In thinking about libertarian strategy, I find it useful to revisit the framework set out by Murray Rothbard in For a New Liberty (FNL). What counts here is not that Rothbard, a builder of the modern libertarian movement, was the author, but that it is an eloquent statement of a reasonable position on how libertarians should grapple with political reality as they strive for a totally free society.
In part three of FNL Rothbard offers a "Strategy for Liberty," which is more a guideline than a recipe for a successful movement. (He attempted such a recipe in controversial unpublished papers.) In FNL he was concerned with how the movement could navigate between the Scylla of "left-wing sectarianism" and the Charybdis of "right-wing opportunism." (He notes that the Marxists confronted the same issue.) In this one respect, perhaps, Rothbard could be said to be a middle-of-the-roader.
He starts with right-wing opportunism:
The major problem with the opportunists is that by confining themselves strictly to gradual and "practical" programs, programs that stand a good chance of immediate adoption, they are in grave danger of completely losing sight of the ultimate objective, the libertarian goal. He who confines himself to calling for a two percent reduction in taxes helps to bury the ultimate goal of abolition of taxation altogether. By concentrating on the immediate means, he helps liquidate the ultimate goal, and therefore the point of being a libertarian in the first place. If libertarians refuse to hold aloft the banner of the pure principle, of the ultimate goal, who will? The answer is no one….
Rothbard advises libertarians to "cleave to principle," and that "means something more than holding high and not contradicting the ultimate libertarian ideal. It also means striving to achieve that ultimate goal as rapidly as is physically possible. In short, the libertarian must never advocate or prefer a gradual, as opposed to an immediate and rapid, approach to his goal. For by doing so, he undercuts the overriding importance of his own goals and principles. And if he himself values his own goals so lightly, how highly will others value them?"
In support of his case, he turns to F. A. Hayek's important essay "The Intellectuals and Socialism" (PDF). In that essay Hayek famously called for "a truly liberal radicalism…, which is not too severely practical and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible." Hayek continued:
We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.
In Hayek's view a truly liberal radicalism — presenting a "liberal Utopia" — is necessary to "make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage."
Rothbard doesn't like the word "Utopia," but he agrees that only a radical vision will attract people to the movement. "Who, in contrast," Rothbard asked, "will go to the barricades for a two percent tax reduction?"
Another dividend from liberal, or libertarian, radicalism is that it may shift the "middle" in the public debate toward the libertarian position. "It is precisely the strategic role of the 'extremist' to keep pushing the matrix of day-to-day action further and further in his direction," he wrote.
If we stopped the Rothbardian analysis here, we would have a misleading picture of his full position, for while he condemned right-wing opportunism, he was equally hard on "left-wing sectarianism." He wrote:
If, then, the libertarian must advocate the immediate attainment of liberty and abolition of statism, and if gradualism in theory is contradictory to this overriding end, what further strategic stance may a libertarian take in today's world? Must he necessarily confine himself to advocating immediate abolition? Are "transitional demands," steps toward liberty in practice, necessarily illegitimate? No, for this would fall into the other self-defeating strategic trap of "left-wing sectarianism." For while libertarians have too often been opportunists who lose sight of or under-cut their ultimate goal, some have erred in the opposite direction: fearing and condemning any advances toward the idea as necessarily selling out the goal itself. The tragedy is that these sectarians, in condemning all advances that fall short of the goal, serve to render vain and futile the cherished goal itself. For much as all of us would be overjoyed to arrive at total liberty at a single bound, the realistic prospects for such a mighty leap are limited. If social change is not always tiny and gradual, neither does it usually occur in a single leap. In rejecting any transitional approaches to the goal, then, these sectarian libertarians make it impossible for the goal itself ever to be reached. Thus, the sectarians can eventually be as fully "liquidationist" of the pure goal as the opportunists themselves. [Emphasis added.]
But, he noted, not everything presented as a move toward freedom is actually a move toward freedom:
How, then, can we know whether any halfway measure or transitional demand should be hailed as a step forward or condemned as an opportunistic betrayal? There are two vitally important criteria for answering this crucial question: (1) that, whatever the transitional demands, the ultimate end of liberty be always held aloft as the desired goal; and (2) that no steps or means ever explicitly or implicitly contradict the ultimate goal. A short-run demand may not go as far as we would like, but it should always be consistent with the final end; if not, the short-run goal will work against the long-run purpose, and opportunistic liquidation of libertarian principle will have arrived.
He added that "the libertarian must never allow himself to be trapped into any sort of proposal for 'positive' governmental action; in his perspective, the role of government should only be to remove itself from all spheres of society just as rapidly as it can be pressured to do so."
Here things can get a bit tricky. A proposal might substantially loosen the state's grip in a particular area of life without removing the state completely. For example, a long-proposed reform of Social Security would recognize each person's property right in at least some of the money he or is forced to put toward retirement. (There are many variations of this program, including some that would not compel participation.)
Today the government (mostly through employers) seizes part of people's income (and immediately spends it), with a promise of cash benefits in the future (financed by taxing a later generation of workers). Under the reform, the government would require people to invest at least some of the money that would otherwise be stolen through taxation in a private account that would be recognized as their property. This would mean, among other things, that the money could be bequeathed to the worker's heirs, something that cannot happen under Social Security.
I submit that this would be a "step toward liberty," to use Rothbard's phrase, in that it would institutionalize a legitimate property right in a portion of one's income that today is denied. Obviously this reform would not expel government from personal retirement planning. Not only would the government compel people to save at least a defined minimum of their incomes, it also would heavily regulate how the money could be invested and managed. (The corporatist implications are palpable.)
That is hardly a pure libertarian approach to Social Security, which — since it is rooted in theft — should be abolished. But it is a reform that libertarians should applaud — while "upping the ante." The partial recognition of a legitimate property right is better than no recognition. However objectionable the remaining coercion, the reform would be preferable to today's taxation. Freedom and serfdom exist in degrees.
The reform would not only be good in itself; once in place it could be used to demand broader recognition of natural rights and liberty. Must we forgo all freedom-generating improvements in our lives until the libertarian revolution finally sweeps away all state impositions?
Is endorsement of the reform a craven compromise of libertarian principle? Hardly. Compromise would consist in representing the reform as the ultimate libertarian answer to Social Security, in preferring it to abolition, and in failing to up the ante when participating in the debate.
Is endorsement of the reform ipso facto an endorsement of the remaining state aggression? Considering what I've just written, how could it be? I can hear Rothbard cackling at the question.