EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 15
By Bryan Caplan
Whew, we finally made it to chapter 15. Next week I’ll do a final round-up, including a general Q&A.
This chapter sketches Rothbard’s strategy for libertarian victory. He begins with a call for education:
On one point there can scarcely be disagreement: a prime and necessary condition for libertarian victory (or, indeed, for victory for any social movement, from Buddhism to vegetarianism) is education: the persuasion and conversion of large numbers of people to the cause.
Rothbard then advises libertarian strategists to absorb the Marxist distinction between “left-wing sectarianism” and “right-wing opportunism.” Both are grave errors. Left-wing sectarians refuse even to discuss moderate pro-liberty moves, leading to severe intellectual isolation; right-wing opportunists lose sight of the final goal of liberty, and end up abandoning libertarian principles.
When Rothbard gets more specific, many readers may be tempted to say that he is one of the left-wing sectarians that he criticizes. His two guiding rules:
(1) that, whatever the transitional demands, the ultimate end of liberty be always held aloft as the desired goal; and (2) that no steps or means ever explicitly or implicitly contradict the ultimate goal.
The libertarian looks forward to eventual abolition of taxes. It is perfectly legitimate for him, as a strategic measure in that desired direction, to push for a drastic reduction or repeal of the income tax. But the libertarian must never support any new tax or tax increase. For example, he must not, while advocating a large cut in income taxes, also call for its replacement by a sales or other form of tax.
Rothbard then fleshes out his educational strategy. Statist elites – including most big businessmen – are a lost cause; as he memorably asks, “How much likelihood is there that the President of the United States will read this book, or any other piece of libertarian literature, and then exclaim: ‘They’re right. I’ve been wrong. I resign.’?” But almost everyone else has potential, especially campus youth, the media (!), “Middle America,” and small businessmen.
Next, Rothbard argues that libertarianism is going to win “in a remarkably short period of time.” Why? Because “only freedom and a free market can run an industrial economy,” and “the masses [will] not permit such a drastic reversal of their expectations for a rising standard of living.” Even “the Communists themselves have increasingly perceived that socialist central planning simply does not work for an industrial economy,” so they’re rapidly moving in a free-market direction.
The book concludes with a remarkable feat of political eloquence, with words that make converts and sustain them for a lifetime of activism:
The enormous success of Karl Marx and Marxism has been due not to the validity of his ideas–all of which, indeed, are fallacious–but to the fact that he dared to weave socialist theory into a mighty system. Liberty cannot succeed without an equivalent and contrasting systematic theory; and until the last few years, despite our great heritage of economic and political thought and practice, we have not had a fully integrated and consistent theory of liberty. We now have that systematic theory; we come, fully armed with our knowledge, prepared to bring our message and to capture the imagination of all groups and strands in the population… Liberty has never been fully tried in the modern world; libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind.
If you know much about the history of Marxism, it’s striking that Rothbard so eagerly adopts the Marxist “left-sectarian/right-opportunist” distinction. As you can see in e.g. Franz Borkenau‘s World Communism, this distinction was the foundation for Marxists’ ceaseless witch-hunting and sudden Orwellian strategy shifts: “Oh no, we’ve got to root out left sectarianism! Wait, now we’ve got to smash opportunism! Uh oh, the sectarians are back – get ’em!”
If you read Raimondo’s highly sympathetic biography of Rothbard, you can see decades of analogous gyrations – an endless series of failed alliances and broken friendships. If that doesn’t convince you that the strategic “insights” of the Marxists aren’t worth learning, I don’t know what will.
My alternative strategy: Personal integrity plus a big friendly tent. If you think that a compromise is wrong, oppose it. Try to change other libertarians’ minds about it. But when people in broad agreement with you aren’t convinced, don’t purge them. It’s foolish and wrong. Indeed, it’s usually foolish and wrong to purge people even if they aren’t in broad agreement with you. Friendliness not only makes you more persuasive; it keeps you honest, because people won’t be afraid to tell you why you’re mistaken.
In other news, Rothbard’s argument for the imminent triumph of libertarianism is far weaker than it appears. Yes, Communism collapsed – but the collapse was political, not economic. In any case, though, social democracy and a modern industrial economy can clearly co-exist. Indeed, social democracy isn’t even bad enough to prevent moderate economic growth. Contrary to Mises, the “reserve fund” that allows governments to pursue inefficient policies hasn’t been “exhausted.” It’s bigger now than ever, because we’re richer now than ever.
I’d like to believe that liberty is coming in my lifetime. There are important cases where I think it will. China is going to be much freer in 30 years – I’ll bet on it. Unfortunately, though, I don’t see any reason to expect Western social democracies – including the U.S. – to get freer anytime soon. Economics gives us strong reasons to expect the world to keep getting richer. But political economy does not give us comparable reasons to expect the world to keep getting freer.
Still, I admire Rothbard’s optimism. To make optimism intellectually respectable, though, we need to transform it from a prediction to an attitude. Counting your blessings is good; imagining blessings that aren’t going to happen isn’t. When I look at the modern political landscape, for example, I don’t despair. Instead, I weigh contemporary problems against e.g. the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and reasonably say, “The world is still far freer than any sensible person would have expected in 1985. Yay!” Similarly, when I look at the statism of public opinion, I often breathe a sigh of relief that democracy hasn’t destroyed modern civilization. By historical standards the world is amazingly free, rich, and creative. Why shouldn’t I be optimistic about that?