Are We "Utopians"?

From For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto


All right, we are to have education through both theory and a movement. But what then should be the content of that education? Every “radical” creed has been subjected to the charge of being “utopian,” and the libertarian movement is no exception. 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. These people counsel a “Fabian” program of gradualism, concentrating solely on a gradual whittling away of State power. An example would be in the field of taxation: Instead of advocating the “radical” measure of abolition of all taxation, or even of abolishing income taxation, we should confine ourselves to a call for tiny improvements; say, for a two percent cut in income tax.

In the field of strategic thinking, it behooves libertarians to heed the lessons of the Marxists, because they have been thinking about strategy for radical social change longer than any other group. Thus, the Marxists see two critically important strategic fallacies that “deviate” from the proper path: one they call “left-wing sectarianism”; the other, and opposing, deviation is “right-wing opportunism.” The critics of libertarian “extremist” principles are the analog of the Marxian “right-wing opportunists.” 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. He who confines himself to calling for a two percent reduction in taxes [p. 300] helps to bury the ultimate goal of abolition of taxation altogether. By concentrating on the immediate means, he helps liquidate the ultimate goal, and therefore the point of being a libertarian in the first place. If libertarians refuse to hold aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal, who will? The answer is no one, hence another major source of defection from the ranks in recent years has been the erroneous path of opportunism.

A prominent case of defection through opportunism is someone we shall call “Robert,” who became a dedicated and militant libertarian back in the early 1950s. Reaching quickly for activism and immediate gains, Robert concluded that the proper strategic path was to play down all talk of the libertarian goal, and in particular to play down libertarian hostility to government. His aim was to stress only the “positive” and the accomplishments that people could achieve through voluntary action. As his career advanced, Robert began to find uncompromising libertarians an encumbrance; so he began systematically to fire anyone in his organization caught being “negative” about government. It did not take very long for Robert to abandon the libertarian ideology openly and explicitly, and to call for a “partnership” between government and private enterprise — between coercion and the voluntary — in short, to take his place openly in the Establishment. Yet, in his cups, Robert will even refer to himself as an “anarchist,” but only in some abstract cloud-land totally unrelated to the world as it is.

The free-market economist F. A. Hayek, himself in no sense an “extremist,” has written eloquently of the vital importance for the success of liberty of holding the pure and “extreme” ideology aloft as a never-to-be-forgotten creed. Hayek has written that one of the great attractions of socialism has always been the continuing stress on its “ideal” goal, an ideal that permeates, informs, and guides the actions of all those striving to attain it. Hayek then adds:

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibility of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote . . . . Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may rouse [p. 301] the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere “reasonable freedom of trade” or a mere “relaxation of controls” is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm. The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and thereby an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this has rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.1

Hayek is here highlighting an important truth, and an important reason for stressing the ultimate goal: the excitement and enthusiasm that a logically consistent system can inspire. Who, in contrast, will go to the barricades for a two percent tax reduction?

There is another vital tactical reason for cleaving to pure principle. It is true that day-to-day social and political events are the resultants of many pressures, the often unsatisfactory outcome of the push-and-pull of conflicting ideologies and interests. But if only for that reason, it is all the more important for the libertarian to keep upping the ante. The call for a two percent tax reduction may achieve only the slight moderation of a projected tax increase; a call for a drastic tax cut may indeed achieve a substantial reduction. And, over the years, it is precisely the strategic role of the “extremist” to keep pushing the matrix of day-to-day action further and further in his direction. The socialists have been particularly adept at this strategy. If we look at the socialist program advanced sixty, or even thirty years ago, it will be evident that measures considered dangerously socialistic a generation or two ago are now considered an indispensable part of the “mainstream” of the American heritage. In this way, the day-to-day compromises of supposedly “practical” politics get pulled inexorably in the collectivist direction. There is no reason why the libertarian cannot accomplish the same result. In fact, one of the reasons that the conservative opposition to collectivism has been so weak is that conservatism, by its very nature, offers not a consistent [p. 302] political philosophy but only a “practical” defense of the existing status quo, enshrined as embodiments of the American “tradition.” Yet, as statism grows and accretes, it becomes, by definition, increasingly entrenched and therefore “traditional”; conservatism can then find no intellectual weapons to accomplish its overthrow.

Cleaving to principle means something more than holding high and not contradicting the ultimate libertarian ideal. It also means striving to achieve that ultimate goal as rapidly as is physically possible. 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?

In short, to really pursue the goal of liberty, the libertarian must desire it attained by the most effective and speediest means available. It was in this spirit that the classical liberal Leonard E. Read, advocating immediate and total abolition of price and wage controls after World War II, declared in a speech, “If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of which would release all wage and price controls instantaneously, I would put my finger on it and push!”2

The libertarian, then, should be a person who would push the button, if it existed, for the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty. Of course, he knows, too, that such a magic button does not exist, but his fundamental preference colors and shapes his entire strategic perspective.


You need to buy that book.

Long time readers of BLOGDIAL know about ‘the button‘ and the number of times I have pressed it. Hard.


We are the best.

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