Politics Versus Ideas: A Fake Libertarian Fight

Libertarians who care about social and political change for liberty need to collapse a false dichotomy, one that pits politics versus ideas.  And those on the ideas side need to start the process.  Libertarians in general must reinterpret those broad terms “political” and “ideas,” respectively, to mean something like “practical mechanisms for change,” and “education of agents of that change regarding which ideas and mechanisms to use, and at what moments to use them.”

The libertarian movement makes no strategic progress, to say nothing of real, material progress while it hunkers down in reaction on both sides of this false divide—remaining certain less of one’s own view than of the wrongness of another.  Disarming this stalemate is a necessity.  If we can’t engage one another about our movement’s tactics and strategies, we neglect our objectives as well.  Worse, we allow our tactics to become our strategies, and mistake proxy measures as clear signs of social change in and of themselves.

I’ve written elsewhere about “anarchism as a practical guide to advancing liberty.” I don’t maintain that anarchism is the only proper libertarian position.  I argue that, taking anarchism as an example, libertarian refusal to consider difficult ideas, and ones that seem impractical to achieve (such as anarchism), obscure related discussions of objectives.  Obscured objectives beget confused tactics and strategies.  Holding out a total, analytically clear idea like anarchism clarifies objectives (in this case, providing concrete goals; i.e. the deletion of the state), and serves as a practical guide to advancing liberty.

Continuing with this example, many of those hunkered down in the “political/practical” camp challenge that anarchism is not likely in our lifetime, if ever.  They say, “Let’s focus on libertarian change we can make today.”  Forgetting for the time being that, as I’ve argued, neglect of difficult objectives begets unclear objectives and therefore tactics and strategies that shoot in the dark after amorphous goals (i.e. “limited government,” which, it can be argued, we already possess), the greater concern here is that those hunkered down in the “ideas” camp do nothing to address these challenges, and refuse to cross this strategic impasse.  It’s time for that to change.

It is not enough for anarchists (or advocates of any particular challenging social and political objective) to simply say, “Our ideas are not irrelevant simply because they’re tough to achieve,” and leave it at that as if they think a point has been made.  Admittedly, saying that anarchism will be hard (even impossible) to achieve is not a serious (certainly not fatal) challenge to the desirability of anarchism as a political philosophy.  Shutting out those who make this non-challenge, however, unwittingly shuts off more interesting corollaries, like “how, then, if it is desirable, do we actually get there?”

The “ideas” camp, too dug in, simply assert: “anarchism is right, period.”  “It’s the only way we’ll achieve liberty, period.”  And while they let the thinkers do the substantive, scholarly work the “ideas”-oriented add extra fuel to the rhetorical fire, refusing to believe that anyone on the perceived “political/practical” side can do any good for liberty.

Not only do those in the “ideas” camp ignore important questions, therefore, they unproductively respond to questions with questions of their own.  After all, in their view, it is impossible to “live in two worlds”: how will a policy analyst at the Cato Institute remain undistracted by practical stuff (the how-to of social security reform, for instance)?  Won’t she forget the analytical ideal ostensibly guiding her analysis (the elimination of tax and entitlement programs altogether)?

Not to appear to disagree with myself, but those in the “ideas” camps might be right.  It might be the case that even the most radically libertarian “political/practical” person slowly loses sight of what they fight for; in what direction their practical steps were ostensibly headed.  But by disarming their rhetoric, reinterpreting in good faith what our movement’s camps are fighting for; and by actively encouraging specialization rather than denigrating political activism, for instance, or the policy analyst, to use an example, the “ideas” side will enable a more robust movement division of labor.

What emerges is a movement that encourages strategic pluralism (allowing people to specialize given comparative advantages), as well as an intellectual commitment not simply to retaining and developing libertarian ideas, but strategies for social change and advancing those ideas.  A movement that no longer engenders entrenched camps, but one that encourages liberty to be advanced according to particular inclinations and talents, drawn upon insights of both current “political/practical” and “ideas” camps.  And, finally, a movement in which discussion of tactics and strategies—libertarian social change itself—is as intellectually substantive as are libertarian debates about our philosophical tradition.

Social change is possible.  But change within the libertarian movement is desperately needed first.  Those who perceive themselves in the “ideas” camp must begin that change.  It won’t be easy.  Those they perceive to be on the other side of the false dichotomous camp, which they helped engender, might still disagree with them on particular methods and objectives.  Many libertarian organizations will nonetheless remain focused on proxy goals, and some, they will think, are actually doing harm.

But making the change will allow those hunkered down on all sides to come up for air.  And the “ideas” camp, themselves, will gain the right not be dismissed as practically irrelevant—a perception, I know, that many on the “ideas” side have counter-productively at times welcomed, and even worn as a badge of honor.  In their persistence on being right, the “ideas” camp forgot that it was as important to hold ideas as it was to have them heard.

But perhaps, if these changes are made, the “ideas” side might be listened to.  More importantly, others might agree.  At any rate, libertarians will again be talking about important things.  And not just talk concerning the tactics and strategies we all care so deeply about, but about as ideas in general.  No “ideas” person—no libertarian, after all—could think that a bad thing.

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