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Toward a Libertarian Political Strategy

Toward a Libertarian Political Strategy

By Duncan Whitmore

In my most recent article for Free Life, I discussed a number of ways in which libertarianism differs from many statist philosophies at the fundamental level. One of these ways is the fact that it is more accurate to regard libertarianism as a behavioural ethic rather than as a grand, political system. This present article will echo and develop this particular theme in order to lay some basic groundwork for a libertarian political strategy.

Can we “Push the Button”?

The dedicated libertarian should want to see an end to statism in the quickest manner available. For those who adhere to more of an “anarchist” philosophy, such a desire would mean consigning as much of the state as we can to the dustbin of history in the shortest possible time; for those who lean more towards minarchism or to some other level of tolerance of a “nightwatchman” state, it would entail confining the state’s functions to the provision of defence, law and order, and to one or two minor roles.[1]

A fitting example of this kind of fervour came as early as 1946 in a lecture given by Leonard Read entitled I’d Push the Button. Read imagined that, if there was a button in front of him that would release all wage and price controls immediately so as to restore the genuine free market, he would push it, without question. While Read’s preoccupation was with the specific kinds of state interference he specified, the symbolism of a giant, red button bringing about instant, radical change was likely to make a lasting impression during an era in which the very real spectre of the nuclear button was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Decades after Read’s lecture, Murray N Rothbard advocated extending the notion of button pushing beyond wage and price controls, demanding “the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty”.

It is true, of course, that any form of injustice should be removed by the quickest means possible, taking precedence over any other consideration. When confronted, for instance, by the institution of slavery, it is difficult to argue that the emancipation of those toiling in bondage should rank below the welfare of the slave masters, or the “practical” concerns of transitioning to a new labour system. Moreover, twentieth century examples of where free markets have flourished, such as in Hong Kong under John James Cowperthwaite, and in New Zealand under Roger Douglas, succeeded precisely because they were radical and uncompromising in sweeping away socialistic rot.[2]

In stating this, however, we should remember that the adjective possible is as operative as the word quickest. Thus, while the notion of “pushing the button” may serve as a useful symbol, or metaphor, for keeping our eye on the ultimate goal, we cannot allow a literal interpretation of it to blind us to the realities of working towards a freer world. To analogise, a lottery win would very much “push the button” on one’s own lifestyle, delivering untold riches in an instant. But if the lottery player was to eye only the glittering prize, whiling away his days spending all of those millions in his head, then he would end up discarding all reasonable and practical steps towards becoming wealthier over time. Given that the cold, hard reality of probability all but guarantees his loss in every draw of the numbers, this kind of gambler consigns himself to the status of a romantic dreamer rather than that of a practical person.[3]

As Joseph R Peden warned us more than fifty years ago, the libertarian, similarly, cannot afford to succumb to a misplaced sense of idealism that yearns only for the jackpot:

There is a tendency among many libertarians to look for an apocalyptic moment when the State will be smashed forever and anarchy prevail. When they realize that the great moment isn’t about to come in their time, if ever, they lose faith in the integrity and plausibility of the libertarian philosophy. […] Such attitudes are naive and not [to be] expected from mature sophisticated men of learning […] libertarianism can quite easily become merely an adolescent fantasy in minds that are immature and unseasoned by a broad humanistic understanding. It should not be an idée fixe or magic formula, but a moral imperative with which one approaches the complexities of social reality.[4]

To elaborate on this lesson – and to repeat the key point from my previous article – libertarianism should not be conceived of as a rigidly defined system, the relevance of which to political thought is dependent solely on the plausibility of achieving a world in which every last morsel of statism has been eradicated forever. Similarly, therefore, judging the success of libertarian ideas is not a binary assessment between whether they have achieved such a totally stateless world on the one hand, and whether they have failed to do so on the other. Rather, libertarianism should be approached as an ethical imperative that condemns the use of force (violence) against the person and property of another. As Walter Block describes it:

Libertarianism is the philosophy that maintains it is illicit to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his legitimately owned property. Defensive force may be used to ward off an attacker, but invasions of person or property are strictly prohibited by the non aggression axiom.[5]

Given the fact that such use of force will always be an attractive option to at least some people, we can reason that the libertarian ethic will be followed in greater or lesser degrees at different points in time (and in different ways). But in contrast to either fixed, comprehensive visions or refined policy prescriptions (in which practicality and compliance will be relevant aspects), a basic ethic is not invalidated by the possibility that people can, or are even likely, to violate it.[6] If, for instance, everyone was choosing to rape and murder en masse with no prospect of them choosing otherwise in the near future, such a circumstance would not invalidate the notion that raping and murdering are evil acts. Moreover, even in our world today, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to reduce the incidence of rape and murder to precisely zero, but that would not be a reason to stop us from working towards that objective as much as possible. To echo Jeff Deist, “better, not perfect” should be the aim.

Reorienting the Libertarian Goal

If we approach the libertarian goal with this kind of thinking, then it fixes our attention on the fact that our problem is how to motivate people away from the choice of violence (and from supporting social structures which claim the right to inflict violence) so as to achieve a reduction of affronts against person and property as much as we possibly can. This will place us in a much better mindset with which to confront those “complexities of social reality” to which Peden alludes, leading to the development of more viable political strategies. At the same time, we should be able to defuse charges of utopianism and idealism.

One such complexity is itself the fact that we are unlikely to have handed to us on a silver platter the opportunity to work towards a freer world in the form of an unbridled, anti-statist package. As such, the logical conclusion of perfect adherence to the libertarian ethic – a totally stateless world – cannot beget a political strategy that eschews any measure falling short of such perfection. Instead, we must be prepared to analyse programmes and policies which, while they may not aim at the ultimate goal, may nevertheless mark a distinct improvement upon the current situation. It would be plainly ridiculous, for instance, to refuse to champion a programme promoting a reduction of the top tax rate to 10% for the reason that 10% is not a perfect 0%, or that its proponents might be aiming for stimulation of the economy instead of recognising the injustice of taxation in principle. To reject such a remarkable step forward out of concerns for purity of either motive or outcome would render the libertarian as little more than an effective champion of the status quo.[7]

To be clear, following this path will not be easy, especially given the fact that any assessment of state institutions and power factions in terms of “better, not perfect” will often require us to lend support to the lesser evil if doing so should help to vanquish a bigger foe. For instance, national statism may serve as a bulwark against global statism and imperialism; one faction or set of state institutions struggling to free themselves from the influence of a larger, more powerful force may push us farther towards decentralisation and multipolarity. To the extent that states, state institutions and those factions which seek to control them are at each other’s throats – a necessary corollary of the fact that power is a zero sum game that can produce only one, ultimate winner – we should not hesitate to lend qualified support to those who are working to shatter the dominance of the worst players.

Many libertarians may find this an uncomfortable pill to swallow, opting instead to distance themselves from anything that carries the faintest whiff of statism. But we should bear in mind the fact that the state and state power has never taken shape as an institution of uniform nature and effect across all times and places. The Soviet Union, for instance, is clearly very different from the Swiss Canton in terms of the impact it has upon its citizens lives, and upon world peace as a whole. It would be ridiculous to pass up the opportunity to make our states today more like Swiss Cantons and less like the Soviet Union on the grounds that the former is still a state institution.

While some libertarians may reject liberalising proposals on account of their imperfection, others may make the equal and opposite mistake of assuming that any liberalisation from state control is likely to be a judicious move, in whatever way, shape or form it appears. While this may succeed in shrinking the state in the short term, to champion all and every ostensibly liberalising act isn’t necessarily a sensible strategy in the long run.

For instance, the state has now metastasised to such a degree that most regulations are designed not to interfere in the unhampered market directly, but to address problems caused by prior instances of state interference. A prime example would be financial regulations that attempt to temper the disasters caused by fractional reserve banking. The abolition of these regulations while leaving intact the ability of commercial banks to expand credit could simply cause those disasters to repeat. Thus, in the same way that repeal of the Glass-Steagall legislation was blamed for its contribution to the 2008 financial crisis, an indiscriminate bonfire of regulations can end up having the undesired effect of bringing policies of liberalisation into disrepute – followed only by a clamour for even more state interference.[8] In the social realm, we must approach with similar caution all of the ostensibly non-aggressive “libertinism” that has pervaded since the counterculture (e.g. drug use, hedonism, promiscuity, and the decline of marriage and family as institutional bulwarks). While none of these acts is a breach of the non-aggression principle, the erosion of traditional, societal mores is more a symptom of statist rot than of genuine liberation.

Thus, in our role as political activists, we can neither indiscriminately endorse nor remain neutral towards any act simply because we have concluded that it doesn’t violate the non-aggression principle; we must be prepared to assess whether particular choices are likely to be conducive towards sustaining a free society in the long run, however apparently non-violent they may be.[9]

Another hurdle is the fact that, given most programmes and policies we need to assess will presuppose the continued existence of the state, doctrinal disputes between libertarian theorists can follow. This is most notable with regards to immigration. Walter Block and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, for instance, agree that, in the absence of the state, there would be no immigration problem to speak of on account of the fact that all land would be either ownerless or owned privately (i.e. entering another person’s land must be with the consent of that property owner). However, each theorist differs sharply on whether, under the assumption that the state maintains “public” property, a policy of “open borders” is compatible with libertarianism.[10]

Any improvements we achieve can serve either as ends in themselves or as way stations towards bigger goals. For instance, many libertarians would probably be content for us to reach the point at which we have succeeded in reducing all of the world’s states – or even just the imperialistic, warmongering version of the United States with which we are presently saddled – to the relatively innocuous level of the Swiss Canton. On the other hand, a recent example of a move that seems more like a step towards bigger goals is Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (“Brexit”). One of the purported benefits of Brexit was that Britain could get to spend more of its tax revenue on its socialised system of healthcare, an obvious anathema to libertarians. Yet ridding Britain of the EU is clearly an important step towards achieving further degrees of liberalisation within Britain itself. Thus, we should not have rejected Brexit on account of the thoroughly un-libertarian arguments of some of its champions.

Freedom and Institutions

However, in addition to all of this, the most difficult, likely problem with “pushing the button” is that to vanquish an entire social and political order is not quite as simple as eradicating specific instances of injustice. If, to return to an earlier example, there was a button that could stop all private acts of rape and murder, we could probably push it without much ado; we are far from likely to see a societal collapse from the instantaneous banishment of practices which all but a handful of social aberrations would agree are undeniably evil.

The state, however, is so entangled in people’s lives, with so many people dependent upon it, that its instant abolition may fail to lay a foundation for a freer order. Moreover, while people routinely unload a deluge of complaints about the particular crop of politicians with whom they have been saddled at any one time, very few are likely to agree that the state per se is an unjust and unnecessary institution. Thus, even if we could push a button in order to rid ourselves of the state, such an act would clearly be pointless if it was to lead not to a paradise of peace and prosperity, but to a vacuum devoid of any basis for societal order. Most likely, any attempt to fill this void would lead to warfare followed by the eventual establishment of another state. At the very least, any kind of chaos or disorder is likely to serve only as a breeding ground for authoritarian leadership. “Let justice be done though the heavens fall” is a mantra that is easy enough to repeat only so long as the cost is not greater injustice in the future.

In order to avoid this outcome, freedom needs an alternative, institutional basis upon which to thrive. In contrast to leftists and Marxists, the post-War remnants of the “Old Right” – the immediate ancestors of the modern libertarian movement – were aiming not at the establishment of a new order after having instituted a wave of destructionism so as to sweep away the old. Rather, they were pining for the loss of old principles that were still within living memory, amongst which were small government, laissez-faire and foreign non-interventionism. Thus, their intention was restore that which had been taken away by the onslaught of two World Wars, the Great Depression, the New Deal, Keynesian economic (mis)management and, of course, the permanent warfare industry gearing up to deal with the “Soviet threat”.[11]

In this context, the notion of “pushing a button” would have made a great deal of sense to the contemporaries of Leonard Read. For, in 1946, it is likely that traditional civic, social, cultural and religious institutions and values were still sufficiently intact so as to absorb the consequences of the imminent bursting of the statist, collectivist balloon that had inflated over the previous generation.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case today. Amongst other disasters, the past seventy years have seen the massive growth of the welfare state, the counterculture, the institution of a 100% fiat money standard, political globalisation, and the apparent triumph of secular liberalism. As such, the state has more or less usurped every other institution as the economic, moral, cultural and spiritual guardian of the nation. It is the nanny when we are young, the nurse when we get sick, our provider in times of unemployment, and the carer when we grow old. No longer are social, cultural and behavioural issues the province of the family, the church or the community. Rather, we turn to the state to ban anything with which we disagree, and to champion anything which we happen to want. Moral relativism and cultural fragmentation are far advanced. Natural rights have been usurped by “human rights”, an edifice which – far from recognising the state as the primary threat to rights – ennobles the state as their ultimate guarantor; in other words, the fox is guarding the hen house. Social and cultural conflicts involving discrimination, lifestyle choices and the definition of a woman are “resolved” by the state’s judges in the state’s courtrooms not by reference to objective criteria such as person and property, but to intangible, subjective factors such as “desires, needs, wants, interests”.[12] No longer are failure, misfortune, disadvantage, unfairness, inequality, or ineptitude met with the stoic resolve to do better for oneself, but with demands for the state to fill our cups with compensation. In any crisis, catastrophe or calamity, whether it be real or imagined, we turn to the state for all of our solutions – with the politicians lapping up the opportunity to increase their power and influence. In short, every facet of our lives has become politicised.

As a result of all of this, dissolving the state in an instant would most likely leave any society presently infected with statist dominance entirely rudderless. As such, we have little choice but to focus first on achieving a reduction of the state’s footprint without formally dissolving its existence. This will leave the state intact so as to prevent the emergence of an institutional vacuum; however, if we are able to relax its societal stranglehold sufficiently, alternative institutions should have room to grow as people seek the means to facilitate the fulfilment of functions that have been wrested from the state’s bloated bosom.

It is important to distinguish this kind of approach from that of gradualism. As we have made clear, it may well be the case that we have little choice but to accept small steps towards a freer world if such steps should be the only ones available. But in no way should we consign ourselves to the seeking of small measures if larger steps are, indeed, possible. Deliberate minimalism should be rejected without question. Further, we should still keep the notion of “pushing the button” firmly in our minds so as to avoid the distractions of short term opportunism and pragmatism that either dilute our ultimate goal or otherwise end up impeding progress towards it in the long run. Such distractions have, unfortunately, hypnotised too many so-called “free-market think tanks” into working with the state (or in trying to make state functions more “efficient”) instead of seeing the state itself as the problem.[13]

A final note of caution: given that the task ahead is likely to produce many different assessments and approaches, it will be critical for libertarians to accept such differences with their fellow freedom lovers as honest disagreements. Given the relative paucity of our present numbers, we cannot afford to treat our natural allies with contempt (or to otherwise write them off as “sellouts” or “controlled opposition”) on account of a single difference of opinion.[14] In any case, contrasting approaches will not always be mutually exclusive given that liberalising movements may have to be heterogenous, using regional goals, issues and priorities as a conduit for the message of liberty.


As much, then, as every libertarian should want to smash the state in an instant, the matters explored in this article demonstrate that we must centre a realistic libertarian political strategy on achieving the following, more modest aims if we are to experience any success:

• A marked improvement upon the current level of state interference, even if it may fall short of the ideal; this includes both a reduction in domestic incursions to liberty and a significantly lower risk of interstate war and the destruction of liberty it brings (arguably the highest priority of all).
• The fulfilment of proposals that may serve as way stations towards greater liberalisation in the future;
• The laying of a viable foundation upon which non-state institutions can eventually flourish.

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[1] The present author falls into the former camp, and, as such, this article will be written from this perspective.

[2] J P Floru, Heavens on Earth: How to Create Mass Prosperity, Biteback (2014), 233-4.

[3] Ludwig von Mises, as ever, describes it succinctly:

The thinking and rationally acting man tries to rid himself of the discomfort of unsatisfied wants by economic action and work; he produces in order to improve his position. The romantic is too weak – too neurasthenic for work; he imagines the pleasures of success but he does nothing to achieve them. He does not remove the obstacles; he merely removes them in imagination. He has a grudge against reality because it is not like the dream world he has created. He hates work, economy, and reason.

Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, Yale University Press (1962), 463

[4] Joseph R Peden, Liberty: From Rand to Christ, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July – August 1971, Vol. III, nos. 6-7, 3-4 at 4.

[5] Walter Block, Toward a Libertarian Theory of Guilt and Punishment for the Crime of Statism, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 22 (2011), 665-75 at 666-7 [emphasis added].

[6] As I indicated in my previous article, the very reason we have a science of ethics is because people have the ability to choose different paths; absent the element of volition, the path ahead is determined wholly by the regularity of cause and effect, and so there can be no purpose in debating different options. Accordingly, any ethical proposition claiming to have hit upon the good (or right) path must presuppose that a moral agent possesses the ability to choose the bad (or wrong) one. Thus, to dismiss any such proposition as “utopian” or “unrealistic” solely on the grounds that people could choose not to follow it is to beg the question.

[7] Rothbard commented effectively on such an attitude:

Are “transitional demands,” steps toward liberty in practice, necessarily illegitimate? No, for this would fall into the other self-defeating strategic trap of “left-wing sectarianism.” For while libertarians have too often been opportunists who lose sight of or under-cut their ultimate goal, some have erred in the opposite direction: fearing and condemning any advances toward the idea as necessarily selling out the goal itself.

Unfortunately, an inability to see the bigger picture does not seem to be rare amongst libertarians. To relate a personal anecdote, the present author once discussed the boon to liberty that could be achieved by draining the power of Washington DC in favour of the individual states. One response to these arguments was along the lines of: “but what would happen to gun rights in California?”.

[8] See, for instance, Joseph E Stiglitz, Capitalist Fools, Vanity Fair, December 9 2008.

[9] An important lesson that libertarians must learn to accept is that the theoretical task of defining our goal on the one hand, and a strategy for achieving it on the other, are not the same endeavour. For an elaboration of this, please see my previous essay on fighting for liberty.

[10] See, for instance, Walter Block, Hoppe, Kinsella and Rothbard II on Immigration: A Critique, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 22 (2011), 593-623.

[11] Cf. Murray N Rothbard, The Betrayal of the American Right, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2007).

[12] Frank van Dun, Human Dignity: Reason or Desire? Natural Rights versus Human Rights, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 15, No. 4 (Fall 2001), 1-28 at 27.

[13] A noted example in this regard is the Adam Smith Institute, which, however, deserves credit for having recognised this fact through its abandonment of the “libertarian” label in favour of describing itself as “neo-liberal”.

[14] In the opinion of the present author, such a dismissive attitude was becoming much too common amongst those considering themselves to have been “red-pilled” during the COVID crisis.

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