(to table of contents of FNF archives) (to start of Part III)
Part I: Can We? Should We?
--Who Are They?
--How Did They Get There?
--May They Legitimately Stay There?
--The Principled Objection to Political Action
--Political Action as Self-Defense; or, Peril in Smallville
--Three Cheers for Casuistry
--The Principled Objection, Improved
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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?
(to top of outline)
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 Pragmatic Objection to Political Action
Libertarians who oppose the project of seeking political power in order to dismantle the state offer both a Principled Objection — that libertarians inside government cannot achieve their aims without violating people's rights — and a Pragmatic Objection — that such a project, even if morally permissible, is self-defeating.
In previous installments (see the last two issues of Formulations) I've argued, albeit cautiously, that the Principled Objection can be met with an ethically and pragmatically sound state-dismantling program that is (qualifiedly) abolitionist with regard to eliminating taxes and regulations, yet gradualist with regard to eliminating government services. But the Principled Objection is only one half of the libertarian case against libertarian government. The other half is the Pragmatic Objection that even if the project of dismantling Leviathan from within were morally permissible, it would not be practically feasible. Trying to establish a libertarian society through governmental action, the proponents of this perspective argue, is not only bad morals but bad strategy.
Now some of the problems of feasibility and strategy have already been dealt with in the two preceding installments, in the course of trying to show that a state-dismantling scheme need not abandon morality in its quest for practicality. But I do still want to consider what I take, from my reading and conversation, to be the four main prongs of the Pragmatic Objection to libertarian political action.
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First Pragmatic Pitfall: Top-Down Reform
Anti-political libertarians sometimes pose the following query: "Look, we libertarians all agree that, no matter what the problem, top-down, government-based solutions — the 'political means' — are bound to be less effective than bottom-up, market-based solutions — the 'economic means.' Right? So when it comes to the problem of dismantling the state and achieving a libertarian society, why should we suddenly reverse ourselves and place our confidence in a top-down political approach, like electing libertarian congressmen and passing libertarian legislation? If government is so lousy at everything else it attempts, why should we expect it to be any good at creating a free society? Why not remain true to our fundamental insight — the practical superiority of the market sector over the state sector — and abandon political campaigning in favor of a bottom-up, grass-roots campaign to undermine political authority from below, through a combination of education and counter-economics? Once enough people simply withdraw their support and obedience, the state will collapse. If there is widespread grass-roots support for libertarian ideas, top-down reform is ineffective; on the other hand, if there is no such widespread grass-roots support, top-down reform is doomed to fail. Thus top-down reform is bound to be either unnecessary or insufficient."
George Smith, for example, speaks for the Voluntaryist position when he asks:
("Party Dialogue," p. 25; in Carl Watner, et al, ed., Neither Bullets nor Ballots (Pine Tree Press, Orange CA, 1983).)
So where do I disagree? Well, it seems to me that in situations where a bottom-up component does exist, but still falls far short of being powerful enough to undermine the state unaided, a top-down component can serve to fill the gap, to make up the difference.
"But wait," the critic may protest. "This is just another version of the soft-socialist argument that the market can do some good, but where it falls short it needs to be 'corrected' by government intervention. How can a libertarian sign onto this? What happens to our faith in the free market?"
My answer is that my faith in the power of the free market is undiminished — but in case you haven't noticed, we don't have a free market. What we have is a deeply regulated and crippled market, and it is that in which the Voluntaryists are asking us to have faith. Grass-roots education to undermine allegiance to the state is hampered by the fact that most of our audience has been indoctrinated in state-run schools. Counter-economic strategies to build alternatives to the state are hampered by the fact that most of them are illegal, and prospective participants are not unnaturally afraid of being sent to prison. (Even those that are legal are so severely regulated that many are discouraged from participating, and the ardor of those who do participate is somewhat quelled by the knowledge that Big Brother is looking over their shoulders.) Surely it would be absurd to argue as follows: "We libertarians claim to recognize the superiority of private over public solutions, but when we drive to work in the morning we use the public roads. How unimaginative! When we are so boldly and consistently libertarian in other areas, why do we pick such an un-libertarian strategy for getting to work? Don't we know that private roads are better than public ones? All right then, from now on, if we really believe what we preach, we should use only private roads for driving to work." Of course private roads are a superior strategy for getting to work — but the power of government has created a severe shortage of private roads, and has thus prevented us from making use of the best strategy. The same applies to purely non-political strategies for dismantling the state.
I do not wish to underestimate the power of bottom-up strategies; they are vitally important, and no liberalization program can possibly succeed without them. I support and participate in a number of such bottom-up projects; and I have little patience for those who criticize anti-political libertarians for "doing nothing." Moreover, I agree with the Voluntaryists that a purely bottom-up approach could succeed, whereas a purely top-down approach could not. Where I part company with the Voluntaryists is in thinking, first, that a mixed approach — partly top-down, partly bottom-up — could also succeed, and second, that this mixed approach is more likely than the purely bottom-up approach to be practicable in the foreseeable future.
The Voluntaryists seem to assume that top-down and bottom-up approaches to libertarian activism are in competition, even in conflict, rather than being essentially complementary. Yet throughout history, every successful liberatory movement I can think of — from the abolition of the slave trade and the end of British rule in the American colonies to the emancipation of women and the triumph of the Anti-Corn-Law league — has won the day through a combination of top-down and bottom-up strategies. I see no reason to expect the triumph of libertarianism to be different.
Indeed, I see the libertarian movement as a multifaceted phenomenon. Consider the various forms libertarian activism can take:
• B. Taking over the existing power structure. This is the approach taken by the Libertarian Party, which proposes to proceed peacefully and legally via the electoral process. (If there are other libertarian organizations pursuing the same goal — a libertarian take-over — through a strategy of revolutionary violence, they've wisely kept quiet about it.)
• C. Undermining the existing power structure from below. Here the idea is to withdraw support from the state and create alternative, counter-economic institutions that will gradually supplant the functions of government. This is the approach taken, e.g., by Terra Libra (as well as by Samuel Konkin's Agorist Institute, if that still exists). It is also the approach most favored by libertarian science fiction writers (sometimes combined with B or D); see, for example, J. Neil Schulman's
Alongside Night, F. Paul Wilson's An Enemy of the State, and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
• D. Starting a new libertarian country of our own. This is the option explored, in somewhat different ways, by the Free Nation Foundation, the New Country Foundation, and Laissez Faire City.
• E. Convincing more people to become libertarians. This strategy of education, persuasion, and outreach is the approach adopted by most libertarian organizations; it also forms a significant part of
the activity of organizations pursuing other approaches, like Cato and the LP. Some educational organizations seek to educate the general public directly; others adopt a more leveraged approach, as in the Institute for Humane Studies' attempt to influence the climate of opinion by supporting the careers of libertarian academics. Another leveraged approach, pursued by many libertarian periodicals, is to provide intellectual ammunition to fellow libertarians. Most educational efforts are aimed both at fellow libertarians and at the general public.
Another criticism one sometimes finds directed against libertarian political activism should perhaps also fall under the classification of this first pitfall. I recall reading some anti-political libertarian argument — perhaps by Samuel Konkin — to the effect that libertarians in power could accomplish little, simply because there are so many federal laws that even if a libertarian Congress were to repeal fifty laws a day, it would still take a hundred years to repeal them all. (Or something like that; I forget the exact figures.) But this problem seems easily solved; rather than taking up individual laws one by one, the sensible thing would be to pass new legislation invalidating the old. Example: "Henceforth everyone shall have the legal right to do X. Any provision of existing federal legislation that is inconsistent with this right is hereby repealed."
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Second Pragmatic Pitfall: Dancing with the Devil
The second pitfall is closely related to the first, but I believe it can be distinguished as a separate concern. Both pitfalls concern the alleged ineffectiveness of libertarian political activism, but the emphasis is somewhat different. The theme of the first pitfall is government as inert; the idea is that government is a clumsy, ponderous tool that cannot be wielded effectively. The theme of the second pitfall is government as subversive; the idea here is that government, like Frodo's Ring, has an internal dynamic of its own that will tend to undermine any attempt to make use of it for libertarian ends. In particular, those who charge into Washington with high ideals and anti-establishment sentiments soon become accustomed to wielding the reins of government power, and "go native."
But still there are a few reasons, if not for optimism, then at least for a somewhat less stark pessimism.
For one thing, the corruption process can take time. If the liberalization process proceeds fast enough, then by the time the libertarian politician has weakened enough to succumb to the temptations of power, the power he or she was tempted to use may have largely dwindled away. Advocates of statist political strategies need to assume that susceptible politicians can be held in check indefinitely; advocates of libertarian political strategies need only assume that susceptible politicians can be held in check for a while, until the eventual impotence of the state makes the issue moot.
David Friedman makes a related point. He too believes, with the Voluntaryists, that libertarian politicians will eventually be corrupted, and so he is skeptical about the value of electoral success as a libertarian goal; but he argues that a libertarian political movement can work to change the political climate in such a way that once libertarian politicians have indeed been corrupted, it will be too late for them to do any harm:
(David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, Second Edition (Open Court, La Salle, 1989), pp. 228-229.)
These considerations may give us some breathing space; but libertarian politicians will of course remain corruptible. That is one reason that any top-down strategy must be accompanied by a bottom-up strategy, to keep the top-downers honest. But I cannot see that worries about corruptibility oblige us to forswear the top-down component entirely. Trusting libertarian politicians is risky; but it's worth a try. And despite what one sometimes hears to the contrary in libertarian circles, it is not true that no government has ever voluntarily decreased its own power. That's one reason that Andrew Jackson, despite his horrific treatment of the Cherokee, has some claim to be considered a libertarian hero.
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Third Pragmatic Pitfall: Loss of Credibility
The third pitfall against which anti-political libertarians warn us is that participation in political action will damage libertarians' credibility in the eyes of the public, who will see such participation as inconsistent with libertarian principles.
Those who press this version of the Pragmatic Objection are typically proponents of the Principled Objection as well. They thus assume that the public will be correct in convicting libertarian politicians of inconsistency. But if my critique of the Principled Objection in Parts I and II has been correct, then this third pitfall really involves a misperception of libertarian politicians on the part of the public; the danger is that they will believe, falsely, that political activism is a betrayal of libertarian principles, and so will erroneously condemn libertarian politicians as hypocrites.
But if that is the problem, then it seems to be simply one more facet of a general public misperception of libertarianism, of a piece with such more common errors as the misperception of libertarian economic proposals as cold and heartless toward the poor, or the misperception of libertarian opposition to victimless-crime laws as stemming from a commitment to moral relativism. And the way to correct such misperceptions is through education.
Voluntaryists often argue that by engaging in political action libertarians are sanctioning the state:
(Lysander Spooner, No Treason No. VI: The Constitution of No Authority, p. 75, in George H. Smith, ed., The Lysander Spooner Reader (Fox & Wilkes, San Francisco, 1992).)
Indeed, the anti-political strategy may even be perceived, perversely enough, as yet another sanction of the state! As Herbert Spencer trenchantly observed, regarding the theory of tacit consent:
But suppose he did not vote for him, and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected someone holding opposite views — what then? The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.
And how if he did not vote at all? Why, then he cannot justly complain ... seeing that he made no protest ....
So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted — whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine, this."
Since both the political and the anti-political libertarian strategies are liable to misperception and misrepresentation, the solution, it seems to me, is once more education — a bottom-up strategy, to be sure, but one that in this instance may serve to vindicate the top-down approach as well. What is called for, I think, is an up-front approach. We should tell the public: "We libertarians are all committed to changing society through education and the like. But some of us also seek to work through the political process. There is a friendly disagreement, both ethical and strategic, among libertarians as to the legitimacy of this approach. Some libertarians condemn any association with the state as inappropriate. Others consider it a permissible defensive option to try to take over the state and dismantle it from within. We invite you to join us in this conversation."
Voluntaryists insist that libertarian political action sends the wrong message:
I maintain on the contrary, that libertarians should breed a thorough and uncompromising disrespect for the government and its laws. ... We wish people to look elsewhere than government for their freedom. We wish them to view government with contemptuous indifference. This cannot be achieved through political action."
("Party Dialogue," pp. 26-28.)
Voluntaryists may protest that "actions speak louder than words." But those who make this reply are still assuming that political action has an intrinsically state-sanctioning meaning, that it cannot have the meaning of legitimate defense of the innocent. If this is wrong, as I've argued, then political action taken in its own right is genuinely ambiguous, and words by libertarian politicians expressing contempt for the government and rejection of its authority can help the public acquire the appropriate conceptual framework for interpreting libertarian political action as legitimate defense rather than a sanction of the state. (I must add that I've never met anyone, outside the libertarian movement itself (where many still adhere to the strange and much-abused Randian notion of "sanction"), who interpreted libertarian political action as a sanction of the state; on the contrary, it is those libertarians who reject political action that are most likely, in my experience, to be misinterpreted.)
One version of the credibility objection appeals to the fact that libertarian politicians may have to take an oath of office committing themselves to upholding the authority of the state. I don't think there is any moral problem here — any more than Lana (in my example in Part I), infiltrating the Minions of Moloch in order to protect her hometown, compromises her integrity or undertakes any undesirable obligation by mouthing the Oath to Moloch. The oath of office, as taken by a libertarian, may simply be a justifiable lie.
But there may well be a public-relations problem. If a libertarian running for office is asked by a potential voter whether she intends to lie or not when taking the oath of office, what is she to say? If she answers "Yes," people's reaction may be: "Oh, so she thinks it's okay to lie when taking a solemn oath before the people! No way am I going to vote for her!" On the other hand, if she says "No," the reaction may be: "Oh, so she really intends to uphold the authority of the state! So much for her commitment to libertarianism. No way am I going to vote for her!"
If I were a libertarian politician, and someone raised with me the issue of the oath of office, I would answer as follows: "When I am sworn in, I will take the oath of office honestly and sincerely, and will fulfill it to the best of my ability. Naturally, however, I will also respect the common consensus, universally acknowledged since the Nuremberg trials, that no oath to uphold the law can justify any agent of the government in engaging in or sanctioning criminal aggression." This is an honest answer, and the wording strikes me as sufficiently politic: it affirms the sincerity of the oath, as public opinion may require, while at the same time placing on that oath, and on its attendant obligations, a limitation that public opinion is committed to acknowledging. If the voters still don't like it, they'll have to vote for someone else.
I will deal with the Fourth Pragmatic Pitfall in my next and final installment. D