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The Case for Radical Idealism

Mises Daily: Monday, January 03, 2005 by


Every "radical" creed has been subjected to the charge of being "utopian," and the libertarian movement is no exception. Some libertarians 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 from view. These people counsel a "Fabian" program of gradualism, concentrating solely on a gradual whittling away of State power. An example would be in the field of taxation: Instead of advocating the "radical" measure of abolition of all taxation, or even of abolishing income taxation, we should confine ourselves to a call for tiny improvements; say, for a two percent cut in income tax.

In the field of strategic thinking, it behooves libertarians to heed the lessons of the Marxists, because they have been thinking about strategy for radical social change longer than any other group. Thus, the Marxists see two critically important strategic fallacies that "deviate" from the proper path: one they call "left-wing sectarianism"; the other, and opposing, deviation is "right-wing opportunism." The critics of libertarian "extremist" principles are the analog of the Marxian "right-wing opportunists."

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. He who confines himself to calling for a two percent reduction in taxes helps to bury the ultimate goal of abolition of taxation altogether. By concentrating on the immediate means, he helps liquidate the ultimate goal, and therefore the point of being a libertarian in the first place. If libertarians refuse to hold aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal, who will? The answer is no one, hence another major source of defection from the ranks in recent years has been the erroneous path of opportunism.

A prominent case of defection through opportunism is someone we shall call "Robert," who became a dedicated and militant libertarian back in the early 1950s. Reaching quickly for activism and immediate gains, Robert concluded that the proper strategic path was to play down all talk of the libertarian goal, and in particular to play down libertarian hostility to government. His aim was to stress only the "positive" and the accomplishments that people could achieve through voluntary action.

As his career advanced, Robert began to find uncompromising libertarians an encumbrance; so he began systematically to fire anyone in his organization caught being "negative" about government. It did not take very long for Robert to abandon the libertarian ideology openly and explicitly, and to call for a "partnership" between government and private enterprise—between coercion and the voluntary—in short, to take his place openly in the Establishment. Yet, in his cups, Robert will even refer to himself as an "anarchist," but only in some abstract cloud-land totally unrelated to the world as it is.

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. Hayek has written that one of the great attractions of socialism has always been the continuing stress on its "ideal" goal, an ideal that permeates, informs, and guides the actions of all those striving to attain it. Hayek then adds:

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibility of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. 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. They 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. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.[1]

Hayek is here highlighting an important truth, and an important reason for stressing the ultimate goal: the excitement and enthusiasm that a logically consistent system can inspire. Who, in contrast, will go to the barricades for a two percent tax reduction?

There is another vital tactical reason for cleaving to pure principle. It is true that day-to-day social and political events are the resultants of many pressures, the often unsatisfactory outcome of the push-and-pull of conflicting ideologies and interests. But if only for that reason, it is all the more important for the libertarian to keep upping the ante. The call for a two percent tax reduction may achieve only the slight moderation of a projected tax increase; a call for a drastic tax cut may indeed achieve a substantial reduction. And, over the years, it is precisely the strategic role of the "extremist" to keep pushing the matrix of day-to-day action further and further in his direction.

The socialists have been particularly adept at this strategy. If we look at the socialist program advanced sixty, or even thirty years ago, it will be evident that measures considered dangerously socialistic a generation or two ago are now considered an indispensable part of the "mainstream" of the American heritage. In this way, the day-to-day compromises of supposedly "practical" politics get pulled inexorably in the collectivist direction. There is no reason why the libertarian cannot accomplish the same result. In fact, one of the reasons that the conservative opposition to collectivism has been so weak is that conservatism, by its very nature, offers not a consistent political philosophy but only a "practical" defense of the existing status quo, enshrined as embodiments of the American "tradition." Yet, as statism grows and accretes, it becomes, by definition, increasingly entrenched and therefore "traditional"; conservatism can then find no intellectual weapons to accomplish its overthrow.

Cleaving to principle means something more than holding high and not contradicting the ultimate libertarian ideal. It also means striving to achieve that ultimate goal as rapidly as is physically possible. 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?

In short, to really pursue the goal of liberty, the libertarian must desire it attained by the most effective and speediest means available. It was in this spirit that the classical liberal Leonard E. Read, advocating immediate and total abolition of price and wage controls after World War II, declared in a speech, "If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of which would release all wage and price controls instantaneously, I would put my finger on it and push!"[2]

The libertarian, then, should be a person who would push the button, if it existed, for the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty. Of course, he knows, too, that such a magic button does not exist, but his fundamental preference colors and shapes his entire strategic perspective.

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. We have seen in chapter 1 that 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."[3] Otherwise, as Garrison trenchantly warned, "Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice."

Gradualism in theory indeed undercuts the goal itself by conceding that it must take second or third place to other non- or antilibertarian considerations. For a preference for gradualism implies that these other considerations are more important than liberty. Thus, suppose that the abolitionist of slavery had said, "I advocate an end to slavery—but only after ten years' time." But this would imply that abolition eight or nine years from now, or a fortiori immediately, would be wrong, and that therefore it is better for slavery to be continued a while longer. But this would mean that considerations of justice have been abandoned, and that the goal itself is no longer held highest by the abolitionist (or libertarian). In fact, for both the abolitionist and libertarian this would mean they are advocating the prolongation of crime and injustice.

While it is vital for the libertarian to hold his ultimate and "extreme" ideal aloft, this does not, contrary to Hayek, make him a "utopian." The 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 extinction.

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. "Utopian" in its common pejorative sense applies only to the former.

In the deepest sense, then, the libertarian doctrine is not utopian but eminently realistic, because it is the only theory that is really consistent with the nature of man and the world. The libertarian does not deny the variety and diversity of man, he glories in it and seeks to give that diversity full expression in a world of complete freedom. And in doing so, he also brings about an enormous increase in productivity and in the living standards of everyone, an eminently "practical" result generally scorned by true utopians as evil "materialism."

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. Yet, at the same time that he rails against the corruption of the original Constitution and the widening of federal power since 1789, the conservative fails to draw the proper lesson from that degeneration.

The idea of a strictly limited constitutional State was a noble experiment that failed, even under the most favorable and propitious circumstances. If it failed then, why should a similar experiment fare any better now? 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.

There is another deep sense in which libertarians scorn the broader utopianism of the left. The left utopians invariably postulate a drastic change in the nature of man; to the left, man has no nature. The individual is supposed to be infinitely malleable by his institutions, and so the communist ideal (or the transitional socialist system) is supposed to bring about the New Communist Man. The libertarian believes that, in the ultimate analysis, every individual has free will and moulds himself; it is therefore folly to put one's hope in a uniform and drastic change in people brought about by the projected New Order. The libertarian would like to see a moral improvement in everyone, although his moral goals scarcely coincide with those of the socialists. He would, for example, be overjoyed to see all desire for aggression by one man against another disappear from the face of the earth. But he is far too much of a realist to put his trust in this sort of change. Instead, the libertarian system is one that will at once be far more moral and work much better than any other, given any existing human values and attitudes. The more the desire for aggression disappears, of course, the better any social system will work, including the libertarian; the less need will there be, for example, for any resort to police or to the courts. But the libertarian system places no reliance on any such change.

If, then, 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, for this would fall into the other self-defeating strategic trap of "left-wing sectarianism." For while libertarians have too often been opportunists who lose sight of or under-cut their ultimate goal, some have erred in the opposite direction: fearing and condemning any advances toward the idea as necessarily selling out the goal itself. The tragedy is that these sectarians, in condemning all advances that fall short of the goal, serve to render vain and futile the cherished goal itself. For much as all of us would be overjoyed to arrive at total liberty at a single bound, the realistic prospects for such a mighty leap are limited. If social change is not always tiny and gradual, neither does it usually occur in a single leap. In rejecting any transitional approaches to the goal, then, these sectarian libertarians make it impossible for the goal itself ever to be reached. Thus, the sectarians can eventually be as fully "liquidationist" of the pure goal as the opportunists themselves.

Sometimes, curiously enough, the same individual will undergo alterations from one of these opposing errors to the other, in each case scorning the proper strategic path. Thus, despairing after years of futile reiteration of his purity while making no advances in the real world, the left sectarian may leap into the heady thickets of right opportunism, in the quest for some short-run advance, even at the cost of his ultimate goal. Or the right opportunist, growing disgusted at his own or his colleagues' compromise of their intellectual integrity and their ultimate goals, may leap into left sectarianism and decry any setting of strategic priorities toward those goals. In this way, the two opposing deviations feed on and reinforce each other, and are both destructive of the major task of effectively reaching the libertarian goal.

How, then, 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. A short-run demand may not go as far as we would like, but it should always be consistent with the final end; if not, the short-run goal will work against the long-run purpose, and opportunistic liquidation of libertarian principle will have arrived.

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. The reduction or, better, the abolition of a tax is always a noncontradictory reduction of State power and a significant step toward liberty; but its replacement by a new or increased tax elsewhere does just the opposite, for it signifies a new and additional imposition of the State on some other front. The imposition of a new or higher tax flatly contradicts and undercuts the libertarian goal itself.

Similarly, in this age of permanent federal deficits, we are often faced with the practical problem: Should we agree to a tax cut, even though it may well result in an increased government deficit? Conservatives, who from their particular perspective prefer budget balancing to tax reduction, invariably oppose any tax cut which is not immediately and strictly accompanied by an equivalent or greater cut in government expenditures. But since taxation is an illegitimate act of aggression, any failure to welcome a tax cut—any tax cut—with alacrity undercuts and contradicts the libertarian goal. The time to oppose government expenditures is when the budget is being considered or voted upon; then the libertarian should call for drastic slashes in expenditures as well. In short, government activity must be reduced whenever it can: any opposition to a particular cut in taxes or expenditures is impermissible, for it contradicts libertarian principles and the libertarian goal.

A particularly dangerous temptation for practicing opportunism is the tendency of some libertarians, especially in the Libertarian party, to appear "responsible" and "realistic" by coming up with some sort of "four-year plan" for destatization. The important point here is not the number of years in the plan, but the idea of setting forth any sort of comprehensive and planned program of transition to the goal of total liberty. For example: that in year 1, law A should be repealed, law B modified, tax C cut by 10%, etc.; in year 2, law D should be repealed, tax C cut by a further 10%, etc. The grave problem with such a plan, the severe contradiction with libertarian principle, is that it strongly implies, e.g., that law D should not be repealed until the second year of the planned program. Hence the trap of gradualism-in-theory would be fallen into on a massive scale. The would-be libertarian planners would have fallen into a position of seeming to oppose any faster pace toward liberty than is encompassed by their plan. And, indeed, there is no legitimate reason for a slower than a faster pace; quite the contrary.

There is another grave flaw in the very idea of a comprehensive planned program toward liberty. For the very care and studied pace, the very all-embracing nature of the program, implies that the State is not really the common enemy of mankind, that it is possible and desirable to use the State for engineering a planned and measured pace toward liberty. The insight that the State is the major enemy of mankind, on the other hand, leads to a very different strategic outlook: namely, that libertarians should push for and accept with alacrity anyreduction of State power or activity on any front. Any such reduction at any time should be a welcome decrease of crime and aggression. Therefore, the libertarian's concern should not be to use the State to embark on a measured course of destatization, but rather to hack away at any and all manifestations of statism whenever and wherever he or she can....

Thus, the libertarian must never allow himself to be trapped into any sort of proposal for "positive" governmental action; in his perspective, the role of government should only be to remove itself from all spheres of society just as rapidly as it can be pressured to do so.

Neither should there be any contradictions in rhetoric. The libertarian should not indulge in any rhetoric, let alone any policy recommendations, which would work against the eventual goal. Thus, suppose that a libertarian is asked to give his views on a specific tax cut. Even if he does not feel that he can at the moment call loudly for tax abolition, the one thing that he must not do is add to his support of a tax cut such unprincipled rhetoric as, "Well, of course, some taxation is essential . . . ," etc. Only harm to the ultimate objective can be achieved by rhetorical flourishes which confuse the public and contradict and violate principle.

Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was vice president of the Mises Institute and the dean of the Austrian School. This is excerpted from part II of For A New Liberty. Post comments on the blog.