Friday, May 11, 2001
To: The Libertarian National Committee
From: Perry Willis
Subject: "Conflict of Interest" policy

Introduction

In 1995-96 I did things that I believe saved the LP from a meltdown. To do this I had to disobey an LNC policy. I put friendships, my career, and my reputation at risk. I have had five years to reconsider what I did, and I continue to come to only one conclusion: I did the right thing.

In this document I'll explain why the growth we experienced during 1995-1998 would not have occurred if I had obeyed the LNC policy. I'll also explain why I think it is absolutely essential for the future of the LP that you repeal the existing "conflict of interest" policy. This will clear a path for the creation of a healthier and more productive internal culture in the Libertarian Party. If you think this issue is important, I hope you'll take the time to read what follows.

What I Did And Why I Did It

As of late 1995 the LP had only three direct-mail writers with proven track records: Michael Cloud, Bill Winter, and Perry Willis. Bill and I were employed by the LNC and a new policy prohibited us from assisting nomination campaigns.

Michael Cloud was doing the Browne campaign's fund-raising letters, but for reasons having nothing to do with Michael's talent (in many ways he's better than I am), the letters weren't coming out on time and they weren't pulling very well when they did.

The Browne campaign was doing aggressive, public outreach to non-Libertarians — conducting broadcast and press interviews, making public appearances, generating inquiries, and recruiting new members. It was also running deep into debt and was in danger of having to curtail its outreach activities. This would have had negative consequences for future fundraising that could have led the campaign to suspend operations entirely.

None of the other campaigns were doing much outreach on behalf of the LP. In fact, none of them showed any interest or potential for doing so. Instead of auditioning for the job by showing how they could benefit the party, the other campaigns spent their time attacking Harry — accusing him of being pro-tax, anti-gun, and even a draft-dodger. The situation was critical. If the Browne Campaign had to curtail or suspend its outreach, the party would go from one outreach-oriented campaign to none.

I knew how to fix this problem, but the new LNC policy prevented me from doing so. I considered three possible solutions and the problems they might cause:

Solution #1: I could resign as National Director and free myself to help the Browne campaign continue its activities. Problem: This would have brought a large measure of chaos to the LP office as we neared election year.

Solution #2: I could ask the LNC to reconsider its policy, using the same arguments I'll make in this document. Problem: The LNC wouldn't meet until it was too late. Waiting could have caused an extreme slowdown in the Browne campaign, leaving the party with no prospects for growth and success from the presidential election.

Solution #3: I could fix the problem by disobeying the LNC policy. Problem: Self-evident.

None of these options were good, but only one had the potential to save the situation. My objectives and motivations were straightforward. I had devoted my whole adult life to the growth of the Libertarian Party, but through most of that time there had been no growth. Mostly there had been stagnation, poor performances, and blown opportunities.

It appeared to me that we were about to repeat our old pattern and pass through another campaign with little or no growth. That's not why I had signed on. I couldn't stomach the prospect of investing another stretch of years to no purpose. I decided to disobey the policy, help the Browne campaign continue its outreach efforts, squeeze out every last bit of growth available from the '96 campaign, and then arrange for my orderly departure from the National Director job.

The Results

  • I created "Operation Drumbeat" to give the campaign a strategic focus.

  • I used this focus to write fund-raising letters that reported progress and proposed new initiatives to implement the strategy. This created excitement and boosted party morale.

  • I arranged for the Browne campaign to provide all its inquiries to the LP even before the nomination.

  • I helped Harry Browne raise money for the LP from his personal friends, so we could expand our headquarters staff and computer system before the general election campaign.

  • After the nomination I merged the Browne staff and the national headquarters staff to create a coordinated effort to realize the full benefits possible from the '96 election.

  • I then used the new resources generated by the campaign to create Project Archimedes, and we set in motion our largest growth surge to date.

  • I then arranged, in consultation with Steve Dasbach, for our new Political Director (Ron Crickenberger), another product of our growth, to take my place as interim National Director.

  • I executed Project Archimedes as a vendor, took it as far as I could, and then forgave $5,000 in billings in the hope that it would continue without me.

Did my interests in saving the Browne campaign conflict with the interests of the party — or did it harmonize with them? I think the answer is clear. The progress we achieved during the time I helped the Browne campaign, and from the Project Archimedes follow up, was unique in our history. It didn't happen by accident. It happened because of the things I did. It happened because I disobeyed a bad policy.

The Alternative

Would the party be better off today if I had obeyed the policy?

Even with my help, the Browne campaign struggled to make it to Election Day. Without my help I don't think they would have made it through the winter of 1995-96. Had I not disobeyed the so-called "conflict of interest" policy . . .

  • The campaign's outreach efforts would have stopped.

  • It would have generated no more inquiries for the party in advance of the nomination.

  • The major-donor fund-raising Harry did for the LNC, also in advance of the nomination, would never have occurred.

  • We would not have hired George Getz and the other new staff for the national office.

  • The excitement created by the Browne campaign would have been replaced by diminished expectations, low morale, reduced fund-raising, and decreased efforts at all levels of the party.

  • With reduced prospects for future success, contributions to the LP would have declined, and it's very unlikely we would have raised as much as we did the following year. I believe 1997 was the first post-election year in which the party raised almost as much as it had during the presidential year.

  • The membership growth we experienced during the campaign would not have occurred.

  • Funding wouldn't have been available for Project Archimedes, and the growth we achieved from that source would never have happened.

  • We would still be a tiny, stagnant party with scant hopes for future progress.

The so-called "conflict of interest" policy, if adhered to, would have prevented most of the vast gains we made in the mid-1990s.

Who Was Harmed?

Did my actions harm the party?

  • Did those actions cause the party's asset base to erode? No, the base grew.

  • Did I give our mailing list to the Browne campaign? No, it rented the list, adding to the party's revenues. And the more letters I wrote for the campaign, the more money the party made.

  • Did my actions hurt party morale or depress party fund-raising? Quite the contrary. The letters I wrote for the Browne campaign gave members reason to hope, to be excited, and to contribute more to the party than they would have if the Browne campaign had simply disappeared or pulled in its horns. The proof is in the results. During this period we became a multi-million dollar organization for the first time.

  • Did I give Harry Browne information about major donors? No, instead I helped him bring new major donors into the party — before the nomination.

  • Did I shirk my responsibilities as National Director in order to help the Browne campaign? The results disprove it. During the time I helped the Browne campaign, I moved our offices from a slum to the Watergate complex, expanded the staff, dramatically increased fund-raising, automated our FEC reports, made a host of other improvements, and brought about the greatest membership growth in party history. And the most significant successes came precisely during the time I helped the Browne campaign, and directly because of it.

The interests of the party were helped considerably, not harmed. I can't imagine that there's a single soul who wishes the party well who would want us to undo all the achievements mentioned above. (Those whose ambitions overrule the growth and success of the party are a different story.)

So Who Was Harmed?

Was anyone harmed by my actions? Or, put another way, if I hadn't helped the Browne campaign generate inquiries, members, media, and money for the Libertarian Party, who would have benefited?

  • Would the members of the party have benefited from a smaller party? No.

  • Would the LNC have benefited from having fewer resources to direct? No.

  • Would the LP staff have benefited from having fewer resources to do their job? No.

So who would have benefited? The answer is that only the other candidates for the nomination would have benefited — and only if they were more interested in receiving the nomination than they were in seeing the party grow and prosper.

That's an important paragraph.

There's no question that if the Browne campaign had done less to benefit the party, fewer convention delegates might have voted for Harry. And if Harry's campaign had shut down because it couldn't generate fund-raising letters, one of the other candidates would have won by default.

To assert that this would have benefited the party is to ignore objective facts. So it's time to ask a few crucial questions that have been overlooked in the "conflict of interest" debate:

  • Do the nomination campaigns exist for the sake of the party — or does the party exist to accommodate the nomination candidates?

  • Should our nomination candidates audition for the job by showing how they can benefit the party — or by tearing down or impeding the outreach efforts of their fellow candidates?

  • Should LP employees or LNC members be prohibited from doing things that benefit the party?

It should be obvious that . . .

  • Nomination campaigns exist for the sake of the party. Otherwise, the interests of the party would be subservient to the interests of the candidates.

  • Nomination candidates should audition for the job by showing how they can benefit the party — not by attempting to tear down or impede the efforts of others to do so.

  • No Libertarian, LNC member, or employee should ever be prevented from doing something that would benefit the party.

But the current "conflict of interest" policy assumes the opposite of these principles. Its logic implies that . . .

  • The party exists to assure that all candidates have equal chances to win a nomination.

  • Nomination candidates have no obligation to do anything to benefit the party, but are instead encouraged to be hostile to their fellow nomination candidates, and even to complain about what other candidates do to benefit the party.

  • LP employees, and perhaps LNC members, should be restricted from doing things that would help nomination campaigns benefit the party.

How did we arrive at this state of affairs?

The Egalitarian Fallacy

The so-called "conflict of interest" policy is in conflict with the interests of the party. It is also in conflict with our principles. We have gone astray because, among other things, we have unwittingly elevated the egalitarian fallacy as the governing principle behind our nomination process.

It has been asserted by some that if I were going to help one candidate for the nomination, I should have helped all of them.

Why?

There's nothing I could have done for the other candidates that would have benefited the party. They had no potential to which I could apply my skill and experience. Does it really make sense to say that . . .

  • I should not have helped the Browne campaign raise money because I could not help the other candidates do the same?

  • The Browne campaign should not have done the outreach that relied on my help, because I had no way to help the other candidates do the same?

  • I shouldn't have helped the Browne campaign generate inquiries (and provide them to the party before the nomination) because no other candidate was interested in doing the same thing?

  • I shouldn't have helped the Browne campaign raise money for the LP before the nomination because no other candidate was interested in doing the same thing?

Do we really want one group of Libertarians to do less to benefit the party simply because others aren't interested in doing as much — or even are incapable of doing as much?

This is the logical effect of the current so-called "conflict of interest" policy. It creates a situation in which the interests of the pre-nomination candidates are in conflict with the interests of the party. And it mandates that some Libertarians — LP employees — should do less to benefit the party, because others cannot do more.

I am reminded of a Kurt Vonnegut story in which the strong were forced to wear weights so as not to be superior to the weak. Is this really what we want?

What could possibly cause us to adopt this kind of thinking?

Working Relationships

Perhaps it's feared that the eventual winner of the nomination will have a poor working relationship with any LP employees who favored other candidates. But this problem also exists for LNC members, and it will manifest itself whether or not anyone knows the individual preferences of LNC members and LP employees. Written policies can't make two people like each other. They can only make the real situation invisible and discourage potential remedies.

And just how serious is the potential for poor "working relationships" anyway? If the delegates nominate a candidate that an LNC member or employee opposes, one of three things will happen. The LNC member or employee will . . .

  • Find a way to forge a productive working relationship with the winning candidate.

  • Resign (or fail to run for re-election in the case of the LNC member). Or . . . 

  • Try to obstruct the campaign.

Let's examine each of these possibilities in turn, and see if there's any "there" there.

1. Productive Working Relationships

Self-interest dictates that where two people can cooperate to their mutual benefit, they will tend to do so — despite past disagreements.

For example, in 1992 Steve Dasbach and Steve Givot fired me from the Marrou for President campaign. This didn't cause me to go ballistic and terminate my relationships with these two fine gentlemen. I knew they were just doing their jobs, and it was in my interest to stay on good terms with them. And the firing didn't prevent Steve Dasbach from appointing me National Director in late 1993, or prevent Steve Givot from supporting me in that position.

In this case each person followed his self-interest, parting ways when the situation demanded it but joining together for mutual benefit when the circumstances changed. Self-interest is the best moderator of behavior. We should use it to our benefit, the same way we recommend it for society at large, instead of viewing it with suspicion when it comes to governing our own affairs.

2. Resignation

Self-interest moderates and limits the possibility of resignation. No employee (or LNC member) is likely to give up a job for light and transient causes. (If he does so, he may have been a poor employee to begin with.) One will do so only if he expects working conditions to become intolerable or if the prospects for future success seem to be slim.

And employees aren't going to speak out against a candidate they may have to work for (or with), unless they intend to resign if that candidate is elected. Self-interest limits the likelihood that an employee will make any strong statements about a pre-nomination race. The employee may say he prefers a particular candidate for particular reasons, but will tend to avoid saying much of anything bad about other candidates for whom (or with whom) he would still be willing to work, despite areas of disagreement. Only extreme situations will provoke strong comments from employees (or LNC members).

But if one or more employees is planning to resign if a particular candidate wins the nomination (or election to Chair), shouldn't the delegates know that before they choose a candidate, rather than after?

Perhaps the delegates will see the resignations as a reason to act on the employees' views, or as a reason to support the candidate the employees detest, or ignore the employees altogether. But that really should be a matter for the delegates to decide, and they can't make an informed decision if they aren't informed. Our current policy prevents them from being informed. Is it really appropriate for the LNC to prohibit what the delegates can know?

The same analysis also applies to LNC members. If party leaders would rather not work with a particular candidate or chair, the delegates should know this before they make a choice.

3. Obstruction

What could LNC members and LP employees do to obstruct a nominee?

Absolutely nothing that wouldn't also harm the party and themselves.

If an LNC member or LP employee decides to continue in his post after the "wrong" candidate wins the nomination, his self-interest will naturally lead him to do what he can to make the campaign a success. This is especially true of the employee, whose livelihood and potential for advancement depends on the success of the party.

This doesn't rule out the possibility that an employee will act to obstruct the campaign in spite of the repercussions to himself. But a written policy isn't going to do away with self-destructive acts. It will just force things underground, and it will hide the problem until after the damage is done.

Ultimately, this kind of problem would be self-correcting without a written policy, and sooner rather than later if employees are allowed to state their preferences and intentions. The same applies to LNC members. The LNC will tend to out-vote an obstructionist and self-destructive colleague and fire obstructionist and self-destructive employees. And obstructionist LNC members will tend to lose re-election at the next convention, if the problem is really serious — rather than just an annoyance or a debatable disagreement over strategy and tactics.

But an obstructionist person can do much greater harm if his interests and preferences are unknown because a written policy prevents those preferences from being publicly expressed before a nomination or election occurs.

Obstruction before The Nomination

Let us linger for a moment on this idea of obstruction, and consider it in the context of the nomination campaign itself. What can an LNC member or employee actually do to harm a nomination candidate?

The answer is nothing. Consider the possibilities:

  • Can a candidate be denied access to the mailing list? No. The list is ordered through a broker, not the LP office. This creates a paper trail. List-rental policies are easily enforced and not vulnerable to abuse.

  • Could an employee give a candidate database information outside the list rental process? This would be stealing and could provoke termination and potential legal action, depending on the circumstances, even if there were no written policy to prevent it — and no matter what one's motive for doing so. And it would be much easier to monitor the potential for theft if everyone knew what an employee's preferences were. But the current policy tries to prevent anyone from knowing.

  • Can office staff divert media calls that were intended for Candidate A to Candidate B? Not easily. Imagine what would happen if a radio talk show host announced on the air that he had asked for Candidate A but got Candidate B instead. This would spread through the party like wildfire and be potential grounds for reprimand or immediate termination, depending on the circumstances, with or without a written policy. And, once again, it would be easier to watch out for this kind of thing if people knew an employee's preferences in advance.

  • Can the editor of LP News provide unwarranted coverage for one candidate while failing to report the newsworthy efforts of another? Not easily. The contents of LP News are visible to everyone. If the publication fails to report the activities of a nomination candidate this will be obvious, or can be brought to the attention of the LNC if it is not obvious. The LNC can then review the situation and decide if newsworthy items are being ignored. That's what the LNC is for.

What's left? Nothing. There really is nothing an employee (or LNC member) can do to harm a candidate for the nomination.

That's why, throughout the debate on this issue, the proponents of the policy have never given any realistic examples of harm to the LP that the policy would actually prevent. And no one has ever cited any realistic examples of how I could have put the party's facilities at the service of the 1996 Browne Campaign to the detriment of the party or the other candidates.

But there are plenty of things an employee could do to positively help a candidate do public outreach to benefit the party, just as I did with the Browne campaign. And that's what this debate is really all about. It's about prohibiting some candidates from working with LNC members and employees, as individuals, to promote the party — with the only justification for the prohibition being on behalf of the weaker candidates and their personal aspirations.

If a conflict of interest lies anywhere, it is here. Remove the policy and you remove the conflict.

Titles of Office

It may be argued that LP titles of office (LNC positions included) belong to all the members of the party, and not just to the people who hold the titles. This is true, but that doesn't justify the "conflict of interest" policy.

The ultimate decision-making authority in our party belongs to the convention delegates. They, as the premier representatives of the party membership, are the practical owners of LP titles of office. When they vote, should they be allowed to know what LNC members and employees think about bylaws, platform proposals, and various candidates for LP office?

The obvious answer is yes. After all, the LNC members and employees are much better informed than the typical member is. But the current policy prevents the delegates from obtaining this information and thus impinges on their ownership of the party's titles of office.

Who benefits from this restriction? Only those candidates who are not able to win the support of LNC members and employees. And who is harmed by the restriction? The party as a whole, because it forces some Libertarians to do less to benefit the party than they otherwise could.

Distractions

Is there anything that can be argued in favor of the "conflict of interest" policy?

Some will say that employees who work for nomination campaigns will be diverted from doing the jobs they're paid for. But does that mean we should prohibit employees from volunteering with their local party or from running for public office? The current policy specifically exempts these activities from prohibition.

What is the justification for this? It's simple: employees are expected to do their job. If they also want to help the party in ways that go beyond their job, they are (and should be) free to do so. And if these extra activities then impinge on their job performance, this will be obvious and the employee will be asked to adjust his use of time. The potential for distraction is dealt with by a thoughtful evaluation of the circumstances, rather than an unthinking prohibition.

In my case, there was no extra-curricular Libertarian activity I could have engaged in that would have been more beneficial to the Party and to my core responsibilities than helping the Browne campaign stay alive, prosper, and do outreach for the party. And so it turned out. This should not have been prohibited.

Money

What's left as an argument against what I did?

I was paid for some of it. How strange that any Libertarian should consider this a problem. I'm a professional. This is what I do. I performed a service, my client benefited, my employer benefited, and I got paid. If this is wrong, our entire philosophy is wrong.

I really am sick of complaints that I make money for what I do. I can see no explanation for them other than envy. If contributors don't like what I do, they're free to not donate. If other Libertarians want to become professionals, they're free to submit their talents to the market test, just as I do every day, and suffer the attendant risks and uncertainty, just as I do.

Realize, too, that no one would have complained if I'd sold my after-hours services to Gun Owners of America or the latest inventor of abdominal exercise equipment. The complaints are heard because I got paid to help other Libertarians do outreach to benefit the Libertarian Party. This is envy rearing its head again. I wasn't interested in working for some Libertarians, so I should be prohibited from working for others — to the detriment of the party as a whole.

The fact is that most of what I did for the Browne campaign I did for free. When I first decided to disobey the policy I figured, "If I'm going to take the risk, I might as well get something out of it." I received exactly one payment before the current policy was put in place, and (if I recall correctly) exactly one payment after. The Browne campaign was having trouble catching up on past debts, so I stopped charging, but I kept doing the work and the party kept benefiting from what I did.

I also had an incentive to continue the work because I knew that my efforts for the Browne campaign were going to increase party membership and revenues, and thus I would receive performance bonuses. There was no conflict of interest. My interests, the party's interests, and the Browne campaign's interests all harmonized, just as you would expect when Libertarians join together to do Libertarian work.

But my primary interest has always been the Libertarian Party. I have been very good at creating wealth for the LP, but very poor at creating wealth for myself. By removing myself as National Director I took a huge pay cut. And during the 2000 Browne campaign I constantly went without pay and lived off my credit cards, many of which are now cancelled because I forgave huge amounts of salary and couldn't pay my bills.

I'm not complaining about this. I knew what I was doing. But the bottom line is this: Libertarians are supposed to believe in self-interest. This belief should be reflected in our policies. We should allow self-interest to create harmonies of interest that will accrue to the benefit of the party. Money is not evil, and being paid for services rendered is a positive good.

Equal Treatment?

Every person who seeks LP office does so because he has an interest at stake. Sometimes that interest is merely personal, sometimes it is monetary, and sometimes it is both. With regard to monetary interests Libertarians often campaign for a particular candidate because they expect that candidate to hire them for party or campaign jobs. It happens all the time.

But the fact that any delegates have personal or monetary interests in the outcome of a race doesn't lead us to presume that their self-interest conflicts with the party's interest. We don't demand their silence or that they not vote as delegates on the race in which they have a personal stake.

But look what we do to our current employees who are also LP members (and what some people want us to do to LNC members too). We require staff to be silent or feign neutrality in party contests. We maintain the contradictory position that it is okay for some LP members to campaign and vote for a candidate who will give them jobs, but it's not okay for those who already have jobs to campaign and vote for a candidate who will let them keep their current positions. This makes no sense. They are equivalent acts.

Everywhere we look we see the hypocrisy of this policy. We see it in conflict with the interests of the party. We see it in conflict with our own principles. But the harm this policy does goes deeper still.

An Inhumane Policy

If it is sometimes true that a staff member would resign if a certain Chair is elected, or feel the need to look for another job if a certain presidential candidate is nominated, do we really expect our employees not to discuss this life-altering possibility with their Libertarian friends and family? If so, it is a naοve and inhumane expectation. But please take notice: to discuss any feelings about an internal LP contest with anyone constitutes a violation of the policy.

And do we really expect those Libertarian friends and family with whom the employee shares his feelings to keep it to themselves? This too is naοve and inhumane.

And when the friends do share their "insider" knowledge with others, what results? Everyone involved becomes implicated in the violation. And as the story spreads it becomes clear to everyone that the "conflict of interest" policy has been violated. Charges are then made, armed camps develop, and the entire party is diverted inward to contemplate its own navel instead of focusing its energy outward.

But just look what self-interest could do for us, if only we'd let it. As I said before, no LP employee is going to risk his or her job for light and transient causes. Natural self-interest will lead employees to be circumspect in their statements out of simple self-preservation. An employee who thinks a particular candidate would be best can simply point to that candidate's virtues without criticizing the other aspirants.

Employees may prefer one candidate to another but still be willing to work for (or with) the less favored candidates, should one of them win. Employees will tend to speak firmly only when the choice of a candidate would affect their decision to remain or resign. But whether an employee's opinions are strong or weak, the delegates shouldn't be prevented from hearing them.

Unintended Consequences

The so-called "conflict of interest" policy produces many unintended consequences. I'll deal with only one here.

During the entirety of the 2000 nomination campaign there was virtually no communication or cooperation between the Browne campaign and the national LP headquarters. When the nomination was finally settled, an LP staff member came up to a Browne staff member and said; "Now we can talk to each other." They had all been intimidated from doing anything that might give the "appearance of impropriety."

Needless to say, with only four months between the convention and Election Day, there was no time to coordinate activities, and none of the cooperation that had produced such good results in 1996 was available to benefit the party. As a result, in several ways the party achieved correspondingly less in 2000 than it did in 1996.

All nomination campaigns should be able to coordinate and make contingent plans with the national headquarters far in advance of the nomination. But the so-called "conflict of interest" policy makes that almost impossible.

As it stands now, one HQ employee seen talking to an employee of a nomination campaign can serve as the seedbed for rumors and internal strife.

Morality

We have allowed this subject to be cast falsely in terms of ethics and morality. And it is costing the party dearly. Because this policy exists, almost any action, no matter how innocent or beneficial, can serve as the grounds for charges, counter-charges, witch-hunts, and internal warfare.

Because this policy exists and because my conscience told me the circumstances required it, I disobeyed the policy, deceived my friends and superiors, and may now be viewed as a moral leper by some or many.

But my view of the moral issues at stake here is quite different. The Libertarian Party exists for a purpose. It exists because people are being hurt and lives are being ruined. Our aim is to end this carnage, and to do that we must grow. I helped make the party grow in spite of the impediments placed in my way, and I consider that the highest moral act of which I am capable. After all, that's what I was hired to do.

Hurt Feelings

Some people have hurt feelings because I concealed my actions from them or lied to them.

I understand. I sympathize. I feel badly about that. But this goes only so far. If I had informed people of what I was doing, they would have had to stop me and thereby stop the benefits to the party. Or they would have had to hide what they knew, just as John Famularo hid for years the fact that he had used his access to the headquarters' computer network to take files from my hard disk. (I assume that's how he obtained the invoice he is now circulating.)

I didn't want to involve others. I wanted the risk to be my own.

We all benefited from what I did. Fortunately, only I have suffered for it.

Who is to blame for the resulting controversy? Partly me. Perhaps I should have done what I'm doing now on the day I resigned as National Director. If so, a lot of this controversy might have been avoided.

Still more blame should be leveled at the policy itself. It's a bad policy, and I hope the LNC will repeal it.

Finally, much blame applies to those who have tried to use this bad policy to pursue their own ends at the expense of the party.

Conflicts or Harmonies

So where do we go from here?

I think you'll agree that our purpose is to make the LP grow in size and strength.

LNC policies should serve that purpose. The so-called "conflict of interest" policy does not. It merely hampers "harmonies of interest" that would otherwise accrue to the benefit of the party, and it creates new conflicts that wouldn't otherwise exist.

This state of affairs has come about because of an innocent failure to follow our own beliefs. It is a central tenet of our philosophy that all actions are based on self-interest, tangible or intangible. Thus every act by every Libertarian is an act of self-interest and has one of two potential outcomes. It can either harmonize with the interests of the party, or conflict with them. These two potentials are inherent in every act by every Libertarian.

How, then, can we promote harmonies of interest and diminish conflicts of interest? We cannot do it with a written policy. A written policy is a judgment made before the merits of an individual case are known. Such a prejudgment must inevitably prohibit not only conflicts of interest but also harmonies of interest. A written policy must be narrowly defined in order to be unambiguous, which will cause it to prohibit some conflicts while giving others free reign. It also will confer the undeserved aura of "legal" virtue on those conflicts of interest that remain unregulated, as well as create opportunities for endless debates involving charges and countercharges.

These points are central to the Libertarian opposition to most statutory law. It is why we oppose campaign reporting laws, and why we oppose regulations that set a universal policy for all people — regardless of their individual circumstances. We believe that each person should set his own standards and make his own decisions regarding the behavior of other people — dealing with those people whose actions he approves of and shunning those whose actions he doesn't like.

As with statutory law, our written LNC policies tend to impose universal policies to specific cases, regardless of the context. This inevitably creates unintended consequences, crises, and demands or excuses for new rules to "solve" the unanticipated problems of the first rule, or to allow for exceptions to it. (This is exactly what's going on right now with Jacob Hornberger's so-called "ethics" debate, and his attempt to decide in advance what is right or wrong in every situation involving the LNC.)

Libertarians prefer case law, market tests, and voluntary cultural standards instead of statutory law. Libertarians support laissez faire because we know that self-interest is self-regulating and encourages harmonies of interest. We should employ these natural forces in our own governance.

It may be argued that these concepts apply only to the coercive state, but the principles involved apply to all human action — including voluntary organizations. Either you let people judge the actions of others for themselves or you impose straitjackets that are self-defeating. One more example will serve to make this clear.

The classic definition of "conflict of interest" is that no person can serve two masters. To codify this principle we might create a rule that "No LP employee or member of the LNC is permitted to help any other organization that has interests opposite to our own." And any violation of this rule should be grounds for immediate removal. Who could argue with such a simple and obvious prohibition?

What organizations have interests opposite to ours? The obvious answer is the other political parties. They are our direct competitors. And yet we help them frequently. LP employees regularly work with other parties, helping them circulate petitions to gain ballot status, and they do it without authorization by the LNC.

How do our employees get away with this seeming outrage? They "get away with it" for two powerful reasons:

  • The LP gains more from these transactions than it loses, and

  • No interest of any person or faction within the party is harmed.

The first point is important in terms of why the activity is permitted. The second is important in terms of why it isn't controversial. Both points are crucial to this discussion.

But the "conflict of interest" policy doesn't consider either of those two factors:

  • It prohibits harmonies of interest that could be good for the party, creates conflicts of interest that wouldn't otherwise exist, and gives "legal" sanction to those conflicts of interest that remain unregulated.

  • It doesn't serve the interests of the party itself, but only those of particular persons or factions within the party.

The proper regulator of interests within the party is not written policies, except for very general cases to which general rules can be applied, but the market as expressed by contributions and votes.

We've Been Here Before

It's an old and sad story. Our collective thinking about "conflict of interest" has always been muddled, and we have always suffered for it.

Once upon a time it was considered a "conflict of interest" for the National Director to participate in LNC meetings. It was thought to be inappropriate to seek the Director's counsel since he was simply being paid to do a job, had not been elected, and could use his access to party information and resources to "control" the party for his own benefit.

Some of the old-timers will remember this. The Director was expected to attend an LNC meeting and give a report, but could otherwise speak only when spoken to. The result was institutionalized ignorance and unconscious mediocrity.

LNC members debated issues without access to crucial facts that the National Director could have provided if he'd been allowed to speak. And programs were created and goals set without ever asking the Director if he thought he had a snowball's chance in hell of achieving them. I observed many of these meetings and was a victim of several of them. Sometimes it seemed as though I were watching Hitler maneuver phantom armies in his bunker at the end of World War II.

Apparently, it never occurred to anyone that the National Director's self-interest would tend to harmonize with the party's interest. In many ways he was bound to be a more reliable source of guidance than any individual LNC member precisely because he was paid. If the party did not succeed, the National Director could not succeed, could not earn raises, and could even lose his job.

No one stopped to think that the Director's influence, while powerful because of his unique access to information, was more than counter-balanced by the rest of the committee. The committee was always free to check the Director's information (there was an internal auditor) and to vote against his advice. And the Director's claims were subject to a market test. If he were wrong and the committee bought into his error, the Director would fail. And a string of such failures would lead to his termination. Self-interest could have worked to the committee's benefit, if only it had been allowed to express itself.

The stringency of the "do not speak" doctrine varied from meeting to meeting and year to year, but it was always there. It ended only when I came on board as National Director for the second time in late 1993. I informed the committee that I was willing to do the job only under two conditions:

  • I would be allowed to speak and participate in the LNC's deliberations (but without a vote).

  • I would do my job without being micro-managed, either by the committee as a whole or by its individual members.

The committee agreed to both requirements.

Former Chairs David Walter and Mary Gingell had made some important improvements earlier that had helped the party take its first few steps out of the Dark Ages of the 1980s. But the next crucial change in the party's fortunes came with my insistence that I would have substantial ownership of the nature and direction of my job.

It was precisely at this point, compared with the past, that things really began to work. I was able to work with Steve Dasbach to create strategies and tactics. Steve sought the advice of the committee, adjusted our plans based on that advice, built consensus, and protected me from micro-management. And the party began to make real and steady progress for the first time.

A misconception about "conflict of interest" had been holding us back. And similar misconceptions about the same subject are holding us back again today.

Unintended Absurdities

Let me give one final example of how seemingly uncontroversial written policies can lead to unintended consequences.

Jacob Hornberger has proposed an "ethics amendment" that would extend the current "conflict of interest" policy to LNC members. It reads as follows:

Except as otherwise noted in the Policy Manual, no employee of the Party, including the LNC, shall:
1) endorse, support, or contribute or accept any money,
2) use his or her title or position, or
3) work as a volunteer, employee, or contractor to aid (1) any candidate for public office prior to nomination, or (2) any candidate for Party office.

Now who could argue with that? As Mr. Hornberger has said, this will show the world that the LP is the party not only of principle but of ethics as well.

But do you realize what this seemingly uncontroversial amendment will do? It will:

  • Make it illegal for you to work on your own campaign for reelection to the LNC or for the LP's nomination to any public office.

  • Make it illegal for you to receive any money for your campaign for reelection to the LNC or for the LP's nomination for public office.

  • Make it illegal for you to donate any money to your own campaign for reelection to the LNC or for the LP's nomination for public office.

  • Make it illegal for you even to support your campaign for reelection to the LNC or for the LP's nomination for public office.

Of course, the amendment could be rewritten to provide an exemption for you to support your own campaign. But what would be the next ridiculous contradiction that would surface once the amendment was in place?

Does it matter whether anyone on the LNC openly supports a given pre-nomination candidate? I don't see how.

In 1995-96, Sharon Ayres was on the LNC and was also the Campaign Manager for the Browne campaign. Everyone on the LNC (and most everyone else in the LP) knew this and no one objected to it. Why not? Because no one could imagine any way in which her LNC position gave an unfair advantage to the Browne campaign, or conflicted with the interests of the party as a whole.

Suppose she had suggested to the LNC that Harry Browne should be the keynote speaker at the 1996 convention — giving him an unfair leg-up at the convention. Everyone else on the LNC would have laughed at her.

If she had used her LNC position in any way to aid the Browne campaign at the expense of its pre-nomination competitors, or at the expense of the party, it would have been widely known and discounted — if the LNC members had even allowed her to get away with it, which would be extremely unlikely.

So why should we write into the bylaws an amendment that's fraught with unintended consequences — to solve a problem that so far doesn't seem even to exist?

What Needs to Be Done

Not only should the so-called "conflict of interest" policy not be extended, it should be repealed.

It should be replaced with a very simple policy stipulating that no LNC member or employee shall work against the interests of the party, and that to do so could be grounds for removal or termination. But such questions should be pondered by the LNC at the time of an alleged infraction, not in an attempt to cover in advance every possible circumstance.

How would this work in practice? LNC members and employees would be expected to do their job, subject to the same kinds of evaluations that already apply.

  • LNC members serve subject to the evaluation of their colleagues and the convention delegates.

  • Employees serve subject to the evaluation of the LNC.

Beyond these evaluations, both LNC members and employees should be free to speak and act as their consciences and interests dictate, and as their energies and aptitudes permit.

The existing policies about the use of the donor list should, of course, still apply, but common sense should rule with regard to the use of computers and phones. It's pointless to erect prohibitions that can't be effectively monitored and naοve to expect that employees will never discuss internal politics on their phones or through their computers. Permit what cannot be truly prohibited and controversies will be avoided. Harmonies of interest will naturally accrue to the LP's benefit.

Should LP employees be prohibited by written policy from serving as delegates or candidates for internal office? Employees will be expected to work at the convention and won't have time to participate in the deliberations or to run for office. And delegates would have an interest in voting against employees if they did run for office, because of the value of division of labor. So the results would be the same with or without a written policy, but a written policy could lead to bad consequences that we can't imagine in advance.

What If?

So what if this approach had been applied when I was National Director? And what if, for instance, Kris Williams had decided to work for someone other than Harry Browne? What would I have done as National Director?

I would have debated the issue with Kris. And then, after attempting to persuade him, I would have said, "Okay, do what you want, but just make sure you get your work done." Kris's apostasy from my point of view would have resulted in one or more discussions, and that's about it.

Whom are we fooling? Do we really believe staff members don't have discussions — and even disagreements — about who would best serve in a particular position? And do we really believe that our employees don't have similar kinds of discussions with other people on the phone or by email?

We should not prohibit what we cannot enforce.

Creating a New Culture

If the LNC repeals the so-called "conflict of interest" policy, it will signal the end of the witch-hunts and internal strife.

The end would not come immediately, but it would come soon. Undoubtedly some within our party would then appeal to the 2002 convention to insert a new version of the existing policy in the party bylaws. The move would fail.

Ask the delegates if they want to be free to ask the opinions of LNC members and staff, and they will say "yes" because it's in their self-interest.

Ask them if they want employees to be free to help nomination candidates do outreach, generate inquiries for the party, and raise money for the party, and they will say "yes," because it's in their self-interest.

Ask them if they want nomination campaigns to feel free to coordinate with the national office in advance of the nomination and they will say "yes," because it's in their self-interest. The delegates would reject a so-called "conflict of interest" provision for the bylaws for the same reason they've restricted access to the convention stage to only the leading presidential candidates — because it's in their self-interest to do so.

By the time of the 2004 convention, the entire debate will be a thing of the past. And future generations may marvel that we ever did things any other way, just as some of us may now marvel at our old policy that "the National Director will not speak until spoken to."

Do you want to end this seemingly endless debate? You have it in your power to do so by repealing the existing policy. If you do that, you'll do much more than signal the coming demise of the current destructive controversy. You'll also lay the groundwork for a new and healthier party culture, based on these standards . . .

  • Nomination campaigns exist for the benefit of the party, not the other way around.

  • Candidates for internal LP offices or nominations should win election by demonstrating their superior ability to promote the party, not by tearing down other candidates or restricting their ability to benefit the party.

  • No candidate, elected LP officeholder, or paid LP staff person should ever be required to do less to benefit the party than he or she is willing to do.

  • The only obligation of a paid LP staff person is to provide the service for which he or she is paid. Beyond that, employees should retain all the rights and privileges enjoyed by every other member of the Libertarian Party.

  • Delegates should have access to the opinions of all LP leaders, both elected and paid.

I look forward to that day.

Thank you for your consideration.