by Carl Watner
From Number 40 – October 1989
Little has appeared in these pages of late concerning the Libertarian Party because I believe it is more important to focus on the positive side of voluntaryism than to critique methodologies which differ from our own philosophy. I believe that we need to put our time, intelligence, and energy into that which we wish to nurture. Criticism directed toward an erroneous view not only sometimes helps entrench the opposition, but lessens the focus on the efforts to make voluntaryism grow. However, remarks by Karl Hess in the pages of Libertarian Party News (March/April 1989) deserve some comment. In an editorial titled, “Our Goal Is Still Liberty,” Hess writes:
Ever since joining the Libertarian Party, years after declaring myself a small “l” libertarian, I have been concerned by the tendency of some in the party to insist that the party is, in fact, the movement. I have been equally concerned by the tendency of some outside of the party to insist that the party itself is a betrayal of the movement.
My own conviction is that neither case is valid.
The reasons for that have been stated many times in these editorial viewpoints. Rather than restate them, I want to move past them to what I hope is a practical suggestion to help us keep our eyes on the goal – liberty – rather than become fixated on one or another of the widely divergent ways of getting there.
Might we not, as individuals, make some concession to at least the possibility of cooperating toward that main goal even through we may disagree about a number of things along the way [?]
I offer a statement that would at least say we were friends: “Sharing a belief that free markets and voluntary social arrangements can be the basis of a peaceful and prosperous world, we members of various liberty-seeking organizations agree, as individuals, to cooperate, share information, and, as appropriate and practical, mutually support, or at least not impede, our varied and often sharply different efforts to increase individual freedom.”
Without for a moment suppressing our arguments, we might at least agree that we are headed in roughly the same direction and probably have less to fear from one another than from the great apparatus of state power that surrounds us.
The assumption that we might agree “that we are headed in roughly the same direction” is one with which I must take issue. This is an attitude that was shared by many debaters of limited-government and no-government during the early days of the L.P. According to this view, all libertarians are passengers on the same train. The only difference between the advocates of limited-government, no-government, and the voluntaryists is that some get off sooner than others; but all are headed toward the same destination: liberty. However much this image might explain the difference between limited-government and no-government libertarians, it does not do justice to the voluntaryist view. At most, the image that I would suggest is that libertarians (of whatever stripe) and voluntaryists are at a common point of departure (we all face the present statist world). But the two groups board different trains, according to the methodology of social change that they choose to use. Since they are using the political means, the train of the political libertarians is travelling on the rails of statism, even if it seems to start off in the same direction as the other train. It will not long run parallel to the train boarded by the voluntaryists. The voluntaryists have no way of knowing where their journey will take them, and they are certain it has no end. The proper direction of their train can be only judged by the means used to propel it forward. There is no final “stop” or point of arrival since freedom and liberty are an on-going process. For the voluntaryists, the “final” form is in the means, not the ends.
While I do not wish to berate Hess’s emphasis on toleration and co-operation among liberty-seeking individuals, one might also take issue with his reference to “liberty-seeking organizations” since most structures to achieve a public mission usually end up devoting more time to the structure than the mission. That theme was developed in the October 1988 Voluntaryist article, “Does Freedom Need to Be Organized?” so there is no reason to belabor it here.
In addition, it is not a certain fact that voluntaryists would have less to fear from the political libertarians than from the current statists, were the former to gain power. If the “law” is to be respected and enforced and not disobeyed (an attitude which political libertarians must necessarily cultivate), then it is quite likely libertarians will use that power not only to support themselves but to crack down on the opposition. George Smith argued this point persuasively In The New Libertarian Weekly (October 31, 1976) in his satirical essay, “Victory Speech of the Libertarian Party President-Elect, 1984.” Also the entire history of the European anarchist movement (especially the brutal suppression of the Russian anarchist movement by the Bolsheviks, and the treatment of the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War) lends weight to this argument (see Voluntaryism in the European Anarchist Tradition in Neither Bullets Nor Ballots). As Errico Malatesta, the Italian anarchist, wrote in 1932:
The primary concern of every government is to ensure its continuance in power, irrespective of the men who form it. If they are bad, they want to remain in power in order to enrich themselves and to satisfy their lust for authority; and if they are honest and sincere they believe it is their duty to remain in power for the people. …The anarchists… could never, even if they were strong enough, form a government without contradicting themselves and repudiating their entire doctrine; and, should they do so, it would be no different from any other government; perhaps it would even be worse.
Informed common sense says that “political gains without philosophical understanding are potentially short-lived.” This may be better understood if we realize that we should focus on the question: “How do we prevent another State from taking the place of the one we already have?” rather than concentrating on the short-term problem (which most libertarians address) of “How do we get rid of the current State?” How can people be weaned from the State by the use of electoral politics? If the political method is proper to remove the State, as those active in the L.P. believe, then would it not be proper to re-introduce a new State, if the majority of voters were to desire it? The point is that there must be a sufficient respect and understanding for freedom and liberty in a given social community before those ideals can be realized, and if that respect and understanding already exist (or are brought into existence) – there is no reason to capture the seats of political power in order to disband the State. You attack evil at its roots by not supporting it. Just as voluntaryism occurs naturally if no one does anything to stop it, so will the State gradually disappear when those who oppose it stop supporting it. (This is not to overlook the fact that a certain “critical mass” of numbers must be reached before this can happen.)
The only thing that the individual can do “is to present society with ‘one improved unit’.” As Albert Jay Nock put it,
“Ages of experience testify that the only way society can be improved is by the individualist method … ; that is, the method of each ‘one’ doing his very best to improve ‘one’.”
This is the “quiet” or “patient” way of changing society because it concentrates upon bettering the character of men and women as individuals. As the individual units change, the improvement of society will take care of itself. In other words, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”
There is no question that this method is extremely difficult, since most of us realize what force of intellect and force of character are required just to improve ourselves. “it is easy to prescribe improvement of others; it is easy to organize something, to institutionalize this-or-that, to pass laws, multiply bureaucratic agencies, form pressure-groups, start revolutions, change forms of government, tinker at political theory. The fact that these expedients have been tried unsuccessfully in every conceivable combination for six thousand years has not noticeably impaired a credulous intelligent willingness to keep on trying them again and again.” There is no guarantee that the voluntaryist method will be successful – but because each individual concentrates on himself and not others, it is worth-while, profitable, and self-satisfying even if it does not come to fruition in the short-run or during one’s lifetime. The time spent on building a better, stronger you, on developing your vocational and avocational skills, your family, and your marriage makes you a better person regardless of outside circumstances. In short, time spent cultivating your own garden is always profitable and moral. Trying to cultivate another’s garden is trespass, (unless you are first invited to enter) and of necessity lessens the amount of time you can spend on your own self-improvement.
Libertarians engaged in electoral politics are saying (though they might not admit it) that the ends justifies the means. This has always been a common excuse for electoral activity and for supporting the existing political system. Emma Goldman laid this error to rest when she wrote:
There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are one thing, while methods and tactics are another. This conception is a potent menace to social regeneration. All human experience teaches that means cannot be separated from the ultimate aims. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose; they modify it, and presently the aims and means become identical. … The whole history of man is continuous proof of the maxim that to divest one’s methods of ethical concepts is to sink into the depths of utter demoralization.
This is why I believe that political methods are inherently self-defeating and inconsistent with voluntaryism. Such methodologies carry the seeds of their own destruction. Though Karl Hess and other supporters of the Libertarian Party may claim to support liberty, I honestly believe they are mistaken. Their tickets may say “Destination-liberty,” but I sincerely doubt that their train is headed in that direction.