In thinking about strategies for abolishing or radically diminishing government, many libertarians are led astray by predicating a false dichotomy. The State, they say, can either be smashed in one swift, fell blow or it can be rolled back gradually according to a predetermined plan. These are the only two alternatives. They then go on to consider the advantages and disadvantages of gradually rolling back versus demolishing the State. Not surprisingly, they usually arrive at the conclusion that “gradualism” is likely to be a more successful and humane strategy than, for lack of a better term, demolitionism. Steve Horwitz falls into this logical error in a recent article.
There are a number of problems with framing the issue in these terms. First and foremost, demolitionism is not a strategy but an adolescent fantasy, the product of the idle musings of zealous young converts to libertarianism. The means and goals of demolitionism cannot even be coherently stated. Is it supposed to be the aim of demolitionists to cause the State to vanish literally overnight or in the time it takes for politicians, bureaucrats, and military leaders to pack up and clear out of their offices or be forcibly marched out and jailed? And what actions are the demolitionists supposed to undertake to induce the proprietors of the State apparatus to simultaneously abandon it? Are demolitionists counting on a brilliant propaganda campaign to cause a spontaneous conversion to libertarianism among legislators, judges, and members of the executive branch, etc.? Or will demolitionists incite a populist tax revolt and possibly a mutiny among the lower ranks of the armed forces that puts an abrupt end to the State? The entire notion of abruptly overthrowing a State—especially one as powerful, entrenched, and beloved (or at least tolerated) by the vast majority of its subject-citizens as the United States—is so fantastical that it is difficult to believe that any libertarian would defend the position.
In fact the demolitionist position is a strawman. It is set up to make the gradualist strategy appear to be the only reasonable one. It is difficult to identify one notable modern libertarian thinker who has ever endorsed demolitionism as a strategy. Now someone may respond that Murray Rothbard, in his article, “Do You Hate the State?” posited a distinction between what he called “gradualists” and “abolitionists.” But here he was not distinguishing among strategies but intellectual and emotional attitudes toward the State. He thus described the “abolitionist,” whether anarchist or minarchist, as “a ‘button pusher’ who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed.” Rothbard went on to point out, however, “the abolitionist also knows that alas, such a button does not exist, and that he will take a bit of the loaf if necessary — while always preferring the whole loaf if he can achieve it.” Note Rothbard’s emphasis on the word “not.” So although Rothbard was an abolitionist who passionately detested the State as “a plundering and bestial enemy” of mankind, he emphatically rejected demolitionism as a realistic strategy. Attitudinally, the opposite of the abolitionist button pusher, for Rothbard, is the Chicago-school efficiency adviser who views the State as merely a less efficient arrangement than the free market economy for supplying all or—for the minarchist—most “public goods.” The Friedmanite (Milton or David) efficiency enthusiast harbors no great hatred for the State, which is, after all, providing society with necessary goods and services, albeit at higher costs than competitive markets would. To reiterate, the abolitionist and the efficiency adviser are differentiated by the attitude they adopt toward the State based on whether they consider it an organized band of plunderers and parasites or a bumbling and “non-optimal” producer of public goods.
If not the absurd and fruitless program of demolitionism, then, what is the realistic alternative to the gradualist strategy? Before we can answer this question, we must take a closer look at gradualism. According to Horwitz, gradualism has two essential features. First, it seeks to “roll back” the state “step by step” rather than “leaping right from the status quo to the minimal state or a stateless society.” This strategic posture enables libertarians to build coalitions with non-libertarian groups that share a common goal of curtailing or eliminating government interventions in a particular area, e.g., the drug war or the minimum wage, but may not accept the overarching libertarian goal of abolishing the State or radically minimizing its power and scope. But almost no libertarian—least of all the abolitionist—would deny that collaborating with groups with otherwise differing political agendas on issues of common concern is strategically sound when it is likely to reduce State intervention.
It is the second feature of the gradualist position that presents a serious problem and renders it useless and even counterproductive as a strategy for radical socio-political change. This is the idea that rolling back the State must be guided by an overriding moral principle that government programs ought to be eliminated in a specific sequence designed to protect the most impoverished among those exploited by the State from an abrupt loss of the political subsidies and privileges they may receive. Thus Horwitz argues that social welfare programs must not be eliminated until the minimum wage and occupational licensure and other barriers to the employment of low skilled workers are repealed. Proceeding in this way, according to Horwitz, is “far more humane and consistent with libertarian values.”
At this point, the problem with the gradualist strategy becomes immediately evident. Gradualists presuppose that they can plan the order in which interventions can be eliminated a priori without reference to socio-political reality. But this is a utopian program, in the bad sense of wishful thinking. In the real world, we can only seize opportunities to dismantle the State as they are presented to us in the inexorably unfolding events of historical reality. What we may call “opportunism” is the strategy of jumping on and exploiting every opportunity to hack away at the State, regardless of the nature of the opportunity or the existing structure of other interventions. The opportunist therefore seeks neither to demolish the State overnight nor to follow a fanciful, a priori plan for its “humane” rollback. Rather he aims to dismantle the State as rapidly as possible by standing ready to take full advantage of opportunities to cut back the State as they ripen amid the ceaseless and uncertain flux of social, economic, and political circumstances.
The defining feature of gradualism is, then, not the willingness to compromise on tactics, tone down extreme rhetoric, and cooperate with non-libertarian groups whenever it is likely to result in the elimination of government programs. In fact, these measures are the very essence of opportunism. No, the essential element of gradualism is the ahistorical ethical imperative that dictates a definite order in which State interventions must be done away with. The difference between opportunism and gradualism can be illustrated with the following example. Let us suppose a critical mass of middle-class taxpayers becomes deeply resentful of the entire witch’s brew of the State’s “safety net” programs for the poor and it suddenly becomes politically feasible to eliminate them root and branch. Assuming that the minimum wage and occupational licensure laws remain firmly in place, the gradualist, if he were consistent, would have to forgo this chance to roll back the State. Indeed he would have to actively oppose and campaign against the rollback as a violation of his ethical imperative. In sharp contrast, the opportunist, of course, would approve and eagerly promote the elimination of these programs, happily modulating his anti-statist rhetoric and joining with non-libertarian groups to form a united front in favor of their abolition
It should now be clear that the strategy of opportunism goes hand in hand with the attitude of abolitionism. The opportunist would move as swiftly as possible toward his goal of abolishing his hated enemy the State, constrained only by scarcity of means and the pace of development of concrete social and political conditions. In contrast, the gradualist strategy is more amenable to the efficiency adviser. The efficiency adviser is implicitly an economistic utilitarian, who assumes the measurability and interpersonal comparison of costs and benefits. Given his lack of supporting ethical argumentation, it would seem that Horwitz’s principle that it is more “humane” and in keeping with” libertarian values” to roll back the State in a definite sequence is derived from a casual cost-benefit analysis that weighs the benefits of protecting the subsidies of those on welfare—who may or may not be victims of State exploitation—more heavily than the costs of further delaying the elimination of the expropriation of productive taxpayers. In fact, every opportunity to eliminate specific State programs would confront the gradualist with a need to undertake a complex cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to promote the change or resist it.
Even if the libertarian gradualist could somehow quantify and compare the subjective costs and benefits experienced by different persons as a result of a policy change, it is not evident that protecting the most impoverished against the loss of their subsidies would always be the most efficient course of action. Take the example of a wholesale elimination of social welfare programs again. Even here a cost-benefit analysis would face a practically insoluble knowledge problem. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 108,592,000 people in the fourth quarter of 2011 lived in a household that included people on “one or more means-tested program,” i.e., welfare programs. In 2012 there were 86,429,000 full-time private-sector workers residing in the U.S., a great proportion of whom paid taxes. Now, no doubt many people living in welfare-assisted households are men and women who suffered grievously when “the first rung of the economic ladder” was broken off by State interventions in labor markets. But it is no less certain that a great many of those on welfare are either unemployable or would not seek employment even if all political barriers to entry were removed. They may be lazy, vicious, ascetic, anti-social, habituated to drugs and alcohol, or earning income as entrepreneurs and workers providing illegal goods and services. It would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to identify in advance which individuals fall into each of the two categories and to sum up their losses of utility into the social cost of ending welfare benefits. And what about the unknown margin of welfare recipients who would actually benefit by being “incentivized” to take advantage of latent skills to integrate themselves into the social division of labor? The same would be true of ascertaining the subjective benefits of ending welfare accruing to the taxpayers in the private sector, some of whom are disabled, supporting large families, wanton sybarites with expensive drug habits, working second jobs as as unpaid caregivers.
Of course, as the Austrian school has irrefutably demonstrated comparing subjective costs and benefits interpersonally is impossible. Thus gradualism is just as absurd and fruitless a strategy as demolitionism for eradicating the State from human history.
Before concluding, I want to emphasize that I do not see a realistic opportunity of getting rid of social welfare programs in the foreseeable future. There is, however, a clearly rising tide of resentment by the productive middle class against corporate welfare, especially in the form of bailouts and privileging of huge financial institutions by the Federal Reserve. Many members of Congress are also deeply skeptical of the recent performance of the Fed and its cozy relations with the banking system. They no longer meekly accept the Fed’s mantra that it requires “independence from politics”—that is, freedom from Congressional oversight—in order to pursue an effective monetary policy. In fact in July the Senate passed a highway bill that included a provision to cut the annual “dividend” that all member banks have received from the Fed since its inception. The bill passed despite the strenuous objections of the Fed and the bank lobby. Earlier this month the House overwhelmingly passed an alternate highway bill that would permanently liquidate the Fed’s “surplus fund,” which currently contains $29 billion. This presents libertarian abolitionists with a golden opportunity to align with Tea Party activists and politicians and left-wing populists and community groups to strike a blow against crony capitalism by promoting a proposal to transform the Fed from a clique of wayward and unaccountable bureaucrats into a branch of the Treasury subject to Congressional appropriations and oversight.