libertarian, anyway? By this we mean, what's the point of the
whole thing? Why engage in a deep and lifelong commitment to
the principle and the goal of individual liberty? For such a
commitment, in our largely unfree world, means inevitably a
radical disagreement with, and alienation from, the status
quo, an alienation which equally inevitably imposes many
sacrifices in money and prestige. When life is short and the
moment of victory far in the future, why go through all this?
we have found among the increasing number of libertarians in
this country many people who come to a libertarian commitment
from one or another extremely narrow and personal point of view.
Many are irresistibly attracted to liberty as an intellectual
system or as an aesthetic goal, but liberty remains for them
a purely intellectual parlor game, totally divorced from what
they consider the "real" activities of their daily lives. Others
are motivated to remain libertarians solely from their anticipation
of their own personal financial profit. Realizing that a free
market would provide far greater opportunities for able, independent
men to reap entrepreneurial profits, they become and remain
libertarians solely to find larger opportunities for business
profit. While it is true that opportunities for profit will
be far greater and more widespread in a free market and a free
society, placing one's primary emphasis on this motivation
for being a libertarian can only be considered grotesque. For
in the often tortuous, difficult and grueling path that must
be trod before liberty can be achieved, the libertarian's opportunities
for personal profit will far more often be negative than abundant.
of the narrow and myopic vision of both the gamester and the
would-be profit maker is that neither group has the slightest
interest in the work of building a libertarian movement. And
yet it is only through building such a movement that liberty
may ultimately be achieved. Ideas, and especially radical ideas,
do not advance in the world in and by themselves, as it were
in a vacuum; they can only be advanced by people and,
therefore, the development and advancement of such people
and therefore of a "movement" becomes a prime task for
the libertarian who is really serious about advancing his goals.
from these men of narrow vision, we must also see that utilitarianism
the common ground of free-market economists is
unsatisfactory for developing a flourishing libertarian movement.
While it is true and valuable to know that a free market would
bring far greater abundance and a healthier economy to everyone,
rich and poor alike, a critical problem is whether this knowledge
is enough to bring many people to a lifelong dedication to liberty.
how many people will man the barricades and endure the many
sacrifices that a consistent devotion to liberty entails, merely
so that umpteen percent more people will have better bathtubs?
Will they not rather set up for an easy life and forget the
umpteen percent bathtubs? Ultimately, then, utilitarian economics,
while indispensable in the developed structure of libertarian
thought and action, is almost as unsatisfactory a basic groundwork
for the movement as those opportunists who simply seek a short-range
It is our
view that a flourishing libertarian movement, a lifelong dedication
to liberty can only be grounded on a passion for justice. Here
must be the mainspring of our drive, the armor that will sustain
us in all the storms ahead, not the search for a quick buck,
the playing of intellectual games or the cool calculation of
general economic gains. And, to have a passion for justice,
one must have a theory of what justice and injustice
are in short, a set of ethical principles of justice
and injustice, which cannot be provided by utilitarian economics.
It is because
we see the world reeking with injustices piled one on another
to the very heavens that we are impelled to do all that we can
to seek a world in which these and other injustices will be
eradicated. Other traditional radical goals such as the
"abolition of poverty" are, in contrast to this one,
truly utopian, for man, simply by exerting his will, cannot
abolish poverty. Poverty can only be abolished through the operation
of certain economic factors notably the investment of
savings in capital which can only operate by transforming
nature over a long period of time. In short, man's will is here
severely limited by the workings of to use an old-fashioned
but still valid term natural law. 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.
take an example: England's centuries-long occupation and brutal
oppression of the Irish people. Now if, in 1900, we had looked
at the state of Ireland, and we had considered the poverty of
the Irish people, we would have had to say: poverty could be
improved by the English getting out and removing their land
monopolies, but the ultimate elimination of poverty in Ireland,
under the best of conditions, would take time and be subject
to the workings of economic law. But the goal of ending English
oppression that could have been done by the instantaneous
action of men's will: by the English simply deciding to pull
out of the country.
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 this case, the English government. 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
passion for justice, then, must be radical in short,
it must at least wish to attain its goals radically and instantaneously.
Leonard E. Read, founding president of the Foundation for Economic
Education, expressed this radical spirit very aptly when he
wrote a pamphlet I'd Push the Button. The problem was
what to do about the network of price and wage controls then
being imposed on the economy by the Office of Price Administration.
Most economic liberals were timidly or "realistically" advocating
one or another form of gradual or staggered decontrols; at that
point, Mr. Read took an unequivocal and radical stand on principle:
"if there were a button on this rostrum," he began his address,
"the pressing of which would release all wage and price controls
instantaneously, I would put my finger on it and push!"
test, then, of the radical spirit, is the button-pushing test:
if we could push the button for instantaneous abolition of unjust
invasions of liberty, would we do it? If we would not do it,
we could scarcely call ourselves libertarians, and most of us
would only do it if primarily guided by a passion for justice.
libertarian, then, is, in all senses of the word, an "abolitionist";
he would, if he could, abolish instantaneously all invasions
of liberty, whether it be, in the original coining of the term,
slavery, or whether it be the manifold other instances of State
oppression. He would, in the words of another libertarian in
a similar connection, "blister my thumb pushing that button!"
must perforce be a "button pusher" and an "abolitionist." Powered
by justice, he cannot be moved by amoral utilitarian pleas that
justice not come about until the criminals are "compensated."
Thus, when in the early 19th century, the great abolitionist
movement arose, voices of moderation promptly appeared counseling
that it would only be fair to abolish slavery if the slave masters
were financially compensated for their loss. In short, after
centuries of oppression and exploitation, the slave masters
were supposed to be further rewarded by a handsome sum mulcted
by force from the mass of innocent taxpayers! The most apt comment
on this proposal was made by the English philosophical radical
Benjamin Pearson, who remarked that "he had thought it was the
slaves who should have been compensated"; clearly, such compensation
could only justly have come from the slaveholders themselves.
and antiradicals generally, characteristically make the point
that such "abolitionism" is "unrealistic"; by making such a
charge they are hopelessly confusing the desired goal with a
strategic estimate of the probable outcome.
principle, it is of the utmost importance not to mix in strategic
estimates with the forging of desired goals. First, goals must
be formulated, which, in this case, would be the instant abolition
of slavery or whatever other statist oppression we are considering.
And we must first frame these goals without considering the
probability of attaining them. The libertarian goals are "realistic"
in the sense that they could be achieved if enough
people agreed on their desirability, and that, if achieved,
they would bring about a far better world. The "realism" of
the goal can only be challenged by a critique of the goal itself,
not in the problem of how to attain it. Then, after we have
decided on the goal, we face the entirely separate strategic
question of how to attain that goal as rapidly as possible,
how to build a movement to attain it, etc.
Lloyd Garrison was not being "unrealistic" when, in the 1830s,
he raised the glorious standard of immediate emancipation of
the slaves. His goal was the proper one, and his strategic realism
came in the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly
reached. Or, as Garrison himself distinguished:
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.
in the realm of the strategic, raising the banner of pure and
radical principle is generally the fastest way of arriving at
radical goals. For if the pure goal is never brought to the
fore, there will never be any momentum developed for driving
toward it. Slavery would never have been abolished at all if
the abolitionists had not raised the hue and cry thirty years
earlier; and, as things came to pass, the abolition was at virtually
a single blow rather than gradual or compensated.
and beyond the requirements of strategy lie the commands of
justice. In his famous editorial that launched The Liberator
at the beginning of 1831, William Lloyd Garrison repented his
previous adoption of the doctrine of gradual abolition:
this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation,
and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country,
and of my brethren, the poor slaves, for having uttered
a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice and absurdity.
reproached for the habitual severity and heat of his language,
Garrison retorted: "I have need to be all on fire, for I have
mountains of ice about me to melt." It is this spirit that must
mark the man truly dedicated to the cause of liberty.
Leonard E. Read, I'd Push the Button (New York: Joseph
D. McGuire, 1946), p. 3.
William D. Grampp, The
Manchester School of Economics (Stanford, Calif.:
Stanford University Press, 1960), p. 59.
Quoted in William H. and Jane H. Pease, eds., The
Antislavery Argument (Indianapolis: Robbs-Merrill,
1965), p. xxxv.
At the conclusion of a brilliant philosophical critique of
the charge of "unrealism" and its confusion of the good and
the currently probable, Professor 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.
Philbrook, "'Realism' in Policy Espousal," American Economic
Review (December, 1953): 859.
For the quotes from Garrison, see Louis Ruchames, ed., The
Abolitionists (New York: Capricorn Books, 1964),
p. 31, and Fawn M. Brodie, "Who Defends the Abolitionist?"
in Martin Duberman, ed., The
Antislavery Vanguard (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1965), p. 67. The Duberman work is a storehouse
of valuable material, including refutations of the common
effort by those committed to the status quo to engage in psychological
smearing of radicals in general and abolitionists in particular.
See especially Martin Duberman, "The Northern Response to
Slavery," in ibid., pp. 406–13.