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Part II: The Process of Reform
--The Problem of Libertarian Reform
--Services: Abolish or Phase Out?
--Regulation: Abolish or Phase Out?
--Taxation: Abolish or Phase Out?
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Part III: Is Libertarian Political Action Self-Defeating?
--The Pragmatic Objection to Political Action
--First Pragmatic Pitfall: Top-Down Reform
--Second Pragmatic Pitfall: Dancing with the Devil
--Third Pragmatic Pitfall: Loss of Credibility
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Part IV: The Sons of Brutus
--Fourth Pragmatic Pitfall: Reactionary Backlash
--Welcome to East Zimiamvia
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The sun rises over the mountains of East Zimiamvia. Reflecting its rays, a roseate glow spreads across the white marble walls of the palaces of government, where legions of libertarian ideologues, many still hung over from the previous night's Victory Celebration, are already arriving and beginning to move into their new offices. The free nation movement, well-organized and well-funded, has finally achieved its goal. The first day of the Libertarian Republic of East Zimiamvia has begun.
The transfer of power has been accomplished in strict accordance with the principles of international law. Several major nations have granted recognition to the fledgling republic; no threat of invasion appears imminent. The newly empowered libertarians are free to pursue their domestic agenda: the dismantling of the East Zimiamvian state, and the building of a new voluntary society.
How do they proceed? Where do they begin? How can they develop a transitional program that combines the goals of swiftness, effectiveness, compassion, consistency with libertarian principle, and minimum likelihood of provoking an anti-libertarian backlash?
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Who Are They?
The answers to these questions will depend in part on who exactly these libertarian ideologues pouring into the marble palaces are. Are they natives of East Zimiamvia, or foreigners from the outside? If foreigners, do they constitute the new majority in a perhaps hitherto sparsely populated region, or are they a small élite setting out to govern a large native population? If the latter, what is the attitude of the East Zimiamvians to their new governors: enthusiastically supportive? cautiously receptive? passively acquiescent? inveterately hostile?
If the indigenous population is sufficiently large and sufficiently hostile, the libertarian rulers, no matter how powerful, might as well pack their bags and go home. You cannot impose freedom on unwilling recipients at the point of a gun; nothing could be better calculated to turn the population against libertarian values than their association with the imposed requirements of an alien régime. For example, the current hostility, resurgent throughout the Islamic world, to the progressive values of secular society and the emancipation of women, is in large part a response to the policies of imperialist countries like Britain and the Soviet Union, who championed these values in the Muslim world — in combination with aggressive campaigns of military intervention and occupation.
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How Did They Get There?
A closely related question: How did the libertarian governors acquire their current positions of power? If they are predominantly natives of East Zimiamvia, perhaps they came to power in the ordinary course of an election. The role of the international free nation movement may have been to support and help organize a libertarian political movement in East Zimiamvia. (Or maybe East Zimiamvia is really the United States, and the Libertarian Party has at last achieved electoral success!)
On the other hand, if the new libertarian governors are foreigners, there are several possibilities. It is unlikely that the ordinary course of a domestic East Zimiamvian election would bring a group of foreigners to power; such an event is more likely to result from a change in the government itself. (I am using "government" in the American sense, to mean the political apparatus of the state, not in the European sense to mean what Americans call an "administration.") So what has happened to the pre-existing state? There must surely have been one:
(Carl Watner, The Voluntaryist, Vol. 66 (February 1994), p. 6.)
If it still exists, it is presumably the government of a larger area — call it Greater Zimiamvia — which has ceded to the free nation movement sovereignty (whether permanently or temporarily, e.g., via a 99-year lease) over the territory of East Zimiamvia. Without unusual pressure (armed mobs storming the palaces of government, say), no government is likely to cede all its territory and thereby go out of existence; but it is not particularly uncommon for governments to voluntarily cede a portion of their territory. Perhaps the struggling government of Greater Zimiamvia has done so in exchange for financial and other aid from the well-funded free nation movement. In that case, what is the attitude of the native East Zimiamvians to the inhabitants of Greater Zimiamvia? If the East Zimiamvians and Greater Zimiamvians are closely bound by ethnic and cultural ties, they may well resent the partition. On the other hand, if the East Zimiamvians are ethnically and culturally distinct from the Greater Zimiamvians, they may welcome the prospect of separatism — though in such a case they may also harbor nationalist sentiments incompatible with a willingness to let a bunch of foreign libertarians come in and dismantle their state. Any purely top-down attempt to institute libertarian policies is likely to fail. The more promising situation would be one in which a substantial number of East Zimiamvians have been convinced that they would do better under the libertarians than under the corrupt and inefficient Greater Zimiamvian government, and so the native East Zimiamvians have been putting pressure on the Greater Zimiamvian government to accept the libertarians' offers.
Now when nation X cedes territory to group Y, such cession is unlikely to include cession of sovereignty (as opposed to a mere sale of government property that will remain subject to that government's laws) unless group Y is already a sovereign nation. This is one reason that some free nation activists (e.g., the Atlantis Project) favor starting a free nation on an artificial floating island initially, and then subsequently making use of their sovereign status to acquire additional sovereignty over territory on terra firma. Such a procedure is more likely to gain legitimacy for the emerging free nation in the eyes of international law. Another advantage of this approach is that the native East Zimiamvians may well find more attractive the prospect of uniting their nation with an already operating and successful libertarian nation when compared with the prospect of becoming guinea pigs for the untested theories of a bunch of libertarian-minded intellectuals.
There are, then, several different possible scenarios concerning the provenance of East Zimiamvia's fledgling libertarian régime. And the greater the extent to which this new régime reflects foreign rather than domestic libertarian sentiment, the more difficult the task of dismantling the East Zimiamvian state will be.
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May They Legitimately Stay There?
Meanwhile, the libertarian ideologues continue to pour into the marble palaces of the East Zimiamvian capital. So far we've been asking: How difficult will their task be? But perhaps we should consider a prior question: Is their task legitimate in the first place? In the course of answering that question, we may find that we have answered the first as well.
Some libertarians — many calling themselves "Voluntaryists" — hold that it is inappropriate for libertarians to seek or to exercise governmental power under any circumstances, even with the intent of using that power to diminish or abolish governmental power.
I am sympathetic to this objection, but in the end I think it is a mistake. Let me explain why.
The Voluntaryists' objection comes in two forms — a Pragmatic Objection and a Principled Objection. The Pragmatic Objection claims that dismantling the state from within is unworkable. The Principled Objection claims that even if such a project were workable, it would be morally wrong to attempt it.
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The Principled Objection to Political Action
Let's consider the Principled Objection first. I think this is an important objection, and I want to do justice to it, so I here quote at some length George Smith's defense of the Principled Objection:
'Elect me to office,' proclaims the libertarian politician, 'give me enormous power over you and your property, but rest assured that I shall abstain from using this power unjustly.' I reply: You have no right to such power in the first place — and as a libertarian you should know this. You should be denouncing the very office to which you aspire. ... [But] if the institution of senator is wrong in itself (because of its built-in political power), then how can you, in good conscience, ask us to make you a Senator? ... What does it mean, in this society, to be a Senator? Among other things, it signifies the legal privilege to formulate and enact laws without any necessary regard for the justice of those laws, and it permits one to dispense massive amounts of stolen money. Such powers, inherent in the office of Senator, are incompatible with libertarian principles. ... One cannot deny the legitimacy of the Senatorial office, as libertarians must logically do, and simultaneously advocate someone for that position. ...
This is not — I repeat, not — an issue of strategy. ... I am not merely asserting that the political method is inefficient in pursuit of this goal. Rather, I am arguing that the political means is inconsistent with libertarian principles .... One cannot consistently denounce the State as a band of criminals while attempting to swell the ranks of this criminal class with one's own cronies. ... To be elected to public office is to gain the legal sanction to aggress. ... To vote a person into office is to give that person unjust authority over others. ... When an LPer [i.e., Libertarian Party supporter] enters the voting booth, he is attempting to place in office a person who will have unjust authority over me. But, claims the LPer, his candidate will not use that power. I reply that this, even if true, is immaterial. The legitimized power embodied in the political office is not his to give in the first place. ...
I accept libertarianism, and this very acceptance compels me to reject political action. Therefore, when I am told that political action is a good strategy to achieve libertarian goals, I can only reply: Even if that were true (which I don't accept), it would not change the rightness involved. ... You accuse me of purism. I reply, 'So what?' If 'purism' means anything, it means the refusal to budge on matters of principle even at the expense of apparent short-term gains. What is the alternative?"
(George H. Smith, "Party Dialogue," pp. 11-254, in Carl Watner, George H. Smith, and Wendy McElroy, Neither Bullets nor Ballots: Essays on Voluntaryism (Pine Tree Press, Orange CA, 1983); available from Carl Watner, The Voluntaryist, Box 1275, Gramling SC 29348.)
One reply that is sometimes heard in libertarian circles is that rights are nothing more than a means of preserving liberty. From this perspective, to insist obstinately on a continued clinging to libertarian rights even in those rare circumstances when their strict observance impedes the liberalizing process is to make the "purist" mistake of attaching greater importance to the means — libertarian rights — than to the end which gives those means their point — liberty itself.
I strongly disagree with this reply. It is certainly true that one important function of rights is the preservation of liberty. But the importance of rights is not exhausted by their instrumental value. As I see it, the wrongfulness of initiating coercion lies not solely in its harmful social effects, but above all in its betrayal of one's own human nature — an evil act in its own right, regardless of its broader consequences. (For an elaboration of this approach, on the basis of Aristotelean virtue-ethics, see my "Slavery Contracts and Inalienable Rights: A Formulation," in Formulations, Vol. II, No. 2 (Winter 1994-95).) Hence, on my view, one is morally obligated to refrain from the initiation of coercion even when initiating such coercion could bring about an overall increase in liberty.
As Aristotle writes:
(Aristotle, Politics, 1325 a 34-b 7; translation mine.)
Thus far, then, I am in accord with the Voluntaryists: we are not justified in engaging in aggression, even in order to bring about greater liberty for all. But I disagree with the Voluntaryists' claim that political activity by libertarians is necessarily a form of aggression.
The greatest battles are fought against that which is closest to us. I confess I find the Voluntaryist position — in both its ethical and strategic guises — extremely attractive, even deeply tempting. About a decade ago I wrote several articles "refuting" the anarchist position I now spend much of my time defending; and perhaps in another decade I will find myself defending Voluntaryism too. (God forbid, I might even end up a vegetarian — another ethical position I do not hold but find tempting. Not a pleasant prospect for someone with as little liking for most vegetables as myself!) But for now, on the basis of my current reflections, I believe the Voluntaryist position to be mistaken, and that is the judgment I shall now try to defend.
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Political Action as Self-Defense; or, Peril in Smallville
Some libertarian theorists (e.g., Robert LeFevre) have rejected as illegitimate any use of force, even in self-defense. (For a critique of this position, see my "Punishment vs. Restitution: A Formulation," in Formulations, Vol. I, No. 2 (Winter 1993-94).) But Voluntaryists, while philosophically indebted to LeFevre, are not for the most part LeFevrean pacifists; they recognize the legitimacy of using force to defend oneself or other innocent parties. I contend that, in attempting to seize political power in order to dismantle the East Zimiamvian state, our libertarian politicians are engaging in the legitimate project of defending the East Zimiamvians from governmental aggression.
George Smith considers this argument, only to reject it:
("Party Dialogue," p. 23.)
What's wrong with Clark Kent's argument here? Its fatal flaw is that it regards the mere capacity to inflict harm as itself a form of aggression. This is the same logic as that employed by gun control advocates, who regard my mere possession of a gun as an unrightful threat against my neighbors, because having a gun gives me the power to blow their brains out, whether or not I in fact exercise it in this way. But on libertarian principles, it is surely not the capacity for aggression, but the exercise of that capacity, that is forbidden; hence I may own anything from man-eating tigers to rocket launchers, as long as I use them responsibly. The libertarian politician who assumes office in order to dismantle the state will also acquire great power, at least for a while; but as long as he or she uses it solely against aggressors rather than against the innocent, the fact that this power could be used against the innocent does not make the libertarian politician into an actual aggressor.
But Smith would probably object that there is an important disanalogy between the government case and the Juggernaut case. If Lana Lang seizes the reins from Lex Luthor, she acquires only power — whose mere possession is morally permissible, so long as it is not used against the innocent. But if libertarian politicians seize the reins of the East Zimiamvian government, they acquire not only power but legal authority. Political power carries with it not only the ability to aggress, but the right to aggress (the legal right, that is — not, of course, the moral right).
[You may reply:] But couldn't a libertarian accept a political office while being fully aware that the legal power inherent in that office is illegitimate? He need not exercise the options legally available to him, after all. ...
[I would reply:] You confuse the subjective with the objective. A person can believe just about anything. A libertarian Senator may believe that he is faking it, that he doesn't really take the authority of his office seriously. He may convince himself that, although an agent and employee of the State, he is really and truly anti-state. ... But the facts remain. The office of Senator is defined independently of the desires of individual Senators. The powers of political office do not depend upon the secret desires of the LP politician, nor do they change because the politician keeps his fingers crossed while taking the oath of office."
("Party Dialogue," pp. 10-13.)
But is this true? What, after all, is a legal right? It is not something tangible; rather, it is a convention. My having a legal right to do X consists in various facts about the beliefs, practices, dispositions, and institutions of a particular group of people. So let us now suppose that Smallville is menaced, not by Luthor's Juggernaut Beast, but by a violent religious cult calling itself the Minions of Moloch, who have announced their intention to invade Smallville and slaughter the unbelievers. Each Minion of Moloch wears a Ha-Ha Hat, which from the Minions' perspective symbolizes their right to inflict torture on anyone who refuses to venerate Moloch. Lana Lang (mysteriously reincarnated since her encounter with the Juggernaut) proposes to disguise herself as a Minion of Moloch, Ha-Ha Hat and all, and to infiltrate the enemy camp in order to spy on them, learn their plans, and steal or sabotage their stock of weapons. Once again Clark Kent seeks to dissuade her: "Tsk, tsk, Lana! Don't you realize that in order to disguise yourself as a Minion of Moloch you'll have to wear the Ha-Ha Hat? You know what the Ha-Ha Hat stands for; according to the conventions of the Minions, it signifies the legal right to torture unbelievers. By putting the Ha-Ha Hat on your head, you will be taking on that legal right. But the legal right to torture unbelievers is clearly illegitimate, and if you assume it you will in effect be aggressing against us all." Once again Lana is convinced, and abandons her plan; soon she and her fellow townspeople are dying slowly at the hands of the Minions of Moloch. (Even Clark succumbs this time, since the Minions have managed to get their hands on some kryptonite.)
What's wrong with Clark Kent's argument is that the convention associated with the Ha-Ha Hat is accepted only by the Minions of Moloch. It is true that, according to that convention, when Lana dons the Ha-Ha Hat she thereby assumes the right to torture unbelievers. But Lana does not accept that convention; on the contrary, she is working to bring that convention to an end.
The same holds true for the libertarian politician. The legal rights of aggression that are associated with political office exist only within the conventions of statist culture; the libertarian who assumes such office rejects those conventions, and so does not recognize any such legal rights. Smith would say that this is only a subjective psychological fact about the libertarian politician, and has no effect on the "objective" fact of "the powers of political office." But if by "the powers of political office" Smith means legal authority, then this too ultimately consists only in subjective psychological facts about the attitudes of participants in the statist culture, attitudes our libertarian politician does not share. And on the other hand, if by "the powers of political office" Smith means actual capacities, we've already established that no aggression is involved in the mere possession of unexercised capacities for aggression. Hence I cannot see that there is any ethical basis for the Principled Objection to libertarians' holding political office, in East Zimiamvia or anywhere else. (The question of oaths of office will be taken up below.)
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Three Cheers for Casuistry
Now some may say: "All this is nothing but casuistry! You're simply trying to find a way to wriggle around libertarian moral principles in order to justify what you want to do!" I reply: Of course it is casuistry! The term may have a negative connotation today, but the tradition of casuistry is a distinguished and venerable one. In strict definition, casuistry means reasoning to discover the correct application of abstract moral principles to concrete particular cases. And just as a legitimate part of the lawyer's job is to help his or her clients find whatever loopholes in statutory law may benefit them, so a legitimate part of the casuist's job is to locate similar useful loopholes in Natural Law. Of course casuistical reasoning can be abused and misapplied, just as ordinary legal reasoning can be; and it is from such misuse that casuistry has acquired its modern pejorative meaning. But casuistry has a vital role to play in practical reasoning. If one can achieve libertarian goals by wriggling around libertarian moral principles without breaking those principles, so much the better. Nearly everything I've said so far in this discussion, including the Smallville examples, has been pure casuistry (in the classical sense); and so it should be.
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The Principled Objection, Improved
Now defenders of the Principled Objection might reply that even if libertarians may legitimately hold political power so long as their intent is to dismantle the state from within, there are moral barriers to their taking the steps necessary to succeed in such a dismantling project. Consider the following argument: Any successful dismantling of the state must be gradual (where any process lasting longer than immediate overnight abolition counts as gradual). If the East Zimiamvian state is eradicated overnight, before market-based alternatives have had time to develop, the result will be chaos, and a populace as yet unused to freedom will most likely respond to this chaos by repudiating the libertarians and at once building a new state, perhaps worse than the old one. Hence a libertarian government, in order to succeed in its goals, must adopt a policy of gradualism. But this is precisely what it cannot do, if it is to remain consistent with libertarian principles. A government that is merely phasing out taxes and regulations is a government that is continuing to tax and regulate. If libertarian officials enforce the laws they have not yet repealed, they are engaging in aggression, contrary to their moral duty, and so have become simply a new brand of thieves and thugs, however well-intentioned. On the other hand, if libertarian officials do not enforce those laws, how is this different from repealing them — the immediate abolition that seemed unworkable? Perhaps a gradualist program could be successfully carried out by a government in which both statists and libertarians hold power, with the libertarians gradually managing to defeat the statists; but if the libertarians are in complete charge, then they must bear the sole blame for the diminishing-but-continued aggression involved in a gradualist approach.
This strikes me as the most powerful form of the Principled Objection, and I am far from certain how to meet it. (I welcome suggestions!) But in the next installment I shall offer a tentative response. (Or, if you just can't wait that long, order a copy of the Proceedings from our recent Forum on Self-Government (clip form on page 17) to see the whole text now!) D
Roderick T. Long is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A frequent lecturer on libertarian topics, he is currently completing a book tentatively titled Aristotle on Fate and Freedom.
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