A Strategy for Liberty
of this post is taken from chapter 15 of Murray Rothbard’s
a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto.” Throughout
the book, Rothbard has laid out the case for the libertarian solution
to the problems of politics and government. In this chapter, he
suggests how to get from here to there. He also deals with some
of the common objections to the idea of liberty and to the approach
taken by some. For these reasons, I found this chapter to be most
Theory and Movement
the great strategic problem of all “radical” creeds
throughout history: How can we get from here to there, from
our current State-ridden and imperfect world to the great goal
point there can scarcely be disagreement: a prime and
necessary condition for libertarian victory (or, indeed,
for victory for any social movement, from Buddhism to vegetarianism)
is education: the persuasion and conversion of large numbers
of people to the cause.
point is missed by many. Without education – “the
persuasion and conversion of large numbers of people” –
there is no hope ever to see a movement toward liberty take hold.
This was the benefit of Ron Paul’s two recent presidential
campaigns – through his efforts, countless millions have
had the scales lifted from their eyes.
and organizations contribute today to this education. Two of the
most prominent are The
Mises Institute and LewRockwell.com.
There are many others that contribute as well: The
Daily Bell, Justin
Policy Journal, and the Future
of Freedom Foundation to name a few. I certainly am leaving
off many. Each one speaks to people in different ways, yet each
makes a valuable contribution to the education of liberty.
deals with one criticism often heard – “we”
are only talking to ourselves:
Furthermore, one often hears libertarians (as well as members
of other social movements) bewail that they are “only talking
to themselves” with their books and journals and conferences;
that few people of the “outside world” are listening.
mind that Rothbard wrote this book more than two decades before
there was even a semblance of a user-friendly internet –
a world of mimeo-graphs and snail-mail lists. With the internet,
the possibility of reaching out to others has increased exponentially
– and the facts have proven this out. It is still amazing
to see this in tangible results – twenty-four years ago
Ron Paul received less than 1% of the vote as the Libertarian
Party candidate for President. He might draw dozens to an event.
The difference today is like night and day. Yet, the charge is
often made today, as if nothing has changed – as if all
the libertarians could fit in a phone booth or something.
finds fault in this charge; he sees value in such internal dialogue:
But this frequent charge gravely misconceives the many-sided purpose
of “education” in the broadest sense. It is not only
necessary to educate others; continual self-education is also
(and equally) necessary….Education of “ourselves”
accomplishes two vital goals. One is the refining and
advancing of the libertarian “theory….”
Libertarianism… must be a living theory, advancing through
writing and discussion, and through refuting and combatting errors
as they arise.
is often made – why get into debates about oftentimes minor
issues when all that this does is divide an already small movement?
Rothbard makes clear why this is helpful. There is continual education
needed amongst even those who have embraced the political ideas
But there is another critical reason for “talking to ourselves,”
even if that were all the talking that was going on. And that
is reinforcement—the psychologically necessary knowledge
that there are other people of like mind to talk to, argue with,
and generally communicate and interact with….A flourishing
movement with a sense of community and esprit de corps
is the best antidote for giving up liberty as a hopeless or “impractical”
this is. There is a remnant,
and to know and be reminded that there are others of like-mind
offers hope and encouragement.
up regularly – it has never worked, who will control the
bad guys, you have to believe man is perfect if you advocate this,
etc. Libertarians are utopians.
“radical” creed has been subjected to the charge
of being “utopian,” and the libertarian movement
is no exception.
themselves maintain that we should not frighten people off by
being “too radical,” and that therefore the full
libertarian ideology and program should be kept hidden
suggested by many as the right approach for seemingly libertarian-leaning
politicians – hide your true feelings, and then spring it
on the government once you are elected. If only Ron Paul wouldn’t
say that. Or so-and-so-pseudo-libertarian-candidate is only talking
this way to get elected.
The major problem with the opportunists is that by confining themselves
strictly to gradual and “practical” programs, programs
that stand a good chance of immediate adoption, they are in grave
danger of completely losing sight of the ultimate objective, the
libertarian goal….If libertarians refuse to hold
aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal,
why I support taking the approach to aim
small. Those who advocate the non-aggression principle will
never come close to hitting the target if they aren’t aiming
for the target.
The free-market economist F. A. Hayek, himself in no sense an
extremist,” has written eloquently of the vital importance
for the success of liberty of holding the pure and “extreme”
ideology aloft as a never-to-be-forgotten creed.
make the building of a free society once more an intellectual
adventure, a deed of courage….We need intellectual
leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power
and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal,
however small may be the prospects of its early realization.
and in different ways demonstrated by many of the organizations
and individuals I have cited above.
must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight
for their full realization, however remote…Free
trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may rouse
the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere “reasonable
freedom of trade” or a mere “relaxation of controls”
is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any
enthusiasm. The main lesson which the true liberal must
learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their
courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals
and thereby an influence on public opinion which is daily making
possible what only recently seemed utterly remote.
times are libertarians blasted with the idea to be gradual: don’t
eliminate all foreign aid, just eliminate it from our enemies;
we should remove US troops from foreign zones where there is no
identifiable strategic interest; let’s eliminate all of
the government waste before we worry about reducing the scope
of government; don’t end the Fed, let’s just make
sure that they stick to rules for inflation; we need to devise
a fair taxation scheme, but we cannot just eliminate income taxes.
The list is long.
is no one will get excited about these proposals. They are all
versions of what every politician through time has ever proposed.
Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and countless others could be behind
many of these statements. These statements fully support the status
quo as these statements accept the terms of the debate. The general
policies are philosophically acceptable; it is only the details
or the magnitude that must be tweaked. It continues the desired
conversation: policy debate instead of debate regarding fundamental
nothing in this approach that will inspire. There is nothing here
to draw people to a different, all-encompassing world-view.
In short, the libertarian must never advocate or prefer
a gradual, as opposed to an immediate and rapid, approach to his
goal. For by doing so, he undercuts the overriding importance
of his own goals and principles. And if he himself values
his own goals so lightly, how highly will others value them?
Such an “abolitionist” perspective does not mean,
again, that the libertarian has an unrealistic assessment of how
rapidly his goal will, in fact, be achieved. Thus, the libertarian
abolitionist of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison, was not being
“unrealistic” when in the 1830s he first raised the
glorious standard of immediate emancipation of the slaves. His
goal was the morally proper one, and his strategic realism came
in the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly reached….Garrison
himself distinguished: “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly
as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We
have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow;
that it ought to be, we shall always contend.”
Otherwise, as Garrison trenchantly warned, “Gradualism in
theory is perpetuity in practice.”
is holding tight to the objective and regularly speaking forcefully
for its implementation – the abolition of slavery or the
abolition of coercion in relationships – no one will ever
take the objective seriously. Why would the objective be taken
seriously if no one cares enough to defend and advocate for it?
How can one come close to hitting the target if he isn’t
even aiming for it?
then comes to identify the “true utopian” system:
true utopian is one who advocates a system that is contrary to
the natural law of human beings and of the real world.
A utopian system is one that could not work even if everyone were
persuaded to try to put it into practice. The utopian system could
not work, i.e., could not sustain itself in operation. The utopian
goal of the left: communism—the abolition of specialization
and the adoption of uniformity—could not work even
if everyone were willing to adopt it immediately. It
could not work because it violates the very nature of man and
the world, especially the uniqueness and individuality of every
person, of his abilities and interests, and because it would mean
a drastic decline in the production of wealth, so much so as to
doom the great bulk of the human race to rapid starvation and
Is it utopian
to recognize that every individual is an individual, with a desire
to acquire and enjoy his possessions (not only material) in quiet
comfort, each individual with different preferences and values?
Is it utopian to understand that certain men (and the ones most
apt to use it abusively), when offered the possibility of monopoly
power, will do whatever is necessary to grab those reins and then
use the power to their own advantage?
sees that there are two issues when it comes to the idea of “utopian”
and these must each be identified and dealt with separately:
In short, the term “utopian” in popular parlance confuses
two kinds of obstacles in the path of a program radically different
from the status quo. One is that it violates the nature
of man and of the world and therefore could not work once it was
put into effect. This is the utopianism of communism.
The second is the difficulty in convincing enough people
that the program should be adopted. The former is a bad
theory because it violates the nature of man; the latter is simply
a problem of human will, of convincing enough people of the rightness
of the doctrine.
I have already
mentioned the work of many who are providing the latter: education.
As to the former: the communist ideology, for example, like all
coercive and controlling ideologies behind state power, holds
to the implicit assumption that such centralized power can be
kept in check. What is true for communism is equally true for
any form of centralized, monopolized, state power. In other words,
equally true for virtually every state in the world today.
power cannot be kept in check. To believe otherwise is quite utopian.
It is utopian to believe that man can fundamentally change the
nature of his fellow man. That somehow monopoly power will not
attract those to whom monopoly power is attractive; that once
in control, those in power will keep themselves in check.
The libertarian is also eminently realistic because he alone understands
fully the nature of the State and its thrust for power. In contrast,
it is the seemingly far more realistic conservative believer
in “limited government” who is the truly impractical
utopian. This conservative keeps repeating the litany
that the central government should be severely limited by a constitution….The
idea of a strictly limited constitutional State was a noble experiment
that failed, even under the most favorable and propitious
circumstances….No, it is the conservative laissez-
fairist, the man who puts all the guns and all the decision-making
power into the hands of the central government and then says,
“Limit yourself”; it is he who is
truly the impractical utopian.
of limited government: the governed and the governors won’t
agree on the definition of “limited.” And as it is
the governors to whom monopoly power is granted, guess who will
win that debate?
leaves open the possibility for transitional steps, but only with
certain objectives kept at the forefront:
the libertarian must advocate the immediate attainment of liberty
and abolition of statism, and if gradualism in theory is contradictory
to this overriding end, what further strategic stance may a
libertarian take in today’s world? Must he necessarily
confine himself to advocating immediate abolition? Are
“transitional demands,” steps toward liberty in
practice, necessarily illegitimate? No…
can we know whether any halfway measure or transitional demand
should be hailed as a step forward or condemned as an opportunistic
betrayal? There are two vitally important criteria for answering
this crucial question: (1) that, whatever the transitional
demands, the ultimate end of liberty be always held aloft as
the desired goal; and (2) that no steps or means ever explicitly
or implicitly contradict the ultimate goal.
reminder of the ultimate objective; only movement toward the ultimate
objective is acceptable.
An example of such counterproductive and opportunistic strategy
may be taken from the tax system. The libertarian looks forward
to eventual abolition of taxes. It is perfectly legitimate for
him, as a strategic measure in that desired direction, to push
for a drastic reduction or repeal of the income tax. But the libertarian
must never support any new tax or tax increase. For example, he
must not, while advocating a large cut in income taxes, also call
for its replacement by a sales or other form of tax.
arguments only play into the hands of those who desire to control
the dialogue. Instead of always moving toward the elimination
of taxes (as in this example), it turns into a discussion of which
taxes, some are better than others, some are more “efficient”
than others, one should replace another, etc.
Liberty Will Win
The case for libertarian optimism can be made in a series of what
might be called concentric circles, beginning with the broadest
and longest-run considerations and moving to the sharpest focus
on short-run trends. In the broadest and longest-run sense, libertarianism
will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with
the nature of ma n and of the world. Only liberty can
achieve man’s prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In
short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it
is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually out.
I will add
that it is not only the only system compatible with man’s
nature and desire for prosperity and happiness. It is also the
only system that recognizes the dark side of man and therefore
disallows the concentration of political power.
But such long-run considerations may be very long indeed, and
waiting many centuries for truth to prevail may be small consolation
for those of us living at any particular moment in history. Fortunately,
there is a shorter-run reason for hope….
clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age….We
are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not.
that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured. For economic
science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this
book, that only freedom and a free market can run an
industrial economy. In short…in an industrial
world it is also a vital necessity. For, as Ludwig von Mises
and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism
simply does not work.
an interesting observation. Drastic interruptions to the free-market
can only occur for a (relatively) short period without risking
In the twentieth
century, Mises demonstrated (a) that all statist intervention
distorts and cripples the market and leads, if not reversed, to
socialism; and (b) that socialism is a disaster because it cannot
plan an industrial economy for lack of profit-and-loss incentives,
and for lack of a genuine price system or property rights in capital,
land, and other means of production.
We do not
have to prophesy the ruinous effects of statism; they are here
at every hand.
interruption to the free-market will end up in destruction. Without
relatively free prices and the discipline of profit-and-loss,
resources are wasted. Are we currently passing through the final
convulsions? Is this the root of the calamity we are seeing –
the protests and revolts due to high double-digit unemployment
throughout much of the developed world? The high unemployment
brought on by the disruptive policies of the state?
But now statism has advanced so far and been in power so long
that the cushion is worn thin; as Mises pointed out as long ago
as the 1940s, the “reserve fund” created by laissez-
faire has been “exhausted.”
It is interesting
to note: this observation from Mises was seven decades ago. Yet
here we are, continuing in the convulsions.
Indeed, we can confidently say that the United States has now
entered a permanent crisis situation, and we can even pinpoint
the years of origin of that crisis: 1973–1975. Happily for
the cause of liberty, not only has a crisis of statism arrived
in the United States, but it has fortuitously struck across the
board of society, in many different spheres of life at about the
goes on to list the many economic and social problems of the 1970s.
observations are almost four decades old, yet the convulsions continue
– still no final collapse. Perhaps this serves to demonstrate
the vast amount of wealth in reserve available to be destroyed (see
The west had behind it centuries of wealth (not only or even primarily
financial, but cultural and intellectual) – see “From
Dawn to Decadence” by Jacques Barzun.
There is no magic formula for strategy; any strategy for social
change, resting as it does on persuasion and conversion, can only
be an art rather than an exact science. But having said this,
we are still not bereft of wisdom in the pursuit of our goals.
There can be a fruitful theory, or at the very least,
theoretical discussion, of the proper strategy for change.
does this wonderfully well. Throughout this book and especially
in this chapter he gives much to those who remain open to consider
that there can be success in achieving this “radical creed”
with permission from the Bionic
Goodwin [send him mail]
is a retired attorney in the rural Southwest. He blogs at Bionic
© 2013 Bionic
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