There is a long standing debate within the libertarian movement over how to go about making our vision of society a reality. It is a tall task to be sure, and to get there we need a plan. There are not very many of us, so we should all get on the same page and work under one strategy, right? Well, not really. Libertarians love to argue over how to change society almost as much as over what the end product looks like. But the thing is there is no “right” answer to this question. In fact we can and must turn to a multitude of strategies to change the world.
These debates are usually framed as politics versus principles, pragmatism versus idealism, boots on the ground activism versus ivory tower naval gazing. However, these are false distinctions, a debate without a victor. That is because these theories are not competitive, but complementary. Both, and many more, are necessary pre-requisites for a libertarian revolution.
It is a constantly running debate, one that is healthy to have within a movement, but a little context can be helpful. These arguments are not new nor are they limited to the forums of Facebook and late night happy hour festivities. They have been going on for decades and have been fleshed out by brilliant thinkers time and again. In my mind the two who best exemplify the sides are Saul Alinsky and F. A. Hayek. First, I will give a little background on each and their works, then analysis on how their theories complement each other.
Saul Alinsky (1909-1972): American born community organizer and writer. Worked extensively in labor and early civil rights movements in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, LA, New York, and Rochester. Founded schools for the teaching of community organizing, made famous recently for having trained Barack Obama.
Major work on social change: Rules for Radicals ($7 on Amazon)
Oversimplified summary of theory: Power. To put it simply, for Alinsky the story of history is a long battle between the haves, the have-nots, and the “have a little want more’s” (the middle class). The specific individuals and groups occupying these positions change over time, but the struggle continues. The role of the radical is to organize the oppressed groups to gain power over the elite. For Alinksy, abstract questions of means versus ends are irrelevant. The meaningful question is “Does this particular end justify this particular means?” The radical organizer will often be in the minority, even within their own movement, but through strategic use of power can and must gain control of the levers of power for their own benefit. He was paritcularly influential with Students For a Democratic Society, helping plan the 1968 DNC riots in Chicago and helping SDS alumni go on to gain positions of power within the Democratic Party infrastructure.
In my opinion, the most important lesson to take from Alinksy is on communication. The purpose of the radical is to organize for power, and the medium through which they do so is communication. You have to know your audience, talk in terms of the experience, and show them the proper path instead of seeming to force them down it.
Applied to the current debate, Alinksy’s view is that change happens as a result of organized application of power. Since the political process is one of if not the primary form of concentrated power, it ought to be used as a means when applicable. The actions taken in pursuit of that end goal carry very little moral weight in and of themselves. Organize people, win elections, and execute your reforms. Little else matters.
Illustrative Quotes: “With very rare exceptions, the right things are done for the wrong reasons. It is futile to demand that men do the right thing for the right reason—this is a fight with a windmill. The organizer should know and accept that the right reason is only introduced as a moral rationalization after the right end has been achieved, although it may have been achieved for the wrong reason—therefore he should search for and use the wrong reasons to achieve the right goals. He should be able, with skill and calculation, to use irrationality in his attempts to progress toward a rational world.”
“Communication with others takes place when they understand what you’re trying to get across to them. If they don’t understand, then you are not communicating regardless of words, pictures, or anything else. People only understand things in terms of their experience, which means that you must get within their experience. Further, communication is a two-way process. If you try to get your ideas across to others without paying attention to what they have to say to you, you can forget about the whole thing.”
F.A. Hayek (1899 – 1992): Born in Austria-Hungary as Friedrich August von Hayek, was an economist and philosopher best known for his defense of classical liberalism. Mentored by Mises, debated business cycle theory with Keynes, alerted the world to the dangers of “The Road to Serfdom,” and became a professor at the University of Chicago, to list a few of his many accomplishments. In 1974, Hayek won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Major work on social change: “The Intellectuals and Socialism” (1949, free download)
Oversimplified summary of theory: Ideas are what matter. Hayek, like most classical liberals of his generation, marveled at how the socialists had, in a relatively short period of time, grown from a fringe movement to become the dominant political force of the 20th century, displacing the classical and claiming the term “liberal” for themselves.
On Hayek’s analysis, the way they accomplished this was by converting the “intellectuals” in society. This category included writers, teachers, journalists, priests, politicians, artists, etc. Not so much the academic elite (although those are important too), but mostly the “second hand dealers in ideas” who take the abstract ideas and personally convey them to the public at large.
For Hayek, politicians are like corks bobbing on the sea of ideas and popular opinion. They might have their own agendas, but they can only do what their voters and supporters will let them get away with (lest they lose the offices they so covet). The socialists were successful because they crafted a vision that was very appealing to the intellectuals, one of a future utopia of equality and justice. Who is in political office might matter to the extent that they themselves are public intellectuals that drive opinion, but their specific acts as legislators are marginal.
Illustrative Quotes: “In all democratic countries, in the United States even more than elsewhere, a strong belief prevails that the influence of the intellectuals on politics is negligible. This is no doubt true of the power of intellectuals to make their peculiar opinions of the moment influence decisions, of the extent to which they can sway the popular vote on questions on which they differ from the current views of the masses. Yet over somewhat longer periods they have probably never exercised so great an influence as they do today in those countries. This power they wield by shaping public opinion.”
“…So long as the people who over longer periods determine public opinion continue to be attracted by the ideals of socialism, the trend will continue. If we are to avoid such a development, we must be able to offer a new liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.”
Now, one might look at these two theories and see them as polar opposites. Power versus ideas, not the same, right? However, much like the ying and the yang, these two opposites complement each other in beautiful ways. Especially for libertarians, one is incomplete without the other.
From a Hayekian perspective, the political process is one of the most valuable tools in the battle for public intellectuals. The soap box of public office is the most powerful method to reach a wide and new audience. The best recent example of this is Ron Paul, the consummate second hand dealer in ideas. By his own admission, his main accomplishments were not legislative, they were educational. He introduced a new generation to the ideas of liberty and laid the framework for countless future victories to come.
Now, Alinsky himself probably disagrees. He was far too much a cynic. However, for libertarians, we know that short term victories will be for naught without the support of public opinion. The incentives for politicians to grow their own power is too strong. So we can use the organizing and communication tactics of Alinsky (of which is is a master. Seriously, read the book). We can learn the system, game it to our advantage, and get libertarians into seats of power. You see the success of this now with the increased number of liberty friendly politicians (Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Ted Cruz, and many more) This will be critical in the long term to gain political office to actually make reforms, but also in the short term to further inject the ideas into the public debate.
While I have discussed these two theories here, there is no master plan social change. There is no silver bullet for achieving liberty in our lifetimes. Neither of these thinkers is completely right, and while they do complement each other, there are numerous other approaches that can and need to be tried.
As entrepreneurs have known for centuries, you cannot know if an idea will work before you try it. All entrepreneurism is a discovery process, we experiment and through trial and error we find out what works and what does not, refining our methods and goals as we go. We should study what has been tried before while and the same time blazing new trails of our own design. We need more organizations, individuals, and communities experimenting with new strategies and tactics all over the place.
The diversity in our movement is what gives us strength. No one person can plan out success from the top down. We need to remember this lesson, as it is easy to get overheated and personal when discussing these topics. Remember, we are all on the same team here, and utilizing different strategies is not just allowable, it is imperative. We quite literally need to let 1000 flowers bloom.