In Defense of Libertarian Purity

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Many libertarians seem particularly worried about "purity police" within the libertarian movement. These "purity police" are accused of over-zealous sectarianism, frightening away potential fellow travelers with their rabid accusations of statism hurled at those guilty of the slightest deviation from radical libertarian principle. Instead of embracing those who believe in liberty for the most part, they supposedly get bogged down on allegedly minor issues, and their attachment to libertarian purity thus threatens the growth of the libertarian movement.

I consider myself a principled libertarian. Or a radical libertarian. I suppose there are many ways of saying it. Murray Rothbard called it "plumb-line libertarianism," and Walter Block has seen fit to embrace that terminology. I see it simply as the belief that initiating force is wrong.

I do not consider myself a sectarian in any detrimental sense. I am willing to work with, and certainly to engage discursively and try to learn from, those with whom I do not agree on every tiny point. If someone opposes the rapid Sovietization of America and would like to see government smaller, less expansive, less intrusive, and less belligerent, I view that person as a prospective ally and certainly not as some sort of serious problem.

Libertarian purity, however, has its place. It is in fact very important. A movement, even a big-tent movement, would be nowhere without some core principles, and the adoption of principles necessarily entails the believing of some things and the disbelieving of others. A political movement needs radicals to keep its end goals in mind and to inspire and encourage those entering into the movement, and those who may deviate here or there, to hold their sights high.

Libertarianism in particular is a radical ideology. Grounded in the principle of non-aggression, libertarianism leads one to see the world from a perspective radically different from that which the maintainers of the status quo would have you see it from. To eliminate all aggressive force would be to eliminate government as we know it. Even minarchist libertarians, who believe in minimal government, if they are consistent, believe in a government dramatically much less aggressive than virtually any government that has existed in this world. They support a state that would barely qualify as being a state.

You do not have to believe that radical libertarianism will be implemented any time soon to insist on keeping the radical flame lit. Libertarianism can, if nothing else, serve as an ethical vantage point from which to analyze the world’s problems and conceive of possible solutions. As we see it, all the big political problems would be best addressed by minimizing the amount of aggression being employed, especially by the state. To make concessions on this point is to say that some people’s liberty is less important than others’, or that sometimes it’s perfectly okay to initiate force on the innocent. Why concede that? It undermines the whole philosophy. It also makes it, in the long run, less appealing to people to whom it is new, and less meaningful to those who believe they have adopted it.

The practical importance of maintaining a principled conception of liberty within the libertarian movement, and not abandoning it for a watered-down, more palatable recruiting slogan such as "libertarians believe in personal freedom, lower taxes, and responsive government," should be obvious. The more you dilute the libertarian message simply to get more people on board, the less you’ve actually gained in activism and outreach. The point isn’t simply to get a plurality or majority of politically inclined folks to identify themselves as "libertarians," or even to vote for a particular candidate who identifies himself that way. The only hope for liberty is if popular public opinion changes. The state exists and persists with the tacit acquiescence of the people. It will only relent in its tyranny when most of its subjects resist it, or at least stop supporting it. And so there will be no restoration of liberty until enough of the people believe in liberty. If you managed to trick the people into voting for a candidate more libertarian than they are, it wouldn’t be long until the system corrupted the reformer and the state returned back to the type of repression that most people are willing or even happy to tolerate. The key to a free society is rooted inextricably in the culture and ideas of the people.

Libertarianism is a radical belief in liberty, and libertarians, if they have any practical political goals, want to move society in a libertarian direction by convincing their neighbors to be more libertarian and thus less favorable and supportive of the oppressive state. So we need more libertarians, more radical libertarians, and more persuasive libertarians. We need intellectual ammo and ever-improving ways of getting the ideas across. What we don’t need is to fool ourselves into thinking that by convincing more people to call themselves "libertarians" or to vote for certain candidates, we will be closer to our goals. On the contrary, the more non-libertarians who call themselves and their favored policies "libertarian," the more we have lost the meaning of the label, the further we are from our goal.

This problem is clear with economics, where Republicans have managed to convince Americans across the political spectrum that they support free markets. Perhaps nothing has hindered the prospects for free markets in America more than the conflation of conservative, corporatist politicians and policies with the cause of free markets. By free markets, I mean markets that are free of state violence and looting. State violence and looting are two concepts that many on the left justly associate with Republicans such as the Bushes and Reagan. Unfortunately, when people on the left hear of "free markets," they often assume that what is being discussed is Republican state violence and looting, rather than the opposite. On the other hand, free-market enthusiasts and libertarian-leaning folks are quick to side unquestioningly with Republicans and corporate America rather than with genuine free markets, especially if they have convinced themselves to relinquish libertarian purity in exchange for pragmatic gains.

The worst thing that could happen to the libertarian movement would be if statist, corporatist politicians began self-applying the label "libertarian." The movement would have to invest incredible work into convincing the public that the label was misapplied, or into finding a new label for its own beliefs. This would be a huge setback. One way to prevent it is to be jealous of the term. While we should welcome people from all over the political spectrum into discourse, and we should gladly work with those who have strong libertarian instincts on key issues, we should not be quick to render everyone who thinks Bush’s government is too big "a libertarian." Almost everyone believes Bush’s government is too big — certainly, most Americans wished they paid less in taxes — but a good number of them would love to nationalize healthcare or bomb more Arabs. These people are not libertarians. We should be willing to say so. We want the public to know what libertarianism is if we want it ever to be more libertarian.

The perils of insufficient libertarian purity come through most clearly in political outfits, such as the Libertarian Party, which practice an astonishingly low degree of internal education. If anything is important in any libertarian group, it is libertarian education. Conversing with fellow libertarians is crucial in maintaining one’s convictions and in sorting out the more difficult issues with one another. It has often been disparagingly referred to as "preaching to the choir." Well, we want the choir to keep coming to service, don’t we? We want them to remember the tune they are singing and why they’re singing it. If you can’t even keep the choir coming, you don’t have much hope of bringing the average person in to listen to your sermon.

While libertarian organizations shouldn’t quickly turn anyone away because of a failure to practice perfect lockstep conformity, and while some issues are more difficult to find consensus on than others, it is absolutely paramount that libertarians do not put the growth of their organizations ahead of maintaining a grip on principle. It should never be kept a secret what libertarians actually believe, even if concealing one’s convictions might make it easier for some people to think they agree with you.

When some movement libertarians refer negatively to "purity police," what they are really condemning is internal education. Instead of prioritizing internal education, the effort has been simply to curry favor with conservative institutions and to attract movement members who are "socially liberal" and "fiscally conservative." So virtually anyone who wants to pay less in taxes and have pot legalized has been considered a libertarian. There is nothing wrong with encouraging those who want to pay less in taxes and see pot legalized to consider the merits of libertarian philosophy. Such a person is probably statistically more open to libertarianism than the average man on the street. However, what should be a cue for opening up dialogue has tragically become a sufficient litmus test for determining whether someone is a libertarian or not.

In fact, it is entirely possible that someone who does not immediately give libertarian answers to one’s questions about taxes and drugs will eventually be brought around to complete, radical libertarianism. And it is also possible that someone who gives the libertarian answer to both questions will turn out to be a totalitarian at the core — a totalitarian who likes marijuana and wants to pay less in taxes, but whose love of liberty does not cut any deeper than that. Instead of fully understanding the implications of libertarian principle, and trying to explain it to others and convince them of its value, many libertarians have looked at libertarianism as something that could easily be defined by a small number of bullet points or a handful of superficial sentiments towards government, and have thus propagated a false comprehension of libertarianism among those near to and outside of the movement.

In our time, nowhere has the paucity of good internal education been more obvious, and more detrimental, than on the issues of war and peace. For years, the Libertarian Party and other libertarian outfits have failed to emphasize the centrality of peace within the libertarian ethic and political program. Whereas issues such as taxes and drugs and guns and welfare have gotten at least some of the attention they deserve, serious discussion of foreign policy has long been missing altogether from outreach literature and political meetings. No consensus was ever attempted, because the topic was seen as either trivial or too difficult to agree on. So every conservative who was okay with abortion and gay marriage was welcomed into the movement with open arms. Meanwhile, antiwar, civil libertarian leftists who flunked the initial test on economics were quickly turned away.

The destructiveness of this approach became completely apparent after 9/11, especially in the build up to the Iraq War. Whereas with Afghanistan we could somewhat understand the desire for revenge and the overwhelming fear that unfortunately led many libertarians astray, with Iraq what we saw was a wholesale abandonment of the non-aggression principle, of distrust of the state, of distrust of central planning. The libertarian movement appeared divided on the issue, but the truth is that it was never united in the first place. Most of those who advocated and still support Bush’s killing spree are simply not libertarians, misguided or otherwise. It is theoretically possible that they could be converted to libertarianism. That most of them never fully embraced it to begin with is clear.

The libertarian movement would have been better off with more so-called "purity police," especially on the issue of foreign policy. The movement fractured over a key issue — indeed, the greatest of all political issues — because most hawks who identified with the movement never understood what libertarianism really was. One could, it turns out, be a "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" imperialist. But one cannot champion the non-aggression principle, the foundation of libertarian philosophy, and yet "support our troops" in the dropping of thousand-pound bombs on heavily populated civilian centers in a country on the other side of the world. Had the principle been stressed at the outset, we would today see fewer "libertarians" defending Bush’s authoritarian power grabs and calling for more war, confusing the public as to what libertarians fundamentally believe.

The libertarian philosophy is important because liberty is important, and we need people who will advocate a radical conception of freedom. We need revolutionary thinkers if ever we are to expect another revolution in mainstream political thought, if ever we are to expect a major change in national politics. This means we should certainly reach out to others with whom there is substantial agreement. We should not alienate them, nor lash out at them when they express disagreement and confusion at our ideas. We shouldn’t try to pick a fight over every little issue when there are better things to do. We shouldn’t reject all constructive collaborations in dealing with present emergencies, such as opposing a new war, police state measure or nationalist welfare scheme that threatens to bankrupt the country.

But we should also maintain a sense of what libertarian purity is, and we should not keep it a secret. We should indeed spread the ideas far and wide, in hopes that they will be adopted by increasing numbers of people, eventually catch on, and exert pressure on the political establishment. We should especially be able and willing to explain to prospective allies why we take the strong positions we do. If libertarianism is important to the future of human liberty, we must not lose sight of it in its purest form. We might never obtain the total human liberty we seek. But we will get nowhere if we turn our backs on our principles and jump toward the nearest compromise.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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