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What Libertarians Should Learn From the Abolitionists

Mises Daily: Saturday, May 24, 2014 by

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[A Selection from Libertarian Review, August 1978.]

If victory is indeed our given end, an end given to us by the requirements of justice, then we must strive to achieve that end as rapidly as we can.

But this means that libertarians must not adopt gradualism as part of their goal; they must wish to achieve liberty as early and as rapidly as possible. Otherwise, they would be ratifying the continuation of injustice. They must be “abolitionists.”

The objection is often raised that abolitionism is “unrealistic,” that liberty (or any other radical social goal) can be achieved only gradually. Whether or not this is true (and the existence of radical upheavals demonstrates that such is not always the case), this common charge gravely confuses the realm of principle with the realm of strategy ...

The “realism” of the goal can only be challenged by a critique of the goal itself, not in the problem of how to attain it. Then, after we have decided on the goal, we face the entirely separate strategic question of how to attain that goal as rapidly as possible, how to build a movement to attain it, etc.

Thus, William Lloyd Garrison was not being “unrealistic” when, in the 1830s, he raised the glorious standard of immediate emancipation of the slaves. His goal was the proper one, and his strategic realism came in the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly reached. Or, as 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. (The Liberator, August 13, 1831)

From a strictly strategic point of view, it is also true that if the adherents of the “pure” goal do not state that goal and hold it aloft, no one will do so, and the goal therefore will never be attained. Furthermore, since most people and most politicians will hold to the “middle” of whatever “road” may be offered them, the “extremist,” by constantly raising the ante, and by holding the pure or “extreme” goal aloft, will move the extremes further over, and will therefore pull the “middle” further over in his extreme direction. Hence, raising the ante by pulling the middle further in his direction will, in the ordinary pulling and hauling of the political process, accomplish more for that goal, even in the day-by-day short run, than any opportunistic surrender of the ultimate principle.

In her brilliant study of the strategy and tactics of the Garrison wing of the abolitionist movement, Aileen Kraditor writes,

It follows, from the abolitionist’s conception of his role in society, that the goal for which he agitated was not likely to be immediately realizable. Its realization must follow conversion of an enormous number of people, and the struggle must take place in the face of the hostility that inevitably met the agitator for an unpopular cause. ... The abolitionists knew as well as their later scholarly critics that immediate and unconditional emancipation could not occur for a long time. But unlike those critics they were sure it would never come unless it were agitated for during the long period in which it was impracticable. ...

To have dropped the demand for immediate emancipation because it was unrealizable at the time would have been to alter the nature of the change for which the abolitionists were agitating. That is, even those who would have gladly accepted gradual and conditional emancipation had to agitate for immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery because that demand was required by their goal of demonstrating to white Americans that Negroes were their brothers. Once the nation had been converted on that point, conditions and plans might have been made. ...

Their refusal to water down their “visionary” slogan was, in their eyes, eminently practical, much more so than the course of the antislavery senators and congressmen who often wrote letters to abolitionist leaders justifying their adaptation of antislavery demands to what was attainable. ...

If the primary and overriding goal of the libertarian movement must be the victory of liberty as rapidly as possible, then the primary task of that movement must be to employ the most efficacious means to arrive at that goal.

To be efficacious, to achieve the goal of liberty as quickly as possible, it should be clear that the means must not contradict the ends. For if they do, the ends are being obstructed instead of pursued as efficiently as possible. For the libertarian, this means two things:

  • that he must never deny or fail to uphold the ultimate goal of libertarian victory; and
  • that he must never use or advocate the use of unlibertarian means — of aggression against the persons or just property of others.

Thus, the libertarian must never, for the sake of alleged expediency, deny or conceal his ultimate objective of complete liberty; and he must never aggress against others in the search for a world of nonaggression. For example, the Bolsheviks, before the revolution, financed themselves partially by armed robbery in the name of “expropriating” capitalists; clearly, any use of aggression against private property in order to finance the libertarian movement, in addition to being immoral by libertarian principles, would cut against those principles themselves and their ultimate attainment.

At this point, any radical movement for social change, including the libertarian movement, has to face an important, realistic problem: in the real world, the goal — for the libertarian, the disappearance of the state and its aggressive coercion — unfortunately cannot be achieved overnight. Since that is the case, what should be the position of the libertarian toward “transition demands”; i.e., toward demands that would move toward liberty without yet reaching the ultimate goal? Wouldn’t such demands undercut the ultimate goal of total liberty itself?

In our view, the proper solution to this problem is a “centrist” or “movement-building” solution: namely, that it is legitimate and proper to advocate transition demands as way stations along the road to victory, provided that the ultimate goal of victory is always kept in mind and held aloft. In this way, the ultimate goal is clear and not lost sight of, and the pressure is kept on so that transitional or partial victories will feed on themselves rather than appease or weaken the ultimate drive of the movement.

Thus, suppose that the libertarian movement adopts, as a transitional demand, an across-the-board 50 percent cut in taxation. This must be done in such a way as not to imply that a 51 percent cut would somehow be immoral or improper. In that way, the 50 percent cut would simply be an initial demand rather than an ultimate goal in itself, which would only undercut the libertarian goal of total abolition of taxation.

Similarly, if libertarians should ever call for reducing or abolishing taxes in some particular area, that call must never be accompanied by advocating the increase of taxation in some other area. Thus, we might well conclude that the most tyrannical and destructive tax in the modern world is the income tax, and therefore that first priority should be given to abolishing that form of tax. But the call for drastic reduction or abolition of the income tax must never be coupled with advocating a higher tax in some other area (e.g., a sales tax), for that indeed would be employing a means contradictory to the ultimate goal of tax abolition. Libertarians must, in short, hack away at the state wherever and whenever they can, rolling back or eliminating state activity in whatever area possible.

As an example, during every recession, Keynesian liberals generally advocate an income tax cut to stimulate consumer demand. Conservatives, on the other hand, generally oppose such a tax cut as leading to higher government deficits. The libertarian, in contrast, should always and everywhere support a tax cut as a reduction in state robbery. Then, when the budget is discussed, the libertarian should also support a reduction in government expenditures to eliminate a deficit. The point is that the state must be opposed and whittled down in every respect and at every point: in cutting taxes or in cutting government expenditures. To advocate raising taxes or to oppose cutting them in order to balance the budget is to oppose and undercut the libertarian goal.

But while the ultimate goal of total liberty must always be upheld and the state must be whittled down at every point, it is still proper, legitimate, and necessary for a libertarian movement to adopt priorities, to agitate against the state most particularly in those areas that are most important at any given time. Thus, while the libertarian opposes both income and sales taxes, it is both morally proper and strategically important to select, say, the income tax as the more destructive of the two and to agitate more against that particular tax. In short, the libertarian movement, like everyone else, faces a scarcity of its own time, energy, and funds, and it must allocate these scarce resources to their most important uses at any given time. Which particular issues should receive priority depends on the specific conditions of time and place.