Ten years ago I wrote a four-part article in which, inter alia, I criticised some of the standard Voluntaryist arguments (particularly George Smith’s) against electoral politics. I’ve never seen any response to my arguments from anti-electoral libertarians, but I’d be curious to see some, which is why I’m now re-posting some excerpts from that article:
Some libertarians – many calling themselves “Voluntaryists” – hold that it is inappropriate for libertarians to seek or to exercise governmental power under any circumstances, even with the intent of using that power to diminish or abolish governmental power.
I am sympathetic to this objection, but in the end I think it is a mistake. Let me explain why.
The Voluntaryists’ objection comes in two forms – a Pragmatic Objection and a Principled Objection. The Pragmatic Objection claims that dismantling the state from within is unworkable. The Principled Objection claims that even if such a project were workable, it would be morally wrong to attempt it. …
Let’s consider the Principled Objection first. I think this is an important objection, and I want to do justice to it, so I here quote at some length George Smith’s defense of the Principled Objection:
Political power – the capacity and legal sanction to aggress against others – is integral to political office. … I don’t want anyone to have political power, regardless of his supposed good intentions. I object to the political office itself and to its legitimized power. … The issue of trust is quite secondary. … I may trust a particular libertarian politician, but I still don’t want him to have political power over me. … Libertarians should oppose this injustice in principle. …
‘Elect me to office,’ proclaims the libertarian politician, ‘give me enormous power over you and your property, but rest assured that I shall abstain from using this power unjustly.’ I reply: You have no right to such power in the first place – and as a libertarian you should know this. You should be denouncing the very office to which you aspire. … [But] if the institution of senator is wrong in itself (because of its built-in political power), then how can you, in good conscience, ask us to make you a Senator? … What does it mean, in this society, to be a Senator? Among other things, it signifies the legal privilege to formulate and enact laws without any necessary regard for the justice of those laws, and it permits one to dispense massive amounts of stolen money. Such powers, inherent in the office of Senator, are incompatible with libertarian principles. … One cannot deny the legitimacy of the Senatorial office, as libertarians must logically do, and simultaneously advocate someone for that position. …
This is not – I repeat, not – an issue of strategy. … I am not merely asserting that the political method is inefficient in pursuit of this goal. Rather, I am arguing that the political means is inconsistent with libertarian principles …. One cannot consistently denounce the State as a band of criminals while attempting to swell the ranks of this criminal class with one’s own cronies. … To be elected to public office is to gain the legal sanction to aggress. … To vote a person into office is to give that person unjust authority over others. … When an LPer [i.e., Libertarian Party supporter] enters the voting booth, he is attempting to place in office a person who will have unjust authority over me. But, claims the LPer, his candidate will not use that power. I reply that this, even if true, is immaterial. The legitimized power embodied in the political office is not his to give in the first place. …
I accept libertarianism, and this very acceptance compels me to reject political action. Therefore, when I am told that political action is a good strategy to achieve libertarian goals, I can only reply: Even if that were true (which I don’t accept), it would not change the rightness involved. … You accuse me of purism. I reply, ‘So what?’ If ‘purism’ means anything, it means the refusal to budge on matters of principle even at the expense of apparent short-term gains. What is the alternative?
(George H. Smith, “Party Dialogue,” ….)
… I am in accord with the Voluntaryists [in holding that] we are not justified in engaging in aggression, even in order to bring about greater liberty for all. But I disagree with the Voluntaryists’ claim that political activity by libertarians is necessarily a form of aggression. …
Some libertarian theorists (e.g., Robert LeFevre) have rejected as illegitimate any use of force, even in self-defense. … But Voluntaryists, while philosophically indebted to LeFevre, are not for the most part LeFevrean pacifists; they recognize the legitimacy of using force to defend oneself or other innocent parties. I contend that, in attempting to seize political power in order to dismantle the … state, our libertarian politicians are engaging in the legitimate project of defending the [populace] from governmental aggression.
George Smith considers this argument, only to reject it:
To your plea of self-defense, I reply: Fine, defend yourself, but leave me alone. But voting is wrong precisely because it does not leave me alone. If you elect your candidate to office in the name of self-defense, his power will not be restricted to you and to those who voted for him. He will have power over me and others like me as well. … You presume that you have the right to appoint a political guardian over me – a benevolent one, you claim, but a guardian nonetheless. Now as one libertarian to another, I must repeat my question: Where did you get such a right?
(“Party Dialogue,” p. 23.)
Smith claims that the very act of taking political office, or of authorizing others to do so, constitutes aggression against the populace. But is this really so? Imagine that Lex Luthor is riding his evil Juggernaut Beast toward the town of Smallville, preparing to trample it and its helpless inhabitants into smithereens. Lana Lang heroically proposes to save Smallville herself by leaping onto the Juggernaut’s back, kicking Lex Luthor off, and seizing the reins in order to divert the Juggernaut Beast into the nearest tarpit. But Clark Kent lectures her disapprovingly: “Tsk, tsk, Lana! Don’t you realize that if you end up riding the Juggernaut Beast, its reins in your hand, then you’ll be in just the same position as Luthor is now! Of course, you say that once you’re in charge of the Juggernaut, you’ll send it toward its doom rather than toward Smallville; and I believe you. But your benevolent intentions are beside the point. The fact remains that once you’re on that creature’s back you’ll have the power to kill us all; and no one has the right to assume such power, whether or not they intend to use it. Evil Juggernaut monsters with ravening jaws and the ability to crush entire towns are a bad thing, and I don’t want anyone riding them around.” Lana is convinced by Clark’s incisive logic, and refrains from putting her plan into operation. Smallville is thoroughly demolished, and Lex Luthor gleefully heads his Juggernaut Beast on to the next defenseless town. (Clark Kent, being invulnerable, of course survives. Lana and the town’s other residents are not so lucky.)
What’s wrong with Clark Kent’s argument here? Its fatal flaw is that it regards the mere capacity to inflict harm as itself a form of aggression. This is the same logic as that employed by gun control advocates, who regard my mere possession of a gun as an unrightful threat against my neighbors, because having a gun gives me the power to blow their brains out, whether or not I in fact exercise it in this way. But on libertarian principles, it is surely not the capacity for aggression, but the exercise of that capacity, that is forbidden; hence I may own anything from man-eating tigers to rocket launchers, as long as I use them responsibly. The libertarian politician who assumes office in order to dismantle the state will also acquire great power, at least for a while; but as long as he or she uses it solely against aggressors rather than against the innocent, the fact that this power could be used against the innocent does not make the libertarian politician into an actual aggressor.
But Smith would probably object that there is an important disanalogy between the government case and the Juggernaut case. If Lana Lang seizes the reins from Lex Luthor, she acquires only power – whose mere possession is morally permissible, so long as it is not used against the innocent. But if libertarian politicians seize the reins of the … government, they acquire not only power but legal authority. Political power carries with it not only the ability to aggress, but the right to aggress (the legal right, that is – not, of course, the moral right).
You admit that even the libertarian politician will have this power after he is elected, but you stipulate that it will be used for beneficent purposes. You prefer to emphasize the (presumed) motives of libertarian politicians – their honorable intentions; whereas I prefer to stress the reality of what political office entails. … Frankly, I don’t give a whit about the psychological state of the politician. …
But couldn’t a libertarian accept a political office while being fully aware that the legal power inherent in that office is illegitimate? He need not exercise the options legally available to him, after all. …
You confuse the subjective with the objective. A person can believe just about anything. A libertarian Senator may believe that he is faking it, that he doesn’t really take the authority of his office seriously. He may convince himself that, although an agent and employee of the State, he is really and truly anti-state. … But the facts remain. The office of Senator is defined independently of the desires of individual Senators. The powers of political office do not depend upon the secret desires of the LP politician, nor do they change because the politician keeps his fingers crossed while taking the oath of office.
(“Party Dialogue,” pp. 10-13.)
Since a legal right to aggress is illegitimate, Smith argues, it follows that no one has the right to assume it, and anyone who does so is ipso facto an aggressor.
But is this true? What, after all, is a legal right? It is not something tangible; rather, it is a convention. My having a legal right to do X consists in various facts about the beliefs, practices, dispositions, and institutions of a particular group of people. So let us now suppose that Smallville is menaced, not by Luthor’s Juggernaut Beast, but by a violent religious cult calling itself the Minions of Moloch, who have announced their intention to invade Smallville and slaughter the unbelievers. Each Minion of Moloch wears a Ha-Ha Hat, which from the Minions’ perspective symbolizes their right to inflict torture on anyone who refuses to venerate Moloch. Lana Lang (mysteriously reincarnated since her encounter with the Juggernaut) proposes to disguise herself as a Minion of Moloch, Ha-Ha Hat and all, and to infiltrate the enemy camp in order to spy on them, learn their plans, and steal or sabotage their stock of weapons. Once again Clark Kent seeks to dissuade her: “Tsk, tsk, Lana! Don’t you realize that in order to disguise yourself as a Minion of Moloch you’ll have to wear the Ha-Ha Hat? You know what the Ha-Ha Hat stands for; according to the conventions of the Minions, it signifies the legal right to torture unbelievers. By putting the Ha-Ha Hat on your head, you will be taking on that legal right. But the legal right to torture unbelievers is clearly illegitimate, and if you assume it you will in effect be aggressing against us all.” Once again Lana is convinced, and abandons her plan; soon she and her fellow townspeople are dying slowly at the hands of the Minions of Moloch. (Even Clark succumbs this time, since the Minions have managed to get their hands on some kryptonite.)
What’s wrong with Clark Kent’s argument is that the convention associated with the Ha-Ha Hat is accepted only by the Minions of Moloch. It is true that, according to that convention, when Lana dons the Ha-Ha Hat she thereby assumes the right to torture unbelievers. But Lana does not accept that convention; on the contrary, she is working to bring that convention to an end.
The same holds true for the libertarian politician. The legal rights of aggression that are associated with political office exist only within the conventions of statist culture; the libertarian who assumes such office rejects those conventions, and so does not recognize any such legal rights. Smith would say that this is only a subjective psychological fact about the libertarian politician, and has no effect on the “objective” fact of “the powers of political office.” But if by “the powers of political office” Smith means legal authority, then this too ultimately consists only in subjective psychological facts about the attitudes of participants in the statist culture, attitudes our libertarian politician does not share. And on the other hand, if by “the powers of political office” Smith means actual capacities, we’ve already established that no aggression is involved in the mere possession of unexercised capacities for aggression. Hence I cannot see that there is any ethical basis for the Principled Objection to libertarians’ holding political office ….
Anti-political libertarians sometimes pose the following query: “Look, we libertarians all agree that, no matter what the problem, top-down, government-based solutions – the ‘political means’ – are bound to be less effective than bottom-up, market-based solutions – the ‘ economic means.’ Right? So when it comes to the problem of dismantling the state and achieving a libertarian society, why should we suddenly reverse ourselves and place our confidence in a top-down political approach, like electing libertarian congressmen and passing libertarian legislation? If government is so lousy at everything else it attempts, why should we expect it to be any good at creating a free society? Why not remain true to our fundamental insight – the practical superiority of the market sector over the state sector – and abandon political campaigning in favor of a bottom-up, grass-roots campaign to undermine political authority from below, through a combination of education and counter-economics? Once enough people simply withdraw their support and obedience, the state will collapse. If there is widespread grass-roots support for libertarian ideas, top-down reform is ineffective; on the other hand, if there is no such widespread grass-roots support, top-down reform is doomed to fail. Thus top-down reform is bound to be either unnecessary or insufficient.”
George Smith, for example, speaks for the Voluntaryist position when he asks:
“Hasn’t it ever struck you as paradoxical how libertarians who are innovative when it comes to free-market alternatives, can be so pedestrian and orthodox in the area of political strategy. I mean, libertarians never tire of outlining plans for free-market roads, sewers, utilities, charities, schools, police forces, and even courts of law. … But now comes the issue of political strategy, and the imaginative libertarian suddenly turns slavishly orthodox. ‘How can we change things,’ he asks, ‘without political action? …’”
(“Party Dialogue,” p. 25 ….)
What can be said to this kind of objection? I agree that no libertarian reform that is completely top-down has any hope of succeeding; there must be a bottom-up component. I also agree that the ideal scenario for establishing a libertarian society would be completely bottom-up. Thus far, then, I am in sympathy with the objection.
So where do I disagree? Well, it seems to me that in situations where a bottom-up component does exist, but still falls far short of being powerful enough to undermine the state unaided, a top-down component can serve to fill the gap, to make up the difference.
“But wait,” the critic may protest. “This is just another version of the soft-socialist argument that the market can do some good, but where it falls short it needs to be ‘corrected’ by government intervention. How can a libertarian sign onto this? What happens to our faith in the free market?”
My answer is that my faith in the power of the free market is undiminished – but in case you haven’t noticed, we don’t have a free market. What we have is a deeply regulated and crippled market, and it is that in which the Voluntaryists are asking us to have faith. Grass-roots education to undermine allegiance to the state is hampered by the fact that most of our audience has been indoctrinated in state-run schools. Counter-economic strategies to build alternatives to the state are hampered by the fact that most of them are illegal, and prospective participants are not unnaturally afraid of being sent to prison. (Even those that are legal are so severely regulated that many are discouraged from participating, and the ardor of those who do participate is somewhat quelled by the knowledge that Big Brother is looking over their shoulders.) Surely it would be absurd to argue as follows: “We libertarians claim to recognize the superiority of private over public solutions, but when we drive to work in the morning we use the public roads. How unimaginative! When we are so boldly and consistently libertarian in other areas, why do we pick such an un-libertarian strategy for getting to work? Don’t we know that private roads are better than public ones? All right then, from now on, if we really believe what we preach, we should use only private roads for driving to work.” Of course private roads are a superior strategy for getting to work – but the power of government has created a severe shortage of private roads, and has thus prevented us from making use of the best strategy. The same applies to purely non-political strategies for dismantling the state.
I do not wish to underestimate the power of bottom-up strategies; they are vitally important, and no liberalization program can possibly succeed without them. I support and participate in a number of such bottom-up projects; and I have little patience for those who criticize anti-political libertarians for “doing nothing.” Moreover, I agree with the Voluntaryists that a purely bottom-up approach could succeed, whereas a purely top-down approach could not. Where I part company with the Voluntaryists is in thinking, first, that a mixed approach – partly top-down, partly bottom-up – could also succeed, and second, that this mixed approach is more likely than the purely bottom-up approach to be practicable in the foreseeable future.
The Voluntaryists seem to assume that top-down and bottom-up approaches to libertarian activism are in competition, even in conflict, rather than being essentially complementary. Yet throughout history, every successful liberatory movement I can think of – from the abolition of the slave trade and the end of British rule in the American colonies to the emancipation of women and the triumph of the Anti-Corn-Law league – has won the day through a combination of top-down and bottom-up strategies. I see no reason to expect the triumph of libertarianism to be different. …
[Another] pitfall against which anti-political libertarians warn us is that participation in political action will damage libertarians’ credibility in the eyes of the public, who will see such participation as inconsistent with libertarian principles.
Those who press this version of the Pragmatic Objection are typically proponents of the Principled Objection as well. They thus assume that the public will be correct in convicting libertarian politicians of inconsistency. But if my critique of the Principled Objection … has been correct, then this third pitfall really involves a misperception of libertarian politicians on the part of the public; the danger is that they will believe, falsely, that political activism is a betrayal of libertarian principles, and so will erroneously condemn libertarian politicians as hypocrites.
But if that is the problem, then it seems to be simply one more facet of a general public misperception of libertarianism, of a piece with such more common errors as the misperception of libertarian economic proposals as cold and heartless toward the poor, or the misperception of libertarian opposition to victimless-crime laws as stemming from a commitment to moral relativism. And the way to correct such misperceptions is through education.
Voluntaryists often argue that by engaging in political action libertarians are sanctioning the state:
To run for or support candidates for political office is to grant legitimacy to the very thing we are attempting to strip of legitimacy. … The hypocrisy is there for all to see. … Political power is legitimized through the electoral process. … The vote sanctifies injustice. … The vote is the method by which the State maintains its illusion of legitimacy. There is no way a libertarian organization can assail the legitimacy of the State while soliciting votes.
(“Party Dialogue,” pp. 19-20.)
But this critique is ambiguous. Does it mean that political action counts as an actual endorsement of the state by libertarians, or only that it is likely to be misperceived as such? The former alternative, that political action signifies genuine endorsement, is reminiscent of those tacit-consent theories for which Voluntaryists ordinarily have only contempt. Lysander Spooner, one of the Voluntaryists’ own favorite authorities, disposes of this notion nicely:
To take a man’s property without his consent, and then to infer his consent because he attempts, by voting, to prevent that property from being used to his injury, is a very insufficient proof of his consent to support the Constitution.
(Lysander Spooner, No Treason No. VI: The Constitution of No Authority ….)
On the other hand, if the worry is that the public will misperceive libertarian political action as sanctioning the state, I reply with a tu quoque; for the public is equally likely to misperceive the strategy of the anti-political libertarians, mistaking their principled renunciation of electoral politics for apathy and defeatism.
Indeed, the anti-political strategy may even be perceived, perversely enough, as yet another sanction of the state! As Herbert Spencer trenchantly observed, regarding the theory of tacit consent:
Perhaps it will be said that this consent is not a specific, but a general one, and that the citizen is understood to have assented to everything his representative may do when he voted for him.
But suppose he did not vote for him, and on the contrary did all in his power to get elected someone holding opposite views – what then? The reply will probably be that, by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.
And how if he did not vote at all? Why, then he cannot justly complain … seeing that he made no protest ….
So, curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted – whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine, this.
(Herbert Spencer, Social Statics ….)
Since both the political and the anti-political libertarian strategies are liable to misperception and misrepresentation, the solution, it seems to me, is once more education – a bottom-up strategy, to be sure, but one that in this instance may serve to vindicate the top-down approach as well. What is called for, I think, is an up-front approach. We should tell the public: “We libertarians are all committed to changing society through education and the like. But some of us also seek to work through the political process. There is a friendly disagreement, both ethical and strategic, among libertarians as to the legitimacy of this approach. Some libertarians condemn any association with the state as inappropriate. Others consider it a permissible defensive option to try to take over the state and dismantle it from within. We invite you to join us in this conversation.”
Voluntaryists insist that libertarian political action sends the wrong message:
You wish to work directly through the political process. I maintain that this reinforces the legitimacy of that process. You tell people, in effect, that the way to assert their natural rights is to ask the government’s permission. When the government gives you permission to keep your earnings, or to teach your children, or to live a particular lifestyle, then it’s O.K. to do so. It’s all very proper; the game is played by the State’s own rules.
I maintain on the contrary, that libertarians should breed a thorough and uncompromising disrespect for the government and its laws. … We wish people to look elsewhere than government for their freedom. We wish them to view government with contemptuous indifference. This cannot be achieved through political action.
(“Party Dialogue,” pp. 26-28.)
Well, maybe so and maybe not. Political action on the part of libertarians can send a message. But what libertarians say as they engage in such action can send a message too, and the content of this second, verbal message can influence the reception, and guide the interpretation, of the first, non-verbal message.
Voluntaryists may protest that “actions speak louder than words.” But those who make this reply are still assuming that political action has an intrinsically state-sanctioning meaning, that it cannot have the meaning of legitimate defense of the innocent. If this is wrong, as I’ve argued, then political action taken in its own right is genuinely ambiguous, and words by libertarian politicians expressing contempt for the government and rejection of its authority can help the public acquire the appropriate conceptual framework for interpreting libertarian political action as legitimate defense rather than a sanction of the state. (I must add that I’ve never met anyone, outside the libertarian movement itself (where many still adhere to the strange and much-abused Randian notion of “sanction”), who interpreted libertarian political action as a sanction of the state; on the contrary, it is those libertarians who reject political action that are most likely, in my experience, to be misinterpreted.)
One version of the credibility objection appeals to the fact that libertarian politicians may have to take an oath of office committing themselves to upholding the authority of the state. I don’t think there is any moral problem here – any more than Lana … infiltrating the Minions of Moloch in order to protect her hometown, compromises her integrity or undertakes any undesirable obligation by mouthing the Oath to Moloch. The oath of office, as taken by a libertarian, may simply be a justifiable lie.
But there may well be a public-relations problem. If a libertarian running for office is asked by a potential voter whether she intends to lie or not when taking the oath of office, what is she to say? If she answers “Yes,” people’s reaction may be: “Oh, so she thinks it’s okay to lie when taking a solemn oath before the people! No way am I going to vote for her!” On the other hand, if she says “No,” the reaction may be: “Oh, so she really intends to uphold the authority of the state! So much for her commitment to libertarianism. No way am I going to vote for her!”
If I were a libertarian politician, and someone raised with me the issue of the oath of office, I would answer as follows: “When I am sworn in, I will take the oath of office honestly and sincerely, and will fulfill it to the best of my ability. Naturally, however, I will also respect the common consensus, universally acknowledged since the Nuremberg trials, that no oath to uphold the law can justify any agent of the government in engaging in or sanctioning criminal aggression.” This is an honest answer, and the wording strikes me as sufficiently politic: it affirms the sincerity of the oath, as public opinion may require, while at the same time placing on that oath, and on its attendant obligations, a limitation that public opinion is committed to acknowledging. If the voters still don’t like it, they’ll have to vote for someone else.