Toward a Theory of Strategy for Liberty

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This article
is taken from the final chapter of The
Ethics of Liberty
. Listen to this
chapter in MP3
, read by Jeff Riggenbach. The entire book has
now been prepared for
podcast and download

elaboration of a systematic theory of liberty has been rare enough,
but exposition of a theory of strategy for liberty has
been virtually nonexistent.

Indeed, not
only for liberty, strategy toward reaching any sort of desired social
goal has been generally held to be catch-as-catch-can, a matter
of hit-or-miss experimentation, of trial and error.

Yet, if philosophy
can set down any theoretical guidelines for a strategy for liberty
it is certainly its responsibility to search for them. But the reader
should be warned that we are setting out on an uncharted sea.

The responsibility
of philosophy to deal with strategy – with the problem of how
to move from the present (any present) mixed state of affairs
to the goal of consistent liberty – is particularly important
for a libertarianism grounded in natural law. For as the libertarian
historian Lord Acton realized, natural law and natural-rights theory
provide an iron benchmark with which to judge – and to find
wanting – any existing brand of statism.

In contrast
to legal positivism or to various brands of historicism, natural
law provides a moral and political “higher law” with which to judge
the edicts of the State. As we have seen above,[1]
natural law, properly interpreted, is “radical” rather than conservative,
an implicit questing after the reign of ideal principle.

As Acton wrote,
“[Classical] Liberalism wishes for what ought to be, irrespective
of what is.” Hence, as Himmelfarb writes of Acton, “the past was
allowed no authority except as it happened to conform to morality.”

Further, Acton
proceeded to distinguish between Whiggism and Liberalism, between,
in effect, conservative adherence to the status quo and radical

The Whig
governed by compromise. The Liberal begins the reign of ideas.

How to distinguish
the Whigs from the Liberal – One is practical, gradual, ready
for compromise. The other works out a principle philosophically.
One is a policy aiming at a philosophy. The other is a philosophy
seeking a policy.[2]

then, is a philosophy seeking a policy. But what else can a libertarian
philosophy say about strategy, about “policy”? In the first place,
surely – again in Acton’s words – it must say that liberty
is the “highest political end,” the overriding goal of libertarian

Highest political
end, of course, does not mean “highest end” for man in general.
Indeed, every individual has a variety of personal ends and differing
hierarchies of importance for these goals on his personal scale
of values. Political philosophy is that subset of ethical
philosophy which deals specifically with politics, that
is, the proper role of violence in human life (and hence
the explication of such concepts as crime and property). Indeed,
a libertarian world would be one in which every individual would
at last be free to seek and pursue his own ends – to “pursue
happiness,” in the felicitous Jeffersonian phrase.

It might be
thought that the libertarian, the person committed to the
“natural system of liberty” (in Adam Smith’s phrase), almost by
definition holds the goal of liberty as his highest political end.
But this is often not true; for many libertarians, the desire for
self-expression, or for bearing witness to the truth of the excellence
of liberty, frequently takes precedence over the goal of the triumph
of liberty in the real world. Yet surely, as will be seen further
below, the victory of liberty will never come to pass unless the
goal of victory in the real world takes precedence over more aesthetic
and passive considerations.

If liberty
should be the highest political end, then what is the grounding
for that goal? It should be clear from this work that, first and
foremost, liberty is a moral principle, grounded in the
nature of man. In particular, it is a principle of justice,
of the abolition of aggressive violence in the affairs of men. Hence,
to be grounded and pursued adequately, the libertarian goal must
be sought in the spirit of an overriding devotion to justice. But
to possess such devotion on what may well be a long and rocky road,
the libertarian must be possessed of a passion for justice, an emotion
derived from and channeled by his rational insight into what natural
justice requires.[3]
Justice, not the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating
force if liberty is to be attained.[4]

If liberty
is to be the highest political end, then this implies that liberty
is to be pursued by the most efficacious means, i.e., those
means which will most speedily and thoroughly arrive at
the goal. This means that the libertarian must be an ” abolitionist,”
i.e., he must wish to achieve the goal of liberty as rapidly as
possible. If he balks at abolitionism, then he is no longer holding
liberty as the highest political end. The libertarian, then, should
be an abolitionist who would, if he could, abolish instantaneously
all invasions of liberty.

Following the
classical liberal Leonard Read, who advocated immediate and total
abolition of price-and-wage controls after World War II, we might
refer to this as the “button-pushing” criterion. Thus, Read declared
that “If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of which
would release all wage-and-price controls instantaneously I would
put my finger on it and push!” The libertarian, then, should be
a person who would push a button, if it existed, for the instantaneous
abolition of all invasions of liberty – not something, by the
way, that any utilitarian would ever be likely to do.[5]

and antiradicals generally, characteristically make the point that
such abolitionism is “unrealistic”; by making such a charge they
hopelessly confuse the desired goal with a strategic estimate of
the probable path toward that goal. It is essential to make a clear-cut
distinction between the ultimate goal itself, and the strategic
estimate of how to reach that goal; in short, the goal must be formulated
before questions of strategy or “realism” enter the scene.
The fact that such a magic button does not and is not likely to
exist has no relevance to the desirability of abolitionism itself.
We might agree, for example, on the goal of liberty and the desirability
of abolitionism in liberty’s behalf. But this does not mean that
we believe that abolition will in fact be attainable in
the near or far future.

The libertarian
goals – including immediate abolition of invasions of liberty
– are “realistic” in the sense that they could be
achieved if enough people agreed on them, and that, if
achieved, the resulting libertarian system would be viable. The
goal of immediate liberty is not unrealistic or “Utopian” because
– in contrast to such goals as the “elimination of poverty”
– its achievement is entirely dependent on man’s will. If,
for example, everyone suddenly and immediately agreed on the overriding
desirability of liberty, then total liberty would be immediately
The strategic estimate of how the path toward liberty is
likely to be achieved is, of course, an entirely separate question.[7]

Thus, the libertarian
abolitionist of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison, was not being “unrealistic”
when, in the 1830s, he raised the standard of the goal of immediate
emancipation of the slaves. His goal was the proper moral and libertarian
one, and was unrelated to the “realism,” or probability of its achievement.

Indeed, Garrison’s
strategic realism was expressed by the fact that he did not expect
the end of slavery to arrive immediately or at a single blow. As
Garrison carefully 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.”[8]

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

in theory, in fact, totally undercuts the overriding goal of liberty
itself; its import, therefore, is not simply strategic but an opposition
to the end itself and hence impermissible as any part of a strategy
toward liberty. The reason is that once immediate abolitionism is
abandoned, then the goal is conceded to take second or third place
to other, antilibertarian considerations, for these considerations
are now placed higher than liberty.

Thus, suppose
that the abolitionist of slavery had said: “I advocate an end to
slavery – but only after five years’ time.” But this would
imply that abolition in four or three years’ time, or a fortiori
immediately, would be wrong, and that therefore it is better
for slavery to be continued a while longer. But this would mean
that considerations of justice have been abandoned, and that the
goal itself is no longer highest on the abolitionist’s (or libertarian’s)
political value scale. In fact, it would mean that the libertarian
advocated the prolongation of crime and injustice.

Hence, a strategy
for liberty must not include any means which undercut or contradict
the end itself – as gradualism-in-theory clearly does. Are
we then saying that “the end justifies the means”? This is a common,
but totally fallacious, charge often directed toward any group that
advocates fundamental or radical social change. For what else
but an end could possibly justify any means? The very concept
of “means” implies that this action is merely an instrument toward
arriving at an end. If someone is hungry, and eats a sandwich to
alleviate his hunger, the act of eating a sandwich is merely a means
to an end; its sole justification arises from its use as an end
by the consumer. Why else eat the sandwich, or, further down the
line, purchase it or its ingredients? Far from being a sinister
doctrine, that the end justifies the means is a simple philosophic
truth, implicit in the very relationship of “means” and “ends.”

What then,
do the critics of the “end justifies the means” truly mean when
they say that “bad means” can or will lead to “bad ends”? What they
are really saying is that the means in question will violate
other ends which the critics deem to be more important
or more valuable than the goal of the group being criticized. Thus,
suppose that Communists hold that murder is justified if it leads
to a dictatorship by the vanguard party of the proletariat. The
critics of such murder (or of such advocacy of murder) are really
asserting, not that the “ends do not justify the means,”
but rather that murder violates a more valuable end (to
say the least), namely, the end of “not committing murder,” or nonaggression
against persons. And, of course, from the libertarian point of view,
the critics would be correct.

the libertarian goal, the victory of liberty, justifies the speediest
possible means towards reaching the goal, but those means cannot
be such as to contradict, and thereby undercut, the goal itself.
We have already seen that gradualism-in-theory is such a contradictory
means. Another contradictory means would be to commit aggression
(e.g., murder or theft) against persons or just property in order
to reach the libertarian goal of nonaggression. But this too would
be a self-defeating and impermissible means to pursue. For the employment
of such aggression would directly violate the goal of nonaggression

If, then, the
libertarian must call for immediate abolition of the State as an
organized engine of aggression, and if gradualism in theory is contradictory
to the overriding end (and therefore impermissible), what further
strategic stance should a libertarian take in a world in which States
continue all too starkly to exist?

Must the libertarian
necessarily confine himself to advocating immediate abolition?
Are transitional demands, steps toward liberty in practice, therefore
illegitimate? Surely not, since realistically there would then be
no hope of achieving the final goal. It is therefore incumbent upon
the libertarian, eager to achieve his goal as rapidly as possible,
to push the polity ever further in the direction of that
goal. Clearly, such a course is difficult, for the danger always
exists of losing sight of, or even undercutting, the ultimate goal
of liberty. But such a course, given the state of the world in the
past, present, and foreseeable future, is vital if the victory of
liberty is ever to be achieved.

The transitional
demands, then, must be framed while

  1. always
    holding up the ultimate goal of liberty as the desired end of
    the transitional process; and

  2. never taking
    steps, or using means, which explicitly or implicitly contradict
    that goal.

Let us consider,
for example, a transition demand set forth by various libertarians:
namely, that the government budget be reduced by 10 percent each
year for ten years, after which the government will have disappeared.
Such a proposal might have heuristic or strategic value, provided
that the proposers always make crystal clear that these are minimal
demands, and that indeed there would be nothing wrong – in
fact, it would be all to the good – to step up the pace to
cutting the budget by 25 percent a year for four years, or, most
desirably, by cutting it by 100 percent immediately. The danger
arises in implying, directly or indirectly that any faster
pace than 10 percent would be wrong or undesirable.

An even greater
danger of a similar sort is posed by the idea of many libertarians
of setting forth a comprehensive and planned program of transition
to total liberty, e.g., that in Year 1 law A should be repealed,
law B modified, tax C be cut by 20 percent, etc.; in Year 2 law
D be repealed, tax C cut by a further 10 percent, etc. The comprehensive
plan is far more misleading than the simple budget cut, because
it strongly implies that, for example, law D should not
be repealed until the second year of this planned program.
Hence, the trap of philosophic gradualism, of gradualism-in-theory,
would be fallen into on a massive scale. The would-be libertarian
planners would be virtually falling into a position, or seeming
to, of opposing a faster pace toward liberty.

There is, indeed,
another grave flaw in the idea of a comprehensive planned program
toward liberty. For the very care and studied pace, the very all-embracing
nature of the program, implies that the State is not really the
enemy of mankind, that it is possible and desirable to use
the State in engineering a planned and measured pace toward liberty.
The insight that the State is the permanent enemy of mankind,
on the other hand, leads to a very different strategic outlook:
namely that libertarians push for and accept with alacrity any
reduction of State power or State activity on any front; any such
reduction at any time is a reduction in crime and aggression, and
is a reduction of the parasitic malignity with which State power
rules over and confiscates social power.

For example,
libertarians may well push for drastic reduction, or repeal, of
the income tax; but they should never do so while at the same time
advocating its replacement by a sales or other form of tax. The
reduction or, better, the abolition of a tax is always a noncontradictory
reduction of State power and a step toward liberty; but its replacement
by a new or increased tax elsewhere does just the opposite, for
it signifies a new and additional imposition of the State on some
other front. The imposition of a new tax is a means that contradicts
the libertarian goal itself.

in this age of permanent federal deficits, we are all faced with
the problem: should we agree to a tax cut, even though it may well
mean an increase in the deficit? Conservatives, from their particular
perspective of holding budget-balancing as a higher end, invariably
oppose, or vote against, a tax cut which is not strictly accompanied
by an equivalent or greater cut in government expenditures. But
since taxation is an evil act of aggression, any failure to welcome
a tax cut with alacrity undercuts and contradicts the libertarian
goal. The time to oppose government expenditures is when the budget
is being considered or voted upon, when the libertarian should call
for drastic slashes in expenditures as well. Government activity
must be reduced whenever and wherever it can; any opposition to
a particular tax – or expenditure – cut is impermissible
for it contradicts libertarian principles and the libertarian goal.

Does this mean
that the libertarian may never set priorities, may not concentrate
his energy on political issues which he deems of the greatest importance?
Clearly not, for since everyone’s time and energy is necessarily
limited, no one can devote equal time to every particular aspect
of the comprehensive libertarian creed. A speaker or writer on political
issues must necessarily set priorities of importance, priorities
which at least partially depend on the concrete issues and circumstances
of the day. Thus, while a libertarian in today’s world would certainly
advocate the denationalization of lighthouses, it is highly doubtful
that he would place a greater priority on the lighthouse question
than on conscription or the repeal of the income tax. The libertarian
must use his strategic intelligence and knowledge of the issues
of the day to set his priorities of political importance. On the
other hand, of course, if one were living on a small, highly fog-bound
island, dependent on shipping for transportation, it could very
well be that the lighthouse question would have a high priority
on a libertarian political agenda. And, furthermore, if for some
reason the opportunity arose for denationalizing lighthouses even
in present-day America, it should certainly not be spurned by the

We conclude
this part of the strategy question, then, by affirming that the
victory of total liberty is the highest political end; that the
proper groundwork for this goal is a moral passion for justice;
that the end should be pursued by the speediest and most efficacious
possible means; that the end must always be kept in sight and sought
as rapidly as possible; and that the means taken must never contradict
the goal – whether by advocating gradualism, by employing or
advocating any aggression against liberty, by advocating planned
programs, or by failing to seize any opportunity to reduce State
power or by ever increasing it in any area.

The world,
at least in the long run, is governed by ideas; and it seems clear
that libertarianism is only likely to triumph if the ideas spread
to and are adopted by a significantly large number of people. And
so “education” becomes a necessary condition for the victory of
liberty – all sorts of education, from the most abstract systematic
theories down to attention-catching devices that will attract the
interest of potential converts. Education, indeed, is the characteristic
strategic theory of classical liberalism.

But it should
be stressed that ideas do not float by themselves in a vacuum; they
are influential only insofar as they are adopted and put forward
by people. For the idea of liberty to triumph, then, there
must be an active group of dedicated libertarians, people who are
knowledgeable in liberty and are willing to spread the message to
others. In short, there must be an active and self-conscious libertarian
movement. This may seem self-evident, but there has been
a curious reluctance on the part of many libertarians to think of
themselves as part of a conscious and ongoing movement, or to become
involved in movement activity. Yet consider: has any discipline,
or set of ideas in the past, whether it be Buddhism or modern physics,
been able to advance itself and win acceptance without the existence
of a dedicated “cadre” of Buddhists or physicists?

The mention
of physicists points up another requirement of a successful movement:
the existence of professionals, of persons making their full-time
career in the movement or discipline in question. In the 17th and
18th centuries, as modern physics emerged as a new science, there
were indeed scientific societies which mainly included interested
amateurs, “Friends of Physics” as we might call them, who established
an atmosphere of encouragement and support of the new discipline.
But surely physics would not have advanced very far if there had
been no professional physicists, people who made a full-time
career of physics, and therefore could devote all their energies
to engaging in and advancing the discipline. Physics would surely
still be a mere amusement for amateurs if the profession
of physics had not developed. Yet there are few libertarians, despite
the spectacular growth of the ideas and of the movement in recent
years, who recognize the enormous need for the development of liberty
as a profession, as a central core for the advancement of both the
theory and the condition of liberty in the real world.

Every new idea
and every new discipline necessarily begins with one or a few people,
and diffuses outward toward a larger core of converts and adherents.
Even at full tide, given the wide variety of interests and abilities
among men, there is bound to be only a minority among the professional
core or cadre of libertarians. There is nothing sinister or “undemocratic,”
then, in postulating a “vanguard” group of libertarians any more
than there is in talking of a vanguard of Buddhists or of physicists.
Hopefully this vanguard will help to bring about a majority or a
large and influential minority of people adhering to (if not centrally
devoted to) libertarian ideology. The existence of a libertarian
majority among the American Revolutionaries and in 19th-century
England demonstrates that the feat is not impossible.

In the meanwhile,
on the path to that goal, we might conceive of the adoption of libertarianism
as a ladder or pyramid, with various individuals and groups on different
rungs of the ladder, ranging upward from total collectivism or statism
to pure liberty. If the libertarian cannot “raise people’s consciousness”
fully to the top rung of pure liberty, then he can achieve the lesser
but still important goal of helping them advance a few rungs up
the ladder.

For this purpose,
the libertarian may well find it fruitful to engage in coalitions
with non-libertarians around the advancement of some single, ad
hoc activity. Thus, the libertarian, depending on his priorities
of importance at any given condition of society, may engage in such
“united front” activities with some conservatives to repeal the
income tax or with civil libertarians to repeal conscription or
the outlawry of pornography or of “subversive” speech. By engaging
in such united fronts on ad hoc issues, the libertarian
can accomplish a twofold purpose:

  1. greatly
    multiplying his own leverage or influence in working toward a
    specific libertarian goal – since many non-libertarians are
    mobilized to cooperate in such actions; and

  2. to “raise
    the consciousness” of his coalition colleagues, to show them that
    libertarianism is a single interconnected system, and that a
    full pursuit of their particular goal requires the adoption
    of the entire libertarian schema.

Thus, the libertarian
can point out to the conservative that property rights or the free
market can only be maximized and truly safeguarded if civil liberties
are defended or restored; and he can show the opposite to the civil
libertarian. Hopefully this demonstration will raise some of these
ad hoc allies significantly up the libertarian ladder.

In the progress
of any movement dedicated to radical social change, i.e., to transforming
social reality toward an ideal system, there are bound to arise,
as the Marxists have discovered, two contrasting types of “deviations”
from the proper strategic line: what the Marxists have called “right
opportunism” and “left sectarianism.”

So fundamental
are these often superficially attractive deviations that we might
call it a theoretical rule that one or both will arise to plague
a movement at various times in its development. Which tendency
will triumph in a movement cannot, however, be determined by our
theory; the outcome will depend on the subjective strategic understanding
of the people constituting the movement. The outcome, then, is a
matter of free will and persuasion.

Right opportunism,
in its pursuit of instant gains, is willing to abandon the ultimate
social goal, and to immerse itself in minor and short-run gains,
sometimes in actual contradiction to the ultimate goal itself. In
the libertarian movement, the opportunist is willing to join the
State establishment rather than to struggle against it, and is willing
to deny the ultimate goal on behalf of short-run gains: e.g., to
declaim that “while everyone knows we must have taxation, the state
of the economy requires a 2 percent tax cut.”

The left sectarian,
on the other hand, scents “immorality” and “betrayal of principle”
in every use of strategic intelligence to pursue transitional demands
on the path to liberty, even ones that uphold the ultimate goal
and do not contradict it. The sectarian discovers “moral principle”
and “libertarian principle” everywhere, even in purely strategic,
tactical, or organizational concerns. Indeed, the sectarian is likely
to attack as an abandonment of principle any attempt to
go beyond mere reiteration of the ideal social goal, and to select
and analyze more specifically political issues of the most urgent

In the Marxist
movement, the Socialist Labor Party, which meets every political
issue with only a reiteration of the view that “socialism
and only socialism will solve the problem,” is a classical example
of ultra-sectarianism at work. Thus, the sectarian libertarian might
decry a television speaker or a political candidate who, in the
necessity to choose priority issues, stresses repeal of the income
tax or abolition of the draft, while “neglecting” the goal of denationalizing

In should be
clear that both right opportunism and left sectarianism are equally
destructive of the task of achieving the ultimate social goal: for
the right opportunist abandons the goal while achieving short-run
gains, and thereby renders those gains ineffectual; while the left
sectarian, in wrapping himself in the mantle of “purity,” defeats
his own ultimate goal by denouncing any necessary strategic steps
in its behalf.

curiously enough, the same individual will undergo alternations
from one deviation to the other, in each case scorning the correct,
plumb-line path. Thus, despairing after years of futile reiteration
of his purity while making no advances in the real world, the left
sectarian may leap into the heady thickets of right opportunism,
in the quest for some short-run advance, even at the cost
of the ultimate goal. Or, the right opportunist, growing disgusted
at his own or his colleagues’ compromise of their intellectual integrity
and their ultimate goals, may leap into left sectarianism and decry
any setting of strategic priorities toward those goals.
In this way, the two opposing deviations feed on and reinforce each
other, and are both destructive of the major task of effectively
reaching the libertarian goal.

The Marxists
have correctly perceived that two sets of conditions are necessary
for the victory of any program of radical social change; what they
call the “objective” and the “subjective” conditions. The subjective
conditions are the existence of a self-conscious movement dedicated
to the triumph of the particular social ideal – conditions
which we have been discussing above. The objective conditions are
the objective fact of a “crisis situation” in the existing system,
a crisis stark enough to be generally perceived, and to
be perceived as the fault of the system itself. For people are so
constituted that they are not interested in exploring the
defects of an existing system so long as it seems to be working
tolerably well. And even if a few become interested, they will tend
to regard the entire problem as an abstract one irrelevant to their
daily lives and therefore not an imperative for action – until
the perceived crisis breakdown.

It is such
a breakdown that stimulates a sudden search for new social alternatives
– and it is then that the cadres of the alternative movement
(the “subjective conditions”) must be available to supply that alternative,
to relate the crisis to the inherent defects of the system itself,
and to point out how the alternative system would solve the existing
crisis and prevent similar breakdowns in the future. Hopefully,
the alternative cadre would have provided a track record of predicting
and warning against the existing crisis.

Indeed, if
we examine the revolutions in the modern world, we will find that
every single one of them

  1. was utilized
    by an existing cadre of seemingly prophetic ideologists of the
    alternative system, and

  2. was precipitated
    by a breakdown of the system itself.

During the
American Revolution, a broad cadre and mass of dedicated libertarians
were prepared to resist the encroachments of Great Britain in its
attempt to end the system of “salutary neglect” of the colonies
and to reimpose the chains of the British Empire; in the French
Revolution, libertarian philosophes had prepared the ideology
with which to meet a sharp increase of absolutist burdens on the
country caused by the government’s fiscal crisis; in Russia, in
1917, a losing war led to the collapse of the Czarist system from
within, which radical ideologists were prepared for; in post-World
War I Italy and Germany, postwar economic crises and wartime defeats
created the conditions for the triumph of the fascist and national
socialist alternatives; in China, in 1949, the combination of a
lengthy and crippling war and economic crisis caused by runaway
inflation and price controls allowed the victory of the Communist

Both Marxists
and libertarians, in their very different and contrasting ways,
believe that the inner contradictions of the existing system (in
the former case of “capitalism,” in the latter of statism and state
intervention) will lead inevitably to its long-run collapse. In
contrast to conservatism, which can see nothing but long-run despair
attendant upon the steady decline of “western values” from some
past century, Marxism and libertarianism are both therefore highly
optimistic creeds, at least in the long run.

The problem,
of course, for any living beings, is how long they will have to
wait for the long run to arrive. The Marxists, at least in the western
world, have had to face the indefinite postponement of their hoped-for
long run. Libertarians have had to confront a 20th century which
has shifted from the quasilibertarian system of the 19th century
to a far more statist and collectivist one – in many ways returning
to the despotic world as it existed before the classical liberal
revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

There are good
and sufficient reasons, however, for libertarians to be optimistic
in the short run as well as the long run, indeed for a belief that
victory for liberty might be near.

But, in the
first place, why should libertarians be optimistic even in the
long run? After all, the annals of recorded history are a chronicle,
in one civilization after another, of centuries of varying forms
of despotism, stagnation, and totalitarianism. May it not be possible
that the great post-17th-century thrust toward liberty was only
a mighty flash in the pan, to be replaced by sinking back into a
gray and permanent despotism?

But such superficially
plausible despair overlooks a crucial point: the new and irreversible
conditions introduced by the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th
and 19th centuries, a revolution itself a consequence of the classical-liberal
political revolutions. For agricultural countries, in a preindustrial
era, can indeed peg along indefinitely on a subsistence level; despotic
kings, nobles, and states can tax the peasantry above subsistence
level, and live elegantly off the surplus, while the peasants continue
to toil for centuries at the bare minimum. Such a system is profoundly
immoral and exploitative, but it “works” in the sense of being able
to continue indefinitely (provided that the state does not get too
greedy and actually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs).

But fortunately
for the cause of liberty, economic science has shown that a modern
industrial economy cannot survive indefinitely under such
draconian conditions. A modern industrial economy requires a vast
network of free-market exchanges and a division of labor, a network
that can only flourish under freedom. Given the commitment of the
mass of men to an industrial economy and the modern standard of
living that requires such industry, then the triumph of a free-market
economy and an end to statism becomes inevitable in the long run.

The late 19th
and especially the 20th centuries have seen many forms of reversion
to the statism of the preindustrial era. These forms (notably socialism
and various brands of “state capitalism”), in contrast to the frankly
anti-industrial and reactionary Conservatism of early 19th-century
Europe, have tried to preserve and even extend the industrial economy
while scuttling the very political requirements (freedom and the
free-market) which are in the long run necessary for its survival.[9]
State planning, operation, controls, high and crippling taxation,
and paper-money inflation must all inevitably lead to the collapse
of the statist economic system.

If then, the
world is irreversibly committed to industrialism and its attendant
living standards, and if industrialism requires freedom, then the
libertarian must indeed be a long-run optimist, for the libertarian
triumph must eventually occur.

But why short-run
optimism for the present day? Because it fortunately happens to
be true that the various forms of statism imposed on the western
world during the first half of the 20th century are now in process
of imminent breakdown. The long run is now at hand. For half a century,
statist intervention could wreak its depredations and not cause
clear and evident crises and dislocations, because the
quasi-laissez-faire industrialization of the 19th century had created
a vast cushion against such depredations. The government could impose
taxes or inflation upon the system and not reap evidently bad effects.
But now statism has advanced so far and been in power so long that
the cushion, or fat, has been exhausted. As economist Ludwig von
Mises pointed out, the “reserve fund” created by laissez faire has
now been “exhausted”; whatever the government does now
leads to an instantaneous negative feedback that is evident to the
formerly indifferent and even to many of the most ardent apologists
for statism.

In the Communist
countries of Eastern Europe, the Communists themselves have increasingly
perceived that socialist central planning simply does not work,
particularly for an industrial economy. Hence the rapid retreat,
in recent years, away from central planning and toward free markets
throughout Eastern Europe, especially in Yugoslavia. In the western
world, too, state capitalism is everywhere in a period of crisis,
as it becomes perceived that, in the most profound way, the government
has run out of money: that increasing taxes will cripple industry
and incentives beyond repair, while increased printing of new money
(either directly or through the government-controlled banking system)
will lead to a disastrous runaway inflation.

And so we hear
more and more about the “necessity of lowered expectations from
government” even among the State’s once most ardent champions. In
West Germany, the Social Democratic Party has long abandoned the
call for socialism. In Great Britain, suffering from a tax-crippled
economy and aggravated inflation, the Tory Party, for years in the
hands of dedicated statists, has now been taken over by its free-market
oriented faction, while even the Labour Party has begun to draw
back from the planned chaos of galloping statism.

In the United
States, conditions are particularly hopeful; for here, in the last
few years, there has coincidentally occurred

  1. a systemic
    breakdown of statism across the board, in economic, foreign, social,
    and moral policies; and

  2. a great
    and growing rise of a libertarian movement and the diffusion of
    libertarian ideas throughout the population, among opinion moulders
    and average citizens alike.

Let us examine
in turn both sets of necessary conditions for a libertarian triumph.

enough, the systemic breakdown of statism in the United States can
be given a virtually precise date: the years 1973–74. The
breakdown has been particularly glaring in the economic sphere.
From the fall of 1973 through 1975, America experienced an inflationary
depression, in which the worst recession of the postwar world coincided
with an aggravated inflation of prices. After forty years of Keynesian
policies which were supposed to “fine tune” the economy so as to
eliminate the boom-bust cycle of inflation and depression, the United
States managed to experience both at the same time – an event
that cannot be explained by orthodox economic theory. Orthodox economics
has been thrown into disarray, and economists and laymen alike are
increasingly ready to turn to the “Austrian,” free-market alternative,
both in the realms of theoretical paradigms and of political policy.
The award of the Nobel Prize in economics during 1974 to F.A. Hayek
for his long-forgotten Austrian business-cycle theory is but one
indication of the new currents coming to the surface after decades
of neglect. And even though the economy recovered from the depression,
the economic crisis is not ended, since inflation only accelerated
still further, while unemployment remained high. Only a free-market
program of abandoning monetary inflation and slashing government
expenditures will solve the crisis.

The partial
financial default of the New York City government during 1975 and
the victory of Proposition 13 in California in 1978 have highlighted
for the entire country the fact that local and state reserve funds
have been exhausted, and that government must at last begin a drastic
cutback in its operations and expenditures. For higher taxes will
drive businesses and middle-class citizens out of any given area,
and therefore the only way to avoid default will be radical cuts
in expenditure. (If default arrives, the result will be the same
and more drastically, since access to bond markets in the future
by state and local governments will prove impossible.)

It is also
becoming increasingly clear that the combination of decades of high
and crippling taxes on income, savings, and investment, combined
with inflationary distortions of business calculation, has led to
an increasing scarcity of capital, and to an imminent danger of
consuming America’s vital stock of capital equipment. Hence, lower
taxes are rapidly perceived to be an economic necessity. Lower government
expenditures are also evidently necessary to avoid the “crowding
out” of private loans and investments from the capital markets by
wasteful federal government deficits.

There is a
particularly hopeful reason for expecting the public and the opinion
molders to grasp at the proper libertarian solution to this grave
and continuing economic crisis: the fact that everyone knows that
the State has controlled and manipulated the economy for the last
forty years. When government credit and interventionary policies
brought about the Great Depression of the 1930s, the myth that the
1920s had been an era of laissez faire was prevalent, and so it
seemed plausible to assert that “capitalism had failed,” and that
economic prosperity and progress required a giant leap toward statism
and state control. But the current crisis comes after many decades
of statism, and its nature is such that the public can now correctly
perceive Big Government to be at fault.

all the various forms of statism have now been tried, and have failed.
At the turn of the 20th century, businessmen, politicians, and intellectuals
throughout the western world began to turn to a “new” system of
mixed economy of State rule, to replace the relative laissez faire
of the previous century. Such new and seemingly exciting panaceas
as socialism, the corporate state, the Welfare-Warfare State, etc.,
have all been tried and have manifestly failed. The call for socialism
or state planning is now a call for an old, tired, and failed system.
What is there left to try but freedom?

On the social
front, a similar crisis has occurred in recent years. The public
school system, once a sacrosanct part of the American heritage,
is now under severe and accelerated criticism from people across
the ideological spectrum.

It is now becoming

  1. that public
    schools do not properly educate their charges;

  2. that they
    are costly, wasteful, and require high taxes; and

  3. that the
    uniformity of the public school system creates deep and unresolvable
    social conflicts over vital educational issues – over such
    matters as integration vs. segregation, progressive vs. traditional
    methods, religion or secularism, sex education, and the ideological
    content of learning.

decision the public school makes in any of these areas, either a
majority or a substantial minority of parents and children are irreparably
injured. Furthermore, compulsory attendance laws are being increasingly
perceived as dragooning unhappy or uninterested children into a
prison not of their or their parents’ making.

In the field
of moral policies, there is a growing realization that the rampant
prohibitionism of government policy – not simply in the field
of alcohol, but also in such matters as pornography, prostitution,
sexual practices between “consenting adults,” drugs, and abortion
– are both an immoral and unjustified invasion of the right
of each individual to make his or her own moral choices,
and also cannot practically be enforced. Attempts at enforcement
only bring about hardship and a virtual police state. The time is
approaching when prohibitionism in these areas of personal morality
will be recognized to be fully as unjust and ineffective as in the
case of alcohol.

In the wake
of Watergate, there is also an increased awareness of the dangers
to individual liberty and privacy, to the freedom to dissent from
government, in habitual actions and activities of government. Here,
too, we may expect public pressure to keep government from fulfilling
its age-old desire to invade privacy and repress dissent.

Perhaps the
best sign of all, the most favorable indication of the breakdown
of the mystique of the State, was the Watergate exposures of 1973–74.
For Watergate instigated a radical shift in the attitude of everyone
– regardless of their explicit ideology – toward government
itself. Watergate indeed awakened the public to the invasions of
personal liberty by government. More important, by bringing about
the impeachment of the President, it permanently desanctified
an office that had almost been considered sovereign by the American
public. But most importantly government itself has been
to a large extent desanctified. No one trusts any politician or
government official anymore; all government is viewed with abiding
hostility and distrust, thus returning to that healthy distrust
of government that marked the American public and the American Revolutionaries
of the 18th century. In the wake of Watergate, no one would dare
today to intone that “we are the government,” and therefore that
anything elected officials may do is legitimate and proper. For
the success of liberty, the most vital condition is the desanctification,
the delegitimation of government in the eyes of the public; and
that Watergate has managed to accomplish.

Thus, the objective
conditions for the triumph of liberty have now, in the past few
years, begun to appear, at least in the United States. Furthermore,
the nature of this systemic crisis is such that government is now
perceived as the culprit; it cannot be relieved except through a
sharp turn toward liberty. What is basically needed now, therefore,
is the growth of the “subjective conditions,” of libertarian ideas
and particularly of a dedicated libertarian movement to advance
those ideas in the public forum.

Surely it is
no coincidence that it is precisely in these years – since
1971 and particularly since 1973 – that these subjective conditions
have made their greatest strides in this century. For the breakdown
of statism has undoubtedly spurred many more people into becoming
partial or full libertarians, and hence the objective conditions
help to generate the subjective. Furthermore, in the United States
at least, the splendid heritage of freedom and of libertarian ideas,
going back beyond revolutionary times, has never been fully lost.
Present-day libertarians, therefore, have solid historical ground
on which to build.

The rapid growth
in these last years of libertarian ideas and movements has pervaded
many fields of scholarship, especially among younger scholars, and
in the areas of journalism, the media, business, and politics. Because
of the continuing objective conditions, it seems clear that this
eruption of libertarianism in many new and unexpected places is
not a mere media-concocted fad, but an inevitably growing response
to the perceived conditions of objective reality. Given free will,
no one can predict with certainty that the growing libertarian mood
in America will solidify in a brief period of time and press forward
without faltering to the success of the entire libertarian program.
But certainly, both theory and analysis of current historical conditions
lead to the conclusion that the current prospects of liberty, even
in the short run, are highly encouraging.


See Chapter 3 “Natural Law versus Positive Law” above.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord Acton (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1962), pp. 204, 205, 209.

In an illuminating essay the natural-law philosopher John Wild points
out that our subjective feeling of obligation, of an oughtness
which raises subjective emotional desire to a higher, binding plane,
stems from our rational apprehension of what our human nature requires.
John Wild, “Natural Law and Modern Ethical Theory,” Ethics
(October 1952): pp. 5–10.

On libertarianism being grounded on a passion for justice, see Murray
N. Rothbard, “Why Be Libertarian?” in idem, Egalitarianism
as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays
D.C.: Libertarian Review Press, 1974), pp. 147–48.

Leonard E. Read, I’d Push the Button (New York: Joseph
D. McGuire, 1946), p. 3.

Elsewhere I have written:

Other traditional
radical goals – such as the “abolition of poverty” –
are, in contrast to this one [liberty], truly utopian; for man,
simply by exerting his will, cannot abolish poverty. Poverty can
only be abolished through the operation of certain economic factors
… which can only operate by transforming nature over a long
period of time…. But injustices are deeds that
are inflicted by one set of men on another, they are precisely
the actions of men, and, hence, they and their elimination are
subject to man’s instantaneous will…. The fact that, of
course, such decisions do not take place instantaneously is not
the point; the point is that the very failure is an injustice
that has been decided upon and imposed by the perpetrators of
injustice…. In the field of justice, man’s will is all;
men can move mountains, if only men so decide. A passion
for instantaneous justice – in short, a radical passion –
is therefore not utopian, as would be a desire for the
instant elimination of poverty or the instant transformation of
everyone into a concert pianist. For instant justice could be
achieved if enough people so willed.

Rothbard, Egalitarianism
as a Revolt Against Nature
, pp. 148–49.

At the conclusion of a brilliant philosophical critique of the charge
of “unrealism” and its confusion of the good and the currently
probable, Clarence Philbrook declares, “Only one type of serious
defense of a policy is open to an economist or anyone else; he must
maintain that the policy is good. True ‘realism’ is the same thing
men have always meant by wisdom: to decide the immediate in the
light of the ultimate.” Clarence Philbrook, “Realism in Policy Espousal,”
American Economic Review (December 1953): p. 859.

Quoted in William H. and Jane H. Pease, eds., The Antislavery
Argument (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), p. xxxv.

For a more extended historical analysis of this problem, see Murray
N. Rothbard, Left and
Right: The Prospects for Liberty

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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