Bob Barr and the Futility of Libertarian Politics

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January 4, 2007

A few weeks ago I nearly choked from laughter when I read that former Georgia Republican Congressman Bob Barr joined the Libertarian Party and became a member of its National Committee, replacing another member who coincidentally(?) had just resigned for medical reasons. For someone like myself who was a former activist in the Libertarian Party and had known about Bob Barr from his career in Congress, this was like putting Tom Delay on the board of trustees of Planned Parenthood. I can think of no better example of the futility of relying on the political process to achieve the goal of a free society than the cynical exploitation of the Libertarian Party by a frustrated career politician.

For those who may not have watched Bob Barr over the years doing his talking head shtick on various news shows, his 15 months of fame came from his role as the apostle of jihad against Bill Clinton for his sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky. Barr's mouth was spewing forth verbiage to justify impeachment like my dog pooping in the backyard. He did what I thought no other politician could ever do: make Clintonista apologists look attractive. After the case for impeachment collapsed like a bad souffle, Barr continued to make sporadic TV appearances on behalf on gun manufacturers being sued by various municipalities. After the 2000 census, his district was redrawn with that of another Republican Congressman, John Linder, who beat him by a substantial margin when they ran against each other in the 2002 primary election.

Barr's career before and during his Congressional tenure speaks for itself. It is what you might expect from a Georgia Republican elected in 1994 along with other Neanderthal conservatives led by their guru Newt Gingrich. He worked for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1970 to 1978, and Ronald Reagan appointed him United States Attorney for the northern district of Georgia in 1986. He ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for US Senate in 1992, but was elected to the House two years later.

As a member of the House, Barr did not display any significant difference from the rest of his Republican colleagues. His record is consistent with that of a phallic libertarian, who is a politician that believes personal liberty begins and ends with the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear symbols of male virility. As a prosecutor and Congressman, he strongly supported the war against people who possess contraband substances, voted for the Patriot Act, sponsored the Defense of Marriage Act and endorsed efforts to curtail a woman's right to have an abortion. This was hardly the stuff that libertarian dreams are made of.

Since losing his Congressional seat, Barr has written numerous articles and columns, mostly about privacy and 2nd Amendment issues. However, he has also written about other issues that are inconsistent, to put it mildly, with a libertarian orientation. He criticized the Bush administration for not doing enough to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing the border, and opposes amnesty for those already here. In other articles, he called for military intervention in South America to stop the drug trade. Even after he proclaimed himself a "card-carrying Libertarian," Barr offered a tribute on his website to his two favorite UN ambassadors: the recently deceased Jean Kirkpatrick and the recently disgraced John Bolton, who were prominent spokespersons for American belligerence against countries they considered threats to its superpower status.

In a recent interview with Reason magazine, Barr refused to recant his support for keeping contraband substances illegal, claiming that he didn't have to agree 100% with the Libertarian platform (I would submit he doesn't agree with 50% of the platform). He also denied he was running for president, but that is about as credible as Bill Clinton denying he ever had sex with Monica Lewinsky. His previous campaigns and craving for the media spotlight are evidence that Bob Barr seeks something more than the 15 months of fame he got as the face of impeachment.

The willingness of Libertarian Party apparatchiks to welcome a standard bearer with Bob Barr's record illustrates the inherent corruptibility of the political process. They are perfectly willing to compromise their core beliefs in exchange for increasing the number of dues-paying members as well as gaining a higher percentage of the electoral vote. I have seen how this works from my own experience as a Libertarian Party activist. A few years ago, Bob Grant, a popular and controversial talk radio host, offered to run in New Jersey as the Libertarian Party candidate for US Senate. Like Bob Barr, he shared some views with libertarians, but on other important issues like gun control, immigration and foreign policy, he was diametrically opposed. In my discussions with other LP activists, there were a significant number who were willing to embrace Bob Grant if it would increase membership and gain publicity. I became convinced that some activists would have put Adolph Hitler on the ballot if they thought it would attract attention. I finally called Bob Grant on the air and, after explaining who I was, confronted him about some of his very unlibertarian positions on several issues. He was receptive to my call, and the following day announced that he would not run for Senate as a Libertarian, but might run as an independent (a few months later, he withdrew his candidacy).

Celebrities like Bob Barr and Bob Grant, among others who have exploited the Libertarian Party for selfish reasons, serve to remind us of the vulnerability of libertarian politics to personal manipulation. In the end, they not only sow the seeds of their own irrelevancy, but they destroy the groups they profess to save. I predict, on the assumption Barr runs for president, that the Libertarian Party will split into factions between pragmatic statists and ideological purists. The result will be the same as Pat Buchanan taking over Ross Perot's Reform Party in the 2000 election, when moderates and populist conservatives fought among themselves and left the party in shambles. Despite $20 million worth of public funding for his campaign, Buchanan only got less than one percent of the popular vote. Though I'm sure Barr will gain publicity for the Libertarian Party and bring in more members, I'm also confident the end result will be disappointment and disillusionment. The only positive outcome of what I believe will be the great libertarian crackup of 2008 is the realization among a large number of liberty advocates that the solution to government oppression is not to be found by participating in party politics and the electoral system.

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Ken Bank's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Ken Bank has done some writing (including movie reviews) from a historical and libertarian perspective, and his background includes masters degrees in history and business.  He used to be active in the Libertarian Party but has given up politics.  He currently resides in Barnegat, New Jersey.  He is a retired real estate broker, and currently works part-time as an investment manager and consultant.