Sell Out and Die

Email Print

essay was originally published in the July-August 1980 issue
of Cadre,
the internal bulletin of the Radical Caucus of the Libertarian
Party. This version leaves out the names of players who are no
longer relevant to Rothbard’s main point.

the spring of 1979, a fateful – and fatal – shift took place in the
direction and strategic vision of our leading libertarian institutions:
foundations, youth movements, journals, etc. The shift was a classic
leap into opportunist betrayal of our fundamental principles.

early, pre-1976 days of the modern libertarian movement suffered
from having no strategic vision at all. For that reason, it scarcely
deserved the name of movement; the guiding concept was what I
call “educationism”: that libertarians write, lecture, teach,
and spread the word, and that somehow the victory of liberty would
one day magically be achieved. From 1976 on, in contrast, the
movement began to flourish under a movement-building, or cadre-building,
perspective; the idea was to concentrate on building a movement
of knowledgeable libertarians, of men and women who would be deeply
committed to hard-core libertarian principle.

“cadre” would get involved in single-issue coalitions where the
particular issues advanced the libertarian cause (anti-draft,
drug law repeal, tax-slashing, or whatever). In that way, the
effectiveness of the cadre would be multiplied, and the consciousness
of many of our allies would be widened to see the consistency
and merit of the broader libertarian perspective.

strategic perspective is of course a long-range one, but it is
the only one that can possible succeed. At all times, the cadre
holds high the banner of pure principle, and then applies that
principle to the crucial issues of the day. But this course requires
a lifelong commitment to what Mao aptly called a “protracted struggle”;
it is no movement for those who rush in and burn out in a few


any ideological movement, the temptation to take quick shortcuts,
the lure of betraying principle for supposed short-run gain, can
become almost irresistible. But usually sellouts have occurred
after the movement has taken power, or else when it is teetering
on the brink of power. But it is surely rare for an ideological
movement to sell out when it merely sniffs the faintest whiff
of possible power some day in the future. Surely this is gutlessness
and venality of an unusually high order. Yet this began to happen
to the growing libertarian movement in early 1979, and is happening
right now before our eyes.

new opportunist strategy we might call, with considerable and
much-merited sarcasm, the “quick-victory” model. The reasoning
goes something like this: All this principle stuff is just a drag
on the machinery. We can gain a rapid and enormous leap forward
in votes, money, membership, and media influence. But to gain
these great goals we must quietly but effectively bury these annoying
principles, which only put off voters, money, influence, etc.

is too slow to get votes and support by holding high the banner
of libertarian principle and slowly converting people to it; far
quicker to abandon our own principles and adopt the program dear
to the hearts of those who might bring us votes, money, and influence.

problem, of course, is that even if money, votes, and influence
are achieved by this route, what are they being achieved for?
A major purpose, for example, of the Libertarian Party is to educate
the public, but to educate them to what? Presumably, to libertarian
principles. But if we present to the public watered-down pap hardly
distinguishable from liberals, conservatives, or centrists on
various issues, there will be no true education. The public will
receive education, not in liberty, but in pap, and whatever votes
are achieved will not be for liberty but for watered-down treacle.
In the process, our glorious principles are betrayed and forgotten,
and so the cause of liberty is worse off, even with several million
votes, than it was before the sellout strategy took hold. So everyone
loses, and no one benefits – except perhaps the opportunists themselves,
who may personally gain in power and income from the whole shabby

then, were the opportunist connivers going to handle all the stiff-necked
and principled purists in the Libertarian Party? The answer was
simple, and typical of the process of betrayal occurring in ideological
parties: Let the purists have their platform, which indeed has
gotten harder core and more radical with each national convention.
And then, simply control the Presidential candidate, and he ignores
the platform. And then the party can quietly go to hell, except
of course when needed as foot soldiers for ballot drives. Besides,
they believed they could get away with this strategy with only
a minimum of hassle from us purist malcontents. So far, in fact,
the tactic has worked, and will continue to work unless and until
genuine libertarians throughout the country rouse themselves and
begin to do something effective about it. And the first step is
to raise all of our voices loud and clear against this repellent
takeover of our party.


specific form has this opportunist sellout taken? Specifically,
the opportunists have targeted as their constituency young, middle-class
liberals, the sort of articulate people who tend to mould voter
opinion, the sort of people who read the New York Times
and watch CBS News. Better yet, they are the sort of people who
write the New York Times and make CBS News. In short, young,
middle-class, liberal media people. Who needs cadre, who needs
intellectual content, who needs principle, who needs grass-roots
organizing, or single-issue coalitions or all the other patient
boring work that might eventually gain victory for libertarian
principle? Who needs all of that when, with a considerable infusion
of money and a big dilution of principle, we can “win” quickly
with razzle-dazzle, direct mail, and media hype?

is this living for the media and media influence above all that
accounts not only for the betrayal of principle, but also for
the kinds of ideological deviations that the opportunists have
indulged in. It is time to recognize that patient argument on
each of these issues is beside the point; the opportunists are
simply not interested in which stand on any given issue might
be consistent with libertarianism and which is not. All they care
about is finding some plausible libertarian-sounding rationale
for a position which will suck in the votes and support of the
media and the media-oriented constituency.

example: how are white, middle-class liberal youth to be sucked
in to supporting [the ticket]? Easy. What has been the biggest,
in fact virtually the only, issue animating this group for the
last several years? Hysterical and ill-informed opposition to
nuclear power. So: we promise them, No Nukes.

about the sort of white, middle-class liberal women who read the
New York Times, etc? Clearly, their big issue for years
has been the ERA, so [the] opportunist institutions come out vigorously
for this amendment.

are the other basic views of the media constituency? Mainly they
are soft liberals: that is, they favor the welfare state, but
worry about its high costs, and wish for some sort of mild reduction
in Big Government. So: [the ticket] has now promised that welfare
will not be cut in a libertarian regime: in one version, until
private institutions take up the welfare burden (fat chance!)
or, in another, until “full employment” is achieved (no chance
at all). So, middle-class liberals are assured: No Welfare Cuts.
No “Goldwater extremism” here.

accordance with the opportunist strategy, [the ticket] has given
up talking about basic principle (too radical) and wants to talk
only about what he will do in his first year in office (Huh?).
What he will do, of course, is to be “responsible,” and therefore
not do much of anything that middle-class liberals or the media
might consider threatening. So he talks only about a “large” tax
and budget cut, but nothing really radical or principled like
repealing the income tax.

about drugs? Here [the ticket and its] handlers know that middle-class
liberals mainly smoke marijuana anyway, so favor its legalization,
but anything like heroin – much more a working class or ghetto drug – scares
the hell out of them. So [the ticket] bravely comes out for legalization
of “soft” drugs like marijuana, and refuses to talk about heroin,
which means of course, an implicit acceptance of the idea of keeping
heroin and other hard drugs illegal. The implication is clear,
and cannot be wriggled out of by the sophistical and evasive reply
that [the ticket] has nowhere said explicitly that heroin should
be outlawed.

are our middle-class liberals very fond of illegal working-class
Mexican immigrants, and so [the ticket] has maintained that illegal
Mexican immigration should continue to be restricted until welfare
disappears. But then, of course, that has to stay until full employment,
etc. So: No Mexicans.

this is what happens when opportunists begin to sanction the idea
of structured destatization, of saying that we can't repeal Statist
Law A until B is repealed, and we can't repeal B until we get
rid of C, etc. To the media, this of course seems very “responsible”
and respectable. Sure, it's respectable; and for the very same
reason, it means that we, as libertarians, are advocating the
indefinite and hence the permanent freezing in place of the statist
structure. The quick victory model turns out, on analysis, to
be a quick victory only for the power and income of the opportunists
themselves; for the cause of liberty, it means a permanent burial.

all amounts to a monstrous betrayal; those who hanker after votes,
media influence, and respectability should have stayed where they
belonged and where they can get these goodies more rapidly: in
the Democratic and Republican parties.

then, has the [ticket] remained fairly sound on a foreign policy
of non-intervention? Not, surely, because of some lingering devotion
to principle. But because their beloved constituency – youthful
white middle-class liberals – is fairly dovish, and so they believe
that hay can be made with these people by sticking to non-intervention.
But, even here, [the ticket] has already compromised by incorporating
Canada and Mexico into the U.S. defense perimeter. (In short:
fight the Russians in Mexico, but don't let the Mexicans in?)
Also, [it] now talks of a gradual withdrawal from NATO.

[the ticket] has taken to summing up his position as that of a
“low-tax liberal.” What we have to recognize is that this is not
simply a catchy phrase to get the attention of the media. This
is precisely what libertarianism has sunk to after a year of being
remolded by the campaign's power elite. The marvelous structure
of libertarian principle has been reduced simply to “low-tax liberalism.”

watered down are our principles that we can already point to several
key areas where Ronald Reagan is significantly more libertarian
than [the ticket]. [The ticket] is against Nukes; Reagan is not.
[The ticket] is for ERA; Reagan is for equal rights without the
infusion of government. [The ticket] is for restricting Mexican
immigration; Reagan is for a Common Market with Mexico, which
presumably means free immigration. [The ticket] links welfare
cuts to “full employment”; Reagan makes no such unnecessary link.
And we are yet to be convinced that the proposed tax cut will
be significantly bigger than the Reagan Kemp-Roth tax cut.


put it this way: if you were an ardent tax-cutter, would you vote
for a man who might well be elected, or for a man with no chance
who promises a slightly bigger cut? If libertarianism is to be
buried, there seems to be no point in voting for a Libertarian
Party. If only Reagan's election did not likely mean the incineration
of the human race in nuclear war, libertarians might well find
his candidacy very tempting at this point in the campaign.

if the LP candidate is to hawk “low-tax liberalism” instead of
libertarianism, why vote for [the ticket] at all? Why not for
someone with a better chance to win, or, to put it another way,
why not vote for an authentic low-tax liberal; why not Jerry Brown,
for example, that master of liberalism of lower budgets and lower
expectations? Or at least that is Brown's image, and image is
all that [the ticket]'s handlers care about.

to the point: what about John Anderson? For though Anderson gives
no sign of being for lower taxes, his firmly entrenched media
image is that of someone, to use the old cliché, “liberal
on social issues and conservative on fiscal issues.” As he has
rushed to return the embrace of his newfound constituency of white
middle-class liberals, Anderson's foreign policy has become increasingly
dovish. And as for the media, well everyone knows that the “Anderson
difference” has literally been created by the media. He is the
media's darling, and [the ticket] is bound to remain a humble
suitor left standing in the wings.

then, accounts for the panic and near-hysteria on the part of
the [ticket's] managers over the Anderson candidacy. Anderson,
they wail, has taken away “our” constituency. Tough. It couldn't
have happened to a more deserving group of guys. It is indeed
poetic justice for a group of people to sell their souls for a
mess of pottage and then not even get the pottage. Then, maybe,
after November, these people will leave us alone and return to
the major parties. And maybe then we will have a party whose candidates
run on the platform and not over it, who stand up for pure and
consistent principle, who are more interested in grass-roots cadre
building than in media hype.

then we will again have a “party of principle.” What eventually
killed the New Left was that they forgot about grass-roots organizing
in their thirst for media attention. Let us hope that we don't
follow the same route. So perhaps the best thing that could happen
to save our souls and our principles is for the meretricious “quick-victory”
model to lead to a quick defeat, even on the opportunists' own
terms: in media flash and numbers of vote.

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

Email Print