January 4, 2012 by galudwig
Adam Pearson wrote a rousing post on the cause of liberty and the strategy of achieving its objectives yesterday. I am extremely sympathetic to his views and agree with all of his conclusions concerning self-education, but I am not completely convinced that this will be how libertarians will eventually be able to smash the state.
Adam takes a very Rothbardian position on the libertarian strategy for victory (page 297 – 322), and while I do not in any way purport to be capable of deeper thought (nor have I ever took the time for it) than either Rothbard or Adam, I feel I must deviate from this path somewhat. Not because I think a strategy of what Rothbard would call “right-wing opportunism” would be more effective (it would not, for all the reasons he and Adam have outlined), but for the following reason:
We live in a world that is, sadly, ruled by powerful states which use violence to organize society and are supported by fleeting, temporal political majorities. Even though the libertarian movement has never, in its entire history, been as “pure” as it has been now since the days of Rothbard, and though it has grown by leaps and bounds in the past decades, we must remember that we are still primarily “talking amongst ourselves”. We are considered a fringe group by the overwhelming majority of individuals in society. But this majority is only partly susceptible to logical arguments, as it consists mostly of those who vote with their “hearts”, not their “brains”.
Continual self-education strengthens our beliefs and brings us closer to real truth, so don’t understand me wrong, I am not at all claiming that this is not necessary. Furthermore, the need for a pure movement is also clear, considering the failure of previous, more “diluted” movements of liberty — intellectual ones like those spearheaded by such authors as Friedman and Hayek, and political ones like the fusionist doctrines of Reagan and Thatcher. No, we need a strong, pure, idealistic movement, consisting of intellectual giants who can provide us with the intellectual ammunition with which we, ministers of freedom, as Adam calls it, are to fight the state in all its evil. And, yes, we militants must in turn be as educated and well-equipped as possible to deflect any and all arguments our intellectual enemies will throw at us.
BUT. An intellectual movement and a political movement are not one and the same, and it is ultimately a change in the political environment that we are trying to achieve. I think that if we look at the history of the 19th century, we see here the history of a true intellectual-political philosophy of liberty. Its great proponents smashed the old mercantilist theories and gradually gained greater shares in the power over the state apparatus. Though none were ever able to free themselves completely from certain state doctrines, this was a time when it seemed that in a few generations, liberty would engulf the entire world. So what happened? Socialism happened.
Adam talks in a comment on his post about the communist strategy for victory, pointing at its pure movement which did not stray from the true path, and this is entirely correct. However, these hardcore believers were the ones who achieved victory through violence, spurious doctrines such as dialectical materialism and polylogism, and mass murder, tactics which I can hardly see being used by libertarians. The more lasting successes of socialism were more attributable to their multi-layered strategy, which was really a mix of the above hardcore elements, their mass appeal through emotional arguments and their high-brow rhetoric. In the liberal democracies, the rhetoric pulled in the intellectually inclined and their mass appeal and emotional argumentation handed them the victory.
The 19th century liberals ultimately failed and their hopes and dreams of a liberal future turned out to be vain, in retrospect almost ridiculously so. And this, in spite of having the better arguments, generally being better educated, and even having political power in many countries. The reason (in my opinion) is that they were unable to compete with the socialists in their fight for popular support and votes. And why? Because the people were not interested in who was right, but rather more in who seemed to have the best intentions and who could promise the most without hesitation (the socialist author whose name escapes me who promised that the oceans would be filled with orange juice springs to mind).
Flash-forward to today and the libertarians are now a fringe position. We have the intellectual arguments, we have a pure movement of liberty, but what we do not have is popular support. Cutting my rant short, while we are spreading the gospel of liberty and are well on our way of building a libertarian future, it will only come true if we can pull not just the intellectually inclined, but those who vote with their “hearts” as well. We must build arguments that speak to the emotions of the socially conscious. We must speak in terms of liberty and slavery, of life and death, of good and evil. Adam is entirely right when he says that someone who is swayed by an emotional appeal will generally only be so in the short term, but it is in the short term that history is made and elections are decided, also, one strategy does not preclude the use of others. It seems, to me at least, that we are winning the intellectual battle, but we can not afford to neglect the political one. In short, we must attack on all fronts, and strengthen on those fields where interventionism/socialism has an advantage, because the enemies of liberty are not going to make it easy for us and will keep calling us antisocial, racist, supporters of child labor, or any other insult which is completely ridiculous, but which causes regular people to avoid conversing with us..