Saturday, June 17, 2006

How to elect an LNC

Here's my latest for LFA:

Since I’m not going to be able to go to Portland, I haven’t invested much thought into who should be elected to the next Libertarian National Committee (LNC). But after serving on that body for two years and covering it as a reporter for two more, I have put quite a lot of thought into what kind of people we should entrust with that responsibility.

We elect people to the LNC for every reason except the right ones. We pick them because we like them or, worse still, because they have a good record as an activist. Those are useful skills to be sure, but they are pretty much irrelevant when it comes to making the kinds of decisions which face a board of directors.

First we need to be clear about what the LNC does. Or more to the point, what it doesn’t do. The LNC is the board of directors of a business: LNC, Inc. Their job is to administer the party so it can survive and grow financially. They do not do the political work of the party. They create and maintain the structure which allows the rest of us to do that and call it “the Libertarian Party.”

Being a good board member requires a rather disparate skill set, and few of those skills are apparent on the surface. The most essential skill is a well developed sense of fiduciary responsibility. This is generally something you aren’t born with but have to learn through experience.

If a candidate for LNC has a record of success in business or administration already, that’s a good sign. (The closest I think I’ll come to endorsing anybody this time around is to point out that having earned a title such as “Admiral” is a great example of this principle.) If the candidate simply has some good sounding ideas that surely will make the party grow like topsy, you should probably look at them a little more skeptically.

Have they ever served on another board of directors, and if so how successful is that organization? Have they ever run a business themselves or had a major managerial responsibility for one? Or have they ever managed a campaign or a state party that actually raised and spent a lot of money to good effect?

There are two basic sales messages, hope and fear. People who sell themselves with a fear message do not possess the quality of fiduciary responsibility we need right now. Let’s face it, while it is nice not to be on the verge of bankruptcy for an extended period of time the LNC has been running pretty flat lately. We’ve been subsisting on about $1.5 million a year for too long. We have to grow significantly if this party has any hope of really changing public policy.

Someone who tells you that we need to protect what little we have is dooming us to oblivion. We need risk-takers, people who understand that we must be bold to start raising the kind of money that makes us competitive with the Democrats and Republicans. That’s why a record of fiduciary responsibility is so valuable. If a person has taken the big money risks required in running a business and been successful, that’s the kind of person we need now on the LNC.

The fear message is also a big fat negative when applied to our party’s ideology. In order to grow this party, we need to make newcomers from other parties feel welcome. We need to expand our tent so more people can feel comfortable calling themselves Libertarians, not be so closely guarding our purity that we drive people away when they show some curiosity.

This is not done so much with issues, but is more of a cultural perspective. Be wary of big ideas from LNC candidates, especially if they involve politics. Politics is not the LNC’s job. They hire staff for that. A couple big warning signs are if a candidate for LNC is pushing strong ideas about what political stands the party should take or what staff should be doing with their time. Instead look for signs that a candidate understands how to hire good people and cultivate good activists who can be trusted to stake out solid Libertarian political ground. They need the LNC’s support, not its management.

One virtue that serves anyone well in pretty much any context is playing nice with others. Here the candidate’s record of activism is worth examining. Is their activism more of the lone wolf variety, or have they put together campaigns and coalitions which attract happy volunteers? Do they listen to others and sometimes even admit that they made a mistake? Are they quick to move beyond criticism or do they make it clear that smashing their critics is an essential part of their activism? How patient are they when explaining what they do to others? Can they cite examples where they delegated important tasks and then let the new person do them without micromanaging?

Pretty much every candidate for LNC is going to be touting their record of activism because that’s pretty much all we’ve got to show for ourselves. Good activists can definitely become good board members. It’s just that there’s no cause and effect here. It’s equally true that great activists can become truly horrible board members, and it happens to us far far too often.

Just because someone does one thing well does not mean they will do everything well, and few have all it takes to be a good board member. The record of activism itself means nothing when it comes time to sit at the LNC table and exercise some fiduciary responsibility. But how one conducts their activism can answer a lot of questions about whether the candidate is suited for this particular work.

Yes I know that all elections are a popularity contest. The fact that getting along well with others is an essential political skill is equally undeniable. But in this context, the candidate is not your friend. There are a lot of people I love very dearly and I would support them in just about anything they wanted to do, but dear Lord I would never give them a vote for public or private office. If you’re really worried that you might hurt somebody’s feelings if you vote for their opponent, that’s probably a strong signal that you shouldn’t vote for them. When deciding who deserves your vote, the further you can put your personal likings for the various candidates out of your mind the more likely your vote will be wisely cast.

Anyone who runs for any position of responsibility has to ask themselves one question – do they want to rule or to serve? People who are running for the LNC must above all prove they understand that this party is run by its members, not by the LNC. You aren’t choosing a friend, a colleague, a ruler or a manager. You are electing your servants.

I hate it that I’ll be missing the convention. I’m sure everyone who does attend will have a great time. Choose wisely for all of us.


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