libertarian Party fade to the back, and the draw of the Party (to the left, or the right) decreases until it looks heavily status quo.
So, we could expect that the influence of the Libertarian Party shrinks with the increasing influence of libertarian ideas in general society, as the general electorate pressures establishment politicians to adjust their policy space.
However, a lot of things are being taken for granted here. Do politicians actually respond to the general public consensus and public desire? Is it the case that “libertarian” ideas are spreading to the mainstream, or is it more “progressive” or “traditionalist” ones that are moving it in ostensibly similar directions? Can the ideas alone move policy positions without backing money?
We also know that the power of the Libertarian Party has greatly increased since its humble beginnings (whether or not its reputation has improved). My hypothesis is that the influence of libertarian ideas in society at large pressures the estabishment parties to adjust their positions, which in turn makes the Libertarian Party more irrelevant. This is not disproved by an increase in Libertarian Party power. The ideas, even if libertarian, still need to be seen as “libertarian” for it to hurt the Party. For instance, Chuck Schumer said “Looking at the numbers” guided him toward decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level and cited the ACLU. These “numbers” have been available for decades, from a potpourri of alternative political thinktanks. Citing them from the ACLU will not embed the bill — also faux-embedded in a philosophy of states’ rights — in libertarianism, but in the context of mass incarceration, criminal justice racial disparity and THC research opportunity. These are all good contexts. But the individual freedom element key to libertarianism will be missing, and of course it is, because Schumer says nothing about the other plethora of federal drug laws which prohibit freedom. Recognition of the libertarian aspect of ideas which are libertarian, I think, is essential for them to harm a Party which bases itself around the philosophy.
All of this means that there will be perverse incentives in third-party leadership. Politicians want job security like the next guy, and organizations in some sense want to “survive,” so the interests of libertarianism and the Libertarian Party are in one way opposed (or environmentalism and the Green Party). Liberty is more advanced by incumbent politicians (who are liberty-advancing, of course) than defeated politicians. And the mainstream parties are successful, the fringe parties are not. Thus, liberty is better spread when our ideas take off and get mainstream acceptance, but this will only serve to weaken the Libertarian Party itself, as its attraction as a political outlier fades. This must be obvious: no Libertarian Party candidate is going to claim the White House in our lifetime, and the best hopes of libertarian success are in influencing other parties. So, even when we gain more percent of the vote, the success is in getting people to hear about libertarianism, not in actually convincing people to vote Libertarian.
Conflicting incentives (working in the Party and advancing liberty) means that the Party could be taken over by bad actors like any other political organization, and indeed David predicts this with the increase of political clout. Parties with political power have plenty of favors to dish out, and it only takes a few non-ideological Party members to break ranks. As some of the ideas become more mainstream, this is one possibility. Another is disintegration: there might be no reason for the Libertarian Party to continue, given that its unique draw has suffused into larger bases. A third option is that more radical contingents, like the Mises Caucus, achieve ideological supremacy as the moderate libertarians leave for the newly-libertized Democrat and Republican parties.
In any case, libertarianism faces a conundrum in its Party format. Much of the problems apply to other third parties, but some are unique to libertarianism. One brutal confrontation is the acknowledgement that legalizing cannabis will advance liberty and simultaneously hurt the liberty movement. To this end, Saul Alinsky’s reflection in Rules for Radicals is potent.
The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago is trying to stop the University from bulldozing the black ghetto. The activists issued five demands for the city council, grew in power, and defeated the construction project. Eight months later, the city crafts a new policy on urban renewal to the frustration of the Woodlawn Organization, who barge into Alinsky’s office denouncing the policy statement. But “Through the tirade it never occurred to any of the angry leaders that the city’s new policy granted all the five demands for which the Woodlawn Organization began. Then they were fighting for hamburger; now they wanted filet mignon; so it goes. And why not?”
The solution to one problem creates a new problem, and there are always future problems to work on. Liberty will just have to keep trucking through the victories, and learn from our friends the Socialists of 1928 and Saul Alinsky, who never joined a political party.