This talk, "Real World Politics and Success for the Principles of Liberty," was given at the Libertarian Party of California Convention in San Ramon, CA, on April 22, 2007.
In considering the actual political reality we confront and the realistic potential for libertarian reform, we often hear that radical principle will just not do, for only through gradualism and electoral compromise can we expect to see liberty advance. Becoming too devoted to the non-aggression principle or the most radical applications of free-market reasoning is seen as making the perfect the enemy of the good. Here and there, we must give the state an inch, we are even told, or else we will actually move further from our common goals.
One important point is that America remains one of the freest civilizations in world history. We’re told not to forget this and become doomsdayers. Certainly, we have more secure property rights than have been enjoyed by most human beings, either now or in the past. This had led to a marvelous explosion of productivity in the United States and has continued to be one of the best real-world examples of freedom in action. Capitalism in America has produced a prosperity that the socialists of a century ago claimed was impossible. Their criticism has accordingly shifted from a critique that markets could never provide the most basic needs of the common man to a complaint that markets produce too much, offer us too many choices, result in decadent consumerism and other such nonsense.
Furthermore, there have also been advances in American liberty in recent times. The most fundamental, I would say, is the elimination of military conscription. We have also seen a reduction of income taxes, some liberalization of state gun laws, a lowering of some trade barriers, and various instances of deregulation in such sectors as telecommunications and transportation. We don’t have the price controls we once did. There are ways that America is freer than it was only 20 or 30 years ago, and surely, for huge segments of the population, 60 years ago, 160 years ago, or 200 years ago. Worldwide, there have also been huge advances that should not be understated. Stalinism is dead. China is moving toward freer markets with Constitutional guarantees of private property rights — not airtight guarantees, of course, but still a definitive mark of improvement since Mao. Much of the world has followed the classical-liberal trend toward freer trade. Central planning is not as popular as it was in the interwar years. Looking at the situation over the last several centuries, slavery in the purest sense is not as officially and openly defended as it once was universally worldwide.
To ignore such developments completely is, I believe, a huge error in understanding where we are and how we can move closer to the libertarian ideal.
And yet, surely America is not freer than it once was in all ways. Surely it is not nearly as free as it could be. If it were there would be no need for libertarian activism. So what energizes us? A vision for an even freer tomorrow, one without the oppressive structures of today.
Some policies today are frankly so destructive and authoritarian that it is easy to sympathize with those who laugh at the idea that America is a free country. Consider the war on drugs. Some think that the Libertarian Party has become too obsessed with this issue, but I strongly disagree. There is no shame in calling this program what it is: a moral monstrosity and a human-rights catastrophe. It is, in fact, one of the clearest embodiments of modern political evil in domestic policy. It would be hard to imagine any libertarian being too concerned with an issue of such importance.
Before 9/11, the drug war was the state’s favorite excuse to militarize and nationalize police forces, equipping them with battle rifles and rubberstamped warrants with which they can invade any home, any business, any bank account and, to be quite direct, get away with murder when push comes to shove.
Hundreds of thousands of peaceful people are being subjected to treatment that a more humane culture would probably hesitate to force animals to endure. Indeed, this speaks to the entire prison system, an obscenity that should concern anyone who loves liberty and thinks overbearing government is a bad idea. Within these holding cells is a dystopian totalitarianism, where outcasts, criminals, and a million people who committed no real crime are caged, monitored and controlled by an unspoken code of police brutality and inter-prisoner rape and violence. The whole institution must be rethought, and in the meantime there is absolutely no excuse for not immediately freeing every last prisoner who was sent there only for drugs or any other victimless crime.
There are peaceful people trapped in the so-called justice system for violating immoral gun laws, tax laws, economic regulations and even laws that dictate what people can do voluntarily in their sexual relations. Is there any greater tyranny? I happen to think the war on prostitution deserves more libertarian attention, as well.
For each caged victim of the political system, his or her humanity is being held on hold by the state. It is a moral necessity that we call for immediate release of the peaceful.
The prison guard union lobbies for more and more laws and ever more prisons. Every year, these factories of brutality continue to pop up all over the map. We must stand up to this pressure.
Some might think I am going too far. I have even heard some people in libertarian circles say that if you broke the law, even an unjust law, you should do the time. This is incorrect. Such an attitude simply buys into the central tenet of statist morality: That the state has the right to violate people’s rights. No state has this right. Indeed, no individual or group of any kind has the right to violate the rights of another. Or are we going to start believing A doesn’t equal A, after all?
There are other ways in which America has lost liberty. Eminent domain was always a favorite way for corporate-government partnerships to seize property from rightful owners and enrich politically connected businesses and local governments with higher tax revenues. But the practice has become much more widespread recently. Social Security has grown from a meager 1 or 2 percent tax at its beginning into a government in itself, a system of massive intergenerational plunder. Licensure has crept into ever more sectors in the economy, destroying livelihoods by stripping people of their human right to make a living by offering goods and services to anyone willing to buy.
There’s a creeping move toward health care fascism, most clearly seen in Bush’s prescription drug leviathan, whereby costs are socialized but profits privatized. Public schools gobble up more tax dollars than ever and have become instruments of social engineering, whether to inculcate PC leftist influences or hierarchical rightwing ones. Environmental laws have wrecked private property rights, including the right to build a porch in your own backyard without having to call a federal agency and pay a fee first. The freedom of association has been battered by laws regulating who people can hire or fire. Meanwhile, the freedom to hire illegal aliens — as in, the right to engage in capitalistic acts between consenting parties — is under more danger than ever. It has become so absurd that you could probably get in trouble for hiring an undocumented Mexican immigrant, or for not hiring him and breaking a Civil Rights law.
How come our country is such a paradox? So free yet so not free? We have the biggest government in world history yet the most robust economy ever. We have the freedom to speak our mind that many people around the world would die for, yet we have the highest per-capita prison population on the planet, half of which, again, are people who shouldn’t have even had their wrists slapped.
Well, this goes all the way back to the founding of the country and ties in to the theme I want to stress: the relationship between practical political reality and radical political principles.
America began as a paradox. Wrongly demonized by the politically correct left and wrongly characterized as heaven on earth by conservatives and many libertarians, the fledgling United States was neither a libertarian paradise nor a society without many unique merits.
America sprung from radical revolution against the doctrine of empire and political centralism. The American colonists revolted against a King that they rightly believed had no right to rule them. The Declaration of Independence fleshes out these principles, but Tom Paine’s Common Sense, which also came out in 1776, is perhaps an even more radical document. Paine pointed out the absurdity of being ruled from 3,000 miles away by a despot who claimed absolute power and wisdom yet also claimed to be checked by the Constitution. Yet here we are today, 3,000 miles away from our own King George and his dictatorial doctrine of the unitary executive.
The American Revolution was a moment of clarity that excited the world and inspired revolutions for centuries to come. The most inspiring thing about it, however, the thing that maintained a lasting positive influence on American life, was the ideas. The most unfortunate aspects were the political compromising, the establishment of a new government, and the conservative counterrevolution of the Federalists.
It was from the cascade of liberal thought in the late 18th century that the ideas of toleration, free trade, free association, limits on government power, religious freedom, and equality for women first started getting a fair hearing. The American Revolution coincided with the founding of the first Anti-Slavery societies of any stature. People began to wonder about power itself, about the inequality of political authority and legal rights between state and individual, between master and slave, between man and woman.
Unfortunately, these radical insights were ignored by the conservatives that the war brought to power. They soon established a government that came to tax and micro-manage the colonies far more than the British Crown ever could. The Constitution had only solidified the power of the elite interests — just as the Anti-Federalists feared. True liberty was betrayed quickly. The birth of the U.S. happened amidst a birth of libertarian principles, but they were not followed through enough. There was too much compromise. There was too much gradualism.
By the time of the Mexican War, the United States had started to become an imperial power. It was growing into that which the colonists had struggled against. Slavery was as entrenched as ever, and protected by a federal constitution years after the British abandoned it.
An abolitionist movement had emerged that saw slavery as an evil to be abolished as soon as humanly possible. They were seen as too idealistic, but their radical ideas echoed throughout the world and culminated in the eventual abolition of chattel slavery. William Lloyd Garrison had said that gradualism in theory was perpetuity in practice: He recognized that compromising the least bit on the principle of self-ownership would mean you’d lose your moral standing and could easily be discredited or absorbed into a practice of defending evil. He recognized that slavery would not end as soon as it should, but that only by calling for its end immediately would it end as soon as it could.
Despite the many problems of Antebellum America, there remained the wonderful principle of decentralism, of secession, of local self-determination, that had energized the colonists. But this was destroyed by Abraham Lincoln.
Gloriously, chattel slavery ended, but war was not necessary for it, any more than it was in the rest of the Western Hemisphere where it was done away with peacefully in the 19th century.
Meanwhile, the federal government came to have despotic powers the Jeffersonians would have never tolerated: Conscription, income taxation, national bureaucracies of corporate privilege, gun control, massive inflation, total war, the executive power to suspend habeas corpus, censorship, and the use of the military in domestic policing. In a very real way, the modern American government was created in the 1860s by the Hamiltonians who had first hijacked the American Revolution with their reactionary Constitution and later formed the Republican Party as an engine for creating a nationalist corporate state. They succeeded.
The end of slavery coincided with the beginning of the current regime. This is a difficult issue for many libertarians to confront, but I think it is important to understand America’s early legacy as one that was tainted by both the sins of slavery and belligerent, corporate nationalism.
Ludwig von Mises had a great insight into economics that one government intervention into the economy, which disrupts the free market order, invariably creates problems that people typically attempt to solve with yet more government intervention. My way of thinking of this might seem a little more New Age, but it is also distinctly libertarian: I think of it in terms of reverberations of aggression.
The aggressive way that the US Constitution was foisted upon the colonies, along with the steady social crime of slavery, combined with the aggressive impulse to consolidate power in the national center, as well as the aggressive looting of some interests by others in the form of tariffs, culminated in the American system that developed in the 19th century. So slavery never went away fully, it was only nationalized and reconstituted in such forms as conscription and in more subtle ways. Aspects of its legacy as racial oppression also lived on in the Black Codes, Jim Crow, forced segregation and forced integration, and they continue today in the form of drug laws, gun laws, the welfare state and the criminal justice system.
In short, the problem was the principled abolitionists and other radicals were too few in number, and what existed throughout the 19th century was a confused political dynamic in which no major faction appeared to favor liberty above all. The Antebellum Democrats were great on trade but not so good on war and slavery. The Hamiltonians were cautious of some wars but bad on everything else. This continues to this day, when we have one party that speaks of economic freedom (but doesn’t come through) and another that speaks of personal choice but neither that embraces the full program and philosophy of freedom.
The reason America is not as free as it should be is there hasn’t been enough principled libertarian thought in American history, and there’s where we come in. To the extent we do have freedom, it is because of the radicals of the past. To the extent we have oppression, socialism and imperialism, it is because of insufficient radicalism of the past, an attempt to mix the libertarian instincts of the American Revolution with the statist values of corporate conservatism, centralized statism, mixed economics, policed morality and continual foreign war.
Some say we have lost liberty gradually so we should seize it back gradually. Well, we should reclaim it in any amounts we can, but this understanding fails to note the stark degree to which libertarian gradualism in theory has been statist perpetuity in practice.
In the late 19th century, liberals stood for industrialization, progress, liberation and material abundance for the masses, free trade, personal liberty and much of our modern platform. But they were led astray first by utilitarianism and then by the temptation of socialism — the attempt to achieve liberal ends with statist means. They came to see the state as the worker’s potential savior, rather than co-conspirator with the corporate interests. In the early 20th century, the Democratic Party, which had, at least under the Grover Cleveland presidency of the late 1800s, made its mark as the more libertarian of the two parties, became wholly corrupted during the Woodrow Wilson administration and especially the advent of World War I.
The US, by getting involved in that war, not only failed to make the world safe for much of anything except maybe Communism and fascism, but it also became an authoritarian regime with income tax rates in the high 70s, conscription, and the imprisonment of people merely for criticizing the draft, the war, or even the British government and other allies. Five thousand new federal bureaus came with the war. As all too usual in American history, pro-freedom rhetoric was used to defend the opposite of freedom.
But the Democrats still seemed the more libertarian party, which would explain why, in 1932, after the Stock Market crash and several years of typically extensive government growth under Republican Herbert Hoover, Ayn Rand cast her vote for Franklin Roosevelt. Libertarian heroine Isabel Paterson also supported FDR. Why? Well, his platform was overall much better than Hoover’s. He vowed to cut government by 25%, protect sound money with a gold standard, lower trade barriers, cut taxes, balance the budget and end alcohol prohibition. Indeed, what Franklin Roosevelt offered would pass today as a moderate libertarian agenda. Some in this room might even have considered it too radical, given the economic calamity and real world politics the Democrats seemed to be ignoring.
But the real problem was that there wasn’t a strong enough movement to decry him when he moved in the opposite direction, instituted the ghastly New Deal, played big businesses against each other, and destroyed crops in a twisted socialist scheme to improve the economy.
Not enough people understood why every single thing he did to expand the state was a disaster. There weren’t enough radicals. Now, he moved so far toward collectivism that many previous supporters abandoned him and joined other forces in the informal opposition movement known today as the Old Right, which was an important stepping-stone to modern libertarianism. But the real lesson here is that no moderate political program of restoring normalcy and retracting the state can serve as a substitute for the radical libertarian ideology, which will also inform us of what’s a real libertarian reform and what’s a move toward statism. Like Wilson, FDR had also defended all his despotism with a rhetoric of freedom — the Four Freedoms, as he called it.
Fast forward a few generations and consider the supposed Reagan revolution. Now, Ayn Rand refused to vote for him, because of what she saw as his unacceptable position on abortion. This was ironic, since as California governor he liberalized abortion law. But his rhetoric never lined up to his actual governance, and Rand was right when she thought she smelled a rat. Under Reagan, government spending skyrocketed, just as it did when he was governor. Indeed, when in charge of California, he gave this state its first major modern gun control law and the biggest tax increase in state history. He erected bureaucracies faster than the Democratic gubernatorial father and son before and after him. And as president, he was similarly a nightmare. A protectionist, a compromiser on the welfare state, a man who only cut some taxes by raising others and inflating the money supply, a warmonger with an insatiable appetite for defense spending, Ronald Reagan was no free enterpriser, despite his rhetoric, and he left behind many ugly legacies, including the modern war on drugs. Rand was right not to vote for him, for this man, despite his pro-freedom language, was responsible in many ways for one of the greatest assaults on personal liberty in our time. Or are we going to forget about that innocent 20-year-old being raped and treated like a slave in a federal dungeon right now so we can pay homage to this supposed hero of freedom?
To this day, the reverberations of aggression from past government policies are seen all around us. Each intervention has led to human suffering, which is why a holistic approach to thinking of real world of politics is so crucial. Gun laws render victims less safe against madmen. FDA regulations have caused tens of thousands of Americans to die prematurely and in senseless pain. Every single tax, every single regulation, every single act of government intruding into the natural order of free and voluntary human action leads to the destruction of wealth and diminution of freedom. The violence of the state — that privileged organization that monopolizes legal force — always injures someone somewhere, no matter the well-intentioned ends to which it may be directed. To be an individualist and libertarian is to understand that no one, anywhere, should ever be aggressed against by anyone, and that the state is the principal form of institutionalized aggression in our world. But its effects and its causes are sewn throughout culture. The state is a reflection of prevailing ideology. We must change that ideology. First we must understand it, which requires a deep appreciation of history, economics, and the dynamics of interpersonal affairs.
In our time and country, the greatest threat to liberty is the warfare state and the ideology of warmongering. On this issue, many libertarians wish to embrace utilitarianism and shun moral principle, trust the state to bring down and rebuild whole nations abroad when they wouldn’t even trust it to build a public park down the block. Like the confused liberals of 120 years ago who came to adopt socialism, today’s pro-war libertarian seeks to use statist means to achieve liberation. He also often ignores the degree to which the modern state is a creation of all the wars of the past — the fact that almost everything about today’s government can be traced back to the Civil War, World War I, World War II or the Cold War.
What has today’s warfare regime done for freedom? At home and at overseas bases, the Bush administration’s attack on civil liberties has been staggering. Habeas corpus and the Fourth Amendment are gone. And Iraq is, if anything, worse off than before.
The US government has an imperial presence worldwide that is reviled and resented by most peoples, though their governments have often been intimidated, bribed or coerced into going along with the empire. Furthermore, the same government that has long banned guns in its own capital, and assisted in rounding up personal weapons in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq and in New Orleans after Katrina, has the largest arsenal of devices for slaughter ever consolidated in one place. Indeed, the destructive capacity of our government — the largest government of all time — is unspeakably evil. No institution should have the power to wipe out human life the way our supposedly free system does.
None of this is sustainable. The taxation, the welfare statism, the drug war, the gun control, the treating of human beings not as individuals with dreams and wants of their own but as national resources — this is all an affront to human rights and the spontaneous orders of human interaction that spur progress, innovation, and wealth creation and allow for the precious flowering of scientific, artistic, emotional and spiritual discovery of each and every individual soul.
Libertarian principle helps explain the world, why some things seem to go so wrong, and why so much has nevertheless gone right. It has also been libertarian principle that has led to the improvements I’ve talked of earlier. And there are others. As terrible as the current war on terror is, it is much milder than it would have been when people had less libertarian instincts on war. They did not immediately institute the draft and throw all Arabs into camps. They have not strategically bombed the Middle East the way they did Japan. They didn’t abolish freedom the way they likely would have had Manhattan been attacked in the 1910s or 1940s. There has been a resistance to government that we only have because of previous generations who dared to take on the Woodrow Wilsons and Lyndon Johnsons. At the time, they were seen as hopeless idealists, kooks, or even traitors. Yet we owe much of our freedom to them as we do to the abolitionists and radicals of the past.
Libertarianism is forward-looking. We don’t want the America of 200 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 50 years ago or even 10 years ago. We seek a world where every individual can pursue happiness in the context of voluntary community and free markets. Will we ever get there? Perhaps not, but only by aiming for the ideal, by holding fast to our principles and constantly re-examining them and challenging ourselves always to appreciate the lessons of liberty as much as we possibly can — only by being principled can we hope to move toward our goals. Only by principles can we even define our goals in the first place, and know if we’re moving the right way.
Until people are more favorable toward freedom, no election of one person or another can bring about a massive retrenchment of the state that everyone here wants. Indeed, voting for what seems to be a good step between what we have and what we want will likely get us another Reagan or FDR, another drug war or another New Deal.
We need to change minds and touch hearts. We must be forward looking and never lose sight of the massive oppression in our time. We must jump for joy at all triumphs of freedom, no matter how small, and condemn any and all attacks on freedom. It might seem like a matter of academic frivolity, but any small change can mean the difference of freedom or imprisonment for one priceless and irreplaceable human being somewhere. In economic terms, a single small change can mean a family well fed or a child going hungry.
The Libertarian Party is what brought me into libertarianism and it changed my life for the better. My love of liberty is something I feel blessed to have and without the LP, I might have never discovered how exciting it can be to look at the world through the eyes of someone who believes in liberty.
But I have wondered sometimes about what the LP really thinks its mission is on earth. If it wins elections with an FDR-style platform, it could potentially — given how much power corrupts — lead to the discrediting of many of the ideals we all hold dear. One reason so many people hate capitalism is because they associate it with corporatism. One reason people hate tax opposition is because it’s associated with the slaveholders who applied the principles so inconsistently 200 years ago. One reason people hate privatization is because they think of huge contracts to corporate cronies and Wall Street or the contracting out of prisons to private enterprise — as if a company making money off of people being treated worse than animals is somehow a move toward the libertarian vision.
And one reason people hate economic freedom is because it is espoused by a hypocritical US empire that has imposed some of the most comprehensive trade restrictions in world history and continues to conflate liberation with military occupation, freedom with social engineering and peacemaking with the bombing of civilians.
Freedom is most often stolen by the state in the name of freedom. Let us not contribute to these misconceptions. We do not believe in a slightly cheaper version of the US police state, or a more smoothly running welfare state or private companies doing the bidding of politicians abroad on our dime. We do not need the mercantilism our Founding Fathers revolted against. And we also don’t need the gradualism in theory that led them to tolerate slavery, tariffs and inequality between the sexes under the law, as well as the horrible crimes against the American Indians.
The LP used to be called radical on the drug war, and yet it now runs candidates who have softened their rhetoric against it even as the prisons grow and public opinion turns against prohibition. The LP used to be seen as reflexively antiwar, but now it almost seems at times to be more pro-war than the American population, which now realizes that there are limits to power even when politicians are well-intentioned, but also that politicians frequently aren’t well-intentioned, and that all this applies to war at least as much as domestic policy.
Retreating from principle is a horrible strategy for effecting positive change. A watered-down message is not going to get you votes, either, since such rhetoric can be found in the Republican Party.
I ask you all to recommit yourself to our principles daily. It will seem futile only if you look at things very short term. As an analogy, we might never get rid of murder completely, but there is no reason not to oppose it outright. One day, moral principles pay off, if gradually, as more and more people question the fundamental ethical assumptions that allow the status quo to persist. But only fundamental challenges can lead to such changes in society — that, and economic law, which dictates that no socialist structure can maintain beyond a certain point.
The limits of government power and the wonders of human nature are on our side in the long term. Let’s speed the process along by telling the truth, by opposing all statism, all socialism and all aggressive warfare — by constantly rededicating ourselves to the principles of individual rights in life, liberty and property. Insofar as we have the blessings of liberty, it is because these ideas have caught on. Insofar as we don’t, it is because they haven’t.
Now, spreading the message does require an understanding of activism. We do need to be willing to work with others, to explain our ideas with different arguments for different audiences, to reach out to elements of the so-called left as well as the so-called right. Libertarians like to take sides in the culture war, and it is indeed crucial to recognize the importance of culture and social opinion, which are what allow the state to persist in the first place. But as it concerns activist outreach, we need to work harder to reach all potentially persuaded segments of the population. We indeed should reach people of the so-called cultural fringe. We also need to do a much better job addressing mainstream America. I believe it very possible for Libertarian candidates to spread the message of freedom in a highly persuasive manner for different audiences, all without watering down their principles.
The time is ripe for a change in social awareness about the benefits of freedom and follies of the state. The left isn’t as anti-market as it once was. The right is not as bad in some ways, either. Most Americans are fed up with the war and want some answers. Young people don’t trust Social Security and aren’t as blind to police brutality as previous generations. Central planning for its own sake is less blindly accepted. There’s a lot of reason to be hopeful of getting more people to listen to what we have to say. Now is not the time to tone down our inspiring and beautiful message of liberty and the hope it brings for all of humanity.
The radical libertarian Murray Rothbard knew that a real step in the right direction was always a blessing in itself, but that the full program of liberty was necessary for the long-run battle for freedom. He knew the pitfalls of moderation in theory and with compromises that gave an inch to the state. I’d like to close by commenting on something he said at the 1977 Libertarian Party National Convention, where he gave the keynote address. In discussing the true differentia between us and the two major political parties, Rothbard said,
"I don’t think that the crucial difference is that we’re smart and the others are dumb; after all, if we may let this secret out to the world, we’re not all that smart! We are a glorious movement to be sure, but we have hardly achieved perfection. The difference between us and the Democrats and Republicans is not that we are so much smarter than they are, but that we are deeply concerned with ideas, with principles, whereas they are simply concerned with getting their places at the public trough. We are interested in principles, they in power; and, gloriously enough, our principle is that their power be dismantled."
We might never see it dismantled altogether. But as I look at the political reality around us, the lasting Lincolnianism, Rooseveltianism and Reaganism — the remnants of old oppressions mostly vanquished but reborn in different forms, the continuation of statist policies that were supposed to be temporary for a crisis but never went away, the ripples of state aggression all around — I will say this: Until there are more of us who want to see that power dismantled, there will be little hope in seeing it in steady retreat.
So spread the word. Embrace your principles. If you believe in liberty, don’t be afraid of confronting its implications and condemning aggression wherever you see it. In a world as torn asunder by the state as ours is, where the benefits of freedom wherever it is allowed to flower are nevertheless as beautifully clear as ever, I do contend that holding tight onto principle is the only sensible strategy.
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.