This first appeared in The Libertarian Forum, June 1971
The libertarian movement has long been far stronger on ultimate principle than it has in strategic thinking. While we cannot overrate the importance of providing a theoretical picture of the society toward which we are striving, we have done much more of this needed theorizing than we have considered how in the world to get from our current “here” to the ideal “there.” This deficiency of strategy and tactics is highlighted by our general failure to consider two dramatic recent victories for liberty, for destatizing, and to ponder what lessons they may offer for future strategy. These recent victories are the generally rapid movement for the repeal of abortion laws, and the successful movement to rollback and eventually abolish rent controls in New York State.
To use those much-abused terms once more, the “right- wing” of the libertarian movement tends to be pure “educationists”, while the “left-wing” tends to call for immediate destruction of existing society. Both strategies are self- defeating, and both in effect insure that the success of liberty can never be achieved. The educationists call for increased devotion to education, to spreading the ideas and the scholarship of libertarianism throughout society, for a new form of “cultural revolution” in behalf of reason and liberty. Now while I wholeheartedly endorse the proposal for ever-wider education, the problem is that this strategy is necessary but scarcely sufficient for victory, i.e. for translating these libertarian concepts into the real world. The educationist view tends to hold that as more people are converted, the State will somehow automatically wither away. But how? And by what mechanism? Often the educationists explicitly rule out all possible mechanisms for pressuring the State to roll itself back or dismantle itself: violence is dismissed as evil, mass demonstrations as coercive, voting or influencing politicians as injuring libertarian purity, civil disobedience as violating the principle that while the laws are on the books they must be obeyed. But how then is the State to be rolled back? The educationists have thereby systematically ruled out all ways but one: convincing the men in power to resign.
In short, Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson or Henry Kissinger or whoever is supposed to read Atlas Shrugged or Power and Market or Human Action or This Bread is Mine or whatever and say: “Eureka! This is it! They’re right, and I’ve been wrong. I resign and look for honest employment.” Now certainly such instant conversions by our sinners are conceptually possible, and once in a while, in isolated cases, they indeed happen, and should be saluted and cheered. But surely history shows that such large-scale conversions are highly unlikely, to say the least; no ruling elite in history has voluntarily surrendered its power on any grounds, much less on massive recognition of its own sins. And surely for libertarians to rest their strategic perspective on such conversion of sinners would be folly indeed. And yet that is the strategic dead-end to which our educationists would consign us.
It is true that our left-wing R-r-revolutionaries confront the problem of Power, which the educationists do not; but their strategic prescription of instant and indiscriminate destruction is not only self-defeating but suicidal as well. The moral legitimacy of self-defense against the State is beside the strategic point: the point being that the use of violence only serves to alienate the very American public whom we are trying to convince. And “alienate” is of course a very tame word here: “polarize”, “enrage”, would be far more accurate. Another point which the violent revolutionaries forget is that there has never been a successful armed revolution against a democratic government; all toppled governments have been seen by the public to be outside themselves, either as dictatorships or monarchies (Cuba, China, Russia, 18th Century France, 17th Century England) or as imperial powers (the American Revolution, the Algerian Revolution). The Left is fond of pointing to the Tupamaros of Uruguay as a successful urban guerrilla movement, but the evident point here is that the Tupamaros have not at this writing succeeded, or shown any signs of doing so. So long as free elections exist, then, the use of violence by American rebels will only prove suicidal and counterproductive.
We must reject then both strategies: the defeatist torpor of the educationists, and the frenzied nihilism of the Revolutionaries. What then should be our positive strategy? This is a difficult problem, especially since the art of strategy and tactics depends on the forces at work at the particular time. But here is a prime strategic lesson: that while we must be pure and consistent in principle, we must be flexible in tactics. We must be willing to adopt any tactic that seems likely to bring about the goal of liberty, any tactic, that is, that is not in itself immoral and itself violates the libertarian creed. Take, for example, the MayDay Tribe demonstrations this spring in Washington. In contrast to the effective and moving demonstrations that preceded Mayday, the goal of the Tribe seemed to be to blockade and “trash” private automobiles, thus typically expressing the Left’s hatred against the private car. For the libertarian, however, not only was the Mayday tactic counterproductive in alienating the great bulk of Americans, it also violated libertarian principle by directing its ire against private property — the very thing that the libertarian is concerned to defend and expand. No genuine libertarian could consider such trashing in any way except with abhorrence.
For a more positive model, let us consider the two most prominent victories for destatizing in recent years: the repeal of abortion laws and the substantial removal of rent control in New York. How did these victories come about? Let us consider the rent decontrol case first, as a simpler model. Rent control has been imposed in New York since World War II, and a few years ago it was even imposed anew on postwar buildings. Seemingly, it was a system destined to last forever. All these years, the aggrieved landlords of New York had protested, but in vain. The new recent ingredient was clearly the patent failure and collapse of housing in New York City in the last few years. For few new apartment houses have been built in recent years, due to rent controls and zoning restrictions; existing housing has deteriorated, and abandonments of houses by landlords unable to pay taxes have increased, adding to the plight of the homeless. Furthermore, the Liberal claim that rent controls are merely a temporary device until the apartment shortage disappeared was given the lie by the fact that the shortage of apartments in New York has gotten visibly worse rather than better. In short, as a result of rent controls and high property taxes, the housing situation in New York has reached a crisis stage, and it was this crisis situation that impelled the state authorities to turn to new solutions — to turn, indeed, onto the firm path of decontrol. But the lesson here is that the government cannot be induced to change its ways by theory alone; it was the crisis situation brought about by controls that led Governor Rockefeller and the state legislators to turn to the free-market theorists who were there with the decontrol solution at hand. Theory, however correct, will not be put into effect unless a crisis situation arrives to force the government out of its habitual bureaucratic inertia and onto a search for new solutions.
Abortion reform also had the ingredients of sound libertarian theory at work plus a crisis situation. The theory had been propounded for years by pro-abortion groups, but was accelerated recently by the fact that the Women’s Lib groups, in their raucous and annoying manner, had stumbled across a purely libertarian theory which they propounded with force and effect: that every woman has the absolute right to own and control her own body. The attention devoted to Women’s Lib by the media assured that the politicians finally were able to hear, not a wishy-washy liberal plea for moderate abortion reform, but the extreme” — and consistent — view that the State had no right to pass any abortion restrictions whatever.
While libertarian theory had been firmed up and spread more aggressively, a crisis situation was becoming ever more blatant: and this was the massive, nonviolent civil disobedience of women and doctors who obtained their abortions illegally. And not only were increasing numbers of women and doctors willing to ignore the law; but others were increasingly willing to broaden the fuzzy zone that often exists between legality and illegality: for example, doctors willing to stretch the definition of “endangering the health of the mother”, which made abortion permissible. Furthermore, it was also becoming evident that, taking place as they did under conditions of illegality, the abortions were both unnecessarily expensive and unnecessarily dangerous. In the case of abortions, then, it was mass civil disobedience that brought about the crisis situation, while the spread of libertarian theory made the government more willing to turn to the de-statizing solution. But not only theory: also the use of the theory to pressure the politicians, by petition, by noise, by threat of votes, etc.
As the Marxists would say, there is needed for victory both the “objective conditions” and the “subjective conditions. The objective conditions refer to crisis situations in the real world; for libertarians, finding crisis situations is easy, especially since these crises (e.g. the abortion mills, housing decay) have invariably been created by the government itself. The subjective conditions refer to the need for groups of libertarians to propound the libertarian solutions to these crises and to pressure the politicians when the objective conditions are ripe. Both methods were applied in the successes of housing and abortion — and both successes were won without a self-conscious group of pure libertarians bringing their wider and more systematic doctrines to bear on the struggle. How much greater will the success be when libertarians will have made their mark as an active, expanding, self-conscious movement, stepping into crises as they appear and providing the benefit of their far more systematic insight, or, to paraphrase the Marxists, “raising the level of libertarian consciousness" among all parties concerned! Times, moreover, are going to be increasingly ripe for this sort of action, because crises are piling up as the failure of the Welfare-Warfare State becomes increasingly manifest in field after field: education, foreign policy, conscription, welfare, transportation, etc. As crisis situations multiply, libertarians will find their own opportunities multiplying as well, provided we are not stultified by the educationists or discredited by the nihilists. And we must remember that if we do not pursue these opportunities, more sinister forces — socialists or more likely fascists — will be standing in the wings to offer their alternatives to the failure of the Liberal-Conservative Consensus. Considering the numerous failures and tyrannies of socialism and fascism it will be easy to discredit these alternatives — provided that we are there to offer liberty as the only rational — and reasonable — alternative to the existing order. But a reasonable alternative emphatically does not include insane blatherings about “ripping off Amerika”. Liberty is profoundly American; we come to fulfill the best of the American tradition, from Ann Hutchinson and Roger Williams to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Jeffersonian movement, and beyond. AS Benjamin R. Tucker put it, we are "unterrified Jeffersonian democrats”, and we come not to destroy the American dream but to fulfill it.
Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School, founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of the Mises Institute. He was also editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and appointed Lew as his executor. See Murray’s books.
Copyright 2013 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.