"WE'RE NOT PRIMARILY advocating a slightly different public policy from other people," declared Ludwig von Mises Institute senior fellow and popular podcaster Tom Woods. "We're encouraging people to look at the world in a refreshing new way." Woods was speaking at a raucous gathering hosted by the growing Mises Caucus of the Libertarian Party (L.P.) down the street from the party's biennial national convention in New Orleans this summer. "So yeah, we won't get the 70 million votes, but maybe we get 1 million people who say, 'I never looked at the world the same way again after I listened to those people.'"
That basic mission conflict--quixotic electoral vehicle or galvanizing educational project?--has gnawed at the Libertarian Party ever since its humble beginnings in 1971. But now that the L.P. has firmly established itself as the country's third-largest political bloc, the age-old paradox looks to many like a fork in the road.
"Right now the Libertarian Party absolutely is at a crossroads," then-Vice Chair Arvin Vohra said at a July 1 debate. "Road No. 1 leads somewhere like this: We've taken the presidency, we've taken the House of Representatives, we've taken the Senate.... We got there by using manipulative, dishonest messaging; we got there by pandering. And if we start abolishing government schools, if we start legalizing cocaine, if we start shutting the military-welfare complex, we're going to lose. It's better that someone like us is there, rather than someone like them is there."
Path No. 2, Vohra maintained, is that the L.P. comes to power after campaigning unapologetically on legalizing all drugs, abolishing all government schools, and ending all foreign wars--this way Americans won't be surprised when the party accomplishes what it's always promised.
But some Libertarians reject the idea that voters will be swayed by the most shocking edges of libertarian philosophy. "For 40 years we've been saying, 'It's all or nothing!' And we've got exactly what we've demanded: Nothing," said four-decade L.P. activist Joe Hauptmann at the same debate. "Government is too damn big. But the other problem is, we're too damn small.... The only way we get power is with the vote, and there aren't enough of us."
To the extent that this year's Libertarian Convention was a referendum on making libertarianism a big squishy tent vs. a smaller ideological cadre, the big-tenters won in a...