Saturday, January 28, 2006

Standards of Party Governance

(This will be my next article for Liberty for All.)

We hold government to very high standards when it comes to openness and transparency, and rightly so. We have open meetings laws, sunshine laws, freedom of information laws, ethics laws and many other provisions demanding public disclosure of government documents and actions. Long have we known that transparency is the first step to prevent government from sliding into tyranny.

We must hold ourselves to at least those standards in governing our own party affairs.

Some counter that since a party is a private organization, we are not bound by these standards. After all, the reason why we must keep all these extra checks on government is because it is involuntary. Since you can’t choose not to be a part of it, people need these extra protections. But a party is a voluntary organization. People can come and go as they please and choose their own level of participation. No one can be forced by the decision of a private organization, so the theory goes, thus we can allow ourselves much greater latitude in how we manage our own affairs.

Now if we were talking about, say, a bridge club, I might agree with this. It’s not much effort to join or start up a new bridge club if you don’t like how yours is run, and bridge clubs rarely if ever try to influence public policy.

But a party is not just a social club. By its very nature a political party possesses both public and private characteristics.

The whole reason why we have a political party is to elect people to public office, people who must be held to the highest standards of ethics. So it behooves us to uphold these ethics in all of our affairs. Not only is it good practice, we need to show voters that we can be trusted. If we have failed to uphold these standards while conducting our own business, people have no reason to believe that we will suddenly start to behave properly when conducting theirs.

Let’s say for example that a Libertarian who serves on a state executive committee is also running for his local city council. On the party committee, that person has no problem making smoky back room deals or meeting privately with a majority of his committee to determine how to vote on official business. Now, if this happened while that fellow served on a city council, he would either scream bloody murder if he was not part of the smoky back room, or be removed from office and maybe even go to jail if he was. But since he engaged in this behavior while serving on the board of a private organization, we have every reason to believe that he would act this way if he won his election.

It is pure hypocrisy to hold yourself to lower standards when asking the people to give you higher responsibility. In order to show the people you are worthy of their trust, you have to have a history of upholding that trust in your daily life. The only way you can do that is to point to your record in the conduct of your private business.

This is doubly true for a third party. We have an extra burden to show the voters that we are different from the Democrats and Republicans. We have learned that simply having superior ideas alone doesn’t inspire voters to break habit and try something new. We also have to prove to them that we will govern differently, that we will restore honesty and ethics to politics.

That’s what voters are really looking for. They are sick of the corruption of Democrats and Republicans far more than they are tired of those parties’ policies. They don’t want politics as usual. When a candidate can show evidence of their own integrity, that person has an edge at the polls. If all we can say is that we are a different flavor of the same old politics, we have forfeited any possible competitive edge we might have over our opponents.

Lower standards of openness and ethics in our party business are an open invitation to duplicity and corruption. Indeed, the argument that a party as a private organization is not beholden to the high standards of public bodies is almost always advanced by people who are trying to justify their own unethical behavior as party officials. To claim that lower standards are acceptable is to allow us to behave just like the Democrats and Republicans.

Citing the voluntary nature of private organizations as a defense for lower standards is an incredible insult to the party membership. It’s basically the “love it or leave it” argument. That is, if you don’t like how I am running your party, you can just go screw.

The Libertarian Party in particular is a grassroots organization. It is owned not by a board of directors but by the membership. Even when it is not seeking access to government power, any grassroots organization must be totally open and transparent in its governance to maintain member ownership.

An elected position in the Libertarian Party is just as much a position of trust as one in government. If we can’t be trusted to uphold the highest standards of openness and transparency in running our own party, we certainly cannot claim we are able to do so when asking the voters to let us run their government.


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