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Rothbard, Rand, and real politics

Posted by Richard on November 20, 2005

Several months ago, I made a note to myself to check out the Libertarian Reform Caucus. I found that note today and finally followed up. Although I haven’t read a lot, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen. For starters, I want to draw your attention to Carl Milsted’s Rothbard vs. Real Politics. He began with the Rothbard thesis:

Murray Rothbard said that libertarians should only advocate the ideal. They should never advocate compromise half-measures or incremental steps. According to Rothbard, to do otherwise would be to admit some rightness to the statist position.

Milsted explained why this strategy always fails. Using a highly simplified scenario with assumptions that are unrealistically favorable to the Rothbard strategy, he demonstrated that a minarchist libertarian who advocates immediately cutting the government by 80% will lose to a moderate statist who favors growing the government by 10% even if the median voter favors cutting the government by 25%.

Next, Milsted considered Rand’s theory of how to achieve political change:

Ayn Rand thought that the current political system does roughly reflect societal views. Therefore, to change politics requires changing society.

She advocated teaching philosophy, and changing the “sense of life.” Then, political change would automatically follow.

Not without a vehicle for change that’s less frightening to most people than the LP, argued Milsted (emphasis in original):

Based on my talking with people as well as other studies, I think that the body politic is already ready for significantly less government. However, this body is served by two major statist parties and a libertarian party that refuses to play real politics. For the Rand strategy to work in conjunction with the Libertarian Party’s Rothbard strategy, we need to educate 50+% of the population of some districts to desire a form of governance that is radically different from what we have today.

Milsted argued that most people simply won’t embrace radical change based on economic or philosophical arguments, and that this conservatism "is a feature of human nature, not a bug":

What exists, works. The status quo may be unpleasant and inefficient, but if you are living in it, you are living. What may be may fail. And philosophers have a grand history of failure. … Great disasters have occurred during the past few centuries as nations experimented with shiny new political systems. …

To convince most people of the value of a truly different system, you have to demonstrate it! Science trumps philosophy.

Without a libertarian party that is willing to implement step-by-step demonstrations of the value of cutting government, we will not get any such demonstration.

Read, as they say, the whole thing.

I agree about 90% with Milsted. My major quibble is that he’s presented an oversimplified version of Rand’s thinking. Yes, Rand argued that our current political system is a reflection of the degree to which people accept the philosophical beliefs used to justify these political structures — altruism and collectivism. But Rand would challenge Milstead’s claim that we have to turn 50+% of the population into free-market economists and philosophers. She once famously predicted that if Atlas Shrugged sold 50,000 copies, the altruist/collectivist culture was doomed. More than 5 million have been sold.

Rand argued that most people don’t think critically and deeply about philosophy. Instead, they accept the values of the intelligentsia. I suspect that, like Milsted’s "conservatism," this willingness to be guided by "experts" is a "feature" of human nature.

Rand said it was the intellectual climate that had to be changed — the ideas accepted by academics and intellectuals, and endorsed implicitly by the media. The bulk of the population looks to them for guidance in philosophical matters, just as they look to experts for guidance in medical matters and any number of other fields where obtaining in-depth understanding requires more time and effort than the average person is willing and able to invest.

I think the intellectual climate has moved fairly significantly in the direction of liberty in the past 40-50 years, so I reject Milsted’s pessimism. Time isn’t running out, it’s on our side. As recently as 25 years ago, the intellectual mainstream in this country thought that central planning was at least as good as, and probably better than, free markets at producing goods and services.

Today, the mainstream completely accepts the superiority of markets. Even many socialist intellectuals, to maintain credibility, concede the superiority of markets. Thus, they argue for intervention on a more limited basis than in the past, proposing "third way" socialism that incorporates market features and "market-emulating planning" — efforts to avoid the failures of central planning that they can no longer credibly deny.

I think there’s plenty of evidence that collectivism has retreated dramatically among intellectuals. Unfortunately, altruism still completely dominates ethics, but even there, I see signs of progress. Discussions of self-esteem and self-fulfillment — even "enlightened self-interest" — have chipped away at the view that our primary goal should be to sacrifice ourselves to others.

All in all, I think the past — and ongoing — changes in the intellectual climate have us poised for profound progress toward greater liberty.

Nevertheless, people are cautious about embracing radical change unless they’re seriously unhappy with the status quo. The public schools provide a perfect example. Suburban Republicans — even conservative ones — aren’t eager to embrace vouchers, much less privatization. Their schools work reasonably well — well enough that they’re unwilling to risk the upheavals and unknown problems that may accompany drastic change. The people most willing to take a chance on something new and unproven are the inner-city residents whose public schools are such failures that any alternative seems worth a shot.

Even with the intellectual climate moving our way, we need Milsted’s "step-by-step demonstrations of the value of cutting government" in order to overcome people’s inherent caution and reluctance to embrace radical changes to a system that, from their perspective, seems to work tolerably well.

You want a dramatic example of how incrementalism works? Look at gun rights, and especially concealed carry. Yes, I know that all the gun rights groups are saying the 2nd Amendment is threatened every day — but they have to say that to get you to write a check and make a phone call. In point of fact, the progress we’ve made in the past 20 years is remarkable.

When the modern concealed carry movement began in the mid-80s, I believe there were only six states in which any significant number of persons were authorized to carry a weapon concealed — and most of them were retired cops and cronies of politicians and police chiefs.

Today, 37 states have "shall-issue" laws, meaning that anyone meeting minimal qualifications (no criminal record, maybe some type of training) must be issued a permit. The Rothbardians sneer, pointing out (quite correctly) that if you have to get a permit, it’s not a right.

But look what these incremental, state-by-state gains over 20 years have accomplished. When Florida led the way in 1987, the anti-gunners predicted blood in the streets and Wild-West shootouts over traffic altercations. Such nonsense no longer has any credibility. The climate has changed so much that Handgun Control, Inc., was compelled to reinvent itself as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — because the notion of controlling handguns was no longer appealing or persuasive to most people.

These incremental reforms have served as "lab experiments" — we now have massive amounts of empirical data demonstrating that citizens who wish to go armed are far less likely to commit crimes and that societies that permit them to do so are likely to experience drops in violent crimes, including homicides.

So, do you think libertarians arguing for a "Vermont carry" system, with no permit required, are more or less likely to be taken seriously today than 20 years ago?

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3 Responses to “Rothbard, Rand, and real politics”

  1. Jan said

    Thanks for a refreshing discussion of libertarian ideas in the real world. You have a talent for making the philosophical and theoretical sound real and commonsensical.

  2. Carl said

    Thank you for the review!

    Regarding your quibble: I did not say that Rand thought we needed to convert 50% of the people into philosophers. I said for the Rand strategy to work coupled with the Rothbard strategy we would need this conversion rate. I think Rand thought the Republican party would reform itself once her philosophy caught on. I recall reading that she endorsed Ford at one point.

    I think (without full proof) that Rand believed that her philosphy would trickle down to the incremental politicians of the existing parties.

  3. Karl said

    You do make some interesting points, but I do have a question. If the gradualist libertarians are winning, as you claim, why is the following occuring:

    1. Skyrocketing Federal Debt and Defecit

    2. War on drugs becoming more expensive and intrusive

    3. National ID cards mandatory by May 2008, with RFID tracking chips

    4. Guantanamo Bay torture

    5. Severely weakened Habeus Corpus. One can be declared a ‘terrorist’ and lose rights to a trial

    6. America has world’s largest and most expensive millitary, getting even more expensive

    7. Statewide smoking bans in restaurants, in public parks, on streets, as well as many other places

    8. Ban on fatty foods in New York City

    9. Increased FCC fines, penalities and stricter regulations for radio personalities

    10. ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ and piles of other useless pork barrel projects

    11. Increasing number of people losing their homes and shops to Eminent Domain, to be given to private use. Eminent Domain used to be rare, and used exclusively for public works projects.

    12. Protesters of President Bush arrested at various rallies, marches and other public appearances

    13. Spying on millions of citizens with wiretapping and other technologies.

    You might want to pull off those rose-colored shades to have a clearer look at reality.

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