Libertarian Membership Pledge

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The Libertarian Membership Pledge is a statement to which individuals must agree in order to be considered members of the Libertarian Party, certifying that they oppose "the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals". Some members consider the use of the term "pledge" (or "oath", which has also occasionally been used) to be inappropriate in this context, and instead refer to this as the "membership certification" or simply "membership statement".

This statement is required by Article 4 of the national LP bylaws[1] and many state affiliates also have bylaw provisions requiring it. A number of different wordings have been used at various times, but they have been considered equivalent for the purpose of qualifying as a member. Some variations include:

  • "I certify that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals."
  • "I hereby certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals."

Origin and Purpose

LP co-founder David Nolan created the Pledge in 1971, and explained its purpose in this statement recorded in 1989:

He offered a similar explanation in 1993 in response to an inquiry from David Aitken on behalf of the Libertarian Party of Colorado:

Question: What does the pledge on the membership form mean? We ask our members to disavow the initiation of force. This does not mean that you cannot defend yourself; you DO have a right to defend your life, liberty, and property. It does mean that you cannot use the coercive power of government to forcibly achieve your personal, ethical, or religious goals. This commitment helps us maintain our principles and provides us with a measuring stick to determine if we have strayed from our common goal: a society where all relationships among persons are based on voluntary cooperation.
Reply: Dave, This is a perfectly good explanation of what the "pledge" or "oath" means. Interestingly, most people in the LP do not know why it was originally placed on membership applications. We did it not because we believed that we could keep out "bad" people by asking them to sign--after all, evil people will lie to achieve their ends--but to provide some evidence that the LP was not a group advocating violent overthrow of the gov't. In the early 70's, memories of Nixon's "enemies list" and the McCarthy hearings of the 50's were still fresh in people's minds, and we wanted to protect ourselves from future witch-hunts.[2]

Whether or not the Pledge is primarily about keeping the party non-violent and opposed to terrorist actions against the government, or is itself intended as a statement of the Party's ideology, has been disputed. Libertarians have variously argued that it is both, or only one or the other. [3][4] The aboves quote from Nolan appear to favor the view that the exigent purpose for requiring it as a condition of membership was to protect the Party from accusations by the government, but it is also a description of the non-agression principle or non-initiation of force principle. Some libertarians believe the pledge does not necessarily preclude violent action to resist tyranny, because tyrannical governments initiate force, and therefore, revolutionary acts qualify as self-defense.

Criticism of the Pledge

The Pledge has both passionate supporters and critics. It has been cited as a reason why policies such as the so-called "Fair Tax" (a plan for a national sales tax), militarized borders, restrictions on campaign contributions, and other policies that have been supported by some Libertarian candidates and members, are in fact un-libertarian, due to the fact that these policies involve initiating force. Others note that eliminating the Pledge wouldn't remove that obstacle since the same concepts are expressed in the Statement of Principles.

The Pledge has been criticized for allegedly allowing only pure anarchists to join and for stopping members from advocating incremental changes towards freedom. [5]. However this is countered by noting that the architect of the Pledge, David Nolan, was not an anarchist at the time and surely did not create a Pledge that would exclude himself. Another criticism of the Pledge is that it does not prohibit the use of force for goals other than political and social ones.[6] Opponents of that view respond that the Pledge was not intended to be an include-all, but is a statement regarding governance -- a position affirmed by David Nolan. The early Party would have considered all issues concerning the state to fall within the broad categories of "social" and "political."

Proposals to Modify or Eliminate the Pledge

In the wake of the 1992 presidential election a group began campaigning for a number of changes to be made at the 1993 Convention with the aim of making the party more inclusive, including eliminating the Pledge as a membership requirement. This campaign gave rise to a counter-campaign by a group called PLEDGE, and the requirement was retained.

In 2005, Ray Roberts proposed changing it to, "I believe force should only be used to protect life, liberty and property from attack."[7]

Brian Holtz offered another proposed Pledge, "The Libertarian Party will always stand for more liberty and less government on every issue. As a member of the Libertarian Party, I will NOT attempt to change this."[8] with the purpose of being welcoming to anyone who wants less government on some issues but do not agree on others. This, however, would have been a departure from any of the prior interpretations and the primary purpose as explained by Nolan as an assurance to the government that the Libertarian Party were not violent revolutionaries.

At the 2006 Convention, the Libertarian Reform Caucus attempted to eliminate the Pledge requirement but failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds vote.[9]

Uses of the Pledge in Defending/Explaining the Party

A reference to the Pledge was made on 17 April 2001 when, in response to reports that Timothy McVeigh had identified himself as a libertarian[10], LP national director Steve Dasbach said:[11]

Timothy McVeigh is not just a mass murderer; he's a very confused mass murderer. Besides having no appreciation for the value of human life, McVeigh apparently has no understanding of the meaning of the word libertarian. Just to set the record straight, real libertarians wholeheartedly reject the use of force to achieve political or social goals. Real libertarians see violence and try to prevent it, see problems and organize cooperative solutions, and see government abusing its power and work peacefully through the political system to protect our rights.

Asked during the 2020 presidential campaign about how the LP will keep extremists at a distance in future, Jo Jorgensen wrote: "The Libertarian Party is the only political party that favors non-aggression as a fundamental principle. Every Libertarian Party member has signed a pledge that they oppose the initiation of force for the purpose of achieving social or political goals".[12]

Other Uses of the Word "Pledge"

In the context of fundraising, "pledge" commonly refers to a commitment to make periodic (e.g., monthly) contributions, and the term is used in this way by both the national LP and various state affiliates.

Deriving from that meaning, the term "pledger" is commonly used to refer to a contributor who has made such a commitment (and not to an individual who has made the membership certification), and the newsletter published specifically for such contributors is currently known as Liberty Pledge and was formerly known Libertarian Pledge.

PLEDGE was the name of a group formed in response to an attempt to "reform" the party at the 1993 Convention by making a number of changes including elimination of the membership pledge.

See also