This article was published in the Winter 1995-96 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Dismantling Leviathan From Within
Part III: Is Libertarian Political Action Self-Defeating?
by Roderick T. Long

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Part I: Can We? Should We?
--introductory quotes
--What If?
--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?

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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 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:

"Hasn't it ever struck you as paradoxical how libertarians who are innovative when it comes to free-market alternatives, can be so pedestrian and orthodox in the area of political strategy. I mean, libertarians never tire of outlining plans for free-market roads, sewers, utilities, charities, schools, police forces, and even courts of law. ... But now comes the issue of political strategy, and the imaginative libertarian suddenly turns slavishly orthodox. 'How can we change things,' he asks, 'without political action? ...'"

("Party Dialogue," p. 25; in Carl Watner, et al, ed., Neither Bullets nor Ballots (Pine Tree Press, Orange CA, 1983).)

What can be said to this kind of objection? I agree that no libertarian reform that is completely top-down has any hope of succeeding; there must be a bottom-up component. I also agree that the ideal scenario for establishing a libertarian society would be completely bottom-up. Thus far, then, I am in sympathy with the objection.

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:

I see no conflict among these various strategies, and I support groups pursuing each of them. E is obviously an omni-strategy; any of the other strategies will be rendered more likely of success to the extent that strategy E succeeds. As for the other four strategies, once again I regard them as complementary; I see the libertarian movement as attacking on many different fronts at once.

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."

"Should the wise maxim often quoted by libertarians, 'Power corrupts,' now be amended to read, 'Power corrupts unless you are a libertarian?' It is not clear to me why libertarians are any less susceptible to the temptations of power than the ordinary mortal."
("Party Dialogue," p. 11.)
I think this objection is right as far as it goes. One might think that libertarianism by its very nature would be less likely than other ideologies to attract power freaks. But empirically, the libertarian movement has been a battleground for so many power freaks and "authoritarian personalities" over the past several decades that such optimism would be naïve.

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:

"We should regard politics not as a means of gaining power but as a means of spreading ideas. ... If this strategy is successful it will, in the long run, self-destruct. If we are sufficiently successful in spreading libertarian ideas, eventually even a consistent libertarian will be able to get elected. When that begins to happen, the Libertarian Party will finally become a major party and promptly begin to pursue votes instead of libertarianism. The transition may be a little difficult to recognize, however, since at that point pursuing libertarianism will finally have become the best way of getting votes. It is a defeat we should all look forward to."

(David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, Second Edition (Open Court, La Salle, 1989), pp. 228-229.)

Second, libertarians will have a more difficult time than other politicians in rationalizing their abuses of power, to themselves or to others. This is not because libertarians are inherently more honest and less prone to self-deception (something I believe in my more optimistic moods, but not always); rather, it has to do with the nature of libertarianism itself. There are other political movements in the past that have fought for liberty, or some aspect thereof; but their commitment to liberty was always just one facet of the total constellation of goals to which they were committed. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course; there are many other good things besides liberty. But the unfortunate result was that there was always an apparently reasonable temptation, when the chips were down, to sacrifice liberty (oh, only partially and temporarily, of course!) in order to promote one of the other goals. That is how classical liberalism became welfare liberalism, how feminism changed from a predominantly individualist to a predominantly collectivist movement, and how principled anti-communism became Cold War McCarthyism. Libertarians, on the other hand, are fanatically single-minded; considered as a political movement, they share only one goal liberty. To what cause can they betray it, and still pretend to themselves and others to be faithful to their libertarian principles?

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:

"To run for or support candidates for political office is to grant legitimacy to the very thing we are attempting to strip of legitimacy. ... The hypocrisy is there for all to see. ... Political power is legitimized through the electoral process. ... The vote sanctifies injustice. ... The vote is the method by which the State maintains its illusion of legitimacy. There is no way a libertarian organization can assail the legitimacy of the State while soliciting votes."
("Party Dialogue," pp. 19-20.)
But this critique is ambiguous. Does it mean that political action counts as an actual endorsement of the state by libertarians, or only that it is likely to be misperceived as such? The former alternative, that political action signifies genuine endorsement, is reminiscent of those tacit-consent theories for which Voluntaryists ordinarily have only contempt. Lysander Spooner, one of the Voluntaryists' own favorite authorities, disposes of this notion nicely: "To take a man's property without his consent, and then to infer his consent because he attempts, by voting, to prevent that property from being used to his injury, is a very insufficient proof of his consent to support the Constitution."

(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).)

On the other hand, if the worry is that the public will misperceive libertarian political action as sanctioning the state, I reply with a tu quoque; for the public is equally likely to misperceive the strategy of the anti-political libertarians, mistaking their principled renunciation of electoral politics for apathy and defeatism.

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:

"Perhaps it will be said that this consent is not a specific, but a general one, and that the citizen is understood to have assented to everything his representative may do when he voted for him.

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."

(Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed (Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York, 1970), p. 190.)

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:

"You wish to work directly through the political process. I maintain that this reinforces the legitimacy of that process. You tell people, in effect, that the way to assert their natural rights is to ask the government's permission. When the government gives you permission to keep your earnings, or to teach your children, or to live a particular lifestyle, then it's O.K. to do so. It's all very proper; the game is played by the State's own rules.

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.)

Well, maybe so and maybe not. Political action on the part of libertarians can send a message. But what libertarians say as they engage in such action can send a message too, and the content of this second, verbal message can influence the reception, and guide the interpretation, of the first, non-verbal message.

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

Next time:
The Sons of Brutus
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