Is Libertarianism Utopian?
Libertarianism – and any political position that leans towards a greater degree of freedom from the state – is opposed both ethically and economically on a number of substantive grounds. The proposition that without the state we would have inequality, destitution for the masses, rampant greed, and so on is a familiar charge which attempts to point out that libertarianism is undesirable and/or unjustifiable.
A further point of opposition is that libertarianism and the drive towards it is simply utopian or idealistic, and that libertarians are hopeless day dreamers, lacking any awareness of how the world “really” works. In other words, that, regardless of whether it may be desirable, some combination of one or more of impossibility, improbability or the simple unwillingness of anyone to embrace the libertarian ideal renders libertarianism either wholly or primarily unachievable. It is this specific objection that we will address in this essay.
Let us first of all recount the libertarian ethic of non-aggression, which states that no one may initiate any physical incursion against your body or your property without your consent. From this we can state that the goal of the libertarian project, broadly, is a world of minimised violence and aggression. Consequently, the questions we have to answer is whether a world of minimised violence and aggression is unachievable and, hence, utopian.
The first aspect to consider is whether the attainment of the libertarian ethic is either a physical or logical impossibility. Clearly, in order to be valid, an ethical proposition must be within the grasp of physical capability. An ethic requiring each person to be in two places at once, or to make three apples equal five apples by adding only one more would be ludicrous. These are unattainable goals, regardless of how hard one might try. Similarly, we can dispose of ethical propositions which are not strictly impossible but, we might say, are technically impossible on account of the fact that the means required to achieve them are inaccessible to all or most individuals. For example, an ethic that requires a person to leap from Britain to China would fail in this regard. Such a feat is not strictly impossible as a person’s feet could leave the ground in Britain and fly through the air to China. But the means of fulfilling this imperative have not yet come into our possession and so as a guide to acting now in the world as it is today it is plainly hopeless.1
When we consider the libertarian ethic, it is clear that it does not come anywhere near these kinds of impossibility. In fact, this ethic, being a requirement to not commit certain acts, is one of the easiest of all ethics to adhere to. You simply have to refrain from initiating any act which interferes with the physical integrity of another person’s body or property – something which you can do, right now, sitting in your armchair. Thus, it is within the power of everyone here on Earth, right this very moment, to bring about a world free of violence and aggression simply by not moving one’s body towards committing such acts. Indeed, we can even say that it is physically harder to breach the ethic – if I want to commit a violent act I have to actually get up, find someone, and muster the effort to assault or rob them instead of following the much lazier route of just keeping still.
This may seem rather trite, but compare the physical attainability of this ethic with other ethics such as conquering poverty, spreading democracy, promoting equality, or even more ethereal goals such as seeking happiness and fulfilment. All of these are regarded, in the mainstream, as perfectly valid and noble, and yet they are far harder to achieve than the libertarian ethic because they all require some kind of positive action. Conquering poverty requires more work, more productivity and more wealth creation; spreading democracy seems to require armed invasions, active peacekeeping, the setup of institutions to hold elections and the willingness of the population to get off their backsides and vote (assuming, of course, that such an ideal is genuine and not simply a veneer for power and control over resources); equality requires the active redistribution of wealth which has to have been created by productive effort in the first place. On the ground of impossibility, therefore, we can say that libertarianism, which is derided, is the least utopian goal amongst all of these others, which are lauded.
If this was not enough, however, the state, the very same people telling us that the libertarian ethic is null and void, attempts to achieve goals each day that are readily accepted by the mainstream and yet are, on a proper understanding, literally impossible. For instance, it is impossible to guarantee full employment if you impose minimum wages; it is impossible to price a good or service below its market value and to not expect it to be inundated by demand and, thus, shortages (think healthcare, jammed roads, etc.); and it is impossible to create wealth by printing paper money. Yet the state believes that it can do all of these things.
On this last point, we surely have to acknowledge the sheer impossibility and, consequently, the utopianism of the current situation of endless debt and extravagant spending. At the birth of social democracy, Western nations had accumulated several generations’ worth of capital that had raised the standard of living by a significant magnitude. This provided a seemingly inexhaustible fund for politicians to bribe voters, showering them with goodies in the form of retirement benefits, welfare payments, nationalised industries, publicly owned infrastructure, and so on in return for their votes. Because politicians like to spend and spend and spend without raising current taxes, much of this spending was fuelled by borrowing, with the productivity of accumulated capital enabling tax revenue to service this debt. The borrowing and inflation has benefited the bookends of society – the poorest, who receive the majority of the welfare payments, and the very rich, whose assets survive the inflation by rising in nominal value – as well as the baby boomer generation, which benefited from being able to receive the goodies before the bill to pay for them fell due. The profligate waste disguised a gradual but relentless capital consumption until now productivity can no longer provide for the burgeoning level of spending. Governments today are even struggling to service the interest on their debt through tax revenues, having to borrow more just to pay down previously accumulated debt. Particularly now as the aforementioned baby boomer generation has begun to retire, leaving behind it a decimated workforce supporting a heavy generation of retirees, this situation is likely to only get worse. Assuming, therefore, that sufficient productivity to meet all of these liabilities is not going to occur, there are three possible options – to default on the entitlements; to default on the debt; or to print enough money to pay for everything. The first option would cause mass social unrest; the second would cause financial markets to collapse; and the third would cause hyperinflation of the currency. This is an unpleasant but soon to be necessary choice. It is precisely because the monetary orthodoxy is no longer working that solutions that have a non-state impetus, such as a return to gold, or crypto-currencies stand out in relief as viable alternatives rather than impossible dreams.2 Thus it is ridiculous for even moderate statists to claim that libertarianism is utopian when the lifeblood of social democracy – state managed money and finance – is on the verge of collapse.
A second reason why it is alleged that the libertarian ethic is utopian concedes the fact that it is not strictly impossible to achieve but, rather, that it is contrary to some vaguely defined impression of “human nature”. This view is nearly always based on the (correct, but superficial) observation that “man is a social animal” and that humans have, throughout their history, grouped themselves together into different collectives such as tribes, cultures, nations and, ultimately, states. The vicissitudes of these kinds of groups – that is, rules that subjugate the individual to the collective and, ultimately, the presence of violence and aggression – supposedly mean that the libertarian ideal is unrealisable, at least to the degree that libertarians would prefer.
Most of these critiques fail owing to their conflation of the state with society, and their resulting assumption that the libertarian admonishment of the former leads to a denial of the latter. As a corollary they misconstrue also the libertarian emphasis on individual rights as advocacy for some kind of selfish, atomistic existence.3
These views can normally be disposed of easily enough as there is, of course, no libertarian quarrel with either social organisations or society as a whole – libertarianism takes full account of the social dimension of humanity. Such critics simply fail to realise that the role of society is not to fulfil a “common purpose” or some kind of undefined “common good” dictated by the state but to act as a means for each individual to better satisfy his own purposes peacefully and voluntarily.4 Nor does the pursuit of such purposes, permitted by individual rights, have anything to do with selfishness – a person is as free to choose to spend his entire life helping others as much as he is to hoard a vast fortune that he shares with no one.
Rather, the claim we wish to examine here is a more basic one. This is whether the kinds of complex institution with which libertarians are preoccupied – that is, states, governments, parliaments, bureaucracies, etc – owe themselves to “human nature” in the sense that these things are, in some way, biologically inevitable; or whether they are, in fact, the product of consciously wrought human choice. To put it bluntly, is the impetus which caused humans to create the state of the same ilk that causes a pig to roll in muck?
This question is either tacitly assumed to be yes or completely ignored by the “human nature” objection to libertarianism. For example, during his misinformed attempt to demonstrate the disregard of libertarianism for the social dimension of human existence, American biologist Peter Corning has the following to say:
One problem with [the libertarian] (utopian) model is we now have overwhelming evidence that the individualistic, acquisitive, selfish-gene model of human nature is seriously deficient […] The evidence about human evolution indicates that our species evolved in small, close-knit social groups in which cooperation and sharing overrode our individual, competitive self-interests for the sake of the common good […] We evolved as intensely interdependent social animals, and our sense of empathy toward others, our sensitivity to reciprocity, our desire for inclusion and our loyalty to the groups we bond with, the intrinsic satisfaction we derive from cooperative activities, and our concern for having the respect and approval of others all evolved in humankind to temper and constrain our individualistic, selfish impulses.5
It is difficult to dispute much of this account. However, Corning never explains what caused these things to arise or why it was that humans embraced them. Why do we co-operate? Why do we share? Why do we have a “desire for inclusion”? Why is there a “loyalty to the groups we bond with”? Why are we preoccupied with a “respect and approval of others”? Did all of these things just happen in the same way that flies swarm to dung, or were there some kind of consciously appreciated reasons for each human to embrace these things?
The fact that these questions remain unanswered suggests that it is the critics of libertarianism who have failed to examine human nature fully and, consequently, have the deficient understanding of the concept. The aspect of human nature that most certainly does exist – that which separates us from other animal species – is the ability to determine, consciously, our goals, and to use the mental faculty of reason to investigate the world around us in order to discover the best means for pursuing those goals. These conscious human choices and subsequent, deliberate actions are evident at a very basic level. We may each, of course, act reflexively, such as when you touch a red hot object and recoil in an instant. Such an action is not the product of choice but of stimuli that provoke your brain into an automated reaction to prevent imminent bodily harm. Such actions are, therefore, a part of our nature and there is very little that we can do to prevent them. Nearly everything else a human does, however, is the product of his conscious choice. Even when we act emotionally or out of instinct – for example by punching another person in a fit of rage or satiating the carnal desire for intercourse by having sex with a stranger – we are still expected to choose to exercise control over these impulses. Such expectation is manifest in the fact that if the act in question happens to be illegal the law will still hold us responsible. Only mental impairment to the extent that there is a severely diminished connection between thoughts and actions will absolve one of moral responsibility for even our more animalistic outbursts.
To ignore this aspect of conscious choice is to ignore the sparkling jewel in the crown of human nature, and leads one to draw fundamentally false conclusions about social phenomena. As Murray N Rothbard puts it:
Only human beings possess free will and consciousness: for they are conscious, and they can, and indeed must, choose their course of action. To ignore this primordial fact about the nature of man – to ignore his volition, his free will – is to misconstrue the facts of reality and therefore to be profoundly and radically unscientific.6
This ignorance to which Rothbard refers renders the “human nature” objection to libertarianism as one of the laziest counterarguments, endowing superficial observations of human behaviour with some kind of inevitability and, thus, immunity from moral scrutiny. For if human behaviour is the product of conscious choice then not only is such behaviour in no sense “natural” but the very fact of choice indicates that alternative paths cannot be ruled out – and that, therefore, the libertarian is not struggling with futility against human nature, but rather, is pursuing the perfectly achievable path of influencing human will. As we shall see now, this is precisely the case.
In deciding the best course of action for fulfilling the ends that he desires, each human has to make a choice between three broad routes of accomplishment. First, an atomistic, isolated existence; second, social co-operation; or, third, violence, pilfer and pillage. The first has been almost universally discarded on account of its failure to furnish anything but the most impoverished existence.7 The other two, however, can prove extremely fruitful for those who pursue them.
Whether the pursuit of social co-operation on the one hand or of violence on the other has prevailed at any one time is a product of the human evaluation of the particular circumstances and how to best meet his goals within those circumstances.8 Appreciation of those circumstances is a product of mental effort – in each case, there were goals and humans pursued, deliberately, what they thought were the best means available for attaining those goals in the environment in which they found themselves. Even though the evaluation may have been wrong and resulted in failure, the fact remains that whichever path was taken did not owe itself to any “natural”, uncontrollable, instinctive urge. If we marvel at the great achievements of social co-operation – for example, the gothic splendour of St Pancras railway station; the intricacy of the internal combustion engine; or the ambition of Microsoft to put a PC in everyone’s home – we can see that the people who created these things were motivated by something more than a scramble to satiate some engrained longing for “community”. Similarly, on the violent side, neither of the world wars occurred because everyone felt that it had been too long since the last punch up. The only human institutions that can be possibly be accorded the description of being in some way “natural” are those which emerged as a result of the (oft-abused) term “spontaneous order” – institutions such as language, money, market prices, and so on which are not the deliberate result of any one individual or group of individuals acting together. But even these institutions are the result of consciously chosen human purpose – they just lack deliberate human design. For instance, we would have neither money nor prices if people did not choose to trade.
Because of the varying circumstances of history – some of them natural phenomena, and some of them the product of the past actions and ideas of humans – it has been the case that the incidence of either social co-operation on the one hand or violence on the other have each waxed and waned throughout the sands of time. Each millennium has been punctuated by periods of relative tranquillity and periods of relative turmoil, with the violent route peaking in the most recent hundred years or so. Meanwhile, social co-operation received significant boosts during the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
The unfolding of the latter provides a clear example of how circumstances can motivate human choices. For instance, contrary to the romanticised view of pre-industrial, rural life, humans abandoned their backbreaking and unproductive agricultural lifestyles to flee to urban centres because the prospect of industrial work, made possible by new inventions and machinery, promised a much higher standard of living than was previously possible. In other words an expansion of social co-operation was the most attractive option. However, after the elapse of one hundred years or so of wealth creation, it became possible for socialist theories to persuade people, on account of the unequal “distribution” of this wealth, that violent appropriation from those who had gained more was now more appealing.9 Thus, the twentieth century was plagued by varieties of socialism that made the false promise to disgorge all of this wealth from the allegedly exploiting classes and thus banish the deprivations of the workers forever. However, once all of this failed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people again turned to market economies. Now we appear to be languishing somewhere in between, with Western societies, the apparent victors of the Cold War, continuing to socialise their economies and consume their capital under the aegis of increasingly authoritarian governance, whereas Asian societies appear to be doing the opposite.10
The fact that each human moves himself towards either social co-operation on the one hand or towards violence on the other in order to better achieve his needs can be illustrated further by envisaging a future when almost all needs are satiated, i.e. when material scarcity is all but conquered. It would not be impossible for economic progress to one day reach a level where any good or service, including the provision of private security and defence, could be produced at the touch of a button. In other words almost all of our needs could be provided for in exchange for a trivial amount of effort. If this was the case then surely it is obvious that the need for any human to pursue either social co-operation or violence on a wide, systematic scale would be all but obliterated? Why bother co-operating with your fellow human, or why bother shooting at him, if everything you want can be provided from some kind of Star Trek style “replicator” device? Even if someone did shoot at you what defensive purpose would the state serve if everyone’s person and property could be protected by, say, some kind of invisible force field? If we ever come to live in such a quasi-paradise is it not clear that any kind of large, systematic organisation that serves to enable either social co-operation or violence – states, companies, etc. – would dissolve for a lack of any achievable purpose? All that is likely to remain is groups that would exist solely for pleasure – families, friendship groups, congregations, and groups revolving around pastimes, etc. Thus, what would emerge is something akin to that which is advocated for by “purist” libertarians who supposedly ignore “human nature” – human existence where systematic collectives and pervasive violence are largely relegated to distant memory. Such a society is, no doubt, a whimsical fantasy, at least in our lifetimes. But it is clear that its failure to emerge would be as a result of a shortfall in economic progress and not on account of any discord with “human nature”.
The fact that co-operation is a means to the fulfilment of complex ends does not deny the fact that co-operation itself presents benefits – for example, from a sense of belonging, familiarity, and overcoming a feeling of loneliness. But even some of the groups that we seemingly take for granted, such as the family, were originally motivated by a consciously appreciated, economic concern – in this case trying to find the best environment in which to raise children.
Similarly, there may well be nutcase theories that exalt violence and war for the sake it. However, the objects of idolisation are often the derivatives of war rather than war itself, such as heroism, comradeship, bravery, victory parades, national pride, medals, and so on, to the extent that these things are viewed as ends in and of themselves.11 Actual war, on the other hand, is very unlikely to gain mainstream traction without a powerful economic incentive. Even when the idolisation of war seems to crystallise into a more substantive ideology – such as in Nazism – there is still something of a chicken or egg problem. Did the Nazi elevation of “blood and soil” and the wehrbauer (“warrior peasant”) appear first and then gain momentum only because of the economic circumstances of Germany at the time? Or did they arise later as somewhat romanticised embodiments of what was required to accomplish the already perceived economic necessity of lebensraum?
Nevertheless, even if we were to ignore all of these issues and say that co-operation and violence were engaged in purely for the sake it, none of this would make a dent to our basic thesis which is that they are the product of conscious, human choice – that the ends were evaluated consciously and the means undertaken deliberately.12
With all of this in mind, therefore, we can turn to the question of the existence of the state. Without a shadow of a doubt, the state is the most violent and aggressive institution humans have ever spawned. There is not a single conflict that is worthy of mention in the history books that was not caused by the state or a proto-state entity, nor is there any such conflict that would not have been ameliorated by either reduced or absent state involvement. It is for this reason that libertarians focus all of their efforts on this institution. Thus, the objection to libertarianism on account of the allegation that it is contrary to “human nature” concerns, primarily, the question of whether the state is a phenomenon of “human nature” that we have to put up with and is, consequently, useless to fight.
From our preceding analysis, it should already be clear that this is not the case. The state exists for no other purpose than to serve as the ultimate vehicle of pursuing the violent method of achieving ones goals – of forcibly taking from some in order to benefit others.
The state has not existed as a uniform entity throughout human history. Rather, it has blossomed and withered in accordance with people’s desire to use it as such a tool of exploitation and the conviction of the public to either tacitly accept or actively promote its existence. All of the “great” institutions of states that we see today – parliament buildings, executive departments, highly trained armed forces and the complex weaponry and equipment they use, and so on – none of these things is in any way “natural”. Rather, they owe their existence to the fact that specific people, at specific times and places, believed that creating them was a worthwhile endeavour. Their final form that we see today is simply the outcome of centuries of consciously chosen behaviour.
The nature of the conflicts that the state has provoked has also varied – invasion, wars and conquests, direct enslavement of the domestic population, heavy taxation, etc. None of these things simply “occurred” out of nowhere but were undertaken for specifically chosen purposes. Moreover, it is also the case that the strength and power of the state has varied throughout history and varies also across the globe today – all the way from the horror of the former Soviet Union, possibly the worst state that there has ever been, down to the relative powerlessness of the Swiss canton. It is, therefore, far from ridiculous for libertarians to condemn the state as immoral and evil or for them to fight for institutions (or for a realigned global balance of power) that makes the route of violent appropriation via the state a less attractive option. This is something that the Swiss model has achieved domestically and which, globally, may be achieved by the relative rise of China and Russia as a counterweight to the hitherto condition of American uni-polarity that has allowed the latter to promulgate untrammelled aggression across the globe.
The state, therefore, is firmly and undeniably a consequence of human choice, not of human nature, and, as such, it is entirely legitimate to expose it to moral examination. As Karl Hess said:
Libertarians are not determinists who feel that unseen, mystic forces move men and history in inexorable patterns, up and down fated graphs. Libertarians, being radicals, know that men can move history, that Man is history, and that men can grasp their own fate, at the root, and advance it.13
We might as well round off this defence against the “human nature” objection to libertarianism by pointing out that human nature is, in fact, the raison d’être of freedom, not its antithesis. Libertarianism understands humans for what they are – independently thinking, desiring, choosing, and acting beings. Whichever way you look at it there is no higher unit than the individual person who undertakes these activities. Even when our thoughts and desires are influenced by others and the groups we choose to join, the choice to pursue them ultimately remains ours – and, as a result of any particular choice, it is us as individuals who each feel the joy of success and the pain of failure. Libertarianism allows each human, warts and all, to act to fulfil these independent desires and choices within the confines of his own person and property, or within any joint enterprise with willing partners.14
Statism, on the other hand, has always had to override these individual choices, desires, and actions in order to fulfil some grander vision of a “better society”. In the first instance it hopes that these individual desires can be assumed away by imagining that some kind of newly moulded man will work with glee towards “higher” ideals that are desired by the leaders and busybodying visionaries. What they do not realise is that the initial popularity of statism emanates from the fact that individual people think that it will promote what they want while forcing others to shoulder the burden. If socialism, for example, means “from each according to his means to each according to his needs”, everyone expects to be in the category of “needs” rather than “means” – they seldom consider the fact that they may be the ones with the “means” who suffer day and night to meet someone else’s “needs”. As soon everyone realises that the latter is the reality then any incentive to co-operate dissolves and so the state has to wheel out the guns and gulags in order to force people into line. This discord with human nature is one of the reasons why socialist experiments have collapsed while freer societies have prospered. It is, therefore, individual freedom and not an automated, robotic adherence to the state that is in keeping with human nature.
Radicalism vs. Gradualism
The third and final version of the argument that libertarianism is “utopian” and which we shall explore here accepts that libertarianism is neither physically impossible nor necessarily contrary to human nature; however, so this argument goes, libertarianism still fails as the democratic state is so entrenched in the world and people are so inherently statist that any hope for a libertarian society will founder upon the rocks.
The basic thrust of this argument is an assault on libertarianism’s inherently radical nature, and the alleged hopelessness of pursuing radical ideas more generally. Anti-libertarians are content to dismiss any form of libertarianism on these grounds alone; some free market proponents, on the other hand – such as the late Milton Friedman – have accepted this argument and attempt to achieve greater freedom by working within the state system through some kind of gradualism. We will challenge both the anti-radicalist defence of statism and the gradualist approach to freedom here.
In the first place, a proposition may be radical on account of the fact that an opposing proposition is widely accepted and well entrenched. However, it does not follow from this that the importance of either the truth or justice of an unpopular proposition is in any way diminished. For instance, everyone may have once thought that the earth was flat and was at the centre of the universe. However, this consensus changed neither the fact that the earth is actually spherical and orbiting the sun, nor the fact that such an understanding would yield significant progress for human knowledge of their environment. Similarly, if everybody thought that it was perfectly acceptable to murder blacks or rape women and, moreover, everybody was merrily raping and murdering, this would not change the fact that these are inherently evil acts against which every effort should be made to stop them – and, moreover, that the stoppage should be immediate. The difficulty of countering well entrenched views will certainly render our strategy in pursuing a radical goal more difficult, but it does not, contrary to the anti-libertarian stance, invalidate the goal in the first place. Truths do not go away merely because everyone wants them to and in some cases revelation of the truth – such as the true nature of the state and the way it blights mankind – would have such powerful consequences that suffering the difficulty of attainment is worth it. Indeed, we might say that the failure to speak truth to power – or to overwhelming odds – is a sign of cowardice more than it is a sign of realism. The complexities involved in mustering the requisite courage are perhaps best captured by Joseph R Peden when he says:
The libertarian revolution is not the work of a day – or a decade – or a life-time. It is a continuous process through the ages. The focus of the struggle changes from time to time and place to place. Once it involved the abolition of slavery; now it may be women’s liberation; here it may be a struggle for national independence; there it may center on civil liberties; at one moment it may require electioneering and party politics; at another armed self-defense and revolution […] There is a tendency among many libertarians to look for an apocalyptic moment when the State will be smashed forever and anarchy prevail. When they realize that the great moment isn’t about to come in their time, if ever, they lose faith in the integrity and plausibility of libertarian philosophy […] [This] should warn us that libertarianism can quite easily become an adolescent fantasy in minds that are immature and unseasoned by a broad humanistic understanding. It should not be an idée fixe or magic formula, but a moral imperative with which once approaches the complexities of social reality.15
From observing the unfolding of history, we can see quite clearly that ideas – and radical ideas especially – do matter. As the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset reminded us “civilisation is not ‘just there’ – it is not self supporting.”16 In other words, the existence of civilisation cannot be taken for granted and requires instead our active willingness to engage with the ideas which uphold it while repelling those that seek to destroy it. Most of either of such ideas have, at some point, begun as radical, popularly derided theories embraced by only a few intellectuals or pamphleteers – yet their subsequent, widespread adoption has had profound consequences. For instance, without enlightenment philosophy, it is unlikely that the American, French and Industrial Revolutions would ever have occurred; Karl Marx died in relative obscurity outside of radical circles, yet his theories went on to enslave half the globe; democracy has scarcely been taken seriously for almost the entire history of political thought, yet now one is laughed out of the room for even entertaining the suggestion that it is anything shy of brilliant. Moreover, it is difficult to dispute the fact that the triumph of democracy has endowed the state with a hitherto unseen halo of legitimacy that has served to justify its ever increasing expansion and perpetuation of atrocities. For example, millennia of monarchs, emperors and entrenched dynasties failed to create a world trading entirely with paper money; yet democracy “achieved” it in just a few decades.
In short, therefore, what people think has changed dramatically and has had very real effects upon humanity. Consequently we must be prepared to influence what they think if we want to change the course of history.17 Ideas that are pummelled today will be praised tomorrow, and the seeming remoteness of victory today does not mean that victory will never arrive. As T S Eliot said
If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.
Turning now to gradualism, any strategy which has jettisoned an ultimate goal or radical principle ends up bringing about a state of affairs that it is qualitatively different. The reason for this is that such a strategy needs to fill its ideological vacuum with some other guiding philosophy in order to inform its choices. For explicitly gradualist approaches towards freedom this has ended up being some kind of utilitarianism. In addition to this, as the focus of such gradualism has been to work hand in hand with as opposed to against the state, its proponents have been forced to accept the state’s perpetuation of basic injustices (such as its taxes, regulations, and monopoly over law, order and defence), thus morphing any of their criticism in this regard to being criticisms of degree rather than of kind. Consequently, any fulfilment of their obsession with “efficiency” has allowed the gradualist approach to accommodate and expand these injustices as they see fit. Therefore, the nature of the liberalising project has morphed into something which, rather than challenging injustice, instead permits it to be accommodated or replaced by further injustices.18
For example, debates in the nineteenth century over the abolition of slavery were mired by considerations of whether the slaveholders should be “compensated” for the loss of their “property” in the slaves. It took the radical philosopher, Benjamin Pearson, to point out that it was the slaves who should be compensated for their years of misery while the slaveholders should be punished. Similarly, proposals for “school vouchers” wax lyrical about the benefits of “choice”, “competition” and “consumer sovereignty” without considering the choice and sovereignty of the tax payers who are mulcted to pay for it all, let alone the indoctrinating nature of state education. And, of course, any talk of tax reform is persistently blighted by some perceived necessity for any changes to the tax code to be “revenue neutral” – a concern which, judging by its prominence in the first paragraph of its 2017 tax reform plan, seems to be a priority for the Adam Smith Institute.19
So going back to our earlier, hypothetical society that enjoys raping women and murdering blacks, such approaches would translate into proposals to “compensate” murderers and rapists for their loss of enjoyment from murdering and raping; or to issue “rape vouchers”; or to ensure that “murder reform” was “murder neutral”. Framed in this light we can see that these proposals are not only utterly ridiculous but completely immoral – and, moreover, would result in something that is qualitatively different from anything we would regard as a free society.
This critique of the gradualist approach does not seek to admonish anyone who accepts a movement towards an ultimate goal which, although falling short of it, yields a significant improvement. For example, we could accept, say, a 10% reduction of all taxes across the board with no strings attached, even if a residual tax burden remains. The point is that one must, in the first place, approach the table hoping to get everything that one wants in the fullest and quickest manner possible. When confronted by murder, rape, and slavery, for instance, one must begin by hoping to eradicate these abominations completely. All actual outcomes must then be judged in relation to this yardstick. On the other hand, if you come to the table demanding only half measures then you will never leave with anything more than half measures. No doubt, it is for this reason that William Lloyd Garrison said “gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.”20
Neither also are we seeking to criticise anyone who would caution us against abolishing a certain injustice on account of the fact that an even greater calamity might follow – such might be the case if, for example, welfare recipients rioted as a result of their funds being cut off. This is simply an expression of prudence that seeks to prevent causing more harm to the existing victims of the state than has already been inflicted. It is a million miles away from the travesty of the gradualist approach which regards the livelihoods of the perpetrators of injustice, whether they are murderers, rapists, slaveholders or just parents who expect “society” to educate their children, as being more important than the liberty of the victims. As Murray N Rothbard says:
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.21
Indeed, the fatal flaw of gradualism is that it cares too much about rocking the boat rather than dealing with the pirates who have commandeered it (although we should probably also mention that the opportunity to share in the rum barrel plays a dimension in this regard). The purpose of radical ideas, however, is not to keep the ship afloat – it is to come to the rescue when it sinks. And, as noted earlier, our ship of heavily socialised democracy is almost certainly going sink at some point. When, for instance, Soviet communism collapsed in the 1980s-1990s, the last thing their long-suffering people wanted was a watered down version of that which had already failed them so catastrophically. Given that Western academics had been so pre-occupied with glorifying Marxism or preaching Keynesianism this one, great opportunity to administer the coup de grâce to all forms of socialism while they were on their knees was simply wasted.22
In at least two cases where free market reforms have been implemented successfully and long lastingly – in Hong Kong under John James Cowperthwaite and in New Zealand under Roger Douglas, both of whom were the Finance Ministers in their respective jurisdictions – a crisis was met with a “big bang” approach that swept away statist interference across the board in one, fell swoop. Douglas himself took the time to explain why such an approach and only such approach is likely work.23
First, clear goals and introducing them speedily prevent special interest groups from dragging the project down – by the time these people have worked out how to respond to a particular reform another one has already appeared. Second, reaching those clear goals in quantum leaps, rather than step by step, means that their positive effects appear much sooner, generating public support for them very quickly. This renders any endeavour to reach consensus with interest groups prior to the introduction of reforms – which Douglas regarded as rarely possible – unnecessary. This also demolishes the problem of residual economic distortions which linger when only some state interference is rolled back in a piecemeal fashion. Third, the snowballing effect of support gained from tangible progress and prosperity completely neutralises the opposition – devoid of the ability to suggest any practical alternative that could be so good, they are reduced to spouting empty platitudes.24 And finally, the faster you go the shorter the period of any uncertainty concerning the legal and regulatory environment, allowing businesses and entrepreneurs to make plans and invest capital sooner.25
All in all, Douglas took his shot and made the kill while his opponents hadn’t even picked up their guns. The fact that the results spoke for themselves initiated a circular motion where rapid and radical reform led to actual success that, in turn, served to create increased support for further reform. This contrasted with the approach of Douglas’ predecessor, Robert Muldoon (who was Prime Minister concurrently) who would only change things if no one was left worse off in the short term. Thus he ended up changing little.
We can round off this defence of radicalism by conceding to both anti-libertarians and to gradualist free marketers their best possible scenario. What would happen if the libertarian goal was, in fact, achieved in one, fell swoop and the state vanished, right now, in an instant? What would happen if, to mimic a scenario posited by Leonard Read26, we could push a big red button which would enable us to obliterate the state immediately and unremorsefully?
Statists would like to tell us that society would soon collapse into murderous chaos; gradualists would probably say the same thing. But would this necessarily be the case? As we said earlier, the existence of the state is a product of conscious choice – it is a means for achieving certain ends. When the state ceases to provide the means for fulfilling these ends it will not be the case that we all give up and fail to look for an alternative. Nature abhors a vacuum, and acting man even more so.
Therefore, if the state was to vanish in a puff of smoke, there may well be a transitory period of restlessness but people would soon take steps to protect and defend their property, with these private means eventually replacing the monopolistic provision of the state. Actual breakdowns of civil order have never lasted long enough for such private means to flourish or to crystallise into formal organisations, but we have seen their genesis in prominent incidents when the official, state police failed to come to the rescue – for example, in Koreatown during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 2011 UK riots, and in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.
In any case, it is not true that people refrain from engaging in private murder and theft simply because the state would clobber us if we did otherwise. Without the state the number of people willing to commit private murder and theft would still be in the minority. The majority abstain from these acts not because the government is preventing them from doing them but because a) they recognise them as evil and b) beyond the confines of immediate gratification they are ultimately counterproductive to maintaining the standard of living. Abolishing the state will not change this view. If any proponent of a statist order was to suggest otherwise then it is permissible to ask him what he would do if the state vanished suddenly. Would he be among the looters and plunderers? Would he be out smashing windows and burning down shops? Or would he be trying to create some semblance of civil order? If he would opt for the latter then on which grounds would he assume that everyone else would choose the former? In fact, getting rid of the state will annihilate the institution which is viewed as being the sole conduit for acts of violence to be perpetrated legitimately. Thus, by removing this veneer of legitimacy, the immediate destruction of the state would bring about a swift, moral improvement of the populace rather than its retrogression into barbarism.
Interestingly, the gradualists in this instance have a weaker argument than the outright statists. Statists have an overriding distrust of the marketplace to create any kind of acceptable social order and so their conclusion that the immediate disappearance of the state would lead to chaos does, at least, have some consistency. Gradualists, however, wax lyrical about how “efficient” private individuals are when it comes to giving us more food, clothing, cars, and so on. But, for some reason, they do not trust those private individuals to manage any transition to a free society.
In closing, we can note that although libertarian principles are shamelessly radical, the path to fulfilling them may not be that radical at all. Centralising, statist projects, such as the EU, attempt to destroy the cultural, customary, and religious foundations of Western civilisation in order to replace it with their own, artificially constructed, trans-national, multicultural monoliths. It is, in fact, these aims that are being rejected as too radical by the subjugated populations. In challenging them libertarians are, for the most part, trying to stop the world from being created anew, rather than create it anew ourselves. Moreover, the leftist/statist frenzy has now descended into being such a farce that political satirists are finding it too difficult to make things up – and that what they previously considered as far fetched jokes based on just a kernel of truth are inflating into full blown reality.27 This is not difficult to understand in an age which regards itself as immune to not only well-established social customs but is also engaging in an Orwellian endeavour to rewrite basic logic and common sense – that “free speech” is now speech the left agrees with; that “tolerance” means violently assaulting those who disagree with you; that “hate crime” is more evil than real crime28; that gender does not exist, or if it does exist then there is something like fifty of them; that we need to argue about who can use which toilet. In confronting all of this it seems that libertarians do not need to appear radical and certainly not utopian – instead, we may just need to be “normal”.
1This should not be taken to mean that an ethical proposition is necessarily untenable merely on account of it being difficult to fulfil or requiring some kind of triumph over adversity. Neither does it mean that any human should shy away from pushing the limits of his prior accomplishments. For example, my golfing skills may be so hopeless that it is all but impossible for me to land the ball onto the green rather than in the bunker. But the means for me to make a reasonable attempt at improving my skill – golf clubs, the golf course, and practice time – are all available to me now so it is not “utopian” for someone to suggest that I do so, however lacking in talent I may be. But no amount of practice could cause me to leap from Britain to China with the means available now. Other ethical propositions that fall somewhere between these two points will have to be judged on a case by case basis.
2This should not be read as an endorsement of any particular scheme – what is important is the attempt to furnish an alternative.
3For an example of this kind of critique, see Peter Corning, What’s the Matter with Libertarianism? https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-fair-society/201108/what-s-the-matter-libertarianism. To the extent that he is a supporter of democracy, Corning is, as is typical for this kind of critic, woefully inconsistent. If the freedom to choose for oneself is based upon “selfishness” then how do we justify the principle of one adult one vote? Is it not the case that each voter decides for himself which government is better? Consequently won’t any democratically elected government also be a product of selfishness?
4For a full explanation of the libertarian understanding of group organisations and “society”, see Duncan Whitmore, Libertarianism and the Collective, https://misesuk.org/2018/05/09/libertarianism-and-the-collective.
5See note 3, above.
6Murray N Rothbard, The Mantle of Science, Chapter 1 in Economic Controversies, p.3. The pioneering exposition of human action is, of course, the eponymous treatise of Ludwig von Mises. See Ludwig von Mises, Human Action – a Treatise on Economics, Part One.
7Not that this is sufficient to stop the occasional attempt: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_McCandless.
8We are not, it should be noted, suggesting that expedience is the only concern in this appraisal. As we shall see below, ideas and, consequently, the moral dimension play a critical role in human choices.
9The attractiveness of socialism has always depended upon the fact that there is a pre-existing stock of wealth, produced by capitalism and owned by rich capitalists, ready to expropriate. It has been eminently unsuccessful at explaining precisely how it will create new wealth from there.
10For an earlier example of these dynamics, Rothbard ascribes the birth of the modern nation-state to the “expansion of medieval production and trade” between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries that resulted in an accumulation of wealth and capital that “provided great temptations to Power to seize and divert that wealth for its own nonproductive [sic] […] purposes”. Murray N Rothbard, Conceived in Liberty, Vol. I, p.7.
11Ralph Raico’s unsympathetic analyses of Winston Churchill suggest that the latter was subject to this kind of thinking. See Ralph Raico, Rethinking Churchill, in John V Denson (e.d), The Costs of War – America’s Pyrrhic Victories; Ralph Raico, Winston Churchill: An Appreciation, Libertarian Forum, Vol. VIII, No. 8, August 1975.
12One of the better informed commentators on the communitarian aspects of libertarianism is the blogger writing under the pseudonym “Bionic Mosquito”. However, even he/she explains these aspects in terms of some kind of disembodied “desire” for “culture, tradition and community” – a desire that just happens to be a part of “man’s nature” and does not owe itself to any consciously appreciated reasons. In two approving examinations of a book by Robert Nisbet (One Hand Washing the Other https://bionicmosquito.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/one-hand-washing-other.html; and Community Lost https://bionicmosquito.blogspot.co.uk/2018/05/community-lost.html) “Bionic Mosquito” finds (at least part) of the explanation for the growth of “the technocratic state” in man’s apparent search for a sense of “community” following the desecration of traditional outfits (such as “guilds, churches, universities, villages and family”) by the philosophy of individualism.
To the extent that classical liberalism and the enlightenment over-emphasised rationalism and individualism at the expense of the communitarian aspects of human flourishing it is true that traditional communitarian bonds were left ideologically vulnerable. Moreover, we can certainly indict misguided faith in the infallibility of man’s reason (embodied, for example, in what Hayek called “constructivist rationalism”) for giving the green light to the horrors of social engineering. However, it is not the case that such philosophies were the direct cause of communitarian demise. The popularity of statism/socialism has never been generated by some engrained desire for “community” but by its promise of a brighter economic future – right from Fourier’s ridiculous notion of roast pigeons flying themselves into hungry mouths through to the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto which almost exclusively talks about economic prosperity. Consequently, it was not the case that “individualism” first destroyed local and traditional organisations and the populace then sought their mysterious longing for “community” in the “totalizing state”. Instead, it was statism/socialism that destroyed these things after it had been ushered in by the people – such destruction being carried out in order to obliterate competing centres of authority, allegiance and economic progress so that centrally devised plans could be implemented. China, for instance, was under communist rule for nearly twenty years before it suffered the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, the inevitable failure of socialism actually led to a resurgence of traditional communitarian ties because unofficial channels and mutual favours were often the only way to overcome shortages of basic goods.
13Karl Hess, What the Movement Needs, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July 1, 1969, Vol. 1, no. VII.
14Thus any kind of voluntary association – communities, clubs, companies, families, and so on – together with their cultures, morals, rules and edicts that may restrict individual action, are perfectly accepted in a libertarian society. See note 4, above.
15Joseph R Peden, Liberty: From Rand to Christ, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July – August 1971, Vol. III, nos. 6-7.
16José Ortega y Gasset, Revolt of the Masses, p. 62.
17Indeed, the state would not expend so much effort in trying to justify itself – through the co-option of intellectuals and educators – if this was not the case.
18The political theory of every gradualist, neo-liberal, and utilitarian free marketer is fundamentally no different from that of any explicit statist. Every political philosophy permits individual freedom so long as it does not interfere with ends which the proponent of the philosophy regards as important. Such free marketers are happy to let us all be free until this freedom results in something that they happen not to like.
19https://www.adamsmith.org/blog/taxin2017. Amusingly the author has the audacity to regard this programme, which does little more than rearrange the deck chairs, as “radical”.
20As Hans-Hermann Hoppe puts it: “Compromise on the level of theory, as we find it, for instance, among moderate free-marketeers such as Hayek or Friedman […] is not only philosophically flawed but is also practically ineffective and indeed counterproductive. Their ideas can be – and in fact are – easily co-opted by the state rulers and statist ideology. […] In other words, theoretical compromise or gradualism will only lead to the perpetuation of the falsehood, evils and lies of statism, and only theoretical purism, radicalism and intransigence can and will lead first to gradual practical reform and improvement and then possibly to final victory”. Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Rothbardian Ethics, Ch. 15 in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, p. 395.
21Murray N Rothbard, For a New Liberty, p.380.
22It was a tragically ironic joke among economists during the Cold War that, at any conference or summit at which East met West, the Soviet economists would speak about how wonderful the free market is while the Western economists would wax lyrical about socialism.
23The following explanation is based upon J P Floru’s analysis of Douglas’ book Unfinished Business. See J P Floru, Heavens on Earth – How to Create Mass Prosperity, pp. 233-4.
24According to Floru, the support for reform even went as far as farmers understanding the importance of being subsidy-free. Ibid, p. 235.
25In this regard, we can see the effects of gradualism in action with Britain’s transition from being an EU member state to a full, sovereign nation. Politicians continually emphasise the need to provide businesses with “certainty”. And yet isn’t that what a complete cut off from the EU, right now, would achieve? In contrast, it is the gut wrenching, state-managed, three year withdrawal process, of which nobody has a clear picture of the resulting legal environment, which is causing the most uncertainty.
26Leonard Read, I’d Push the Button, https://fee.org/resources/id-push-the-button.