In any ideological political movement, there is disagreement and debate over the best way to achieve the movement’s political goals. Some favor a Fabian-style gradualist approach, while others call for immediate revolution. For some, all lesser concerns take a backseat to the prime political goal, while others see importance in keeping a careful balance of the lesser concerns. The libertarian movement is no exception and the incessant infighting is proof.
For libertarians, the prime (and for some, the only) goal is political liberty. As Lord Acton put it, speaking on behalf of liberalism of his time, “Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.” Accepting this as true and applicable to modern libertarianism, Murray Rothbard took a hardline stance with regard to strategy, arguing that any goal other than immediate abolition of the State is a departure from libertarian justice:
The reason is that once immediate abolitionism is abandoned, then the goal is conceded to take second or third place to other, anti-libertarian considerations, for these considerations are now placed higher than liberty. Thus, suppose that the abolitionist of slavery had said: ‘I advocate an end to slavery—but only after five years’ time.’ But this would imply that abolition in four or three years’ time, or a fortiori immediately, would be wrong, and that therefore it is better for slavery to be continued a while longer. But this would mean that considerations of justice have been abandoned, and that the goal itself is no longer highest on the abolitionist’s (or libertarian’s) political value-scale. In fact, it would mean that the libertarian advocated the prolongation of crime and injustice.1
Rothbard seems to be suggesting that even the slightest sliver of reified concern for something like social or economic stability indicates an outright preference for these over the goal of political liberty. Would he also contend that if one has the goal of completing a project accurately and to the best of his ability, but decides to keep some pep in his step and work with more pace than is absolutely necessary, that he has thrown quality to the wind and has made speed his main concern? The only appropriate strategy for achieving liberty, then, according to Rothbard, would be demanding immediate abolition and supporting any step in that direction regardless of its consequences. He continues,
The insight that the State is the permanent enemy of mankind, on the other hand, leads to a very different strategic outlook: namely that libertarians push for and accept with alacrity any reduction of State power or State activity on any front; any such reduction at any time is a reduction in crime and aggression, and is a reduction of the parasitic malignity with which State power rules over and confiscates social power.2
Thus, “failing to seize any opportunity to reduce State power or […] ever increasing it in any area”3 is an open abandonment of libertarian principles and an expression of a greater concern than the one for political liberty.
This way of thinking is more than just a case of Rothbard being the radical firebrand he always needed to be; it seems to be the majority position among libertarians. Milton Friedman as well expressed, near the end of his life, his preference for taking any politically available step in the direction of smaller government: “I am in favor of cutting taxes under any circumstances and for any excuse, for any reason, whenever it’s possible.”4 Intuitively, this seems to be the right answer for libertarians. After all, how could one be logically consistent in holding minimal or no government as an ideal without supporting each step toward that ideal? There are some instances, though, when this approach seems to give us what libertarians would almost unanimously agree is the wrong answer.
The consensus within the libertarian community is that gay marriages ought to have the same legal standing as “traditional” marriages, at least so long as marriage is at all a legal matter. Justin Raimondo, along with several others, have argued on the contrary that this would require a further expansion of the State into personal relations and therefore should be opposed by libertarians. This line of reasoning is certainly consistent with the aforequoted Rothbard, but it shows no concern for the classical liberal principle of equality under the law. Libertarianism is vehemently opposed to government-bestowed privilege (though most often in the context of a market), and it would be reasonable to balance, in some way, this concern with the concern for political freedom.
It is possible to envision even more extreme scenarios where Rothbard’s position becomes less defensible as the results look less attractive. Let us imagine that in some unpunctual attempt to curb its rapidly amassing sovereign debt, the United States Congress proposes a new law that would ban some group—say, blacks—from using roads and highways, i.e. granting privilege to all other racial groups. With less drivers on the roads and highways, the pavement would be subject to less wear and tear, and would require less repair, thereby decreasing government spending and taxation. Should the libertarian regard this as just or preferable? Or, suppose the government of the United Kingdom decides, in order to cut expenditure, that the National Health Service will no longer be available to homosexuals and their relatives. Is this a small win for Liberty?
There are many other situations in which liberalization could effectively grant privilege in less overt ways than the previous scenarios. For example, uneven labor market liberalization could increase, through partially opening up to competition, downward pressure on wages without also increasing upward pressure. Of course, all libertarians want to see minimum wage laws and right-to-work laws (which prevent unions and businesses from voluntarily agreeing to contracts) repealed, but these liberalizations taking place without also removing the barriers to entry for new businesses would give the privilege of inordinate amount of bargaining power to established businesses. Whether or not uneven reduction of the state is desirable may be determined by whether an even reduction becomes more or less possible as a result of the former.
We see that it is difficult to plot a rigid strategy for achieving liberty. In most situations any expansion of the State should be opposed and any shrinking of the State should be supported, but abiding by this principle as an absolute opens the door to allowing even more government-granted privilege. Even if we agree that taxes are aggressive and entirely illegitimate, it is still possible to balance other concerns like those for stability and equality under the law without displacing political liberty as the highest political end.
- Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 260–61.
- Ibid., 262–63.
- Ibid., 264.
- Richard A. Viguerie, Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause (Los Angeles: Bonus Books, 2006), 46.
skating on thin ice here.
(In this metaphor, the freezing cold water millimetres below the surface represents a workable libertarian position)