On Idealism

There is among libertarians a curious tendency towards the kind of thinking that Murray Rothbard termed “right opportunism." A prime example is Brink Lindsey’s “blog” entry on “two libertarianisms."

How can those incorrigible libertarians not realize, an opportunist seems to ask, that it is futile to fight the mighty overlords? Are they mad? Do they not see how tiny they are and how enormous the state is? For, truly, the latter dominates all, and its power is as strong as the earth itself. If they were only to acknowledge the state’s impregnability (for it knows all and makes no mistakes) and be awed by its all-confident awareness of its own righteousness and glory, then they would see that it is they who are mistaken. How can it be that such omnipresent power is actually destructive and corrupt? It boggles the mind that some pesky heretics can fail to grasp the eternal persistence and rock-like immovability of the status quo. For, (is it not obvious?) the state is far above the influence of all pitiful human actions; whatever ideal libertarians may hold is a worthless dream, for cold reality tells us that “Commodus and his progeny will rule for a thousand years,” and no power in heaven and earth can thwart his reign.

Pledge allegiance, give your faith to the state, place in it your hopes, and love it with your heart, and you, too, can finally be free from all doubt and may even get a chance to steer it somewhat in the right direction.

Such is the thinking of the opportunist camp. They see an entrenched order and imagine it to be eternal. They do not understand how quickly things can change. As Ludwig von Mises writes, “The chiliastic empires of dictators are doomed to failure; they have never lasted longer than a few years. We have just witnessed the breakdown of several of such ‘millennial’ orders. Those remaining will hardly fare better.” It is possible that the empires to which Mises is referring were too absurd, and that some empires can, at least in principle, last indefinitely. But what evidence are Lindsey and others of his kind offering to convince his “utopian” fellows to give up? And even if we suppose, for the sake of argument, the impossibility of victory at least in our lifetimes, how does it follow that one’s vision ought not to be strived for? As Vergil in Avram Davidson’s The Phoenix and the Mirror replies to his interlocutor’s grumble “Pursue, pursue! Always must you pursue?” Yes… Until death conquers me…or I conquer death… always, I must pursue.”

It seems therefore that the way to tell a genuine libertarian from a government one is to ask: To whom does he direct his admonitions? If his chief goal is to avoid disturbing the powers that be but instead to “be reasonable,” then he is the latter kind. Yet, in practice, what will being “reasonable” accomplish? It is easy to imagine the following rebuke to a libertarian petitioner, hat in hand, from a member of the state:

“Why, what an interesting suggestion, my good man! But surely you do not expect me to relinquish all of my powers and privileges and conveniences to which I have become used and which I now consider to be rightfully mine; it is true, perhaps, that I should, out of the goodness of my heart, be a bit nicer to my inferiors and, say, replace this tax with that other tax, but to support laissez-faire? You must be joking. I have important business to attend to and no time for laughter. Good day now.”

It may objected that there have, in fact, been a number of instances of gradual “top-down” reform, such as the one we can observe taking place in China. That much is true. But the likelihood of any such reform actually materializing is directly proportional to the radicalism of the reformers. A government official who sympathizes with the proposed changes can allow himself to plan and plot and compromise, for politics is the art of the possible. But why must the intellectuals? In sum, libertarian opportunism is untenable; those in thrall to this strategic error should reconsider their position.

June 20, 2003