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. 


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.”


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