For the last 25 years of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s existence and even before, the libertarian movement has basically been divided into two wings — those who advocate pure libertarian principles — the “purists” — and those who advocate “reformist” or “gradualist” measures.
Throughout that time, it has been assumed that these are simply two alternative ways to advance liberty. “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” the attitude has been, and let people choose which route best appeals to them for advancing liberty — the purist route or the reform/gradualist route.
I’m challenging that notion. My position is that the reformist route not only does not advance liberty, it does something much worse: It actually interferes with and impedes the achievement of the free society.
I begin with what I consider to be a viable strategy for achieving freedom in the near term. This strategy does not turn on convincing the majority of the American people or even the majority of politicians and bureaucrats to become libertarians. If the achievement of liberty depended on our doing that, there would be good reason for depression and despondency. The fact is that most people don’t care about libertarianism and have little interest in learning about it.
But there is another way to see things, one that should give every libertarian hope for actually achieving the free society in the near term.
Whenever a private firm makes a radical change in management philosophy, the change oftentimes begins with only one or two people within the firm who subscribe to the new philosophy and who wish to change the direction of the firm. They begin talking to others and explaining their idea. Others then study the proposition, mull it over, and sometimes become as passionate about the new proposed system as the initiators.
Gradually, the number of people who want the change reaches a critical mass, which then suddenly brings about a radical shift in the philosophy of the firm.
How many people need to be in that critical mass for the shift to take place? It is impossible to say but in many cases it is a number that is considerably less than a majority. What happens is that when the critical mass is reached, most of the rest of the people in the firm lack the passion and devotion to resist the change and simply decide to go along with it.
I hold that the same thing can happen with a paradigm shift within a country. When the number of people who want a genuinely free society reaches a critical mass, which can be significantly less than a majority, a paradigm shift in favor of the free society will suddenly take place, notwithstanding the fact that most Americans haven’t studied it and don’t understand its details.
I got this idea when I discovered libertarianism long ago from Leonard Read, the president of The Foundation for Economic Education. In one of his books, Read drew a bell curve. At one end of the bell curve was a tiny minority of purist libertarians. And the other end was a tiny minority of purist statists. Within most of the bell curve was everyone else, most of whom didn’t care enough to fight one way or the other.
So, the real battle is between the tiny numbers of purist ideologues at each end of the bell curve. Whichever side reaches a critical mass is going to be the side that prevails. Once the critical mass is reached, the paradigm shift suddenly takes place, notwithstanding the opposition from the other tiny number of ideologues.
That means that the more people we bring into the purist camp, the closer we get to our goal of actually reaching a free society.
That brings us to the libertarian reformists — that is, those who advocate what are really nothing more than statist measures under such labels as “choice,” “competition,” “privatization,” and “free-market oriented public-policy proposals.”
First of all, everyone in the libertarian movement should ask himself a preliminary question: Is it really possible to advance freedom by supporting statism? That’s what the libertarian reform crowd is essentially saying: They’re saying that the way to advance freedom is by supporting a statist reform. Does that make any sense? Doesn’t common sense say that the way to advance freedom is by supporting freedom?
And what does freedom mean in the genuine libertarian sense? It can mean only one thing — the repeal, not the reform– of all welfare-warfare state programs, laws, policies, departments, and agencies. In other words, liberty necessarily depends on the absence of socialist and interventionist measures, not on the reform of socialism and interventionism.
If I’m right on the critical-mass strategy, then the achievement of liberty necessarily turns on expanding the number of libertarian purists — that is, people who question the legitimacy of the welfare state (and warfare state) apparatus itself. That can be done by finding people who are naturally inclined to be libertarians or by planting seeds of liberty within people’s minds that later germinate and cause the person to become a passionate devotee of libertarianism.
But the only way to get people to question the legitimacy of the apparatus is by questioning the apparatus and by making a principled case as to why the apparatus is illegitimate. If people don’t ever read or hear challenges to the existence of the apparatus and the arguments as to why the apparatus is illegitimate, it is extremely unlikely that they’ll ever come to question it on their own.
What do libertarian reformers contribute to that process? They contribute nothing! That’s because their efforts are devoted to getting people to support reforms of the apparatus rather than getting them to question the apparatus itself.
As an example, let’s consider one of the most controversial positions within the libertarian philosophy — open borders –i.e., the free movement of people, goods, and services across borders without governmental interference.
I personally know libertarians who privately believe in open borders but who, in front of an audience, instead settle for advocating “comprehensive immigration reform.” What does that mean? It means that such libertarians spend their time telling the audience how wonderful immigrants are and how they contribute to a society. Their reform proposal then turns on letting more immigrants into the United States.
If you were to ask such libertarians why they don’t instead publicly call for open borders, they will respond that they want to be taken seriously by the audience. If they called for open borders, they say, the audience might tune them out. Better to advance liberty in small bites, they say.
But there’s one big problem with that position: Their proposal for “comprehensive immigration reform” and for letting in more immigrants is not advancing liberty. They are instead advancing statism.
After all, making the case for open borders is the only chance there is for causing people to question the legitimacy of the immigration apparatus itself. The case for letting in more immigrants, on the other hand, by calling on the apparatus to let more immigrants into the country, necessarily assumes the continued existence of the immigration-control apparatus. It doesn’t cause people to question its existence or legitimacy.
In fact, such a position actually reinforces people’s beliefs in the apparatus. It causes them to believe that it’s not necessary to abolish the apparatus — that it’s possible to have a libertarian or free-market-oriented central-planning bureaucracy, perhaps one even headed by a libertarian, that would resolve all the crises that are endemic to immigration socialism.
Thus, unfortunately, libertarian reform plans are not neutral or benign. They make people feel good about supporting statism. They convince people that by supporting statist reforms, they are “advancing freedom” when, in actuality, they are doing nothing more than supporting statism under the guise of a libertarian reform measure.
The same principle, of course, applies to every other libertarian reform plan, such as Social Security “privatization,” “Medical savings accounts,” and “school vouchers.” No matter how such proposals are couched in terms of “choice,” “competition,” or “free-market oriented,” they remain nothing more than statism.
In fact, here is a good way to think about these types of statist reform proposals. Imagine that we lived in a genuinely libertarian society — that is, one in which there was no income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public schooling.
Now, suppose someone were to pop up and say, “I propose that the government force people to put a certain percentage of their money into retirement accounts and healthcare accounts and that we tax people in order to give parents vouchers for their children to attend private schools.”
Wouldn’t every libertarian go up in arms over such a proposal? Wouldn’t every libertarian ardently oppose any compromise of the free society in which they were living? Wouldn’t every libertarian remind people that they have the fundamental, God-given right to keep everything they earned and to decide for themselves what to do with it? Wouldn’t every libertarian point out that retirement, healthcare, and education are none of the government’s business?
Then, why should any libertarian endorse these types of statist measures in today’s world? How do they cause people to question the socialist-interventionist apparatus under which we live? How do they bring us closer to the critical mass that is necessary to bring us the free society in the near term? What good are they?
As Leonard Read pointed out, the monumental achievements of liberty have always been led by an infinitesimally small minority of people — that is, those who hew strictly to principle and who gradually attract an ever-growing number of people to their cause. That’s how we got such great achievements for liberty as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, trial by jury, and due process of law.
We just might be a lot closer than we think to the critical mass that is necessary for a monumental shift toward the free society. It is more important than ever that we continue striving for the critical mass that is necessary for winning the free society. We do that by hewing to principle, not by supporting statism.