The Mises Institute is notable for publishing articles supporting a number of radical views, including, among other positions:
- Abolition of the central bank.
- Radical reductions in military spending and military action overseas.
- Radical decentralization of political power through secession, nullification, or robust federalism.
- Adoption of untrammeled free trade.
These positions all reflect positions held by liberal schools of though in the past, whether the Manchester School, the American Anti-Federalists, or the French Liberal School . In various times and places, these views have even met with varying degrees of success.
Nevertheless, to the modern ear, these views sound incredibly radical, and the end goals generally sound exceedingly unlikely to be realized in the near future.
And yet, this is where advocates for freedom and free markets usually take a wrong turn.
For some reason, many non-leftists, whether libertarians, conservatives, or milquetoast centrists, embrace the notion that a position on public policy ought not be expressed unless there is chance that it can be realized in the very near future.
I hear this often from critics, and see it often in the comments section on mises.org, or in social media. The routine is usually the same:
- The author expresses support for a change in public policy that would significantly change the status quo.
- A reader expresses agreement with the sentiment.
- The same reader than contends that achieving this goal is unlikely in the short term.
- The same reader then asserts one shouldn't even bother expressing support for this position because it's unlikely to be realized in the short term.
The final sentiment usually looks something like this: "That's a fine idea, but it's not gonna happen, so just forget it!" Another variation is "people don't agree with you right now, and it's hopeless to try to convince people otherwise, so just give up."
Rothbard: What We Can Learn from the Abolitionists
Note that in this way of thinking, the attitude is to immediately declare defeat and to abandon the goal because achieving this goal looks to be difficult. As far as I can tell, this is a very common attitude.
This sort of knee-jerk defeatism helps offer a clue as to why enemies of the left tend to adopt a pessimistic and paranoid point of view. They have trouble even imagining success, let alone attempting to achieve it.
This attitude, of course, is the opposite of that used by a variety of successful political movements — including that of the abolitionists.
In an article for the Libertarian Review in 1968, Murray Rothbard looked at the methods of the abolitionists for insights on how to pursue policy goals that appear seemingly impossible at first.
Rothbard noted that from the early days of the abolition movement, the end goal appeared far-fetched and extremely unlikely. Thus, the only immediate victories to be hard were small and piecemeal.
A gradualist method was forced on the abolitionists. But, as Rothbard noted, the goal was never gradualist. It was always for immediate and total abolition:
William 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,
Urge 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. (The Liberator, August 13, 1831)
Similarly, for those who want a radical reduction in state power today, they must adopt a similar posture: always maintain the explicit and public goal of radical change, while accepting small and gradual victories.
Rothbard quotes Aileen Kraditor who writes:
It follows, from the abolitionist’s conception of his role in society, that the goal for which he agitated was not likely to be immediately realizable. Its realization must follow conversion of an enormous number of people, and the struggle must take place in the face of the hostility that inevitably met the agitator for an unpopular cause. ... The abolitionists knew as well as their later scholarly critics that immediate and unconditional emancipation could not occur for a long time. But unlike those critics they were sure it would never come unless it were agitated for during the long period in which it was impracticable. ...
To have dropped the demand for immediate emancipation because it was unrealizable at the time would have been to alter the nature of the change for which the abolitionists were agitating. That is, even those who would have gladly accepted gradual and conditional emancipation had to agitate for immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery because that demand was required by their goal of demonstrating to white Americans that Negroes were their brothers. Once the nation had been converted on that point, conditions and plans might have been made. ...
Their refusal to water down their “visionary” slogan was, in their eyes, eminently practical, much more so than the course of the antislavery senators and congressmen who often wrote letters to abolitionist leaders justifying their adaptation of antislavery demands to what was attainable. ...
This position then has the added benefit of — as small gradual victories are achieved — constantly pressuring the "moderates" and pushing their "middle" ever more in the desired direction. Rothbard continues:
From a strictly strategic point of view, it is also true that if the adherents of the “pure” goal do not state that goal and hold it aloft, no one will do so, and the goal therefore will never be attained. Furthermore, since most people and most politicians will hold to the “middle” of whatever “road” may be offered them, the “extremist,” by constantly raising the ante, and by holding the pure or “extreme” goal aloft, will move the extremes further over, and will therefore pull the “middle” further over in his extreme direction. Hence, raising the ante by pulling the middle further in his direction will, in the ordinary pulling and hauling of the political process, accomplish more for that goal, even in the day-by-day short run, than any opportunistic surrender of the ultimate principle.
It is important to accept partial victories, however, without sending the message that a partial victory is sufficient:
In our view, the proper solution to this problem is a “centrist” or “movement-building” solution: namely, that it is legitimate and proper to advocate transition demands as way stations along the road to victory, provided that the ultimate goal of victory is always kept in mind and held aloft. In this way, the ultimate goal is clear and not lost sight of, and the pressure is kept on so that transitional or partial victories will feed on themselves rather than appease or weaken the ultimate drive of the movement.
Thus, suppose that the libertarian movement adopts, as a transitional demand, an across-the-board 50 percent cut in taxation. This must be done in such a way as not to imply that a 51 percent cut would somehow be immoral or improper. In that way, the 50 percent cut would simply be an initial demand rather than an ultimate goal in itself, which would only undercut the libertarian goal of total abolition of taxation.
Note also that the abolitionists recognized the importance of "demonstrating" the rightness of their position, and in that the public needed to be "converted." Unlike modern conservatives and a great many libertarians, the abolitionists did not assume that those who disagreed with them would always disagree with them. It is not uncommon to hear, however, the assumption among many conservatives and libertarians that trying to explain to people the rightness of the pro-freedom position is a lost cause. For people who think like this, the only hope is to preserve the status quo for as long as possible — although this is obviously a losing battle. The mere thought of expanding the popularity and prominence of their position is assumed to be outlandish. Needless to say, an ideological group that thinks like this will always be a group of losers.
Unfortunately, many on the side of freedom and free markets have completely lost sight of the value of the abolitionist way of doing things. This leads to any number of self-defeating views. Some maintain that one must remain totally agnostic about all policy changes unless that change brings about total and immediate victory in all respects. Thus we hear about some libertarians who refuse to support any tax cut, so long as the tax cut is not a 100% tax cut. Another unfortunate result might be quietism in which some assert it's pointless to say anything at all because short term victory appears unlikely — so better to just give up now. Still others won't bother with any sort of activistm if victory will require more than a few months of effort.
Note, of course, that the modern left doesn't think this way.
Consider the matter of health care, for example. For years, leftists advocated for ever-greater government intervention in healthcare. Indeed, Obamacare had originally been put forward in the form of Hillarycare back in the early 1990s. This itself came after many years of activism in favor of government-controlled healthcare.
Hillarycare was defeated, but the left continued to agitate endlessly for "universal healthcare" of one type or another. Nor did this effort even stop when Obamacare was adopted. For many on the left, Obamacare wasn't universal enough. So, five minutes after Obamacare was signed into law, the next step for the left was devised: "Obamacare is a step in the right direction," they said, "but the next step is now single-payer healthcare!"
Advocates for ever-greater government control of the healthcare system didn't even skip a beat. Immediately after achieving a partial victory, the drive toward the next goal continued unabated.
It's not hard to see why the left is regarded my many of optimistic and visionary while the right as seen as adrift and lacking any discernable goals whatsoever. Meanwhile, many conservatives and libertarians search constantly for a reason to give up and quit — and to encourage others to do the same.