January 4, 2019

The Legend of Project Archimedes

The Libertarian letter that changed Jim Babka’s life – Project Archimedes Retweet

Jim Babka

In 1996, I was a new Libertarian, a refugee from the GOP. My friend Chet had introduced me to the Libertarians more than a year before. I wasn’t impressed until I saw Harry Browne on C-SPAN. As I’ve explained elsewhere

Harry Browne changed my life.   

1996 was also the year I got the internet. And the Browne campaign had a website. I’d log on three times per day to check for updated TV appearances. I wanted to see Harry as often as possible. As a result, I learned his soundbite-driven patter.

“Government doesn’t work. Its war on poverty has increased poverty. Its war on drugs has escalated drug use and crime in every American city.”

I craved his Great Libertarian Offer…

“Would you give up your favorite federal program if it meant you never had to pay income taxes again?”

Harry Browne

Many people reading this letter don’t remember Harry Browne. He was, quite simply, the best Libertarian communicator the party ever ran for President. And if you watched enough of him on TV, as much as I did, you’d think he had to be winning support.

No, I didn’t expect Harry to win. But when my first Election Day as a Libertarian arrived, I was stunned and then saddened that Harry didn’t even get 1%.

What I needed most at that point was a reason to hope.

Other libertarians shared my depression. But the hope we needed soon arrived in an unexpected form — a fundraising letter. For months, I’ve been attempting to locate this letter because it inspires our next big idea. And the man who wrote it is the perfect person to manage this project.

Before I get to the big idea, let me tell you about this incredible letter.

Most political letters are fear-based. They could be written in crayon. They depict the worst possible intentions of the worst possible partisan opponent. If the recipients are scared enough, they send a check.

Perry Willis, the national director of the LP at that time, used a different approach. He didn’t try to provoke fear, anger, or hatred. He tried to inspire hope by talking of plans and progress.

  • Plans, as in, here’s how we’ll deploy your money.
  • Progress, as in, here’s what happened with your previous donations.

Perry Willis

Perry would tell you what worked and, even more unusual, what didn’t. The lessons learned would modify the strategy so that your next dollars would be even better purposed.

Perry Willis had been a Libertarian long enough to know that…

  • Harry Browne wasn’t going to win a large number of votes, no matter how good a candidate he was.
  • The media establishes the range of acceptable choices (usually just the Democrat and Republican) and then the voters select the one they fear the least.
  • These realities always leave the LP candidate out in the cold, and LP activists in a state of post-election depression.

Perry knew he would have to address this despair, and he did so with his first post-election Plans & Progress report. 22 years have passed since I got that letter, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Perry’s vision was presented as a math exercise. The Libertarian ticket did as well as it should have, given how many LP donors there were. If Libertarians wanted to do better, they’d need…


Perry added up the candidates’ support…

  • Bob Dole spent more than $8 per vote.
  • Ross Perot and Bill Clinton spent a bit less.
  • Harry Browne spent still less than that.

Translated, Harry Browne would’ve needed about 400,000 donors to be competitive with Dole and Clinton. Therefore…

Enrolling 400k new LP donors was the most important thing to be done. Perry proposed a program to do exactly that, called…

Project Archimedes

The ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes claimed that with a long enough lever and a good place to stand, he could move the world. So Project Archimedes was designed to be a lever that would do exactly that — move the world.

The political system might be rigged, but membership enrollment was the simple thing Libertarians could consistently do to control their own destiny. So once I heard this argument…

My hope returned!

The letter introducing Project Archimedes was the first link in a long chain, without which you wouldn’t be reading these words right now. It led me into a libertarian career, full of interesting experiences.

Indeed, Downsize DC was specifically intended to be a small-l libertarian “Project Archimedes” using different recruitment tactics.

It would be easy to assume Perry failed with Project Archimedes. After all, you haven’t heard of vast Libertarian success, right?

Not so fast. In the Archimedes era, the LP grew to record levels – more than 34,000 members. If you include “subscribers” – donors who didn’t officially join – then the number climbs to 38,000. That was late 1999. The next year the party set the current (real dollar) income record, which still stands. My personal opinion is, it’s sad that those member/donor numbers have not been reached again.

The recent Johnson-Weld ticket set a vote total record, far in excess of Harry Browne’s result. Yet the most recent numbers I saw, last spring, place LP membership at just over half what was achieved during Project Archimedes.

You might wonder, “What happened?” Well, that’s a long story full of nasty politics. Perry and I have been silent about the subject for two decades. But the experience inspired our belief that committees are collectives doomed to choose politics over focus. We went entrepreneurial instead. Steve Dasbach (the LP Chair of the Archimedes era), Harry Browne, and Perry – the three pillars of that Archimedes era – helped me launch Downsize DC as a way to keep the Archimedes dream alive.

We wanted to create a recruitment and activation machine. I repeatedly explained, at the time, that we wanted to “build an army of DC Downsizers so large that Congress couldn’t afford to ignore us.”

Downsize DC started off great. But it worked better ten years ago than it does now. So we started looking back at history because sometimes it has lessons to teach us. Indeed, it inspired this big idea…

The Libertarian Census

Project Archimedes was based on a simple strategic idea — discovery before persuasion. Find the people who already agree with you and ask them to join. This will then give you greater resources to spend persuading people who disagree.

Project Archimedes wasn’t going to be easy. Far fewer people knew what the word libertarian meant back in 1997. This limited how far the program could go. But several big things have happened in the meantime…

  • The internet allowed libertarians to make an end-run around the regime media blackout.
  • Two Ron Paul for President campaigns significantly raised awareness.

As a result, 30 million Americans now self-identify as libertarian, and another 30 million hold mostly libertarian positions on the issues. Twelve different studies support these numbers. This creates a big opportunity. So the idea behind the Libertarian Census is very simple…

Locate the 30 million people who self-identify as libertarian. This may be as easy as asking people, “Are you a libertarian?” Then continue by trying to find the 30 million people who hold mostly libertarian views.

The Libertarian Census will be our focus in 2019.

Here’s one of my favorite parts. Perry Willis, the creator of Project Archimedes, will be managing the launch of the Libertarian Census. His original vision, which inspired me so long ago, is about to experience a rebirth.

The Libertarian Census is a brilliant idea. I wish one of us would’ve thought of it eight or ten years ago. I think it could’ve changed history. And…

My experience tells me it’s not too late! If anything, building the Libertarian Census could still affect history to come. Indeed, I’m no longer satisfied with a “direct snail-mail era” plan that includes…

  • Waiting for 400,000 people to cause change. Half of that, as part of the Downsize DC Army, would make us a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill.
  • Acquiring merely 400,000 libertarian allies. I think we could recruit and activate millions. Yes, millions!

Indeed, I think recruitment could be much easier for the Libertarian Census than it was for Project Archimedes, because…

  • We know tens of millions of people now agree with us.
  • We don’t have to ask them to switch identities — 30 million already self-identify as libertarian.
  • We now have many more ways to reach these people, beyond the direct mail that Project Archimedes used.

Plus, we have big future plans for the Libertarian Census. But our vision won’t happen overnight, and it will cost money. We need your help.

Goal: We need to raise $252,000, much of it in monthly pledges, to capitalize this effort.

  • If you start a monthly pledge of $10 or more, or increase an existing monthly pledge by $10 or more, or make one-time contributions of $100 or more, we’ll add you to a Founders Committee roster on the coming Libertarian Census website.
  • The Founders Committee roster will be listed in order of contribution size. Donate here!

I believe this project has the potential to change the world. I hope you agree.

Jim Babka, President
DownsizeDC.org, Inc.

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