With midterm election season in full swing, and coming off of my recent interview with the great Murray Sabrin for the Lions of Liberty Podcast, it seems like an appropriate time to examine the role of political action when it comes to advancing the ideas of liberty. As I see it there are generally three schools of thought among libertarians when it comes to the relationship between liberty and politics.
First, we have those who believe political action should be rejected all together, and believe it is best for libertarians to withdraw from “the system” and to operate in the black market, rejecting the established political and economic systems. This is a strategy advanced by Samuel Konkin and is known as the “black market strategy” or “agorism.” I, along with good ‘ol Murray Rothbard, addressed the problems with this strategy in an earlier article. Focusing on the black market strategy alone puts libertarians on the margins from the get-go. It immediately associates “libertarianism” with fringe groups that operate outside of society. In that article, I wrote:
Libertarianism must not be kept on the margins. That is not the way to grow a movement, and not a way to create a freer society.
Second, we have those that do agree that political action is vital to liberty, but don’t believe that libertarian politicians can effectively deliver the full libertarian message because the voting public “isn’t ready for it.” These people will often cite Ron Paul’s lack of success in getting major bills passed or in winning Republican primaries as evidence that boldly putting the libertarian message out there cannot achieve political success. I will refer to this group as the “Tightrope Walkers”, for their ability to walk the line between standard, nothing-to-see-here political rhetoric and a truthful, bold libertarian message. This “splitting the difference” strategy seems to be the one embraced by Rand Paul and his most rabid of supporters.
Lastly, we have what might be referred to as the “Ron Paul Method.” It cannot be denied that during Ron Paul’s thirty year political career that he consistently delivered a bold, truthful libertarian message. Even at times when I would find myself disagreeing with Ron Paul, what was never in doubt was the intention behind his words. The message was clear: “I am not here to ‘play politics’; I am here to speak the truth.”
This method was best exemplified in a moment during a 2007 Republican Primary debate which EPJ’s Robert Wenzel recently referred to as “The Most Important Four Minutes and Thirty-Four Seconds for Liberty in the 21st Century”, when Ron Paul boldly spoke out about blowback and how U.S. military aggression overseas was a major factor in inciting terrorist attacks such as 9/11, much to the ire of one Rudy Giuliani. Unlike most politicians, after Giuliani demanded Paul withdraw his comment to cheers from the audience, Paul stood his ground and repeated his assertions with even greater confidence. This may indeed by the moment which sparked the current surge in libertarianism.
By now you’ve probably almost forgot you were reading a column titled Mondays with Murray, so it’s probably time to bring Mr. Libertarian on into the conversation. What was Rothbard’s view of political action? In 1981 Rothbard wrote, in rebuttal of Konkin’s “agorist” strategy:
Education in liberty is of course vital, but it is not enough; action must also be taken to roll back the State, specifically to repeal State laws, like price control or the withholding tax. Or even like marijuana laws. Despite their widespread nonenforcement, there are always some people who get cracked down on, especially if the police wish to frame them for other reasons. Tax rebels are admirable, but only in “micro” terms; the taxes are still there, and the wage earners pay them. Tax rebellion is not a strategy for victory. Single-issue lobbying groups (e.g. antidraft organizations, taxpayer organizations, gold standard groups, etc.) are fine and admirable, but they do not complete the job, for two basic reasons:
- because they are single-issue, and therefore cannot educate anyone in libertarianism across the board, and
- because they cannot do the vital job of repealing the statist laws.
At the time Rothbard wrote that passage, marijuana was illegal at the federal level as well as in all fifty states. Today, thanks to the political action of many individuals, there are now twenty states in which marijuana has some level of legality, with many more on the way. Agorism may sound nice, but it won’t stop SWAT teams from conducting “no-knock” raids and killing people in the middle of the night for the mere suspicion of marijuana possession.
Rothbard rightly saw political action as absolutely necessary to the advancement of a more free society. However, he was clear that all political action must be done while remaining true to libertarian principles. Compromises and political alliances are both practical and necessary, but they must be done while holding high the banner of liberty, not by “splitting the difference” between liberty and tyranny. In For a New Liberty, Rothbard writes:
Some libertarians themselves maintain that we should not frighten people off by being “too radical,” and that therefore the full libertarian ideology and program should be kept hidden from view.
Murray labels those who would utilize deceptive rhetoric to achieve short term political ends as “opportunists”, and describes the danger of the “Tightrope Walker” strategy:
The major problem with the opportunists is that by confining themselves strictly to gradual and “practical” programs, programs that stand a good chance of immediate adoption, they are in grave danger of completely losing sight of the ultimate objective, the libertarian goal….If libertarians refuse to hold aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal, who will?…
Note that this doesn’t mean libertarians should not accept gradual progress or practical methods of reducing coercive state power. Rather, that this must be done while truthfully advocating for libertarian principles as Ron Paul so bravely did.
In short, the libertarian must never advocate or prefer a gradual, as opposed to an immediate and rapid, approach to his goal. For by doing so, he undercuts the overriding importance of his own goals and principles. And if he himself values his own goals so lightly, how highly will others value them?
How can we expect to change the way people think, to change the way people view the acceptable use of violence upon their fellow man, if we ourselves will not boldly stand up for our own principles? If one doesn’t feel the drive to stick by principles, they might need to reconsider if they truly hold those principles at all.
So how does Murray Rothbard reconcile staying true to principle with the practical politics involved in advancing political goals?
If, then, the libertarian must advocate the immediate attainment of liberty and abolition of statism, and if gradualism in theory is contradictory to this overriding end, what further strategic stance may a libertarian take in today’s world? Must he necessarily confine himself to advocating immediate abolition? Are “transitional demands,” steps toward liberty in practice, necessarily illegitimate? No…
How, then, can we know whether any halfway measure or transitional demand should be hailed as a step forward or condemned as an opportunistic betrayal? There are two vitally important criteria for answering this crucial question: (1) that, whatever the transitional demands, the ultimate end of liberty be always held aloft as the desired goal; and (2) that no steps or means ever explicitly or implicitly contradict the ultimate goal.
Not only is it possible to stay principled while conducting political action, it is absolutely vital to the long term goal of achieving a free society. It’s safe to say Rothbard would not advocate for the “Tightrope Walker” strategy, and would have gleefully cackled his way through watching Ron Paul’s two recent Presidential campaigns.