SFL has gotten some criticisms regarding the role of activism in the past. Is there any role for activism? If so, which one? This blogpost is to give my hypothesis for the role of activism. The reason why I am writing this is to offer a possibility, but I am opening the debate, rather than trying to close it, to answer the important question: why are we trying to do what we do?
As a Hayekian, I belief that both (1) ideas matter and that (2) activism is only of secondary importance. As Dan D’Amico says: the amount of liberty in a society was never a derivative from the amount of libertarians or the success of the libertarian movement in society. So therefore, ipso facto, it must be foolish to try to invest in activism, right? It is with this latter implication I tend to disagree – but again: opening the floor, rather than closing the debate.
It seems to me obvious that the most important branch – the root, so to say – of any political movement is the academic and intellectual backing that it has. No long term change is possible without an academic backing, that brings better arguments to the table, that can both provide intellectual legitimacy, as well as provide people across the board information on how to improve their lives and politics and even though we might not be able to convince all, they can at least learn from the academics who also happen to be libertarian. But for those people who don’t see themselves becoming academics – the so called activists – is there room for them? The answer seems to me: obviously, but let’s try to clarify what it is.
Let us take a look at a political movement that inspired most, if not all, of us in doing what we do: the slavery abolitionist movement. I am going to make the wild assumption that the abolitionists all had secondary goals besides slavery abolition, but that they managed to form a grand coalition around the intrinsically moral goal of slavery abolition. In short: they set aside their political differences to try to achieve a goal they could all agree on. Although there is some evidence that overtime slavery would have disappeared (as well as some evidence to the contrary) I’d be surprised if we can convincingly show that the abolitionist movement was completely useless in making this happen as fast as it did.
Most people are, what I would describe as, slightly xenophobic, security craving social democrats. There are people of the ‘nicer’ kinds – your typical liberal or social conservative – and of the meaner kind (fascists and the like). But in essence: most people are scared of the unknown, scared of changes they can’t control and have a strong desire that there are political measurements in place that take care of them. Most people are naive, incoherent about their political views and have the implicit hubris that they can control and oversee more politics than they can actually manage. In short: most people are not libertarians, and will never become libertarians.
Although it’s not logically impossible to turn everyone into good classical liberals or libertarians, it’s also very unlikely – and we’d be better of we accept this fact into our activism. Obviously, we still need to try to reach out, present the best possible arguments and try to convince as many people as possible, but mostly, we have to do this to assure the next generation of classical liberals who will continue the work, rather than some idea that eventually we’ll convince everyone to our way of thinking.
Combining the lesson I draw from the slavery abolitionists and from the empirical observation above, the role of the activism part of the liberty movement – including SFL – is our continuous effort to try to build grand coalitions with other political groups for goals we can all agree on. Today, those can be, among others, the war on drugs, foreign intervention in the sense of nation building, civil rights, freedom of speech, open immigration and, maybe, even global free trade. I don’t think we can convince the average political partisan that we need to abolish our countries welfare systems, or health care systems, or labor regulations and any of that. But maybe we can try to build grand coalitions around particular goals that we can convince them are worthwhile, without blowing up our bridges by arguing that we’ll only work toward a goal that benefits everyone if they accept libertarian anarchy.
This is, by the way, not an argument for unprincipledness, but an argument for principledness in choosing one’s battles. Would I – as an IP-abolitionist – abolish IP even though social security remains? Of course. I am not selling out on my ideals by doing so, I am achieving one of my goals. The effort of forming a grand coalition is not the same as selling out on other ideas. Selling out implies that one starts supporting ideas that one rejects in order to get something else: this is far from what I am advocating. I am only advocating that the role of activists is to pick and choose the battles they can win by forming coalitions.
What is funny about this, imo, is that someone wrote something very similar, namely Murray Rothbard in his Memo to the Volcker Fund. (I highly encourage everyone who wants to be an activist to read this. Rothbard is at his strategic best in this memo.)
(1) In the very act of agitating for repeal of the income tax, he is pushing people in the direction of repeal and perhaps eventually bringing about repeal—which, in itself, is a worthy, if limited, libertarian objective. In short, he is advancing the cause of libertarianism in the very act of advancing the cause of income tax repeal. Thus, everything he does for ORFIT, being consistent with the ultimate libertarian objective helps advance that objective, and does not betray it.
(2) In the course of this work, the hardcore libertarian should try to advance the knowledge of both the masses and his fellow ORFIT members, toward fuller libertarian ideals. In short, to “push” his colleagues and others toward the direction of hardcore libertarian thought itself. (In Communist- Leninist terms, this is called “recruiting for the Party,” or pushing colleagues at least some way along this road.) The hardcore man is working for his idea on two levels: in a “popular” or “united” front for limited libertarian goals, and to try to influence his colleagues as well as the masses in the direction of the total system. (This is the essence of the much-misunderstood Leninist theory of “infiltration.”)
Suppose there was a strong, self conscious libertarian movement that covers around 5 to 10% of the population. Although we’d never be able to convince the remaining 90/95%, if that libertarian part of the population does well, they could shift the debate into their direction, at least, maybe preventing the biggest problems that are caused by governments. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people started saying: ‘X is a libertarian, I think they are overall wrong with their general idea, but they do have a good point on government power and we should really try to limit that’, rather than dismiss everything we say merely because we are saying it? If the medium voter theorem is right, it follows that if we can change the margin of where the medium voter is, there is a possibility to improve society.
However, an important part of this is that SFL need not just a place of refugee for activist, but also, as Rothbard called it, “an open center for hardcore men” (and I will add: and women, of course).
I need not dwell here on the overriding importance of the intellectuals and scholars in forming a libertarian cadre. For the filiation of ideas and influence works as a pyramid, from the highest-level intellectuals to lower levels, from graduate school to college, from treatise authors to journalists, on down to the housewife and man in the street. In this pyramid, one scholar is worth a thousand housewives, in the matter of influence, import, etc.(…) But there needs to be, in addition, much greater concentration on nourishing a hardcore libertarian center. (…) I believe that a scholarly libertarian institute, on the postgraduate level, a counterpart to the Institute for Advanced Study, would be the ideal solution. The idea would be to gather together leading libertarian scholars, to have permanent and also temporary staffs (the latter via fellowships), etc.
If SFL truly are Hayekians – and it is clear that Rothbard learned a lot from Hayek – than we have to focus on both the activist side, as well as the academic side of things.
Additionally, I also believe in the possibility for unintended consequences that can follow from political activism. Is it possible that if we achieve a particular goal X – by building a grand coalition with non-libertarians – that we inadvertently create the possibility for the state to actually increase its power or limit freedom more? Yes, this is very likely. But the other way around is also possible, and I don’t have any numbers on the statistical likelihood of either one. Is it possible that by achieving a particular goal the unintended consequence is that we set in motion a set of institutional decision making procedures that actually limit or roll back the centralization of power? This doesn’t seem impossible a priori; and thus it’s important to keep thinking critically what might be potential unintended consequences of certain goals that we try to focus on.
We will live never in a libertarian society, unless, perhaps, when we physically go and build it. But in the mean time, for those who want to make an impact now: (1) focus on outreach to create your successor and (2) try to build grand coalitions for goals you can achieve here and now. Politics responds to incentives and at least part of these incentives are determined by activists. It might not always matter in the (very) long run, but there are marginal gains of trade to be won by acting today in a smart and concentrated way.
Lode Cossaer received master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Antwerp and the Catholic University of Leuven and is currently working on a PhD proposal.
He teaches economics in Brussels, at a private business school. Cossaer was a political officer of the LVSV. He is an executive board member of European Students For Liberty and president of the Murray Rothbard in Belgium.