The Six Stages of the Libertarian Movement
by Murray N. Rothbard Mises.org
HOST: In presenting Murray to you, he’s a teacher, a scholar, a writer, a professor, editor of Libertarian Forum. About his many books, let me give one title, the latest, I believe, The Ethics of Liberty. I think that will do for this audience.
It’s a pleasure for me to call on Dr. Murray N. Rothbard to deliver the keynote address of the first World Libertarian Convention in Zurich, ’82.
ROTHBARD: See, one prophecy turned out to be incorrect. I’m here, not in my birthday suit, but everything was fixed up by the authorities, the hotel, whatever.
Well, it’s a great pleasure and privilege to be here. And it’s a really great honor to deliver the keynote address to the first World Libertarian International. In my own irreverent terms, I could call it the Libertern, but I think I won’t do that.
The first problem I was confronted with in giving a keynote to this group is, how can I speak trans-culturally. I don’t know how many nations are represented here, but quite a large number. And how can I speak to people, each one of whom has a different culture, a different national history, a different history of the movement? And how can I meaningfully talk to trans-national or trans-cultural Libertarians?
OK, the first answer to that was easy. The first answer is that Libertarian itself, of course, is international. It’s trans-national. It’s cosmopolite. The glorious idea of liberty, of a free market and a free society is universal and it’s not dependent on culture or time or place, for that ideal is based on the nature and on the rights of man, of human beings wherever they exist. So we have this, of course, one common language, so to speak, or common terminology, of common concepts, which is Libertarianism itself.
OK, then I thought I would try to work out for this gathering at least the beginning of a theory of stages of the Libertarian movement, a theory which we might be able to apply to every country regardless of how small or how advanced the movement might be in the particular country. I’m not saying, of course, that these stages are inevitable, that one must always go from one to the other, but I think every movement will pass through one stage, one, two, et cetera.
OK, the first stage in any given country or region or area or city, the first stage, the movement necessarily begins always with one person; one person has an idea. One isolated individual somehow discovers Libertarianism. How he or she does it, it can happen in many different ways, by reading, by listening to something, by thinking or whatever. So we have one solitary Libertarian living isolated in one particular country or region. In the United States, such a person is often called a lone nut.
So stage one is the lone-nut stage. I think it’s – a gray beard such as myself, of course, went through the lone-nut stage. And many people here probably have. I was a lone nut in the 1940s. That was my lone-nut period; probably earlier than that, too.
OK, so the lone nut continues on in the gadfly status, arguing with people, being a pest, whatever, learning more about Libertarianism. And finally, a great moment arrives in the lone nut’s development. He or she finds another lone nut. Now, this is a tremendous thing. This could be either sex. It could be the lone nut either finds or converts another Libertarian. It’s a great moment in each person’s development. And now we have two lone nuts. Of course, it’s much more effective and much happier than one lone nut. We have two friends, buddies, comrades who pal around together, who discuss these great ideas that they’ve just learned about, sit up all night discussing them and so forth and so on. So now, we have the stage two, the buddy stage of a pair, the two-lone-nuts-together stage.
At this point, I should say something about the conversion process, if indeed, the first lone nut converted the second lone nut. Because, of course, conversion is crucial in the growth of the Libertarian movement or of any movement. And I think that most conversions – there are many ways that conversions can take place and have taken place. But I think that most conversions occur not by verbal bludgeoning or by high-pressure tactics, but by the convert either hearing or reading or whatever, something which he feels, a statement or statements which he feels or she feels was a sort of a shock of recognition to be articulating something that he believed down deep for many years. “Gee, I always believed that. I just couldn’t put it into words.” I keep finding every Libertarian after Libertarian who says that. Especially in the early days of the movement, we find another Libertarian, we say, “Jesus, how did you become a Libertarian”? Like how did you become a deep-sea diver or whatever? And the person would say, “Well, I came across this or read this or heard this, and I said to myself, I believed this all my life and I never articulated it.” So I think this is crucial to the conversion process.
OK, so we have these two buddies. Either the first lone nut found or converted the second buddy. And the third buddy comes. A third convert appears. Now this growth from two to three, this is stage three in the development of the movement. The growth from two to three is not just a 50% increase – of course, it is a 50% increase quantitatively – but it’s much more than that. Because one person is a lone nut, two people are two lone nuts, three people, that’s already a school of thought.
It’s a much bigger impact – (laughing) – on life around them than two people. “Gee, three people believe this crazy thing; maybe there’s something to it.”
So now we have a school of thought. We have a little group. And it seems to me, at least my experience has been, my observation has been that once you have three people, it’s pretty much easier to get six or seven. And then we have six or seven, you’re now in stage four of the movement, the study group stage, or what the Marxists called the circle stage in movement development.
We have now a circle, a group of people, six, seven, eight, nine, whatever, who become Libertarians and, boy, this is fantastic. And also some ramifications to this. And they study and they meet on a regular basis as a study group. They read, they discuss long into the night, and so forth and so on. They get in touch. They read Libertarian classics. Maybe they put out a little newsletter. They get in touch with Libertarian groups in other countries or other regions, other cities. And so we have the circle stage.
Editor’s Note: The Libertarian movement was an effort to move into a towards a society that is Thriving. The Titania movement is similar in many ways to the Libertarian movement, however it adds two components that makes it self-sustainable: Ethics and Creativity. Titania has just entered – the “circle stage”. Learn how we will overcome together, the challenges described, in this Rothbard speech.
I myself was in the circle stage around the 1950s in New York City. We had a little group of six or seven hard-core friends and colleagues and about three or four hangers-on, which we called the Circle Bastiat. So that was our circle. And I think, again, the circle stage, I think, happens in every movement, and Libertarianism.
In the circle stage, let’s say, you have regular meetings. You tend to meet once a week or whatever. And there are discussions and arguments and theoretical refinements and so forth. But one thing you must say – I mean, one thing that happens, of course, also disagreements will occur now. With six or seven people, you’re bound to have at least eight opinions – (laughing) – OK, if not more.
But one thing among the differences – first of all, all differences tend to be – how should we put it – I wouldn’t say unimportant, but lovable. In other words, somebody says, “I’m in favor of dolphin rights.” Well, OK, we have a nutty pal here who is in favor of dolphin rights. But it doesn’t really become of strategic significance one way or the other. As a matter of fact, strategy is one problem that never arises in the circle-stage of development. Nobody accuses anybody else of selling out. You have eight people in a movement – (laughing) – nobody worries about what strategic – what issues should these eight people talk about first. You know, nobody talks about leadership selling out. Nobody worries about betraying principle because when a movement – you have six or seven usually young and usually un-influential, unknown people, the problem of selling-out principle never arises, OK? In fact, it’s usually a non-problem. It’s a matter for a big joke, a big hilarity. Say, “Hey, we’re going to sell out tomorrow.” Yes, right, these six or seven people nobody has even heard of.
OK, so that’s the – by the way, this stage, this circle stage is also usually a friendship stage. I mean, it’s almost inevitable that circles of six or seven people are going to be very close friends. So you have a friendship situation along with what’s now called an affinity group situation, along with a Libertarian study group.
OK, now, I would also say this is also a very happy time for most people because they found – here they were the lone nuts and now they’ve found six or seven people. And, by god, this is fantastic.
There’s no problems of growth because if a growth occurs, it’s usually – in good years, it’s one a year. If they add one more person to the study group, they’re doing very well – (laughing) – OK? Net addition of one or at least somebody dropping out. So problems of growth, problems of strategy just simply do not arise in this situation.
OK, and we now have – and, of course, I’m speaking mostly from a United States experience. We have the largest and most-advanced movement. There comes a point – stage five, I guess it is, in this number game here – where something happens to the circle and the circle stage gets transcended into a movement stage or a movement-activist stage. The proper name for it – movement-activism is one name for it, a movement properly so-called, a mass movement in the sense of a nationwide movement.
By the way, one sign of whether you’re in this nationwide movement or not, whether you’re out of the circle stage, is very simple. I don’t remember the year this happened to me. The early stages of the movement, there are like six Libertarians in New York, six in California, or whatever. You know every Libertarian very well in the whole country. I mean, it’s no problem. So if any Libertarian article comes out, you know who wrote it. You probably saw the article before it came out and so forth and so on. One of the hallmarks of a leap into movement-activist, to the mass-movement stage is when you say, “Hey, this is a pretty good article. Who the hell is this? Who wrote it”? You don’t know who this Libertarian is who wrote it. This is a very key significant point. Something happened. A bell goes on in your head, so to speak, because this shows that the movement is what Rostow called the take-off stage of development, a movement begins to take off very rapidly.
OK, of course, many movements just stay at the circle stage forever, indefinitely. Others leap out of it, as the United States movement did. I would date the take-off stage of the American, United States movement, two famous dates, I think. One is the summer of 1969 when the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, the campus group, split into the Libertarian wing and the traditionalist wing over the draft question, as a matter of fact. And Libertarians were either all kicked out or left YAF and began to think of themselves for the first time as separate, self-conscious Libertarians rather than conservatives. It’s completely separate from conservatives. That was one big step.
And the next big step in the take-off stage was only in early 1971 when The New York Times highlighted this growing movement for the first time in a magazine, the Sunday magazine section on the front cover. And by doing that, of course, it tremendously accelerated the growth of the movement because the media interacts with the – especially The New York Times. If The New York Times says it, it must be important. That sort of thing. It sort of self-accelerated the growth of the movement.
OK, so this growth out of the circle stage, of course, is a magnificent thing. I mean, it’s a great, it’s a fantastic, unbelievable thing. It’s a wondrous shock, as a matter of fact. And it does, however, cause problems, OK? It causes psychological problems and organizational problems. The growth out of the circle stage might be called, in Kierkegaardian terms, a leap of will or a leap in being. It’s a tremendous qualitative as well as quantitative leap.
All right, so I want to talk about that for a bit. OK, if the movement is lucky, as I say, and has a take-off stage, which is highly exhilarating, of course, but can be troublesome. All right. Before this, as I said, in the circle stage, you made one convert a year. Now people suddenly come converting all the time. People pop up everywhere. “Who are these people who call themselves Libertarians”? And one of the problems, an immediate problem with that is, before this, all Libertarians were close friends, OK? It’s an affinity group or friendship-group situation. Now, all of a sudden, people are popping up who you don’t want to receive in your own home, right? This is a big psychological shock – (laughing). See, before this – (laughing) – boy, this person is a Libertarian, you take him into your home and you wine and dine him. This is fantastic. Every Libertarian is, ipso facto, a great person, a great lovable person. As more Libertarians flood in, you begin to find, with a tremendous – (laughing) – tremendous shock, unfortunate shock this time, recognition that there are a lot of Libertarians who are not great and lovable people. Because in the early days of the Libertarian, let’s say, because of the circle stage, I think, the early stages, one tends to think that all Libertarians are great, OK? Then, as I say, a shock occurs and you begin to realize that there are people – and there are a lot of jerks out there who are also Libertarians.
Now, I think there’s a point here – (laughing) – that there’s probably – I think I can safely say there is no higher proportion of great and lovable people in our movement than there are anywhere else. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but I’m going to say it. I think being Libertarian makes us Libertarians, all right? But it confers no special grace in other areas of life, all right? Or to put it another way, the Libertarian movement doesn’t promise us a rose garden. It only promises us liberty but, by god, that’s enough, OK? So that is an adjustment shock.
I remember, in the first days, the early stages of the Libertarian movement in the United States, there was a theory you should always deal with Libertarians in the business world. You should always hire them. Hire Libertarians first; deal with them in business because, since they’re Libertarian, they must be rational, able, capable, and so forth and so on. And that theory was shot down very quickly – (laughing). So that’s simply a fact as a division of labor, all right? And Libertarianism, as I say, conferred no special grace for other aspects of life. We like to think it does, but it doesn’t.
OK, there are other inevitable problems in the leap into activism. Strategy, which was previously a matter for high jokes and hijinx and all that, suddenly becomes a real problem. OK now, most people in the circle stage, when you’re seven or eight people, you don’t think about strategy. You don’t think about, what should we do first, and how should we guard against selling our and so forth. The whole thing is ludicrous even to think about it in terms of the 1960s or the 1970s and in that period. But all of a sudden, you’re now a mass movement, it becomes an important problem and, further more, it’s a problem that nobody thought about until then. It’s a shock problem.
OK, and there are several aspects to this, which I’ll go into. One is, in the movement stage, theoretical differences become invested with importance that you didn’t have before. The lovable eccentric who is in favor of outlawing circumcision as child mutilation suddenly becomes a threat – (laughing) – right? You don’t want them. He wants an organized movement to call for the outlawing of circumcision, presumably. It becomes at least an embarrassment if not a threat to our organized movement. A person in favor of dolphin rights becomes something that has to be dealt with gingerly now – (laughing) – not with the same open lovability. OK, so the problem has become more serious when the movement stage is reached.
And then another problem that’s also inevitably involved in this, in the circle stage, people enter the movement – first of all, they get assimilated very quickly. There’s only one newcomer a year. It’s so easy to get socialized, so to speak, or assimilated into the group. And most of the newcomers in the circle stage are people who love to sit around talking about theory all night. I certainly did, and everybody I knew did, at least in that period. It’s the sort of thing where you say, it’s three in morning, if somebody – if X, owns a gorilla and the gorilla runs lose and throws stones at Y and Z’s plate glass window, who’s responsible for the window, for damage to the window? Is it X, is it Y, or is it the gorilla – (laughing) – OK? Now, these problems occupy a great deal of time during the circle period. But now, in the activism period, a new brand of people start coming into the movement, OK? You have mass activism. You have people not that interested in theory anymore. Nope, not interested in theoretical discussions. They want to concentrate their energies on stuffing envelopes or setting up booths at country fairs or whatever, all these other mundane activities that are involved in ideological or political activism. So this is great, except it then becomes important to redouble the internal education front. In other words, to make conscious efforts now to keep principles alive, to keep educational – internal education, reading, discussion, all that stuff alive in the movement, whereas, before you didn’t have to keep it alive. It was there. That was it. That was the movement. Now, you have a problem sort of artificially getting an agenda and making sure it happens, otherwise, the whole thing might die out. You might have people being active while the point of the activity gets lost somewhere in the cloud eight or ten years back. So in order to keep the movement Libertarian, it now becomes important to keep the theoretical vision held up and talked about and even pestered about from time to time.
In additional now, there’s a greater importance of theoretical differences and of internal education in the movement stage. New problems pop up. As I said, strategy becomes important now. Even if people A, B, and C, three people, all of whom agree perfectly on all principles, let’s say, all applications, they would probably have differences in strategy and tactics, which issue should be talked about first, which issue should be not talked about, so forth and so on. So these become – these important differences now crop up.
Plus, you do have a problem now of opportunists willing to sell out, willing to abandon principle, hide principle in order to get quick gains, whatever the quick gains may be. So all these problems now come pouring into a movement which is not prepared for it. In other words, a movement which is happily sitting around discussing who is responsible when a gorilla gets thrown – (laughing) – in a glass window, all of a sudden, they’re confronted with a whole bunch of these new and upsetting problems.
In additional to all that, the organization itself – what we’re really talking about here, of course, is problems involved in any organization, many sides, the organization’s self-involved problems. As I say, people have common goals but differ on which goals to stress first or which courses of action to stress first. These courses are limited. So you’re going to have situations where groups of people will differ on honestly different tactics and strategy, and they’re going to try to battle for their own position.
In addition to all that, since we’ve gone beyond the pure friendship stage where everybody loves everybody else, into a situation where it doesn’t happen, we’re inevitably going to have personality conflicts in any movement, in any large-scale movement. So that’s another thing which gets added into the strategy differences, the theoretical problems and so forth and so on. All these things now zero in and surge in about the same time.
In addition to that, if I haven’t stressed enough problems so far in the movement stage – I’m not trying to discourage people from getting into the movement stage, by the way, as I’ll point out in a minute. I just try to be realistic and prepare you for what happens as you get into this mass-movement area.
Another critical problem that occurs in a large-scale organized movement is the question of money. Of course, all organizations require money, right? Money is a fuel for any kind of activity. And money itself raises a host of problems per se. Many Libertarians, if not most Libertarians, dream, I think, about becoming full-time Libertarians. In other words, wouldn’t it be great if I could spend all of my energies 24 hours a day advancing the cause of liberty instead of only one weekend or whatever, a weekend a month, or only evenings? Wouldn’t it be great if my career were also Libertarian? In that case, of course, if this were true, we’d have a tremendous multiplication of leverage of people who are Libertarian benefiting the cause and expanding the development of liberty. So that’s, of course, a very fond hope. In the circle stage, this is totally unrealistic; sort of a dream thing. Boy, wouldn’t it be great if I could, you know, be a full-time Libertarian, when nobody can buy shoe laces.
But in the movement stage, when we have the movement-activist stage, or stage five that I’ve talked about, all of a sudden, this becomes a realistic possibility. There are full-time Libertarians now popping up. And this is important to pop up, because I submit that any cause, whatever the cause is, any kind of development of any sort, whether it’s the science of astronomy or the science of physics or manufacturing computers or playing chess, anything that involves any sort of organization involves some full-time professionals in there doing it all the time. In other words, no flourishing activity can subsist only on volunteer action. I shudder to think what the state of physics would be or astronomy, or whatever, if it only rested on the 18th century period, the 18th century, only volunteer efforts, amateur efforts. So we now have a situation where we have a cadre or a group of full-time professionals in Libertarianism, along with volunteers. This is bound to lead to clashes and problems.
In addition to that, one of the problems that it might lead to is often a great temptation for full-time professionals to lose sight of the common objective. In other words, lose sight of advancing the cause of the principles of liberty. You start off – let me put it this way. In the early stages of movement activity, movement activism, people found organizations of all sorts. There’s many organizations in the United States that are devoted to advancing liberty. You start off, “I want to set up such-a-such organization in order to advance liberty on a certain front.” In order to do that, in order to keep doing it as a full-timer, you have to raise money. So fundraising becomes a key means to this goal.
The problem is, in many organizations – I’ve see this for about 20 years now – what tends to happen is that the person doing it, the full-timer doing it begins to lose sight of the objective. In other words, the means and the ends begin to reverse themselves. So the end becomes fundraising – (laughter). So instead of fundraising being the means for advancing the cause, the end is fundraising or fundraising for his own income, and the goal, the means become tailoring the purpose of the organization in order to please the donor. In other words, if the donor likes tariffs, well, gee, maybe we should forget about free trade for 10 years. You know, that sort of thing. And so this is a very strong temptation, something that has to be obviously guarded against.
As one embittered member of such an organization told me about 20 years ago now, in the early days of the American movement, in that case, quote, “The organization begins to take on the dimensions of a racket. The goal becomes simply time serving or keeping the organization going for its own sake and for the sake of the job holders.” OK, so this is another pitfall that comes with the movement-activism stage.
All right, so far, I seem to be painting a pretty grim picture – (laughter) – of what’s involved in the leap from the circle stage to a large-scale movement. I’m sure many of you are saying, boy, I’m glad we’re small in our country – (laughter). But I’m not trying to discourage. As I said, I’m trying to prepare you, who are now in the circle stage, for the problems to come because you’ll be able to meet the problems a lot better than we did when we weren’t prepared for it. Because despite the headaches and the problems and all the grief that may be involved in it, this leap in being or this leap into a movement stage must be embraced and embraced with enthusiasm. Why should it be embraced with enthusiasm? It’s very simple. Because for us Libertarians, Libertarianism is not merely the intellectual contemplation of a wonderful, true and just political philosophy, it’s not just the esthetic contemplation of a beautiful ideal, the ideal of a world without organized aggression, a world of harmony, of freedom, of prosperity, of mutual cooperation through voluntary activities in free markets. It is, of course, all of that. Because we become Libertarians in the first place because we fall in love, so to speak, with the goodness, the truth and the beauty of Libertarianism. But we Libertarians, it seems to me, are not content with contemplating justice, with contemplating truth, goodness and beauty. We’re not playing intellectual games. We mean to change the world. We want to put this thing into reality.
In order to do that – because we’re setting out on the noblest task, I think, of all, to dismantle the leviathan state in each of our countries and ultimately throughout the world. And in order to do that, in order to put liberty into practice, in order to bring it out of the closet, so to speak, or out of the library, into the world, in order to usher in a world of freedom, a world free of the thugs and organized gangsters that are making so many lives a hell on earth, we have to organize. We have to become a mass movement despite whatever problems might be involved. Because to organize anything, whether it’s playing chess or producing automobiles or advancing the science of physics or whatever, it needs organization. And so organization is needed in the victory of liberty. And what I’ve really been talking about is the problem of all organization.
And also, I would add something else. Life itself brings problems, right? You know, let’s face it. So we can either meet them by trying to hide under the pillows or we can rush out to face these problems confidently and joyously. In our case, we are grappling with such problems on behalf of the greatest cause of all, the victory of liberty.
So when the time comes in each of our countries to advance into the movement stage, we should rush to embrace it with enthusiasm because it’s going to be a tremendous development to the eventual triumph of human freedom. We should simply be aware that in embracing this new higher stage of development means agreeing to its requirements. It means giving up the cozy era of the affinity group. It means being willing to have an organization act, even if a minority in the organization disagrees with the decision. Because in the infinity group, the tendency is to have unanimous consent to everything. It’s always great to have that. Everybody, all the eight people can agree on everything. It’s terrific. It’s better than having five people out-vote three, obviously. But if we’re going to have a movement of any size, you can’t have unanimous consent for every decision.
And one of the reasons for the deterioration of a famous New Left in the United States in the 1960s is they believed very strongly in what they called participatory democracy. And participatory democracy meant unanimous agreement on every decision; I mean, really, every decision that the organization is going to make. And as a result, life itself became one big committee meeting, one big continuous meeting, because you have to decide everything – what to paint the walls. One guy wanted to paint it brown, somebody else blue. You could argue 12 hours on that until every individual in the organization agree on the color. This is literally the true reality of what was involved. So life became one continuous meeting on the New Left. And members that went home to go to sleep at night were accused of betraying the organization, because they left the meeting – (laughter). We don’t want that to happen. Obviously, not only is it a pretty horrible way to live, but it also is counterproductive – (laughter) – to achieve the goals of the organization.
OK, there were also in the early days of the movement – I haven’t heard this in a long time, in the United States at least. In the early days, when we leaped into a mass movement in the early ’70s, there were some Libertarians who attacked the very concept of movement as being somehow collectivist and anti-Libertarian. It seems to me, however, there’s nothing un-Libertarian about individuals banding together to advance common goals, agreed-upon common goals. There’s nothing un-Libertarian about voluntary organizations to play chess or to manufacture automobiles or to advance the cause of liberty, just as there’s nothing un-Libertarian about voluntary organizations, leaders, committees, and all of the rest of the apparatus of organization. Although, they constantly pop up – Libertarians, who say, “This is un-Libertarian” – it may be unpleasant to somebody, but certainly not un-Libertarian.
Of course, there should be one caveat about the movement because, obviously, we want, in the Libertarian movement, individuals who are free men and women, who are not robots. And we don’t want people who will subordinate their individual lives or ideas or convictions of the truth to the, quote, “movement,” unquote, of a collective, even the Libertarian movement itself, because liberty, of course, is not oppression on individuals.
OK, I’m going to talk now a little bit about the – run through sort of very quickly the features of the organized movement in the United States, this activist stage. I don’t think I’m going to step on Fred Stitt’s territory because it’s going to be a very quick rundown. If I slight anybody, if I slight any groups or organizations, I apologize right now, because it’s gotten so big that even I can’t read all the stuff that’s coming out. It’s a great day when you can’t read all the material that’s coming out in your country on Libertarianism – (laughter). Can’t keep up. And there’s new groups being formed all the time and so forth and so on. This is a sort of run through of the United States movement at the present time.
OK, in the movement, there’s an abundant variety of organizations suiting varying tendencies, tastes, occupations, interests and so forth and so on. There are scholarly institutes, magazines, newsletters, campus student groups, educational clubs, organizations and scholarly disciplines, tax rebels, political lobby organizations and so forth. The lobbying or educational groups may be general or they may concentrate on one particular issue vital to Libertarians and building coalitions around that issue. Some organizations live a long time, others rise and fall after a few months, or after one issue of a mimeographed newsletter. So there’s all sorts of diversity. There’s really a rich variety and diversity of Libertarian groups and organizations in the United States. And this is, by the way, a variety and diversity to be cherished, not only for its own sake – and I think it is – but also because with such polycentrism – if we can use that famous Marxist term to our movement – with polycentrism, any grievous mistake or principle or strategy or organization by any one group will not prove fatal to the movement as a whole or to the cause of liberty. So one group goofs, makes a big mistake, they might go down the tubes or retrench or something, but the other groups will still continue to flourish. So we have sort of a free competition, if you want to put it that way, of Libertarian groups.
OK, in the scholarly world, which is my own major interest – I’ll start with that. For overall Libertarian scholarship, there’s the Center for Libertarian Studies in New York, with which I’m associated, and a quarterly journal, Journal of Libertarian Studies, for which I’m the editor. OK, I’ll start with my own shtick first. On the west coast, there’s the Reason Foundation and its journal, Reason Papers, a philosophically oriented periodical edited by Tibor Machan. A venerable and low-key organization implicitly interested in Libertarian scholarship is the Institute for Humane Studies, which publishes the bibliographical Literature of Liberty. It comes out about twice a year. I think there’s a group that’s called the Association for Philosophy in Society. I think they changed their name. At any rate, this organization is a group of neo-Randian philosophers centered in the Midwest and they meet usually once a year or twice a year. There’s an Austrian Economics Newsletter published for the Center of Libertarian Studies, advancing the principles of Misesian or Austrian economics. And the center also grants annual Ludwig von Mises fellowships for pre- and post-doctoral study in all the disciplines of human action. The Cato Institute, now located in Washington, publishes a semi-annual scholarly Cato Journal devoted to applied economic and legal problems. And both Cato and the Institute for Humane Studies hold week-long seminars during the summer for a quick course in the overall principles and features of Libertarianism. These seminars perform two functions really, an educational function, and also gathering new recruits into the movement, finding new people.
Magazines and periodicals are everywhere in the United States; a whole bunch of them. I don’t even know all of them myself. They range from the relatively large circulations, soft-core and slick and out-reachy, as we call it – soft-core outreach publications, like the monthly Reason and Inquiry; the smaller circulation newsletters, like Frontline and my own feisty and aggressively hard-core monthly, Libertarian Forum.
There are political lobbying organizations, such as the hard-core Council for a Competitive Economy in Washington, with its magazine, Competition; a soft-core National Taxpayers Union and various gold-bug groups and periodicals devoted to returning to the gold standard, many of which are free-market and even Libertarian. There are anti-political groups, such as Sam Konkin’s New Libertarians, who put out several periodicals, none of which names I can keep straight; and a new scholarly Voluntaryist. There was a bizarre publication called the Libertarian Connection, which I haven’t seen in about 10 years, but I understand it still comes out. The reason I stopped subscribing to it was because they come out on purple paper with purple typewriter ribbon. So those are the semi-blind high gloss on that one. I understand, as I say, they’re still coming out.
On the campus, there are two student libertarian organizations, the Students for Libertarian Society, which publishes Liberty, probably the larger group, and the older Society for Individual Liberty, which puts out Individual Liberty, another publication, and which emerged in 1969 out of the draft split that I mentioned a little while back.
OK, there’s, of course, one organization I have left out, and deliberately so, because it deserves special treatment. That is the biggest Libertarian organization in the United States, the Libertarian Party, the political organization. This is the political party stage, stage six, I guess, it is, if my numbers are straight. I’m not a quantitativist – (laughter) – OK?
How many members does the L.P. have? We don’t know. It’s very confusing. First of all, there’s a decentralized structure in the United States. There’s state parties and then there’s a national party. And you have the option of being a member either of the state party that you’re in or the national party or both. So the whole thing is very confused. Let’s venture a guess of about 12,000 now for members. This is very hunchy, so to speak.
The largest, proportional to the population, and the best-organized parties are in the Western states, states like Alaska and California and Hawaii, Arizona, Colorado and Texas. Now, our westerners like to think that this is true because of the individuals and entrepreneurship on the frontier, the Wild West frontier, and maybe they’re right. Who knows? It could be possibly true.
The national party publishes a bimonthly periodical, the L.P. News, and each state party puts out its own newsletter; the most prominent and widest read being those in California, Texas and Colorado. The total votes in the party, of course, enormously greater than the actual membership. In other words, the votes are, of course, coming in by people who like whatever, and they’re not necessarily party members. So our last presidential candidate in 1980 acquired over 900,000 votes. That’s Ed Clark, who is here this week. The nominal party membership of 12,000, of course, a lot bigger than the actual number of dedicated activists who show up all the time. So there’s a whole structure here.
The Libertarian Party contains within itself caucuses that are dedicated to particular points of view to which each caucus tries to convert other party members. There are the Libertarians for Life, an anti-abortion group trying to change the party’s pro-free choice and abortion platform. There’s the Defense Caucus and the Radical Caucus and hard-core militants that publish the bi-monthly periodical, Libertarian Vanguard.
Now, it should not be surprising – after all, I’ve talked about the pitfalls of organizations in stage five, and in stage six, which is the political-party stage – that the Libertarian Party has experienced all the joys and heartaches and much more, as we say in the United States, in spades, that we’ve said was the lot of all organizations. In other words, the Libertarian Party has had more, of course, of these problems than any individual group.
In the first place, the L.P. is the biggest Libertarian organization by far. Secondly, it’s by nature an umbrella group that has to take stands on a whole bunch of issues. It can’t confine itself to the gold standard or whatever. And it also has to unite, has to focus on single – on particular issues in the platform, state and national platform. It has to focus on single candidates. It has to have only one candidate for president and so forth. So therefore, as a necessity for unitary action, umbrella unitary action, which makes life quite difficult because there are lots, of course, of enormous amounts of disagreements and factions popping up. OK, and each candidate, of course, must then select the most important issues which he or she will focus on. So the result of this large size and a necessity for speaking out on all the issues, the selection of single slates and all of that is to maximize the arena of conflict, differences of opinion, strategy differences, tactics, personality struggles, power struggles and all that.
And yet, again – I’ll say the same thing as I said about stage five – it’s all worth it. The political party is really the sixth stage. The political party doesn’t replace the other organizations. Many Americans, for some obscure reason, think that ideology means political party and that’s it. If you’re a Socialist, you must join the Socialist Party. If you don’t, they’re confused. This, of course, is not true at all. The political party is the electoral arm, the electoral activist arm of the Libertarian movement. There are many Libertarians who don’t join it, who are not interested, all those who are opposed to political action. So there’s a huge range of differences. And the Libertarian Party, as I say, is a political arm, political electoral arm of the movement, electoral politics arm of the movement. It’s the movement embodied in party politics; put it that way.
OK, I would say then, just as there cannot be massive growth of the Libertarian movement without organization in the previous stage five, so there can be no successful movement without a political-party arm. Well, why is this? What are the great benefits of a political party which, I think, outweigh the problems? Well, there are many reasons, many benefits that a political party confers on a movement. In the first place, it performs a mass educational function. Most people, at least in the United States – I don’t know how it is in Europe or in Asia – but at least in the United States, most people only think about political issues in the context of electoral campaigning. They’ll think about – if somebody is running for governor, they’ll think about the issues, which they won’t think about for the rest of the two years. The greater interest and attention of that will bring the message of Libertarian principles and programs to broad masses of people who have never heard of it before. It will help change their minds in the direction of liberty. It will help recruit them in the sense that – somebody listens to something or watches on television or something, “Gee, I’ve believed that for all of my life.” So now he’s hearing it on television instead of meeting the person face to face. So it expands the area of possible conversion. And as I said, the political party then recruits new people into the movement. It educates, it brings the ideas forth, and it draws new people in. And some people, when they draw in, won’t join the party because they’re not interested in party politics, but they’ll become Libertarians anyway. And that’s a good thing. That’s a good step. In other words, just increasing the pro-Libertarian climate in the country is worth it, so to speak.
All right, thirdly, the Libertarian Party, as it grows strong enough – and in several states, we have gotten to this point – it functions as a pressure group that can be far more effective on politicians than any single lobbying organization. A party has more members, in the first place, than any usual lobbying group, and so it presents a larger threat at the polls. “My god, they’ve 12,000 members; they might kill me in my district,” something like that. So a political party, even with only, say, 5% of the vote, can exert a balance-of-power sort of thing on the major parties, scare them and push them, even against their will, into a more Libertarian direction. And since, for Libertarians, the goal of a political party is not getting patronage but rolling back the state, any Libertarian Party should be delighted to find themselves begin co-opted, so to speak, their program stolen by the major party. That’s great. Then you advance, up the ante, as we say in poker, and start making greater demands and let them steal that until finally the state is wiped away – (laughter).
Finally, as the political party grows even more than this, beyond the balance-of-power stage, it will be more in the position of actually winning office, which we’ve done in a few cases. And by winning office, by actually entering office, we can then cast votes and push through programs which will roll back the leviathan state directly.
There are many anti-politics or anti-party Libertarians who claim that it’s possible to dismantle statism without actually getting into office. Mass civil disobedience, for example, is one thing. Everybody refuses to pay taxes next year or something like that. I’d love to see that happen but I don’t see any realistic possibility of that. I haven’t seen it happen yet, let’s put it that way, even though there are a lot of rebels. There’s no mass – it’s not a situation where all 200-odd million people say, we won’t pay taxes next April 15th, or anything close to that.
It’s true that mass civil disobedience can be very effective. For example, when alcohol was prohibited in the United States in the 1920s, it essentially broke down because it wasn’t enforceable. In other words, people just drank anyway and the whole system, the whole apparatus of law began to break down, and so repeal of Prohibition really was a result of that.
Still, despite the fact there’s heroic tax rebels and draft resisters, and drinkers during Prohibition are heroes, it’s still not enough. In other words, there’s still a vital need for somebody to get in there and actually repeal the laws, to actually get in there, enter state office and dismantle it. Legislators who will repeal despotic laws, executives who will heroically refuse to enforce them, judges who will rule for the common and natural law of liberty against state power, these people are needed. And I don’t see the state being dismantled and being rolled back without it in any significant sense.
So the Libertarian movement, it seems to me, is and should be multifaceted. It should have educational institutions, periodicals, campus groups, lobbying outfits, et cetera. But we also, however, need a mass political party, a Libertarian Party, which will pledge itself to the victory of liberty by rolling back and dismantling the state by the electoral process.
I think, by the way, even though the Libertarian Party is important, the growth into the sixth stage, so to speak, it’s important not to launch such a party without adequate preparation. It’s possible to start a party too quickly before there’s enough people, before there’s any common agreement and so forth and so on. The Marxists never launch a party without what they call pre-party formation to kind of prepare the way and get coalitions and get groups together to agree on something before they actually say we are the radical, Communist Liberation Party or whatever it is. I think it’s a good lesson to heed.
OK, now, on the final section here is to talk about what theoretical issues need to be decided when you get into the movement stage and especially the Libertarian Party stage. It doesn’t have to be agreement on everything, every jot and tittle of everything. You don’t have to agree on – well, for example, in the early stages of the Libertarian Party in New York, I remember, there was a group of people that believed that we couldn’t start a political party without a whole philosophical schmear from the very beginning. We had to start with A is A and you work – those who have read Ayn Rand – you work through the whole thing, concept formation. If anybody disagrees on free will or concept formation or A is A even, they’re kicked out. Now, I would think that would be – you know, you’d never get to the political-party stage if you insist on total correct philosophic agreement on everything. So I think that’s on a par with dolphin’s rights, for that matter. So I think there comes a point when you have to say, OK, we agree on the basics, let’s now start organizing, because if you wait until you agree on every conceivable dilemma and syllogism, you’ll never do anything at all.
But I think you have to get certain broad agreement on key issues fairly early in the game, not necessarily before a party is launched, but pretty early in the stages. And I’ll just finish my running through some of which I think is some of the key questions which should be decided.
One of them, of course, is the morality of political action. There are a lot of Libertarians in the United States who think that any political action is immoral, it’s un-Libertarian – voting, running for office or holding office. Obviously, you have to agree that political action is moral in order to become a political-party member. So I think this has to be decided by political-party people; hopefully, by Libertarians, too. I frankly don’t see why it’s immoral. I’ve been engaging these arguments for years. If the state leaves us this area – in not all countries are we allowed to vote but, in many countries, the state leaves us this particular area of choice and vote for the party of your choice every two years or whatever. I see no reason why we cannot morally use this choice to help scuttle statism. If the state is stupid enough to leave us this choice, let’s use it.
Now, this action was taken by our classical liberal forebears. We have classical liberal forebears. First, the liberals and radicals of the 18th and 19th century, and by the American revolutionaries and quasi-Libertarians of those centuries, and they did pretty well, and they accomplished an enormous amount in rolling back the state largely through the electoral process and also mass civil disobedience and other stuff, and certainly using that, too.
We also have to remember, however, as we engage in political action and then join political parties to remember the wise maxim of Lord Acton that power corrupts, as well as Jefferson’s adage that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, or as the Catholics might say, running for or holding office is not itself a sin but, boy, does it offer occasions for sin. So this has to be guarded against.
OK, secondly, the key question I think, at least in my point of view, into the internal argument which is always taking place between rights-based versus utility based Libertarians, do you ground your belief in liberty and utility and efficiency on the one hand or on moral principles and human rights on the other. It seems to me extremely important without the moral, morality and rights-based position. We are for liberty not only, or mainly even, because freedom will bring us more soap and more bathtubs as much as we like soap and bathtubs. We are for liberty and against oppression because we believe strongly and passionately in the morality and justice of liberty and the immorality and criminality of statism. I think very few people will struggle for liberty as a lifelong commitment, which we all do, often against great odds merely for 20% or more bathtubs, or for a bit more efficiency. So I think Libertarians must be the kind of people who want – above all, demand justice. And fortunately, of course, this usually goes along with utilitarian economics, but not always.
Fortunately, I think, in the United States, aside from a few benighted Friedmanite economists, there are very few Libertarians who take the efficiency route here. Most Libertarians are rights-based and justice-based Libertarians. For one thing, utilitarian economists are always making exceptions to Libertarian principles. They’re always saying, well, of course, you can have neighborhood parks or something like that. A morality based Libertarian makes no exceptions, is uncompromising and consistent.
OK, as I say, I think the battle has been won, in the Libertarian Party at least, on that question in the United States.
Now, many of you might be wondering why I didn’t put first on this list – I have about, I think, five things here – why didn’t I put first the famous problem Anarchism versus Minarchism, or Anarchism versus limited government or government strictly limited to defense, police and courts. The reason I don’t talk about it much is because, even though the problem is highly important in theory and should continue to be debated forever as far as I’m concerned, for purposes for practical organization – and within the Libertarian Party, it’s caused very little difficulty. In other words, Anarchists and Minarchists have been working together very closely and without much friction. That’s just the famous Dallas Accord of 1974 when they hammered out word-by-word agreement where the Anarchists don’t call for smashing the state and the party platform or whatever, and the Minarchists don’t say the proper function of government is to do such and such. You just leave that alone.
I think the reason why both groups can work together on this is because, after all, we agree on 99% of stuff. In other words, both the Minarchists and the Anarchists agree in rolling back about 99% of the state. So why not do that and then worry about the other 1% after we get it? It seems a little premature to start bellyaching about the 1% when we have the 99% that we agree on. So that has really not posed a problem in the United States, a political problem.
OK, and this is point four of the basic issues. But while Anarchism versus Minarchism has caused very few practical difficulties, there is, I think, a big problem, which has still not been resolved, on where one stands on what I call abolitionism versus mandatory gradualism. In other words, aside from the Anarchist/Minarchist question, do you favor abolishing the state or 99% of the state or whatever as fast as you could possibly do it? You know, if you find a button on this podium, a magic button, by pushing this button I could eliminate the state, would I do it? My answer, of course, is I would blister my thumb pushing that button, OK? So I’m an abolitionist. Now, other people are what I call mandatory gradualists. In other words, they believe, no, no, we shouldn’t do it. Even if we have the magic button, we shouldn’t push it because there are all sorts of other problems that are superseding that. It could cause social dislocation, it could cause unemployment, and temporarily it could cause disappointment of expectations or whatever. In my view, it’s very important to take the abolitionist position because it means you’re holding nothing else higher than liberty. To be a Libertarian, it seems to me you should hold liberty as your highest political objective. So this, as I say, is a continuing dispute. Of course, there is no magic button, obviously, where we could just abolish the state. But this attitude toward the magic button affects, I think, attitudes towards political action by all Libertarians. It affects your whole attitude towards the state and to political problems and so forth.
My hero on the slavery front, William Lloyd Garrison, who was an abolitionist and also a Libertarian, by the way, in general, said he was in favor of immediate abolition. He didn’t think it would come immediately. He didn’t think there would be an immediate abolition of slavery, although, it turned out to be pretty much a one-step thing. But he believed it was important to say that, morally, we are in favor of immediate abolition even though, in practice, we’re going to get gradual abolition even though we don’t like it. So this is a continuing fight.
The Radical Caucus, of which I’m a member, has a – I’m going to quote its plank on this. It’s called the No-Compromise Plank, which I think is a great, really sweet plank. “The Radical Caucus insists that all reforms advocated by the Libertarian Party must diminish governmental power” – I wouldn’t add that slowly diminish it, OK? – “and no such reform that ought to contradict the goal of a totally free society. Holding high our principles means avoiding completely the quagmire of self-imposed obligatory gradualism. We must avoid the view that, in the name of fairness, abating suffering or fulfilling expectations, temporize and stall on the road to liberty.” That sets forth, I think, the issue.
OK, finally, I think, in a practical sense – this is – the abolitionist thing is more of a sort of a mood or a general thing, a spirit that permeates Libertarians. By the way, there are Anarchists – in the Anarchist/Minarchist dispute, there are many Anarchists who are gradualists. There may even be one or two Minarchists who are abolitionists. Although, if you’re an Anarchist, it helps to be an abolitionist obviously, so there’s a certain tendency there, but it’s not necessarily a one-to-one correlation.
OK, I come now to the key practical political issue, the only real practical political dispute in the Libertarian Party, which I think has been successfully overcome or successfully settled. I think it’s one on which every Libertarian Party must take a stand. I think it’s a key question. And this is the question of foreign policy. Everybody, I mean, every Libertarian believes in the free market. There’s no real dispute among that. Every Libertarian favors civil liberties. There’s no real dispute on that. The real basic vital gut question is the question of war and peace. In the early days of the Libertarian Party in the United States, the Libertarian Party took a non-Libertarian foreign-policy position in my view. In other words, it took essentially the same position of the Democrats or Republicans. It took a pro-interventionist, quasi-pro-war position. In my view, it’s central and critical to take a foreign-policy stance which is totally opposed to war, especially modern war, which necessarily murders masses of innocent civilians. There’s a big difference between modern war and jousting. You know, Medieval jousting, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s sort of like voluntary dueling. Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot, it’s great, and the rest of the people watch on the battlements and cheer their own favorites, sort of like a Super Bowl in football. But modern war is not the Super Bowl – (laughter). It’s a situation where masses of innocent people get killed.
Libertarianism, it seems to me – it’s always been a source of wonder why many Libertarians have resisted this. Libertarianism takes a stand on absolute human rights and a sacred right of every individual to his or her self ownership or his or her life, liberty and property, unmolested by coercion, whichever way you want to formulate it. It’s always been a puzzle to me how such a movement can fail to take an all-out opposition stance, all-out, opposed to war, which is a mass murder of innocents. I can’t understand how Libertarians can come out four-square against price controls and wage controls – yes, that’s great – even against taxation as theft – great – and yet, somehow fail to speak out forcefully on the question of mass murder.
So also, of course, foreign policy, at least in the United States, is a big means by which big government exerts itself. There’s a corollary between government intervention at home and government intervention in foreign affairs. It’s the same group doing the same sort of thing.
Now, fortunately, the Libertarian Party, in its national convention in New York in 1975, changed its position and took a very distinctive Libertarian foreign-policy stand, an anti-war, anti-interventionist stand, which was strengthened and solidified in 1977. So as far as I’m concerned, we’ve overcome that. I don’t know how other Libertarian Parties are doing on this, but I’m happy to say that I made a contribution to this shift.
Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School, founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of the Mises Institute. He was also editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and appointed Lew as his executor. See Murray’s books.