Theory and Action

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I
have received more emails, positive and negative, about The
Man Behind the Mask
than I had ever received in my life on any
other topic. I certainly could not begin to address the many good
points that were raised in a short essay here. However, one topic
came up often enough that it ought to be addressed.

By way
of introduction, I will point out that on Wednesday night, Free
Talk Live had a segment about V for Vendetta. This segment
consisted largely of a reading of my review, with positive comments,
for which I was quite grateful. The hosts, though, took exception
to the last line of the review. Here's what I wrote:

When you
walk out of the theater wondering when we will have a man in a
mask, just remember this — he probably will be found near the
most important movement within the libertarian world. I think
you know what movement that is.

Since I received
more than 50 emails asking what movement I meant, I will conclude
that my attempt at subtlety failed. I meant, for the record, the
Lew Rockwell and Austrian Economics movement. The hosts complained
"A think tank? They aren't blowing anything up — where the
heck does he see action in that? The real movement where the action
is is the FSP, not Lew Rockwell."

I called
tonight to deal with this topic. I pointed out that I didn't say
the Mises Institute, and anyway, the Institute is not a think-tank;
it is far too involved in education and outreach to be considered
a think-tank. It is anything but insular. But I did not get involved
in the "who is more important" argument. After all, if
someone could show me a libertarian movement which is more important
than Austrian Economics, I'd be thrilled. I also do not want to
get sidetracked into addressing my particular problems with the
FSP. What I do want to address, though, is this action-theory divide.

There is
a line in the movie in which V says, "A building is a symbol,
as is the act of blowing it up." Very true — but so is a movie
about blowing it up. Such an act does not need to be taken literally.
If I were to blow up the White House tomorrow, the people of the
US would not dress up like me and storm Washington to remove the
state — they'd cheer as I was executed and say "What a disgraceful
terrorist." This would not be an effective action. It was only
effective in the movie because it was done in a situation where
it could contribute to the outcome desired. Today is not that time,
and this would be counterproductive.

Does anyone
imagine that the British government could not continue to rule without
its building? Blowing up an empty Parliament does not end state
rule — it is, as V says, a symbol. The government was unable to
continue its rule because no one bought the myth of the State any
longer. It was revealed to be nothing but a bunch of bullies exercising
power — power which was weaker than that of the people rising up.
The act of blowing up the building was done as an educational tool,
not as a way of directly ending government.

So, what
we should do is what best accomplishes our goal of soundly demonstrating
that the difference between a government and a mafia is a flag.
Governments are groups of people who come together for a common
purpose — to command and control their countrymen. They bring enough
guns and firepower to do the job when only a few deviate. They do
not have the power to maintain their rule if the entire population
rejects it. That is why it is important for the people to believe
that the State has the right to exercise power — that is, legitimacy.
V showed that legitimacy to be a myth, and the state was done for.

He did
begin by blowing up the Bailey, a move to gather attention, getting
people to ask "Now why would someone do that?" Is this
a necessary move? Probably not. The key to his revolution was his
second act — speaking to the people directly and speaking the truth.
This is what our movement seeks to do every day. V did not attempt
to segregate himself off and form a small utopia, as some movements
might seek. He simply presented his case in soft, reasonable tones.
"I know why you did it: you were afraid." He reassures
them that he understands why they gave up their freedom, and educates
them on how to get it back. The Austrian Economics movement is seeking
the best arguments for this, and presenting them publicly. Most
faculty at the Institute are on faculty elsewhere — presenting these
arguments to hundreds of students on a daily basis. Lewrockwell.com
spreads this message to untold thousands every day. This is how
we create the situation where such action is possible.

It is possible
to misunderstand what I wrote, I admit. I did not mean that if you
hang out with Walter Block and David Gordon a lot, they'll invite
you to their secret underground lairs and ask you to help them blow
things up. I did not say that Lew Rockwell will don a mask and go
out avenging the victims of the state. I said that if a masked man
— an effective activist – were to arise, he would be found in the
vicinity of this movement. The reason is clear. V is not a teenager
in a black shirt with a Mohawk haircut. He is well-read, intelligent,
and able to present clear, cogent arguments for freedom when challenged.
One would not be surprised to hear him quote Rothbard or Hayek.
To be effective, libertarian action must be grounded in libertarian
theory. The actor must be able to explain why he did what he did,
and why freedom is right. If he cannot, he can easily be dismissed
as an evil terrorist. Of course, all official channels will call
him this anyway. The point is that it is hard for the tv viewer
to agree with the reporter's assessment when he knows that what
the "terrorist" said is true, and that the rightness of the action
follows from this truth. He might still pull it off — but it will
be hard. If the "terrorist" acts a second time, it will be harder
still — and there will come a breaking point. The moment that breaking
point is reached is precisely the moment at which the State loses
its true power. Its guns are not nearly as powerful as its ideas.
When the idea of legitimacy is lost, so is the state.

Conclusion

There
need not be any dichotomy and argument between theory and action.
If an action matches a theory, no theorist will complain, and no
actor would really say "stop giving me justification for my
actions." Of course, a theorist might well complain about counterproductive
actions, but so much the better. It is not true that some action,
however wasteful, stupid, or counterproductive, is better than none.
If you expect people to be inspired by your actions, you had better
be able to explain, at least to yourself, why your actions are inspired.
Actions will not overthrow the government — they are but symbols.
They are important symbols, though. They can be effective, and decisive,
if and only if the intention and ideas behind the actions can be
explained, and are understood, by the viewers.

April
11, 2006

Joshua
Katz [send him mail] is
a graduate student in philosophy at Texas A&M. He has studied philosophy
of mind, logic, and epistemology of economics from an Austrian perspective.
He holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and is presently looking
for work after the academic term. He enjoys a glass of port and
a wedge of Brie as a way to start his day.

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