Bob Barr formally declared himself a candidate for the Libertarian Party’s presidential nomination yesterday. Today, Jim Antle looks at how Barr’s inconsistencies — as a congressman, he supported the Drug War, the PATRIOT Act, the Iraq War, and Bush’s prescription drugs plan, positions he disavows now — might play out among Libertarian partisans, a “group of people … which frequently prefers philosophical consistency to electoral viability (a significant minority of Libertarians found Ron Paul too conventionally conservative in 1988).”

The 1988 example points to another fault line within the Libertarian Party. Ron Paul was actually the more philosophically consistent candidate that year — his opponent, Indian activist Russell Means, hadn’t been noted as a libertarian at all before seeking the LP nomination. But Means had considerable support anyway, not because he was philosophically consistent but because he was seen as being culturally progressive, in contrast to Paul’s cultural conservatism. Back then, there was an element in the LP which demanded cultural leftism, not just political libertarianism. (On issues like abortion, there can be genuine philosophical disputes about libertarian politics, but it was not just abortion-rights that drove Paul’s opponents.)

The LP may have changed quite a bit in the intervening 20 years, however. Not only is Barr a cultural conservative, but one of the other front-runners, radio host Wayne Allyn Root, is considered by his critics in the LP to be a crypto-Republican and hawk. Root had expected to win the votes of the right-leaning LP delegates before Barr entered the race. Now Barr will get most of those delegates, but Root could sap enough of them to tip the nomination to one of the more leftward libertarians, most likely Mary Ruwart. Ruwart is consistent, all right, even ad absurdum. In her book Short Answers to the Tough Questions she takes a laissez-faire attitude to child sex and kiddie porn: “Children who willingly participate in sexual acts have the right to make that decision as well, even if it’s distasteful to us personally,” she writes. (That’s a consistent conclusion from a flawed premise about children’s volition, of course, and no philosophically sophisticated libertarian, however radical, is committed to such nonsense. But left-wing pop libertarianism is another story.)

I could see my way clear to voting for Barr in the general election, but the LP line-up certainly raises a pointed question: if the best candidate is a pragmatic flip-flopper, why not just vote for a major party — or better yet, not vote at all? There’s a good libertarian answer to the latter: in every general election that I’ve ever taken part in, and quite a few primaries as well, there have always been tax-hikes, bond issues, and constitutional amendments on the ballot as well as candidates, and those almost always ought to be opposed. But that doesn’t create any reason to pull the lever for an LP candidate. The case for doing that has always been moral and symbolic. With Barr, Root, and Ruwart, though, neither the morality nor the symbolism is all that persuasive.