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30. Toward a Theory of Strategy for Liberty

T he elaboration of a systematic theory of liberty has been rare ennough,

but exposition of a theory of strategy for liberty has been virtually

nonexistent. Indeed, not only for liberty, strategy toward

reaching any sort of desired social goal has been generally held to be

catch-as-catch-can, a matter of hit-or-miss experimentation, of trial and

error. Yet, if philosophy can set down any theoretical guidelines for a strategy

for liberty it is certainly its responsibility to search for them. But the

reader should be warned that we are setting out on an uncharted sea.

The responsibility of philosophy to deal with strategy-with the

problem of how to move from the present (any present) mixed state of

affairs to the goal of consistent liberty-is particularly important for

a libertarianism grounded in natural law. For as the libertarian historian

Lord Acton realized, natural law and natural-rights theory provide

an iron benchmark with which to judge-and to find wanting-any

existing brand of statism. In contrast to legal positivism or to various

brands of historicism, natural law provides a moral and political "higher

law" with which to judge the edicts of the State. As we have seen abovefl

natural law, properly interpreted, is "radical" rather than conservative,

an implicit questing after the reign of ideal principle. As Acton wrote,

"[Classical] Liberalism wishes for what ought to be, ir~spectiveof what

is." Hence, as Himmelfarb writes of Acton, "the past was allowed no authority

except as it happened to conform to morality." Further, Acton proceeded

to distinguish between Whiggism and Liberalism, between, in

effect, conservative adherence to the status quo and radical libertarianism:

The Whig governed by compromise. The Liberal begins the

reign of ideas.

How to distinguish the Whigs from the Liberal-One is

practical, gradual, ready for compromise. The other works

out a principle philosophically. One is a policy aiming at a

philosophy. The other is a philosophy seeking a policy2

Libertarianism, then, is a philosophy seeking a policy. But what

else can a libertarian philosophy say about strategy, about "policy"? In

the first place, surely-again in Acton's words-it must say that liberty

is the "highest political end," the overriding goal of libertarian philosophy

Highest political end, of course, does not mean "highest end" for man in

general. Indeed, every individual has a variety of personal ends and differing

hierarchies of importance for these goals on his personal scale of values.

Political philosophy is that subset of ethical philosophy which deals specifically

with politics, that is, the proper role of violence in human life (and

hence the explication of such concepts as crime and property). Indeed, a

libertarian world would $x one in which every individual would at last

be free to seek and pursue his own ends-to "pursue happiness," in the

felicitous Jeffersonian phrase.

It might be thought that the libertarian, the person committed to the

"natural system of liberty" (in Adam Smith's phrase), almost by definition

holds the goal of liberty as his highest political end. But this is often not

true; for many libertarians, the desire for self-expression, or for bearing

witness to the truth of the excellence of liberty, frequently takes precedence

over the goal of the triumph of liberty in the real world. Yet surely,

as will be seen further below, the victory of liberty will never come to pass

unless the goal of victory in the real world takes precedence over more

esthetic and passive considerations.

If liberty should be the highest political end, then what is the grounding

for that goal? It should be clear from this work that, first and foremost,

liberty is a moral principle, grounded in the nature of man. In particular, it

is a principle of justice, of the abolition of aggressive violence in the affairs

of men. Hence, to be grounded and pursued adequately, the libertarian

goal must be sought in the spirit of an overriding devotion to justice. But

to possess such devotion on what may well be a long and rocky road, the

libertarian must be possessed of a passion for justice, an emotion derived

from and channelled by his rational insight into what natural justice

requires3 Justice, not the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating

force if liberty is to be attained.4 If liberty is to be the highest political end, then this implies that liberty

is to be pursued by the most efficacious means, i.e. those means which

will most speedily and thoroughly arrive at the goal. This means that the

libertarian must be an " abolitionist," i.e., he must wish to achieve the

goal of liberty as rapidly as possible. If he balks at abolitionism, then he

is no longer holding liberty as the highest political end. The libertarian,

then, should be an abolitionist who would, if he could, abolish instantaneously

all invasions of liberty. Following the classical liberal Leonard Read,

who advocated immediate and total abolition of price-and-wage controls

after World War 11, we might refer to this as the "button-pushing" criterion.

Thus, Read declared that "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!" The libertarian, then, should

be a person who would push a button, if it existed, for the instantaneous

abolition of all invasions of liberty-not something, by the way, that any

utilitarian would ever be likely to

Anti-libertarians, and anti-radicals generally, characteristically make

the point that such abolitionism is "unrealistic"; by making such a charge

they hopelessly confuse the desired goal with a strategic estimate of the

probable path toward that goal. It is essential to make a clear-cut distinction

between the ultimate goal itself, and the strategic estimate of how to reach

that goal; in short, the goal must be formulated before questions of strategy

or "realism" enter the scene. The fact that such a magic button does not and

is not Likely to exist has no relevance to the desirability of abolitionism

itself. We might agree, for example, on the goal of liberty and the desirability

of abolitionism in liberty's behalf. But this does not mean that we believe

that abolition will in fact be attainable in the near or far future.

The libertarian goals-including immediate abolition of invasions

of liberty-are "realistic" in the sense that they could be achieved if enough

people agreed on them, and that, if achieved, the resulting libertarian

system would be viable. The goal of immediate liberty is not unrealistic or

"Utopian" because--in contrast to such goals as the "elimination of poverty"-

its achievement is entirely dependent on man's will. If, for example,

eve yone suddenly and immediately agreed on the overriding desirability

of liberty, then total liberty would be immediately a~hievedT.h~e strategic estimate of how the path toward liberty is likely to be achieved is, of

course, an entirely separate question.'

Thus, the libertarian abolitionist of slavery, William Lloyd Garrison,

was not being "unrealistic" when, in the 1830s, he raised the standard of

the goal of immediate emandpation of the slaves. His goal was the proper

moral and libertarian one, and was unrelated to the "realism," or probability

of its achievement. Indeed, Garrison's strategic realism was expressed by

the fact that he did not expect the end of slavery to arrive immediately or

at a single blow. As Garrison carefully distinguished: "Urge immediate

abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the

end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single

blow; that it ought to be, we shall always ~ontend."O~t herwise, as Garrison

trenchantly warned, "Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice."

Gradualism in theory, in fact, totally undercuts the overriding goal

of liberty itself; its import, therefore, is not simply strategic but an opposition

to the end itself and hence impermissible as any part of a strategy toward

liberty. 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

factors . . . which can only operate by transforming nature over a long period of time

. . . But injustices are deeds that are inflicted by one set of men on another, they are

precisely the actions of men, and, hence, they and their elimination are subject to

man's instantaneous will. . . . The fact that, of course, such decisions do not take place

instantaneously is not the point; the point is that the very failure is an injustice that

has been decided upon and imposed by the perpetrators of injustice. . . . In the field

of justice, man's will is all; men can move mountains, if only men so decide. A passion

for instantaneous justice-in short, a radical passion-is therefore not utopian, as

would be a desire for the instant elimination of poverty or the instant transformation

of everyone into a concert pianist. For instant justice could be achieved if enough

people so willed.

Rothbard, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, pp. 148-49. 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.

Hence, a strategy for liberty must not include any means which undercut

or contradict the end itself-as gradualism-in-the~ryc learly does.

Are we then saying that "the end justifies the means"? This is a common,

but totally fallacious, charge often directed toward any group that

advocates fundamental or radical social change. For what else but an end

could possibly justify any means? The very concept of "means" implies

that this action is merely an instrument toward arriving at an end. If someone

is hungry, and eats a sandwich to alleviate his hunger, the act of eating

a sandwich is merely a means to an end; its sole justification arises from

its use as an end by the consumer. Why else eat the sandwich, or, further

down the line, purchase it or its ingredients? Far from being a sinister doctrine,

that the end justifies the means is a simple philosophic truth, implicit

in the very relationship of "means" and "ends."

What then, do the critics of the "end justifies the means" truly mean

when they say that "bad means" can or will lead to "bad ends"? What

they are really saying is that the means in question will violate other ends

which the critics deem to be more important or more valuable than the

goal of the group being criticized. Thus, suppose that Communists hold

that murder is justified if it leads to a dictatorship by the vanguard party

of the proletariat. The critics of such murder (or of such advocacy of murder)

are really asserting, not that the "ends do not jusbfy the means," but

rather that murder violates a more valuable end (to say the least), namely,

the end of "not committing murder," or nonaggression against persons.

And, of course, from the libertarian point of view, the critics would be


Hence, the libertarian goal, the victory of liberty, justifies the speediest

possible means towards reaching the goal, but those means cannot

be such as to contradict, and thereby undercut, the goal itself. We have

already seen that gradualism-in-theory is such a contradictory means.

Another contradictory means would be to commit aggression (e-g., murder

or theft) against persons or just property in order to reach the libertarian

goal of nonaggression. But this too would be a self-defeating and irnpermissible

means to pursue. For the employment of such aggression would

directly violate the goal of nonaggression itself.

If, then, the libertarian must call for immediate abolition of the State as

an organized engine of aggression, and if gradualism in theory is contradictory

to the overriding end (and therefore impermissible), whatfurther strategic stance should a libertarian take in a world in which States continue all

too starkly to exist? Must the libertarian necessarily confine himself to advocating

immediate abolition? Are transitional demands, steps toward liberty

in practice, therefore illegitimate? Surely not, since realistically there

would then be no hope of achieving the final goal. It is therefore incumbent

upon the libertarian, eager to achieve his goal as rapidly as possible,

to push the polity ever further in the direction of that goal. Clearly, such a

course is difficult, for the danger always exists of losing sight of, or even

undercutting, the ultimate goal of liberty. But such a course, given the

state of the world in the past, present, and foreseeable future, is vital if the

victory of liberty is ever to be achieved. The transitional demands, then,

must be framed while (a) always holding up the ultimate goal of liberty

as the desired end of the transitional process; and (b) never taking steps,

or using means, which explicitly or implicitly contradict that goal.

Let us consider, for example, a transition demand set forth by various

libertarians: namely, that the government.budget be reduced by 10 percent

each year for ten years, after which the government will have disappeared.

Such a proposal might have heuristic or strategic value, provided that the

proposers always make crystal clear that these are minimal demands, and

that indeed there would be nothing wrong-in fact, it would be all to the

good-to step up the pace to cutting the budget by 25 percent a year for

four years, or, most desirably, by cutting it by 100 percent immediately.

The danger arises in implying, directly or indirectly that any faster pace

than 10 percent would be wrong or undesirable.

An even greater danger of a similar sort is posed by the idea of many

libertarians of setting forth a comprehensiveand planned program of trasition

to total liberty, e-g., that in Year 1 law A should be repealed, law B

modified, tax C be cut by 20 percent, etc.; in Year 2 law D be repealed, tax

C cut by a further 10 percent, etc. The comprehensive plan is far more misleading

than the simple budget cut, because it strongly implies that, for

example, law D should not be repealed until the second year of this planned

program. Hence, the trap of philosophic gradualism, of gradualismin-

theory, would be fallen into on a massive scale. The would-be libertarian

planners would be virtually falling into a position, or seeming to, of

opposing a faster pace toward liberty.

There is, indeed, another grave flaw in the idea of a comprehensive

planned program toward liberty. For the very care and studied pace, the

very all-embracing nature of the program, implies that the State is not

really the enemy of mankind, that it is possible and desirable to use the

State in engineering a planned and measured pace toward liberty. 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.

For example, libertarians may well push for drastic reduction, or

repeal, of the income tax; but they should never do so while at the same

time advocating its replacement by a sales or other form of tax. The reduction

or, better, the abolition of a tax is always a noncontradictory reduction of

State power and a step toward liberty; but its replacement by a new or

increased tax elsewhere does just the opposite, for it signifies a new and

additional imposition of the State on some other front. The imposition of

a new tax is a means that contradicts the libertarian goal itself.

Similarly, in this age of permanent federal deficits, we are all faced

with the problem: should we agree to a tax cut, even though it may well

mean an increase in the deficit? Conservatives, from their particular perspective

of holding budget-balancing as a higher end, invariably oppose, or

vote against, a tax cut which is not strictly accompanied by an equivalent

or greater cut in government expenditures. But since taxation is an evil

act of aggression, any failure to welcome a tax cut with alacrity undercuts

and contradicts the libertarian goal. The time to oppose government expenditures

is when the budget is being considered or voted upon, when the

libertarian should call for drastic slashes in expenditures as well. Government

activity must be reduced whenever and wherever it can; any opposition

to a particular tax--or expenditur-ut is impermissible for it

contradicts libertarian principles and the libertarian goal.

Does this mean that the libertarian may never set priorities, may

not concentrate his energy on political issues which he deems of the greatest

importance? Clearly not, for since everyone's time and energy is

necessarily limited, no one can devote equal time to every particular

aspect of the comprehensive libertarian creed. A speaker or writer on

political issues must necessarily set priorities of importance, priorities

which at least partially depend on the concrete issues and circumstances

of the day. Thus, while a libertarian in today's world would certainly

advocate the denationalization of lighthouses, it is highly doubtful that

he would place a greater priority on the lighthouse question than on conscription

or the repeal of the income tax. The libertarian must use his

strategic intelligence and knowledge of the issues of the day to set his

priorities of political importance. On the other hand, of course, if one

were living on a small, highly fog-bound island, dependent on shipping

for transportation, it could very well be that the lighthouse question would have a high priority on a libertarian political agenda. And, furthermore,

if for some reason the opportunity arose for denationalizing

lighthouses even in present-day America, it should certainly not be

spumed by the libertarian.

We conclude this part of the strategy question, then, by affirming

that the victory of total liberty is the highest political end; that the proper

groundwork for this goal is a moral passion for justice; that the end should

be pursued by the speediest and most efficacious possible means; that

the end must always be kept in sight and sought as rapidly as possible;

and that the means taken must never contradict the goal-whether by advocating

gradualism, by employing or advocating any aggression against

liberty, by advocating planned programs, or by failing to seize any opportunity

to reduce State power or by ever increasing it in any area.

The world, at least in the long run, is governed by ideas; and it

seems clear that libertarianism is only likely to triumph if the ideas spread

to and are adopted by a significantly large number of people. And so "education"

becomes a necessary condition for the victory of liberty-all sorts

of education, from the most abstract systematic theories down to attention-

catching devices that will attract the interest of potential converts. Education,

indeed, is the characteristic strategic theory of classical liberalism.

But it should be stressed that ideas do not float by themselves in a

vacuum; they are influential only insofar as they are adopted and put

forward by people. For the idea of liberty to triumph, then, there must be

an active group of dedicated libertarians, people who are knowledgeable I

in liberty and are willing to spread the message to others. In short, there

must be an active and self-conscious libertarian movement. This may seem

self-evident, but there has been a curious reluctance on the part of many

libertarians to think of themselves as part of a conscious and ongoing

movement, or to become involved in movement activity. Yet consider:

has any discipline, or set of ideas in the past, whether it be Buddhism or

modern physics, been able to advance itself and win acceptance without

the existence of a dedicated "cadre" of Buddhists or physicists?

The mention of physicists points up another requirement of a successful

movement: the existence of professionals, of persons making their

full-time career in the movement or discipline in question. In the seventeenth

and eighteenth centuries, as modern physics emerged as a new science,

there were indeed scientific societies which mainly included interested

amateurs, "Friends of Physics" as we might call them, who established

an atmosphere of encouragement and support of the new discipline. But

surely physics would not have advanced very far if there had been no

professional physicists, people who made a full-time career of physics, and therefore could devote all their energies to engaging in and advancing

the discipline. Physics would surely still be a mere amusement for amateurs

if the profession of physics had not developed. Yet there are few libertarians,

despite the spectacular growth of the ideas and of the movement

in recent years, who recognize the enormous need for the development of

liberty as a profession, as a central core for the advancement of both the

theory and the condition of liberty in the real world.

Every new idea and every new discipline necessarily begins with

one or a few people, and diffuses outward toward a larger core of converts

and adherents. Even at full tide, given the wide variety of interests and

abilities among men, there is bound to be only a minority among the

professional core or cadre of libertarians. There is nothing sinister or

"undemocratic," then, in postulating a "vanguard" group of libertarians

any more than there is in talking of a vanguard of Buddhists or of

physicists. Hopefully this vanguard will help to bring about a majority

or a large and influential minority of people adhering to (if not centrally

devoted to) libertarian ideology. The existence of a libertarian majority

among the American Revolutionaries and in nineteenth-century England

demonstrates that the feat is not impossible.

In the meanwhile, on the path to that goal, we might conceive of the

adoption of libertarianism as a ladder or pyramid, with various individuals

and groups on different rungs of the ladder, ranging upward from

total collectivism or statism to pure liberty. If the libertarian cannot "raise

people's consciousness" fully to the top rung of pure liberty, then he can

achieve the lesser but still important goal of helping them advance a few

rungs up the ladder.

For this purpose, the libertarian may well find it fruitful to engage in

coalitions with non-libertarians around the advancement of some single,

ad hoc activity. Thus, the libertarian, depending on his priorities of importance

at any given condition of society, may engage in such "united front"

activities with some conservatives to repeal the income tax or with civil libertarians

to repeal conscription or the outlawry of pornography or of "subversive"

speech. By engaging in such united fronts on ad hoc issues, the

libertarian can accomplish a twofold purpose: (a) greatly multiplying his

own leverage or influence in working toward a specific libertarian goalsince

many non-libertarians are mobilized to cooperate in such actions; and

(b) to "raise the consciousness" of his coalition colleagues, to show them

that libertarianism is a single interconnected system, and that afull pursuit

of their particular goal requires the adoption of the entire libertarian schema.

Thus, the libertarian can point out to the conservative that property

rights or the free market can only be maximized and truly safeguarded if civil liberties are defended or restored; and he can show the opposite to

the civil libertarian. Hopefully this demonstration will raise some of these

ad hoe allies significantly up the libertarian ladder.

In the progress of any movement dedicated to radical social change,

i.e., to transforming social reality toward an ideal system, there are

bound to arise, as the Marxists have discovered, two contrasting types of

"deviations" from the proper strategic line: what the Marxists have

called "right opportunism" and "left sectarianism." So fundamental

are these often superficially attractive deviations that we might call it

a theoretical rule that one or both will arise to plague a movement at

various times in its development. Which tendency will triumph in a movement

cannot, however, be determined by our theory; the outcome will

depend on the subjective strategic understanding of the people constituting

the movement. The outcome, then, is a matter of free will and


Right opportunism, in its pursuit of instant gains, is willing to abandon

the ultimate social goal, and to immerse itself in minor and shortrun

gains, sometimes in actual contradiction to the ultimate goal itself. In

the libertarian movement, the opportunist is willing to join the State establishment

rather than to struggle against it, and is willing to deny the ultimate

goal on behalf of short-run gains: e.g . to declaim that "while everyone

knows we must have taxation, the state of the economy requires a 2

percent tax cut." The left sectarian, on the other hand, scents "immoralityJ'

and "betrayal of principle" in every use of strategic intelligence to pursue

transitional demands on the path to liberty, even ones that uphold the ultimate

goal and do not contradict it. The sectarian discovers "moral principle"

and "libertarian principle" everywhere, even in purely strategic,

tactical, or organizational concerns. Indeed, the sectarian is likely to attack

as an abandonment of principle any attempt to go beyond mere reiteration

of the ideal social goal, and to select and analyze more specifically political

issues of the most urgent priority. In the Marxist movement, the Socialist

Labor Party, which meets every political issue with only a reiteration of

the view that "socialism and only socialism will solve the problem," is a

classical example of ultra-sectarianism at work. Thus, the sectarian libertarian

might decry a television speaker or a political candidate who, in the

necessity to choose priority issues, stresses repeal of the income tax or abolition

of the draft, while "neglecting" the goal of denationalizing lighthouses.

In should be clear that both right opportunism and left sectarianism

are equally destructive of the task of achieving the ultimate social goal:

for the right opportunist abandons the goal while achieving short-run gains, and thereby renders those gains ineffectual; while the left sectarian,

in wrapping himself in the mantle of "purity," defeats his own ultimate

goal by denouncing any necessary strategic steps in its behalf.

Sometimes, curiously enough, the same individual will undergo

alternations from one deviation to the other, in each case scorning the

correct, plumb-line path. Thus, despairing after years of futile reiteration

of his purity while making no advances in the real world, the left sectarian

may leap into the heady thickets of right opportunism, in the quest for

some short-run advance, even at the cost of the ultimate goal. Or, the

right opportunist, growing disgusted at his own or his colleagues' compromise

of their intellectual integrity and their ultimate goals, may leap

into left sectarianism and decry any setting of strategic priorities toward

those goals. In this way, the two opposing deviations feed on and reinforce

each other, and are both destructive of the major task of effectively reaching

the libertarian goal.

The Marxists have correctly perceived that two sets of conditions

are necessary for the victory of any program of radical social change; what

they call the "objective" and the subjective" conditions. The subjective conditions

are the existence of a self-conscious movement dedicated to the triumph

of the particular social ideal--conditions which we have been discussing

above. The objective conditions are the objective fact of a "crisis

situation" in the existing system, a crisis stark enough to be generally

perceived, and to be perceived as the fault of the system itself. For people

are so constituted that they are not interested in exploring the defects of

an existing system so long as it seems to be working tolerably well. And

even if a few become interested, they will tend to regard the entire problem

as an abstract one irrelevant to their daily lives and therefore not an

imperative for action-until the perceived crisis breakdown. It is such a

breakdown that stimulates a sudden search for new social alternativesand

it is then that the cadres of the alternative movement (the "subjective

conditions") must be available to supply that alternative, to relate the crisis

to the inherent defects of the system itself, and to point out how the alternative

system would solve the existing crisis and prevent similar breakdowns

in the future. Hopefully, the alternative cadre would have provided

a track record of predicting and warning against the existing crisis.

Indeed, if we examine the revolutions in the modern world, we will

find that every single one of them (a) was utilized by an existing cadre of

seemingly prophetic ideologists of the alternative system, and (b) was

precipitated by a breakdown of the system itself. During the American

Revolution, a broad cadre and mass of dedicated libertarians were prepared

to resist the encroachments of Great Britain in its attempt to end the system of "salutary neglect" of the colonies and to reimpose the chains

of the British Empire; in the French Revolution, libertarian philosophes had

prepared the ideology with which to meet a sharp increase of absolutist

burdens on the country caused by the government's fiscal crisis; in Russia,

in 1917, a losing war led to the collapse of the Czarist system from within,

which radical ideologists were prepared for; in post-World War I Italy and

Germany, postwar economic crises and wartime defeats created the conditions

for the triumph of the fascist and national socialist alternatives; in

China, in 1949, the combination of a lengthy and crippling war and economic

crisis caused by runaway inflation and price controls allowed the

victory of the Communist rebels.

Both Marxists and libertarians, in their very different and contrasting

ways, believe that the inner contradictions of the existing system (in the

former case of "capitalism," in the latter of statism and state intervention)

will lead inevitably to its long-run collapse. In contrast to conservatism,

which can see nothing but long-run despair attendant upon the steady

decline of "Western values" from some past century Marxism and libertarianism

are both therefore highly optimistic creeds, at least in the longrun.

The problem, of course, for any living beings, is how long they will

have to wait for the long-run to arrive. The Marxists, at least in the Western

world, have had to face the indefinite postponement of their hoped-for

long-run. Libertarians have had to confront a twentieth century which

has shifted from the quasi-libertarian system of the nineteenth century

to a far more statist and collectivist one-in many ways returning to the

despotic world as it existed before the classical liberal revolutions of the

seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

There are good and sufficient reasons, however, for libertarians to

be optimistic in the short-run as well as the long run, indeed for a belief

that victory for liberty might be near.

But, in the first place, why should libertarians be optimistic even in

the long run? After all, the annals of recorded history are a chronicle, in

one civilization after another, of centuries of varying forms of despotism,

stagnation, and totalitarianism. May it not be possible that the great postseventeenth

century thrust toward liberty was only a mighty flash in the

pan, to be replaced by sinking back into a gray and permanent despotism?

But such superficially plausible despair overlooks a crucial point: the

new and irreversible conditions introduced by the Industrial Revolution

of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a revolution itself a

consequence of the classical-liberal political revolutions. For agricultural

countries, in a preindustrial era, can indeed peg along indefinitely on a

subsistence level; despotic kings, nobles and states can tax the peasantry above subsistence level, and live elegantly off the surplus, while the peasants

continue to toil for centuries at the bare minimum. Such a system is

profoundly immoral and exploitative, but it "works" in the sense of being

able to continue indefinitely (provided that the state does not get too greedy

and actually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs).

But fortunately for the cause of liberty, economic science has shown

that a modem industrial economy cannot survive indefinitely under such

draconian conditions. A modern industrial economy requires a vast network

of free-market exchanges and a division of labor, a network that can

only flourish under freedom. Given the commitment of the mass of men

to an industrial economy and the modem standard of living that requires

such industry, then the triumph of a free-market economy and an end to

statism becomes inevitable in the long run.

The late-nineteenth and especially the twentieth centuries have seen

many forms of reversion to the statism of the preindustrial era. These

forms (notably socialism and various brands of "state capitalism"), in contrast

to the frankly anti-industrial and reactionary Conservatism of early

nineteenth-century Europe, have tried to preserve and even extend the

industrial economy while scuttling the very political requirements (freedom

and the free-market) which are in the long-run necessary for its

survival? State planning, operation, controls, high and crippling taxation,

and paper money inflation must all inevitably lead to the collapse of the

statist economic system.

If then, the world is irreversibly committed to industrialism and its

attendant living standards, and if industrialism requires freedom, then

the libertarian must indeed be a long-run optimist, for the libertarian triumph

must eventually occur. But why short-run optimism for the present

day? Because it fortunately happens to be true that the various forms of

statism imposed on the Western world during the first half of the

twentieth century are now in process of imminent breakdown. The longrun

is now at hand. For half a century, statist intervention could wreak

its depredations and not cause clear and evident crises and dislocations,

because the quasi-laissez-faire industrialization of the nineteenth century

had created a vast cushion against such depredations. The government

could impose taxes or inflation upon the system and not reap evidently

bad effects. But now statism has advanced so far and been in power so

long that the cushion, or fat, has been exhausted. As economist Ludwig

von Mises pointed out, the "reserve fund" created by laissez faire has now been "exhausted," whatever the government does now leads to an

instantaneous negative feedback that is evident to the formerly indifferent

and even to many of the most ardent apologists for statism.

In the Communist countries of Eastern Europe, the Communists themselves

have increasingly perceived that socialist central planning simply

does not work, particularly for an industrial economy. Hence the rapid retreat,

in recent years, away from central planning and toward free mar& throughout

Eastern Europe, especially in Yugoslavia. In the Western world, too,

state capitalism is everywhere in a period of crisis, as it becomes perceived

that, in the most profound way, the government has run out of money:

that increasing taxes will cripple industry and incentives beyond repair,

while increased printing of new money (either directly or through the

government-controlled banking system) will lead to a disastrous runaway

inflation. And so we hear more and more about the "necessity of lowered

expectations from government" even among the State's once most ardent

champions. In West Germany, the Social Democratic party has long abandoned

the call for socialism. In Great Britain, suffering from a tax-crippled

economy and aggravated inflation, the Tory party, for years in the hands

of dedicated statists, has now been taken over by its free-market oriented

faction, while even the Labor party has begun to draw back from the planned

chaos of galIoping statism.

In the United States, conditions are particularly hopeful; for here,

in the last few years, there has coincidentally occurred (a) a systemic breakdown

of statism across the board, in economic, foreign, social, and moral

policies; and (b) a great and growing rise of a libertarian movement and

the diffusion of libertarian ideas throughout the population, among opinion

moulders and average citizens alike. Let us examine in turn both sets of

necessary conditions for a libertarian triumph.

Surprisingly enough, the systemic breakdown of statism in the

United States can be given a virtually precise date: the years 1973-74.

The breakdown has been particularly glaring in the economic sphere.

From the fall of 1973 through 1975, America experienced an inflationary

depression, in which the worst recession of the postwar world coincided

with an aggravated inflation of prices. After forty years of Keynesian

policies which were supposed to "fine tune" the economy so as to

eliminate the boom-bust cycle of inflation and depression, the United

States managed to experience both at the same time-an event that

cannot be explained by orthodox economic theory. Orthodox economics

has been thrown into disarray, and economists and laymen alike are

increasingly ready to turn to the "Austrian," free-market alternative,

both in the realms of theoretical paradigms and of political policy. The award of the Nobel prize in economics during 1974 to F.A. Hayek for

his long-forgotten Austrian business-cycle theory is but one indication

of the new currents coming to the surface after decades of neglect. And

even though the economy recovered from the depression, the economic

crisis is not ended, since inflation only accelerated still further, while

unemployment remained high. Only a free-market program of abandoning

monetary inflation and slashing government expenditures will

solve the crisis.

The partial financial default of the New York City government during

1975 and the victory of Proposition 13 in California in 1978 have highlighted

for the entire country the fact that local and state reserve funds

have been exhausted, and that government must at last begin a drastic

cutback in its operations and expenditures. For higher taxes will drive

businesses and middle-class citizens out of any given area, and therefore

the only way to avoid default will be radical cuts in expenditure. (If default

arrives, the result will be the same and more drastically, since access

to bond markets in the future by state and local governments will prove


It is also becoming increasingly clear that the combination of decades

of high and crippling taxes on income, savings, and investment, combined

with inflationary distortions of business calculation, has led to an increasing

scarcity of capital, and to an imminent danger of consuming America's vital

stock of capital equipment. Hence, lower taxes are rapidly perceived to

be an economic necessity. Lower government expenditures are also

evidently necessary to avoid the "crowding out" of private loans and investments

from the capital markets by wasteful federal government deficits.

There is a particularly hopeful reason for expecting the public and

the opinion-moulders to grasp at the proper libertarian solution to this

grave and continuing economic crisis: the fact that everyone knows that

the State has controlled and manipulated the economy for the last forty

years. When government credit and interventionary policies brought

about the Great Depression of the 1930s, the myth that the 1920s had

been an era of laissez faire was prevalent, and so it seemed plausible to

assert that "capitalism had failed," and that economic prosperity and

progress required a giant leap toward statism and state control. But the

current crisis comes after many decades of statism, and its nature is such

that the public can now correctly perceive Big Government to be at fault.

Furthermore, all the various forms of statism have now been tried, and

have failed. At the turn of the twentieth century, businessmen, politicians,

and intellectuals throughout the Western world began to turn to a "new"

system of mixed economy of State rule, to replace the relative laissez faire of the previous century. Such new and seemingly exciting panaceas as

socialism, the corporate state, the Welfare-Warfare State, etc., have all been

tried and have manifestly failed. The call for socialism or state planning

is now a call for an old, tired, and failed system. What is there left to try

but freedom?

On the social front, a similar crisis has occurred in recent years. The

public school system, once a sacrosanct part of the American heritage, is

now under severe and accelerated criticism from people across the ideological

spectrum. It is now becoming clear (a) that public schools do not properly

educate their charges; (b) that they are costly, wasteful, and require

high taxes; and (c) that the uniformity of the public school system creates

deep and unresolvable social conflicts over vital educational issues--over

such matters as integration vs. segregation, progressive vs. traditional methods,

religion or secularism, sex education, and the ideological content of

learning. Whatever decision the public school makes in any of these areas,

either a majority or a substantial minority of parents and children are irreparably

injured. Furthermore, compulsory attendance laws are being

increasingly perceived as dragooning unhappy or uninterested children

into a prison not of their or their parents' making.

In the field of moral policies, there is a growing realization that the

rampant Prohibitionism of government policy-not simply in the field

of alcohol, but also in such matters as pornography prostitution, sexual

practices between "consenting adults," drugs, and abortion-are both

an immoral and unjustified invasion of the right of each individual to

make his or her own moral choices, and also cannot practically be enforced.

Attempts at enforcement only bring about hardship and a virtual police

state. The time is approaching when prohibitionism in these areas of

personal morality will be recognized to be fully as unjust and ineffective

as in the case of alcohol.

In the wake of Watergate, there is also an increased awareness of

the dangers to individual liberty and privacy, to the freedom to dissent

from government, in habitual actions and activities of government. Here,

too, we may expect public pressure to keep government from fulfilling

its age-old desire to invade privacy and repress dissent.

Perhaps the best sign of all, the most favorable indication of the

breakdown of the mystique of the State, was the Watergate exposures of

1973-74. For Watergate instigated a radical shift in the attitude of me yone-

regardless of their explicit ideology-toward government itself. Watergate

indeed awakened the public to the invasions of personal liberty by

government. More important, by bringing about the impeachment of the

President, it permanently desanctified an office that had almost been considered sovereign by the American public. But most importantly government

itselfhas been to a large extent desanctified. No one trusb any

politician or government official anymore; all government is viewed with

abiding hostility and distrust, thus returning to that healthy distrust of

government that marked the American public and the American revolutionaries

of the eighteenth century. In the wake of Watergate, no one would

dare today to intone that "we are the government," and therefore that

anything elected officials may do is legitimate and proper. For the success

of liberty, the most vital condition is the desanctification, the delegitimation

of government in the eyes of the public; and that Watergate has managed

to accomplish.

Thus, the objective conditions for the triumph of liberty have now,

in the past few years, begun to appear, at least in the United States. Furthermore,

the nature of this systemic crisis is such that government is now

perceived as the culprit; it cannot be relieved except through a sharp turn

toward liberty. What is basically needed now, therefore, is the growth of

the "subjective conditions," of libertarian ideas and particularly of a dedicated

libertarian movement to advance those ideas in the public forum.

Surely it is no coincidence that it is precisely in these years-since 1971

and particularly since 1973, that these subjective conditions have made

their greatest strides in this century. For the breakdown of statism has

undoubtedly spurred many more people into becoming partial or full

libertarians, and hence the objective conditions help to generate the subjective.

Furthermore, in the United States at least, the splendid heritage of

freedom and of libertarian ideas, going back beyond revolutionary times,

has never been fully lost. Present-day libertarians, therefore, have solid

historical ground on which to build.

The rapid growth in these last years of libertarian ideas and movements

has pervaded many fields of scholarship, especially among younger

scholars, and in the areas of journalism, the media, business, and politics.

Because of the continuing objective conditions, it seems clear that this eruption

of libertarianism in many new and unexpected places is not a mere

media-concoded fad, but an inevitably growing response to the perceived

conditions of objective reality. Given free will, no one can predict with

certainty that the growing libertarian mood in America will solidlfy in a

brief period of time, and press forward without faltering to the success

of the entire libertarian program. But certainly, both theory and analysis

of current historical conditions lead to the conclusion that the current

prospects of liberty, even in the short-run, are highly encouraging.