Greens and Libertarians
The yin and yang of our political future
by Dan Sullivan
originally appearing in Green Revolution, Volume 49, No. 2, summer, 1992
Over the past three decades, people have become dissatisfied with both
major parties, and two new minor parties are showing promise of growth
and success. They are the Libertarian Party and the Green Party. These
are not the only new parties, but they are the only ones that promise
to attract people from across the political spectrum. Most other small
parties are either clearly to the left of the Democrats or to the right
of the Republicans. Such parties would have a place in a system that
accommodates multiple parties, but are doomed to failure in a two-party
The Libertarian Party is made up mostly of former conservatives who
object to the Republican Party's penchant for militarism and its use of
government to entrench powerful interests and shield them from market
forces. The Green Party is made up mostly of former liberals who object
to the Democratic Party's penchant for centralized bureaucracy and its
frequent hypocritical disregard for natural systems of ecological
balance, ranging from the human metabolism and the family unit to the
ecology of the planet.
Both minor parties attempt to adhere to guidelines that are much clearer
than those of either major party. Libertarians focus on rights of
individuals to control their own lives, limited only by the prohibition
against interference with the rights of others. These rights include
their right to the fruits of their labor and the right to freely
associate and form contracts. They advocate limiting government to
protecting those basic rights.
Greens advocate ten key values (ecological wisdom, grass roots
democracy, social justice, non-violence, decentralization,
community-based economics, post-patriarchal values, respect for
diversity, personal and global responsibility, and sustainable future
focuses a guide for government as well as for their own party
These different guidelines underscore basic differences between the
approaches of the two parties and their members. Libertarians tend to
be logical and analytical. They are confident that their principles
will create an ideal society, even though they have no consensus of what
that society would be like. Greens, on the other hand, tend to be more
intuitive and imaginative. They have clear images of what kind of
society they want, but are fuzzy about the principles on which that
society would be based.
Ironically, Libertarians tend to be more utopian and uncompromising
about their political positions, and are often unable to focus on
politically winnable proposals to make the system more consistent with
their overall goals. Greens on the other hand, embrace immediate
proposals with ease, but are often unable to show how those proposals
fit in to their ultimate goals.
The most difficult differences to reconcile, however, stem from baggage
that members of each party have brought with them from their former
political affiliations. Most Libertarians are overly hostile to
government and cling to the fiction that virtually all private fortunes
are legitimately earned. Most Greens are overly hostile to free
enterprise and cling to the fiction that harmony and balance can be
achieved through increased government intervention.
Republicans and Democrats will never reconcile these differences, for
whatever philosophical underpinnings they have are overwhelmed by vested
interests that dominate their internal political processes. These
vested interests thrive on keeping the distorted hostilities alive and
suppressing any philosophical perspectives that might lead to rational
resolution of conflict.
But because minor parties have no real power, they are still primarily
guided by values and principles. Committed to pursuing truth above
power, they should be more willing to challenge prejudices and expose
flaws in their current positions.
There is nothing mutually exclusive between the ten key values of the
Greens and the principals of the Libertarians. By reconciling these
values and principles, we can bring together people whose allegiance to
truth is stronger than their biases.
This could be of great value to both parties, partly because any new
party that wants to break into a two-party system has to appeal to a
broad spectrum of voters. But even more importantly, each party needs
attributes the other has to offer. Libertarians need the intuitive
awareness of the Greens to keep them from losing touch with people's
real values, and Greens need the analytical prowess of the Libertarians
to keep them from indulging in emotional self-deception. Libertarians
can teach Greens about the spirit of enterprise and the wonders of
economic freedom, and Greens can teach Libertarians about the spirit of
compassion and the wonders of community cohesion.
Reconciliation is absolutely necessary. Even if one of the parties
could rise to power, it could do great harm by implementing its current
agenda in disregard for the perspective of the other. Moreover,
proposals that violate values and principles of one party often violate
those of the other. If members of both groups come together to discuss
each other's proposals, they are likely not only to find areas of
agreement, but to find conflicts between each group's proposals and its
own principals. If this happens, and the two parties work in concert,
they stand a real chance of overtaking one of the major parties and
drastically altering the political power structure.
Many third parties have had important impacts on American politics, but
the last time a political party was dislodged was when the Republicans
knocked the ailing Whig party out of contention over 130 years ago. It
should be noted that the Republicans were a coalition of several minor
parties with seemingly differing agendas, including the Abolitionist
Party, the Free-Soil Party, the American (or Know-Nothing) Party,
disaffected northern Democrats, and most of the members of the dying
Whig Party. A similar coalition of parties has a much better chance of
repeating this success today.
Anyone who looks at current national platforms of Greens and
Libertarians will conclude that bringing these groups together is no
easy task. For example, the Libertarian platform states dogmatically
that they "oppose any and all increases in the rate of taxation or
categories of taxpayers, including the elimination of deductions,
exemptions, or credits in the name of 'fairness,' 'simplicity,' or
'neutrality to the free market.' No tax can ever be fair, simple, or
neutral to the free market." On the other hand, the national platform
of the Greens leaves one with the impression that they never met a tax
they didn't like.
Yet the historical roots of the Greens and the Libertarians are quite
similar. That is, early movements for alternative, intentional
communities that live in harmony with nature greatly influenced, and
were influenced by, anarcho-syndicalists who advanced principals now
embraced by the Libertarian Party. This essay will attempt to show that
the differences that have emerged are due less to stated principals and
values of either group than to the baggage members have brought to each
party from their liberal and conservative backgrounds.
On Conservatism and Liberalism
It is said that Libertarians have a conservative philosophy and Greens
have a liberal philosophy. In reality, conservatism and liberalism are
mere proclivities, and do not deserve to have the name "philosophy"
attached to them. People who have more power than others are inclined
to conserve it, and people who have less are inclined to liberate it.
In Russia, as in feudal England, conservatives wanted more government
control, as government was at the root of their power. Liberals wanted
more private discretion.
In the United States today, where power has been vested in private
institutions, conservatives want less government and liberals want more.
What passes for conservative and liberal "philosophies" is merely a
set of rationalizations that power-mongers hide behind.
Conservative support for traditional approaches and liberal support for
new ways of doing things also follows from the desire for power.
Traditional approaches have supported those now in power, and change
threatens to disrupt that power. Changes are often embraced by
conservatives once they prove unable to disrupt the underpinnings of
For Greens and Libertarians to rise above the power-based proclivities
of liberalism and conservatism, they must focus on their roots and
reconcile their positions with their philosophical underpinnings.
On the Roots of the Greens
In The Green Alternative, a popular book among American Greens, author
Brian Tokar states that "the real origin of the Green movement is the
great social and political upheavals that swept the United States and
the entire Western world during the 1960's." As part of that upheaval, I
remember the charge by elders that we acted as though "we had invented
sex." Mr. Tokar acts as though we had invented Green values.
Actually, all the innovative and vital features of the Greens stem from
an earlier Green movement. The influx of disaffected liberals to the
movement since the sixties has actually imbued that movement with many
features early Greens would find offensive.
This periodical, for example, has been published more or less regularly
since 1943, calling for intentional communities based on holistic
living, decentralism, sharing natural bounty, freedom of trade,
government by consensus, privately-generated honest monetary systems and
a host of other societal reforms. Yet the founder, Ralph Borsodi,
wrote extensively about the evils of the state, and would clearly oppose
most of the interventionist policies brought to the Green Party by
disaffected liberals and socialists. The same can be said of more
famous proponents of Green values, such as Emerson and Thoreau.
The Green movement grew slowly and steadily and quite apart from
mainstream liberalism throughout the sixties and seventies. In the
eighties, however, it became clear that the liberal ship, and even more
clear that the socialist ship, was headed for the political rocks. The
left had simply lost credibility, even among those who felt oppressed by
the current system. Gradually at first, discouraged leftists
discovered the Green movement provided a more credible platform their
Because of their excellent communications network, additional members of
the left quickly discovered the Greens, embraced their values (at least
superficially), joined their ranks and proceeded to drastically alter
the Green agenda. For example, early Greens pushed for keeping
economies more diverse and decentralized by promoting alternative,
voluntary systems, and by criticizing lavish government expenditures on
interstate highways, international airports, irrigation projects, and
centralized bureaucracies that discriminated against small, independent
Today the National Platform of the Green Party calls for
"municipalization" of industry (that is, decentralized socialism),
limits on foreign trade to save American jobs (which they insist is not
protectionism), and other devices to create artificial decentralization
under the guiding hand of some benevolent central authority.
The influence of Greens who are fond of government intervention
(referred to as Watermelons by more libertarian Greens) seems to be
strongest at the national level and weakest within most Green local
organizations. Despite the National Green Platform's resemblance to a
new face on the old left, many people who are genuinely attracted to
Green principles are either undermining or abandoning the left-dominated
Green Party USA. Specifically, the principal of decentralism is being
used to challenge the right of a national committee to dictate positions
to local Greens. This is fortunate for those of us interested in a
coalition of Greens and Libertarians, as reconciliation between the
Green Left and libertarianism is clearly impossible.
On the Roots of the Libertarians
The Libertarian Party was born in 1971. Like the Green Party, it has
philosophical roots that extend far back into history. It emerged,
however, at a time when conservatism was in decline. Just as Greens
attract liberals today and are strongly influenced by the liberal
agenda, Libertarians attracted conservatives and were influenced by
their agenda. However, as Libertarians are more analytically rigorous,
there are fewer blatant inconsistencies between their positions and
Libertarian bias tends to show up more in prioritization of issues than
in any particular issue. For example, Libertarians are far more prone
to complain about the capital gains tax than about many other taxes,
even though there is nothing uniquely un-libertarian about that
Many Libertarians ignore classic libertarian writings and dwell on the
works of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. The classical
libertarians get mere superficial attention. For example, few have read
Tragedy of the Commons, but many quote the title. Specifically, they
are unwilling to recognize that the ecological mishaps like those
referred to in that work had been absent for centuries when almost all
land was common. As with the tragedy of the reservations, commons were
abused because so many people had to share access to so little land.
All this was a result of government sanction, allowing vast tracts of
commonly held land to be appropriated by individuals without proper
compensation to those who were dispossessed of access to the earth.
These facts are ignored because they cannot be reconciled with
Just as contemporary Greens have fondness for government and contempt
for private property that their forebears did not share, Libertarians
take an extreme position on private property and have hostility to all
forms of government that their philosophical predecessors did not share.
Their refusal to acknowledge natural limits to private property and
their insistence of unlimited protection of property by the state is
their one great departure from their predecessors and their principles.
For example, they dismiss the following statement by John Locke, known
as the father of private property:
God gave the world in common to all mankind. Whenever, in any
country, the proprietor ceases to be the improver, political economy has
nothing to say in defense of landed property. When the "sacredness" of
property is talked of, it should be remembered that any such sacredness
does not belong in the same degree to landed property.
They similarly ignore Adam Smith's statement that:
Ground rents [land values] are a species of revenue which the owner,
in many cases, enjoys without any care or attention of his own. Ground
rents are, therefore, perhaps a species of revenue which can best bear
to have a peculiar tax imposed upon them.
Private ownership of the earth and its resources is the one area where
Libertarians depart from their own philosophy. After all, their
justification of property is in the right of individuals to the fruits
of their labor. Because the earth is not a labor product, land value is
not the fruit of its owner's labor. Indeed, all land titles are
state-granted privileges, and Libertarians deny the right of the state
to grant privileges.
Even here, Libertarians are on solid ground when they argue that freedom
could not survive in a society where land tenure depended on
bureaucratic discretion. They are split, however, over devices like
land value taxation that would, with a minimum of bureaucracy, put the
landless in a more tenable position with respect to land monopolists.
Just as liberals dominate the National Greens, conservatives dominate
the Libertarian position on this issue, though many Libertarians,
including Karl Hess, former editor of the Libertarian Times, do not
share that conservative position.
Again, this is a key issue for reconciliation. The Green tradition
cannot be reconciled with pseudo-libertarian claims that a subset of the
people can claim unlimited title to the planet.
The Magic of Honest Compromise
Compromise is too often a process whereby people on each side give up
what they know to be right in order to gain a supposed advantage for
their interest group. What I am proposing is that each side give up
supposed advantages in order to harmonize with what is right. It takes
an open mind and a great deal of courage, but the results can be
If the Libertarians accept that ownership of land is a privilege, and
agree to pay a fair rent (or land value tax) for that privilege, they
will hold the key to getting rid of property (building) tax, income tax,
sales tax, amusement tax, and a host of other taxes.
Furthermore, statistical evidence indicates that land value tax promotes
compact, harmonious use of land and eliminates a root cause of poverty.
In this case, adopting land tax can reduce the need for zoning and
protection of rural land, and for housing projects, welfare, and a host
of bureaucratic services for the poor.
Greens who study this issue will find that small and simple combination
taxes that are essentially payments for exclusive access to common
resources will address most of their interests without complicated and
intrusive bureaucracies. Land tax itself will eliminate land
speculation and land monopoly, and will promote orderly development of
land in cities and towns, taking developmental pressure off suburban and
Severence taxes on our common heritage of non-renewable resources can
even-handedly reduce the rate of exploitation of these resources,
conserving them for future generations.
Finally, taxes on pollution are really payments for exclusive use of our
common rights to clean air and water. It reflects that the air and
water is less valuable to the rest of us when it is polluted, and those
who pollute literally owe us for the right to tresspass on our air and
Of course land monopoly will not solve all the problems by itself, but
it is the key area where Greens and Libertarians are separated from each
other as well as from their own principles. Once this is reconciled,
we can more readily work together on other issues where we are in
agreement, such as liberating our monetary system the banking monopoly,
ending military domination of foreign peoples, and ending government
interference against people who commit victimless "crimes."