The Libertarian Party: The Good, Bad, Ugly, and Optimistic

The Libertarian Party: The Good, Bad, Ugly, and Optimistic

Second Generation Libertarian Speaks Out About Growing Up Libertarian, Leaving the Party, and Coming Back

by Avens O’Brien

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking to the Libertarian Party of Minnesota‘s state convention this past weekend. They invited me as a keynote, interested in my perspective on Libertarian Party activism, as I’ve done a lot of it and have what they described as a “unique” perspective on the matter.

Video has not yet been released of my speech — which is fine with me, as I’m not known for great public speaking skills — but I did write the speech, so for those who wish to know what insights I was able to present, the transcript is below, altered slightly for a reading audience.

To start, some context…

I want to give a bit of context to my billing as a “second generation libertarian”, as that could mean a lot of things. “Libertarian” doesn’t tell you much about who my parents are, what they did, or how I really experienced the Party itself in my youth.

So, let’s be clear: my parents were activists. They were interested in Objectivism, and became Libertarians during the LP’s founding. They went to see Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden speak at universities in New England. My father drove LP Vice Presidential nominee Tonie Nathan around to speeches in New England during the 1972 Hospers campaign. My mother made dinner for Murray Rothbard when he’d come to our house because Dad had booked him to speak at local venues in New Hampshire. They knew Roger Lea McBride in the same context as well.

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This clipping is from August 12, 1976, and mentions my parents and my grandfather as well.

My parents named my older brother Ragnar from the book Atlas Shrugged. My parents were homeschoolers, pagan, petition-gathering, Heinlein-quoting Libertarians. Both of my parents ran for local government offices as Libertarians in the 1970s. My mother convinced my grandfather, a World War II vet, to join the Party, and run for Congress in 1976. My Dad ran for Congress and my mother ran for Governor of NH in 1984 on the LP ticket. I tell you this to give you context on what I mean when I describe myself as second generation.

That’s where I come from. That’s what’s in my blood. I feel like I’ve tried to run away from it at times, and I can’t get away.

It’s led to many experiences within the Libertarian movement, some positive and some negative. My topic is the good, the bad, the ugly, and the optimistic. So I’m going to share with you a couple of stories, about what it’s like to grow up in this environment, the tough experiences, how it impacted me, and why I’m an optimist about the future.

The first story…

My first story starts in 1996, when I am 9 years old, and it’s election season in New Hampshire. 

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I can see the political ads on television and the signs all over people’s yards. One day I ask my mother, “who are we voting for? Mr. Clinton or Mr. Dole?”

Mum looks at me pointedly and says “Neither. Neither represent us! We’re voting for Harry Browne!”

Well, that does it for this 9 year old. I’m a Harry Browne supporter as of this moment. Election day rolls around, and Mum and I go to the polling place at the local school. Mum goes to cast her vote, and I go to cast mine in the kid’s ballot box. The kids ballot doesn’t even show Harry Browne on it. I walk out to the poll volunteer standing nearby, who is about 102 years old, and I say “excuse me, but this ballot is missing a name.” She lets me write him in. I cast my kid’s vote.

The morning the election results came out, I grabbed the newspaper and looked to see if Harry Browne would be our next president. I saw the vote totals listed, with Clinton, Dole, Perot… and then I realized, Harry Browne didn’t even get a percent. He received less than half a million votes that year.

That’s when I learned that I was on the losing team.

That’s when I learned what it felt like to be a political minority. Before that, I had no idea people didn’t think like my family did. I assumed we all wanted whatever it was my parents wanted. To get the government out of our business, out of our lives, to stand up against corruption and war and taxes. Why would we be on the losing team? How could these ideas possibly be unpopular?

The second story…

My second story starts in 2003. I’m 15 years old, and in my second year of college. George W. Bush has just declared war with Iraq. My friend’s older brother signs up to go “liberate Iraqis”, he comes back with his leg liberated from his body. I begin attending anti-war rallies in New England. I begin writing in a blog on Livejournal about the evils of war, and the idea that America could be engaging in terrorism too – for what is more terrifying than a campaign of “shock and awe”?

I am also taking an Ethics class. Over the course of the semester we debate about the origins and differences between morality, ethics, legality, and I am always the advocate against enforcing pretty much any of my moral perspectives. People tend to think I am a moral relativist, but I just have very few moral absolutes that I feel others need to share. I tell my classmates about the ideas of the Philosophy of Self Ownership. I explain that it is immoral to use force to achieve social or political goals.

It was during this time I found conservatives to be my “enemy”. They were Republicans and Bush supporters, pro-war and anti-choice. I was on the pro-choice side of a debate regarding abortion one day in class, and I said “once you’ve added government, or, rather, a gun to the equation, you’ve taken away all moral choice. Morality cannot exist at the point of a gun.”

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My professor told me afterwards, that he wasn’t surprised I was quoting Ayn Rand, but I was surprised — my mother always said that. I just assumed it was something she came up with. This is something that can happen when you’re raised within the movement – you pick up a book like The Fountainhead, or Man, Economy and the State and you think “wait, did I read this already?” because it all feels really familiar – it’s all stuff you were raised in.

In the summer of 2004, I spent time in New York protesting the war, and I volunteered on the Badnarik campaign for president, holding signs, and gathering petitions in NH. That was my first official Libertarian Party activism, but I was surrounded by liberals who were also protesting the war, who also hated the Bush administration while talking about gay rights and smoking pot. We marched together, Badnarik and Kerry supporters, against the Republican National Convention in New York City the last day of August, 2004.

This is when I began to believe that liberals, or the left, could be natural allies to the Libertarian Party. I found people who felt just as strongly as I did, that war was wrong, that women’s rights mattered, and that pot should be legalized. 

My third story…

I was elected Vice Chair of the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire in 2006, when I was 19 years old. I held that position until 2008. During my time on the executive committee, I wanted to get more young people like myself to become activists, but it was hard. There were people who came to every monthly meeting who had been there when they founded the Party, and they didn’t like change, or coalitions, or young whippersnappers like myself trying to do new things or appeal to other people.

It was in November of 2007 to January 2008 that Ron Paul was really making noise in the Republican Party leading up to the NH Primary. I suddenly heard a conservative talking about anti-war, pro-privacy, and being against the USA PATRIOT ACT. This was exciting, and I volunteered for his campaign. This was the Ron Paul Revolution.

I went knocking on doors and canvassing and holding signs on primary day. One of my fellow Party members spotted me working for Ron Paul and he was furious. At the next executive committee meeting he called me out, suggesting I should be removed from my position as Vice Chair of the LPNH, because I was supporting a Republican.

To be fair, I guess that’s a valid reason, however, there’s a bit of context to Ron Paul, who in 1988 was the Presidential nominee of the LP. But this is the thing in the Libertarian Party and in the movement in general — WE EAT OUR OWN.

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The controversy blew over, I retained my seat, but I was really upset about it. Ron Paul’s campaign died out, and I went back to focusing on LP politics.

Then at the Libertarian National Convention, Bob Barr was nominated as the LP’s candidate for President. Bob Barr: a former Republican who co-sponsored DOMA, who tried to ban Wicca from the US military, and who had been in favor of the drug war. After all the shit I received for supporting Ron Paul, this was the guy I was supposed to support in the Party of Principle?

So I did what I’d been taught just a few months earlier. It was time to eat our own. I, and a few other people, led the charge within the LPNH to refuse to accept the nomination of Bob Barr and to consider disaffiliation from the National LP. We collected our own petitions for our own candidate who would only be on the ballot in NH – that man’s name is George Phillies.

It was a noble cause, but it was fruitless and it was a complete and utter waste of our time, energy, and resources.

I didn’t run for re-election as Vice Chair of the LPNH that year, though Party members tried to draft me as Chair. 

This was when I gave up on the Libertarian Party. This was the point when I decided that for all the noble things that were said, the Party was a waste of time, of energy, and of resources. That it chewed up and spit out energetic young believers like myself, and left us bitter and resentful and cynical that liberty could ever be achieved in our lifetime. It was classic burnout.

I felt defeated…

This is where I was in 2008 in terms of LP politics. I was the child of activists who didn’t know why we didn’t have President Harry Browne in 1996, but it started to become clear – it felt like we didn’t even want to succeed.

We were too busy tearing each other down, killing any coalitions… the major parties didn’t even need to bother. I was tired of giving myself to this Party.

There’s a way of thinking called a “crab mentality”, which is a metaphor to articulate the idea of “if I can’t have it, neither can you”. It’s referring to a bucket of crabs, and how when any crab tries to climb out, the others pull it back down in this useless “king of the hill” competition that prevents any from escaping. In humans, this is envy, jealousy, sabotage in competition and we see it all the time. We see it in Libertarianism a lot. 

So, I gave up.

To be clear, I was still a libertarian, but I just figured I should find some other way to go about it. I didn’t know other activists doing liberty stuff outside the Party besides a couple of movers in the Free State Project (but they were mostly LPers too) so I actually just got more involved in my own community.

I made friends who weren’t libertarians, and actually participated in a community that helped each other out when people got sick or had babies or had a house burn down. I know it’s weird by the way — most libertarians are happy to meet other libertarians, but I grew up in it. It was exciting to meet non-libertarians!

It was a learning experience to walk away, to let go, and to just be free… not because I’d won my freedom from the government, but because I was ignoring the government’s existence. I hadn’t accepted it, I’d just stopped fighting it. I was avoiding it in agorist ways by buying and selling stuff on the internet or within community, of simply avoiding the attention of the government, while violating its various laws.

Honestly, that whole experience healed my goddamn soul.

So, my fourth story…

In 2011, I was spending a lot of time in Las Vegas, gambling professionally and partying in night clubs listening to electronic dance music. My roommate was a stripper who had never paid taxes. She didn’t think of it as some “f*ck you” to the government, she just lived outside that world where people get W2s or file 1040s.

I’d always been an advocate for sex workers’ rights, and a less Puritan society in general, but I really spent a lot of time with dancers and prostitutes and escorts and porn stars, and I saw the devastating effects the law had on some of these people’s livelihoods.

I realized that for all the avoiding of the government we can do, we still sometimes need to stand up and fight against further regulation of our bodies and lives, we can’t just hope the government doesn’t notice us.

The Libertarian Party has generally been on the correct side of this issue. Liberals were sort of my allies on this subject, more-so than most conservatives, but so many people were paternalistic and protectionist, so many were advocating for government intervention that made things worse. I started talking with sex workers about these problems, and how the state wasn’t helping, couldn’t help. They needed to be left alone.

This is when I started looking at non-party organizations that lobby for less government. I actually spent some time with the Occupy Wall Street crowd that fall, which I felt was missing some of the point, but I liked that they were speaking out against government corruption and crony capitalism.

I’d already supported things like the Marijuana Policy Project, sure, but I started to see all these other organizations and groups that individually fight specific laws and regulations to improve liberty, and I was really interested in how much more effective they were than a broad-based political party. So I reengaged, not in the Libertarian Party, but in the libertarian movement.

The fifth story…

By 2014, I had moved to Los Angeles. I was working for Peter Schiff, and I had rejoined the LP, as a member of the LP California, though I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. 

I had made many new libertarian friends (mostly on the internet) at that point. This was exciting because rather than just people who were friends with my parents and as old as they were, I met new people. Young people.

I began writing for a little publication called Thoughts on Liberty. In the couple of years prior, I had begun reading a lot of these libertarian publications besides Reason and FEE, but TOL was particularly interesting to me because it was written entirely by women. Once upon a time, we were maybe 5% of the movement, but I started to realize we seemed to be closer to 30% of the movement.

Photographs taken by Judd Weiss at various conferences like Freedom Fest and ISFLC started to fill the internet with images of diverse, young, inspired people who came in more than just one gender or color, though they were all typically shot in black and white. The libertarian movement, through his photographs, started to get really, really attractive and better branded. Not just attractive for libertarians, but, mainstream appealing.

After my experiences in 2008, I thought I’d never want to be around libertarians again, but we were actually starting to grow better here. This was opening up the big tent of libertarianism, and letting people in.

This was about reaching those pro-choice, anti-war liberals I knew, and reaching those anti-NSA, anti-tax conservatives I knew, and letting them bring their own flavors and their own variations, and just calling it a bigger movement, with enough people to actually do all the things we want to do.

This was powerful to me because we’d always been shorthanded on enthusiastic volunteers in the LP, but here were college students who had the time and energy to dedicate to these various organizations, ready to activate on campus, to lobby, to get involved.

This was when I started to realize we have what we need to succeed.

Lessons learned…

I’ve learned a few lessons over 28 years as a second-generation Libertarian.

  • I learned that I was on the losing team, and that’s a heartbreaking morale killer.
  • I learned that the left and the right have ways in which they can be our allies. I stand by the fact that Libertarianism is neither a left nor right philosophy but that doesn’t mean we need to go scaring off potential allies on either side.
  • I learned that giving up on the Libertarian Party doesn’t mean you stop being a libertarian, it just means you get less frustrated by it.
  • I learned that there are all sorts of organizations doing successful activism for liberty causes outside of the Party.
  • Lastly, I learned that we actually have all our tools for success when you put that all together.

Now, plenty of terrible things have happened to us in the last 15 years when it comes to liberty: there have been new wars, the Department of Homeland Security, the USA PATRIOT ACT, higher mandatory minimums, aggressive attempts to regulate away a woman’s right to her own body, terrifying new programs to spy on all our communication… but there’s actually been an amazing amount of progress for liberty.

There is no time in human history I’d rather be alive.

For example:

  • A California law just went to effect last week, allowing women to buy birth control over the counter without a prescription.
  • Gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states.
  • Because gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states, we actually see mainstream politicians talking about getting government out of marriage altogether.
  • Cannabis is legal in some form in 23 states and DC.
  • In 5 states (and DC) cannabis is fully legal.
  • Companies like Uber and Lyft and AirBnB are providing disruptive market solutions to entrenched union monopolies, and enabling easier exchange between participants in an open app-based market.
  • New education models such as Kahn Academy are being tried.
  • John Mackey from Whole Foods is teaching hippies about conscious capitalism.
  • Wikileaks is working to make governments more transparent.
  • Ron Paul running for President in 2008 & 2012 brought many young people into the movement, where they’ve started reading Mises and Rothbard and becoming some of our hardest working activists.
  • Chelsea Manning informed the American people of the military’s abuses.
  • Edward Snowden informed the American people we were being spied on by our own government.
  • We now all have cameras on our phones now and are able to record and upload videos of police abuses – leading to movements like Black Lives Matter creating mainstream uproar over the police state.
  • Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, is now accepted in varying forms by Overstock, WordPress, Amazon, Virgin Galactic, Target, Reddit, Tesla, Expedia, Tiger Direct, and dozens of other businesses you’ve actually heard of.
  • The Dark net is starting to create safer ways, like Silk Road, for people to access recreational drugs until we achieve legalization, and people are starting to write about the dangers of drug prohibition.
  • Portugal decriminalized drugs 15 years ago, and drug use has declined — it has also provided an example to the world about ending the drug war.
  • The Free State Project just reached 20,000 signers and has triggered the move.
  • Organizations like Students for Liberty are training some of a new generation of entrepreneurs and leaders, with over 1000 student groups across the world.
  • Say what you want about them not being “Libertarian enough”, but Congressman Massie, Congressman Amash and Senator Rand Paul are all libertarian-ish and they’re doing some good work in Washington DC on certain issues.
  • A Reuters poll last year showed that 1 in 5 Americans called themselves a libertarian when asked. Not in some roundabout way, they were actually asked “Do you consider yourself a libertarian?” and 20% said YES.
  • A recent poll comparing potential LP nominee Gary Johnson to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump showed him at 11%.
  • We also just witnessed the first nationally televised Libertarian Party debate on Stossel last week.

We also have a large list of LP candidates, and three of those are “mainstream” candidates vying for our presidential spot this year. A former governor, a software genius who is a household name, and the owner of The Libertarian Republic, who may be young, but his website is viewed more times every month than the number of votes Johnson got in the 2012 election. In case you wondered: Johnson received 1.2 million votes, and TLR gets 1.5 million unique views a month.

In conclusion…

Here’s the big thing though that I want you to take away from this list of wins coupled with my stories:

We can’t do it alone and we don’t have to. Most of these successes I listed did not happen as a result of activism by the Libertarian Party, but some of them happened WITH the Libertarian Party, and most might not have happened if the LP hadn’t been doing what it’s done for the last 40 years.

The LP, though ahead of many of the curves in theory, has been a bit slower on the effective activism than a lot of other groups and organizations, and that’s been a really big shame.

I’ve been in the LP – it’s hard to WIN in politics. When your focus is on actual change through the political process, it’s not surprising that we keep losing and we keep failing and we keep losing morale and heart. I’ve had to tell far too many activists in the past not to go near the LP because it will break their spirit.

But I think now, it might be time.

This Libertarian Moment isn’t nearly over, it’s literally just started. We need to remember always to look at our wins, and to own them as a movement. We need to build coalitions with one another, to not judge our success by our number of elected officials by the LP, but by our ability to change the hearts and minds of the population so they come to us, and we change the future – that we show them what they’re capable of when they’re free to do anything they desire, as long as they don’t hurt other people and don’t take their stuff.

It’s time, I think, to build an optimistic, positive brand as the LP. For us to share in the successes the movement has had, to open our arms and our hearts to the new generation of liberty activists, and to be the liberty option on the ballot, and be one in a series of productive, useful and powerful forces for change. It’s time to make the LP a good investment of resources and time and to help the greater movement achieve liberty within our lifetime.

In 1996, I was a nine year old girl with a broken heart, suddenly realizing I was on the losing team. I’ve seen that look on too many activists’ faces when they measure their success by the votes cast for LP candidates. Don’t let that be your key performance indicator. I was wrong in 1996 but I didn’t know it, and it took me two decades to really see the larger picture. We lost a battle. But we’re winning the war.

Liberty is the human story, the path of our species is always heading out and up and freer than before. I promise you, I promise that little 9 year old I was, that we are on the winning team.

I hope to see you in Orlando. Thank you.

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