To join the Libertarian Party, you have to sign a pledge that reads: "I hereby certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals."
There are so many ways to interpret that sentence, so many words with malleable meanings and different interpretations. Pick one: certify, advocate, initiation, force, political, social. Every one of these words can be heard, understood, or applied in different ways.
Linguistic approximations are something we live with daily, hourly, but it's not often that we are asked to sign and certify a set of words like this as a life commitment.
Yes, I know there is a vast literature to explain the meaning here but it is too big a hurdle for what aspires to be a mass movement. What's more, once you look into the literature, you find that there are vast disagreements on all these terms among libertarians themselves! Locke, Hume, Jefferson, Herbert, Sumner, Spooner, Spencer, Mencken, Rand, Hayek, Rothbard, and every libertarian alive, disagrees on precisely what constitutes initiating and forcing, for example (just look at the diversity of opinion on the topic of intellectual property).
That doesn’t mean that the words don’t mean something. But the devil is in the application, and here the liberal literature has evolved over centuries into many different perspectives. There is nothing wrong with that. Part of the idea of freedom is not to codify one way but to provide an open system that is adaptable in application. I like the idea of the liberal tradition has forever evolving. But that is also why it should not be in a pledge.
If you think I'm wrong about this, that the meaning is readily apparent, I would like to have a five-minute conversation with you to show you otherwise, namely that even you and I cannot agree on what constitutes the initiation of force.
What if you take this post and put your name on it, sell it, and make a lot of money? Have you aggressed on me? I don't think so; I suspect that most libertarians disagree with me on this point. Then there is a quagmire of how fraud fits into the aggression framework and of what it consists precisely. That’s not a question that can be solved a priori in every case, and hence the limitations of these canonical declarations.
Philosophy aside, there are practical problems. The mind immediately goes toward exceptions. If you could, would you "initiate force" to stop a distracted person from falling off a ledge while scrolling on a smartphone, simply by grabbing a shoulder to save a life? Of course. Does the pledge forbid that? I don't really know. That I cannot answer that is a serious problem.
You can say, "oh your example is mere pettifoggery" but actually this truly matters because we are talking about some kind of certification/pledge here. Must we really demand people adopt some kind of life credo in order to be in a political party? That strikes me as a mistake. It sets the bar too high; worse, it signals some kind of crankery, as if libertarians don't have enough problems with public image.
I gather that the pledge came about as an assurance that libertarians are not dangerous people. The problem is that nothing sounds as guilty as a denial; to put this up front as a condition of membership already starts the relationship on an odd footing.
It also strikes the wrong tone for a political party, which is a group generally agreeing on a broad principle (such as "we should have more liberty") rather than a prescriptive ethical/philosophical assertion. For the regular person, it sounds culty and odd. I wonder how many people have been deterred from joining on these grounds alone.
I am aware that many efforts have been made over the years to get rid of it, but the necessary 2/3 has never been obtained. I also grant that the pledge does some good, e.g. keep out the alt-right, antifa, and so on. Even so, on balance, it strikes me as an obvious negative for membership, something that would deter solid members who just want the world to be freer.
The world is breaking into two political factions today: left-socialist and right-fascist. Never in my lifetime has there been a greater need for the liberal party to assert its basic claim that society needs no top-down management, that human rights are universal, that no man is morally entitled to be the master of another, that we should live in a society of peace not violence, that our lives should be governed by contract not coercion. We need that message today.
The Libertarian Party can make a contribution to the effort. Eliminating obvious barriers to entry for all people of good will seems like a great step to broadening the base and heightening the prominence of the message. I also see that there might be an advantage in using the sign-up process as an opportunity to push a message. This also helps filter out bad actors.
In this case, I will borrow from the Hayekian spirit and offer this affirmation of liberal/libertarian principles to propose this replacement for all new members.
"I agree with the Libertarian Party that in politics and life, we should seek peace not violence, persuasion not imposition, contract not coercion, and affirm the equal freedom of all."