This article first appeared in the May 15, 1969, issue of The Libertarian Forum.
Norman Mailer’s surprise entry into the Democratic primary for Mayor of New York City, to be held on June 17, provides the most refreshing libertarian political campaign in decades. Mailer has taken everyone by surprise by his platform as well as his sudden entry into the political ranks. The Mailer platform stems from one brilliantly penetrating overriding plank: the absolute decentralization of the swollen New York City bureaucracy into dozens of constituent neighborhood villages. This is the logic of the recent proposals for “decentralization” and “community control” brought to its consistent and ultimate conclusion: the turmoil and plight of our overblown and shattered urban government structures, most especially New York, are to be solved by smashing the urban governmental apparatus, and fragmenting it into a myriad of constituent fragments. Each neighborhood will then be running its own affairs, on all matters, taxation, education, police, welfare, etc. Do conservative whites object to compulsory bussing of black kids into their neighborhood schools? Well, says Mailer, with each neighborhood in absolute control of its own schools this problem could not arise. Do the blacks object to white dictation over the education of black children? This problem too would be solved if Harlem were wholly independent, running its own affairs. In the Mailer plan, black and white could at long last live peacefully side-by-side, with each group and each self-constituted neighborhood running its own affairs.
Mailer and his running mate for City Council President, the writer Jimmy Breslin, realize full well that this striking new idea cuts totally across old-fashioned “left"-“right” lines, that it could logically have an appeal to both groups, or rather to those in both groups that are truly attracted by an essentially libertarian vision. Those who want compulsory integration or those who want the blacks to continue under white rule will not be satisfied with this vision; but those who yearn for liberty, who want whites and blacks to treat each other as independent equals rather than as rulers of one over the other, should flock to the Mailer standard.
Mailer’s other positions flow from his basic libertarian insight. He is opposed to compulsory fluoridation of the water supply, and he favors the freeing of Huey Newton both libertarian positions in the freeing of the individual and the community from the boot of the State. One of Mailer’s key proposals is that New York City secede from New York State and form a separate 51st State: a position not only consistent with breaking up large governmental bodies but also with the crucial libertarian principle of secession. Secession is a crucial part of the libertarian philosophy: that every state be allowed to secede from the nation, every sub-state from the state, every neighborhood from the city, and, logically, every individual or group from the neighborhood. Mailer’s vision actively promotes this position. He is the first political campaigner since the Civil War to raise the banner of secession, a mighty call which unfortunately became discredited in the eyes of Americans because (a) the South lost the Civil War, and (b) because it was associated in their minds with slavery.
Another superb part of Mailer’s libertarian vision is his reply about where the New York City government would raise funds; he points out that citizens of New York City pay approximately $22 billion in income taxes to the federal government, and that New Yorkers only receive back about $6 billion from federal coffers. Hence, if New Yorkers kept that $22 billion in their own hands… That way lies secession indeed!
While Mailer’s all-out decentralization should appeal to left and right alike, in actual fact so far the great bulk of his support is coming from the kids of the New Left. On the West Side of Manhattan, there is in the New Left-oriented Community Free Democratic club at least a strong bloc of ardent Mailer-Breslin adherents. As far as I know, there is nothing like this support on the Right-wing. Again I put the question to Mrs. Conservative: how come? You’ve been griping, and properly so, about swollen governmental bureaucracy for thirty years. For all that time you’ve been calling for decentralization, for fragmenting the government. Now, at long last, a candidate comes along that takes this position (Mailer calls himself a "left conservative,” by the way). Why aren’t you supporting him?
And so The Libertarian Forum makes its first political endorsement: Mailer for Mayor of New York City and Breslin for President of the City Council. But this of course runs us squarely into the very widespread sentiment among libertarians against any support, vote or endorsement whatever for any political candidate. The contention is that any such support constitutes support of, and joining in with, the State apparatus and is therefore immoral for the libertarian.
While I respect this position, I consider it unduly sectarian.
The point is that whether we vote or endorse or not, the offices of President, Senator, Mayor or whatever will not become vacant; some one will continue to fill these offices during the coming years. Since there is no way for us to opt for keeping these offices vacant, since we will be stuck with someone in these positions come what may, why shouldn’t we at least express a hope that someone rather than someone else will fill such positions? If we know that either X or Y will fill a given political post, why can’t we express our hope that X will win, or, more likely, that Y will lose? Since we are not yet able to reach that blessed state when both can lose, why not do the best we can with the material at hand for the time being? Or, to put it another way, the State apparatus allows us our biennial or quadrennial electoral choice. It is, to be sure, a piddling choice, a marginal choice, a choice which means little and which of and by itself cannot radically change the existing system. But it is at least something, it is at least some kind of a choice that we are allowed between different groups of would-be masters, and often such a choice may be important as in the Mailer ideas and candidacy for this year. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of the choices, however piddling, that our State rulers permit us to exercise?
I take as my text Lysander Spooner, one of the great Founding Fathers of individualist anarchism. Spooner wrote:
“in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent [to the U. S. government]…. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments…. Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot, would use it, if they could see any chance of thereby ameliorating their condition. But it would not, therefore, be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or even consented to.”
~ Spooner, No Treason: Larkspur, Colorado, 1966, p. 13
There is another important reason for not necessarily scorning the endorsement of political parties or candidates. And that is the seeming fact that it is almost impossible to organize ordinary middle-class citizens into action except through political parties. Blacks are organized in the ghettoes, students on campuses, workers for good or ill in labor unions, but where are the permanent issue-oriented organizations that successfully attract the great bulk of the country in the middle-class? It seems that the middle-class is only organizationally attracted by political parties, party clubs, etc. If this is so, then political parties become a necessary instrument of the libertarian movement, because if we are to achieve victory we must eventually obtain at the very least the passive support, and hopefully a more active support, of the majority of the middle-class of the country. No organizing among the middle-class has been done by the New Left, although there have been perennial futile attempts to organize the industrial workers by the Marxist elements. The issues, I am convinced, are there: high taxes, inflation, inter-racial clashes arising from failure to achieve community control, a losing or stalemated war, all this can be brought home to the majority of the population. The rhetoric, of course, will have to differ from the rhetoric that appeals to students; but the underlying ideas and philosophy can be the same: individual liberty. But it seems clear the organizational form for organizing the middle class will have to be a political party or something very much like it.
Libertarian sectarians should ask themselves seriously: do we want victory? If we really want victory for liberty, then we must employ the means necessary for its attainment, and it looks as if political action will be one though by no means all of those necessary means. And so Mailer for Mayor.
Murray N. Rothbard (19261995) 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.