Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Strategy for Liberty

The title of this post is taken from chapter 15 of Murray Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto.”  Throughout the book, Rothbard has laid out the case for the libertarian solution to the problems of politics and government.  In this chapter, he suggests how to get from here to there.  He also deals with some of the common objections to the idea of liberty and to the approach taken by some.  For these reasons, I found this chapter to be most valuable.

Education: Theory and Movement

We face the great strategic problem of all “radical” creeds throughout history: How can we get from here to there, from our current State-ridden and imperfect world to the great goal of liberty?

On one point there can scarcely be disagreement: a prime and necessary condition for libertarian victory (or, indeed, for victory for any social movement, from Buddhism to vegetarianism) is education: the persuasion and conversion of large numbers of people to the cause. 

Sadly, this point is missed by many.  Without education – “the persuasion and conversion of large numbers of people” – there is no hope ever to see a movement toward liberty take hold.  This was the benefit of Ron Paul’s two recent presidential campaigns – through his efforts, countless millions have had the scales lifted from their eyes. 

Many individuals and organizations contribute today to this education.  Two of the most prominent are The Mises Institute and  There are many others that contribute as well: The Daily Bell, Justin Raimondo, Economic Policy Journal, and the Future of Freedom Foundation to name a few.  I certainly am leaving off many.  Each one speaks to people in different ways, yet each makes a valuable contribution to the education of liberty.

Rothbard deals with one criticism often heard – “we” are only talking to ourselves:

Furthermore, one often hears libertarians (as well as members of other social movements) bewail that they are “only talking to themselves” with their books and journals and conferences; that few people of the “outside world” are listening. 

Keep in mind that Rothbard wrote this book more than two decades before there was even a semblance of a user-friendly internet – a world of mimeo-graphs and snail-mail lists.  With the internet, the possibility of reaching out to others has increased exponentially – and the facts have proven this out.  It is still amazing to see this in tangible results – twenty-four years ago Ron Paul received less than 1% of the vote as the Libertarian Party candidate for President.  He might draw dozens to an event.  The difference today is like night and day.  Yet, the charge is often made today, as if nothing has changed – as if all the libertarians could fit in a phone booth or something.

Rothbard finds fault in this charge; he sees value in such internal dialogue:

But this frequent charge gravely misconceives the many-sided purpose of “education” in the broadest sense.  It is not only necessary to educate others; continual self-education is also (and equally) necessary….Education of “ourselves” accomplishes two vital goals.  One is the refining and advancing of the libertarian “theory….”  Libertarianism… must be a living theory, advancing through writing and discussion, and through refuting and combatting errors as they arise.  

This charge is often made – why get into debates about oftentimes minor issues when all that this does is divide an already small movement?  Rothbard makes clear why this is helpful.  There is continual education needed amongst even those who have embraced the political ideas of libertarians. 

But there is another critical reason for “talking to ourselves,” even if that were all the talking that was going on.  And that is reinforcement—the psychologically necessary knowledge that there are other people of like mind to talk to, argue with, and generally communicate and interact with….A flourishing movement with a sense of community and esprit de corps is the best antidote for giving up liberty as a hopeless or “impractical” cause.

How true this is.  There is a remnant, and to know and be reminded that there are others of like-mind offers hope and encouragement.

Are We “Utopians”?

This comes up regularly – it has never worked, who will control the bad guys, you have to believe man is perfect if you advocate this, etc.  Libertarians are utopians.

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.

This is suggested by many as the right approach for seemingly libertarian-leaning politicians – hide your true feelings, and then spring it on the government once you are elected.  If only Ron Paul wouldn’t say that.  Or so-and-so-pseudo-libertarian-candidate is only talking this way to get elected.

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….If libertarians refuse to hold aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal, who will?

This is why I support taking the approach to aim small. Those who advocate the non-aggression principle will never come close to hitting the target if they aren’t aiming for the target.

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.

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage….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. 

How true, and in different ways demonstrated by many of the organizations and individuals I have cited above.

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.

How many times are libertarians blasted with the idea to be gradual: don’t eliminate all foreign aid, just eliminate it from our enemies; we should remove US troops from foreign zones where there is no identifiable strategic interest; let’s eliminate all of the government waste before we worry about reducing the scope of government; don’t end the Fed, let’s just make sure that they stick to rules for inflation; we need to devise a fair taxation scheme, but we cannot just eliminate income taxes.  The list is long.

The problem is no one will get excited about these proposals.  They are all versions of what every politician through time has ever proposed.  Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and countless others could be behind many of these statements.  These statements fully support the status quo as these statements accept the terms of the debate.  The general policies are philosophically acceptable; it is only the details or the magnitude that must be tweaked.  It continues the desired conversation: policy debate instead of debate regarding fundamental principles.

There is nothing in this approach that will inspire.  There is nothing here to draw people to a different, all-encompassing world-view. 

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?


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….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. Otherwise, as Garrison trenchantly warned, “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.”

Unless someone is holding tight to the objective and regularly speaking forcefully for its implementation – the abolition of slavery or the abolition of coercion in relationships – no one will ever take the objective seriously.  Why would the objective be taken seriously if no one cares enough to defend and advocate for it?  How can one come close to hitting the target if he isn’t even aiming for it?

Rothbard then comes to identify the “true utopian” system:

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.

Is it utopian to recognize that every individual is an individual, with a desire to acquire and enjoy his possessions (not only material) in quiet comfort, each individual with different preferences and values?  Is it utopian to understand that certain men (and the ones most apt to use it abusively), when offered the possibility of monopoly power, will do whatever is necessary to grab those reins and then use the power to their own advantage?

Rothbard sees that there are two issues when it comes to the idea of “utopian” and these must each be identified and dealt with separately:

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.

I have already mentioned the work of many who are providing the latter: education.  As to the former: the communist ideology, for example, like all coercive and controlling ideologies behind state power, holds to the implicit assumption that such centralized power can be kept in check.  What is true for communism is equally true for any form of centralized, monopolized, state power.  In other words, equally true for virtually every state in the world today.

But such power cannot be kept in check.  To believe otherwise is quite utopian.  It is utopian to believe that man can fundamentally change the nature of his fellow man.  That somehow monopoly power will not attract those to whom monopoly power is attractive; that once in control, those in power will keep themselves in check.

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….The idea of a strictly limited constitutional State was a noble experiment that failed, even under the most favorable and propitious circumstances….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.

The difficulty of limited government: the governed and the governors won’t agree on the definition of “limited.”  And as it is the governors to whom monopoly power is granted, guess who will win that debate?

Rothbard leaves open the possibility for transitional steps, but only with certain objectives kept at the forefront:

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…

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.

Always a reminder of the ultimate objective; only movement toward the ultimate objective is acceptable.

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.

Again, such arguments only play into the hands of those who desire to control the dialogue.  Instead of always moving toward the elimination of taxes (as in this example), it turns into a discussion of which taxes, some are better than others, some are more “efficient” than others, one should replace another, etc.

Why Liberty Will Win

The case for libertarian optimism can be made in a series of what might be called concentric circles, beginning with the broadest and longest-run considerations and moving to the sharpest focus on short-run trends.  In the broadest and longest-run sense, libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of ma n and of the world.  Only liberty can achieve man’s prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually out.

I will add that it is not only the only system compatible with man’s nature and desire for prosperity and happiness.  It is also the only system that recognizes the dark side of man and therefore disallows the concentration of political power.

But such long-run considerations may be very long indeed, and waiting many centuries for truth to prevail may be small consolation for those of us living at any particular moment in history. Fortunately, there is a shorter-run reason for hope….

Hooray, I hope.

The clock cannot be turned back to a preindustrial age….We are stuck with the industrial age, whether we like it or not.

But if that is true, then the cause of liberty is secured.  For economic science has shown, as we have partially demonstrated in this book, that only freedom and a free market can run an industrial economy.  In short…in an industrial world it is also a vital necessity.  For, as Ludwig von Mises and other economists have shown, in an industrial economy statism simply does not work.

This is an interesting observation.  Drastic interruptions to the free-market can only occur for a (relatively) short period without risking civilization. 

In the twentieth century, Mises demonstrated (a) that all statist intervention distorts and cripples the market and leads, if not reversed, to socialism; and (b) that socialism is a disaster because it cannot plan an industrial economy for lack of profit-and-loss incentives, and for lack of a genuine price system or property rights in capital, land, and other means of production.

We do not have to prophesy the ruinous effects of statism; they are here at every hand.

Significant interruption to the free-market will end up in destruction.  Without relatively free prices and the discipline of profit-and-loss, resources are wasted.  Are we currently passing through the final convulsions?  Is this the root of the calamity we are seeing – the protests and revolts due to high double-digit unemployment throughout much of the developed world?  The high unemployment brought on by the disruptive policies of the state?

But now statism has advanced so far and been in power so long that the cushion is worn thin; as Mises pointed out as long ago as the 1940s, the “reserve fund” created by laissez- faire has been “exhausted.”

It is interesting to note: this observation from Mises was seven decades ago.  Yet here we are, continuing in the convulsions.

Indeed, we can confidently say that the United States has now entered a permanent crisis situation, and we can even pinpoint the years of origin of that crisis: 1973–1975.  Happily for the cause of liberty, not only has a crisis of statism arrived in the United States, but it has fortuitously struck across the board of society, in many different spheres of life at about the same time.

Rothbard goes on to list the many economic and social problems of the 1970s. 

Rothbard’s observations are almost four decades old, yet the convulsions continue – still no final collapse.  Perhaps this serves to demonstrate the vast amount of wealth in reserve available to be destroyed (see here and here). The west had behind it centuries of wealth (not only or even primarily financial, but cultural and intellectual) – see “From Dawn to Decadence” by Jacques Barzun. 


There is no magic formula for strategy; any strategy for social change, resting as it does on persuasion and conversion, can only be an art rather than an exact science.  But having said this, we are still not bereft of wisdom in the pursuit of our goals. There can be a fruitful theory, or at the very least, theoretical discussion, of the proper strategy for change.

Rothbard does this wonderfully well.  Throughout this book and especially in this chapter he gives much to those who remain open to consider that there can be success in achieving this “radical creed” of libertarianism. 


  1. just read this over at lew rockwell. wonderful essay. thanks for a great piece.


    1. Thank you for the encouraging comment. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      I took so much from Rothbard on this one that the credit must all go to him. My purpose was only to highlight some of the wonderful possibilities he demonstrates in his typically simple-to-understand, straightforward manner.