Getting From Here to There


The recent Libertarian Party campaign for the presidency raised questions in many people's minds about the wisdom, practicality, and morality of political activity as a means of reducing or eliminating State coercion. How, indeed, can a free society be achieved? What are the difficulties with a political approach and how can they be dealt with? Professor John Hospers, who has been active in the Libertarian Party since its inception, here tackles these important questions. In particular, he focuses on the problem of the "transition period" between our present semi-socialized society and a free society. Suppose a Libertarian administration actually were elected in the foreseeable future? What would it do about Social Security, taxation, national defense? These are issues that have been too often ignored, and REASON is pleased to present Prof. Hospers' thought-provoking article. We hope it stimulates discussion of these points in the months ahead.

Libertarians envision, in varying degrees of specificity, what a libertarian society would be like. It is obvious that no society in the world today resembles this picture, even remotely, and that most governments are getting further away from it every year. How is the gap to be bridged between what is and what might be? What strategies are to be employed? May principles be compromised in the attempt to achieve a libertarian society?

These are difficult questions, and I shall probably introduce more problems than solutions. What I want primarily to bring out, however, is the complexity of the problem—so many libertarians talk as if it were all very simple.


Libertarians agree that the use of force is unjustified except in self-defense. But the State is constantly initiating the use of force (and threat of force) against each one of us. With virtually every new measure approved by Congress, more money is taken from those who have earned it and is used for a variety of purposes, many of which are disapproved by the vast majority of the very citizens whose money is forcibly taken. The same regulations that kill and cripple business enterprises are paid for by the very businessmen whose necks the government has already placed in the noose.

If the American Revolution was justified, consider how much greater is the tyranny today than was that of the British which the colonists were fighting. Isn't a revolution called for? True, this would mean the use of force, but wouldn't it be the use of force in self-defense, to which libertarians are not opposed on principle, rather than the initiatory use of force, to which they are? The prospect is tempting, but there are some important objections to it.

Consider, first, that many innocent people would be killed. And I have no right to take your life, or put you in a situation which places your life in jeopardy, just because I believe that the outcome I desire would be best for you. The implicit motto of statists is: My ideals for you are so important that I'll not only take your money but risk your life to achieve them! But anyone who loves liberty must gag at such a motto, a manifest contradiction of his basic premises.

Second, most of the victims of an armed uprising would probably not be the same people who initiated the aggression. The people in the seat of national power would not perhaps be safe (assassination is a distinct danger even in the absence of revolution), but the vast faceless bureaucracy would probably be safer; it continues from one administration to another without much change. People would be killed hit or miss without much relation to their guilt or innocence.

In any case, an armed uprising seldom does much good; it would result only in exchanging one tyranny for another. (The American Revolution is in most respects a rare exception.) If you hit a person over the head you may change his behavior, but you will not have changed his mind. In fact, if he hated you or your ideas before, he will hate them all the more afterward. One can proceed effectively in changing human behavior only through the use of the mind; and this takes patience, effort, education—all of which are extremely time-consuming and difficult. Think how long it takes one person even of high intelligence to absorb libertarian ideas thoroughly, then multiply this by millions. But there is in the end no way to reach people except through their minds. (Even their emotions won't do: emotions can be equally strong on both sides of an issue, and the fact that an idea is held with deep fervor proves nothing about its truth.) Not every voter has to be a libertarian theorist, of course; but he must believe in a libertarian system at least as much as he now believes in the welfare state, and that alone is a monumental task of mind-reversal. In the final analysis it is the spread of libertarian ideas in the minds of men that will make the difference.

If libertarian ideas do not prevail, a change in governmental heads can make no difference. If through some fluke a libertarian president were elected, but a Congress similar to the one in 1976, he would be quite ineffectual and would probably be impeached or assassinated in a matter of months. But if libertarian ideas are to spread through the culture, even those ideas will lead the voting public to elect libertarians to office, and no armed revolution would be necessary, even if it were permissible.


There are a variety of attitudes toward the institution of the State taken by libertarians, attitudes which have an important bearing on questions of strategy. One major group does not disapprove, and often seeks, involvement in the political process. The other major group rejects outright all involvement with the State, including any attempt to seek political office—some because they believe such involvement is useless and counterproductive; others, because it is immoral.

Those who believe it is useless argue as follows. Step 1: The government is so deeply entrenched that there is nothing we can do about it. If we want an ego-trip we can get involved, but let us be under no illusions about what we can accomplish. We can form new parties for years on end and campaign and draw people's attention to the defects of our government; but it will go on just the same, and very likely the huge unwieldy bureaucracy that now controls a considerable sector of our lives will only grow bigger in the meantime. Step 2: We should not place our chances for happiness or success in something we cannot control or alter, whether it be laws of nature or the State. So we should find activities in which we have at least some considerable chance of success: a profession, the arts, healthful amusements, marriage and family, etc. Do not deliberately select an arena of activity in which you are bound to butt your head against a stone wall of frustration and disappointment. Therefore, stay out of politics! This was the stand taken by the earliest of all famous libertarians, Epicurus (342-270 B.C.), and it is roughly the stand taken by the contemporary libertarian Harry Browne in his book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. (See my review of the book in REASON, March 1974.)

There are many things to be said about this position, of which I will mention only the most obvious. It is impossible for virtually anyone anywhere in the world to ignore the State; it intrudes too much in everyone's lives. How would the advice "Find some other source of happiness" fall upon a Jew in Nazi Germany or any dissenter in Soviet Russia? For that matter, what about a factory owner in the United States who is hounded by OSHA, a trucker persecuted by the ICC, a farmer whose freedom to grow crops is stifled by the AAA, or any taxpayer hounded by the IRS? Even the ivory-tower academician who doesn't know or care how much productive people are persecuted in the marketplace is still subject to high taxes and inflation caused by government. The retired person is seeing his dollar eroded by the constant inflationary actions of the government. The effects of interference are so all-pervasive that no one can ignore them and many people are ruined by them. Nor can antipolitical libertarians do much without using the government roads or the government-operated public utilities. The choice is whether one accepts the omnipresence of government without a fight, or whether one takes measures to combat it. If no one combats it, it seems obvious that no change for the better will ever take place.

Changing the direction of the ship of state is difficult, but not impossible. Reversals have occurred before in history. Even if they hadn't, it is still true that changes come about because of human actions, taken singly or together. Governments have grown fat and powerful because of human actions, and they can be cut back to size by human actions.

Some libertarians, however, allege that involvement in the political process, particularly running for office and supporting those who do, is immoral. Political power, they say, is coercive power over the lives of other human beings, and no person has the right to wield such power. The only proper role of the libertarian is therefore educational—to attempt to persuade others of the evils of political power and the reasons for it, but never to try to assume such power oneself.

It must be admitted at the outset that those who do not oppose political involvement cannot afford to eschew the contributions of those who do. The main task, as we have already seen, must be educational—to bring about, voluntarily, a change in the minds of human beings. Even political libertarians must recognize this; for how else would a majority of the voters ever elect libertarians to office.

Nevertheless, the alleged immorality of political involvement seems to be mistaken. What is evil about assuming political office, not to use the State in order to wield greater power over the lives of others, but to use it to dismantle the powers which it now wields? Advocates of limited government believe that all functions of government should be dismantled except the proper role of protection of rights; but even anarchists, who hold that government has no proper function, could consistently believe in political involvement in order to dismantle the political power-structure entirely. Either way, unless you are in the very seat of power, how are you going to dismantle it? At least it is infinitely more difficult if you are not where the action is. And isn't doing something, or at least trying to, preferable to sitting carping on the sidelines every time Congress leads us further down the path to statism?

One fact can hardly be controversial: that running for political office, and assuming such office if one wins, is the quickest way of getting libertarian ideas known to millions—not at any great level of profundity, of course, but then neither do those who voted in the present mixed economy have convictions of any great degree of profundity. To the extent that libertarianism is known in the United States today, it is almost entirely because libertarians have formed a political party whose members ran for office and had their ideas publicized in newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

And why shouldn't one avail oneself of such an opportunity if it presents itself? Running for office is no substitute for education, but it is surely an excellent supplement. And what is wrong with it, as long as the libertarian (if he attains office) uses his office to curb the power of government, never to expand it? Surely it's better than saying, "The ship is sinking, but don't you dare put your hands on the tiller!" To argue that when he's once in power he'll change his ideals is no more plausible than that the antipolitical libertarian, once he has seen some of his opposite numbers succeed, will change his ideals!


Short of running for political office and supporting those who do, what else can be done in the arduous task of helping to bring about a libertarian society?

A suggestion sometimes made is: Contribute to government (under duress, never willingly), but take nothing from it. One contributes because one is coerced into doing so, and the penalties for failing to pay are severe. But we are not similarly forced to take from government; we are free to reject the stolen money.

I know a woman who for most of her life has strongly disapproved most government enterprises—but she paid her income tax and social security tax and all the rest, preferring this to the consequences of not doing so. But she declined benefits from government, reiterating that she had no right to accept money forcibly taken from others. Two of her sons were drafted and served in Vietnam; one of them was killed there. She refused the government's death benefits. She herself later became ill and spent all her years of savings on hospital bills. When she could not recover her job as a waitress owing to continued ill health, she refused to go on relief, preferring to live in abject poverty rather than accept "dirty money." When she came to retirement age she refused to accept any social security payments. She described her position simply by saying, "If everyone did as I did, the government would have no expenditures."

Much as I admire the courage and resolution of this good woman, I believe that her strategy was foolish. Her action played right into the government's hands. The government couldn't care less whether she took a penny of what had been extorted from her; they were probably happy when she didn't—they had more money to throw around elsewhere. They didn't mind, that is, as long as she continued to place a portion of her meager earnings into their hands—which is exactly what she did. Besides, one might well ask, since she had paid thousands of dollars to the government during all those years, what's wrong with getting a few hundred of them back?

One can practice the above tactic in less self-sacrificing ways than this woman did. Consider the case of the great libertarian Rose Wilder Lane. She deliberately placed herself in a position where she wouldn't legally have to pay any income tax. She could have reaped considerable income from her published works, but this would have required her to fill out a Form 1040. So she eschewed all royalties and adjusted her income so that it remained below the $600-a-year annual minimum for filling out the form. And she consistently and actively resisted all attempts to be placed on social security. She wrote:

I am law-abiding for expediency, for self-defense, in the main against my conscientious principles, so at bottom I am ashamed of not being a conscientious objector practicing Gandhi's or Thoreau's civil disobedience. I did refuse to be rationed (during World War 2); I do absolutely refuse to be Social Secured; but I should refuse to pay taxes and be in jail, only what would become of my little Maltese puppies? and my own little area of freedom? and my books and my friends and correspondents? I shall be reluctantly a martyr, and only when backed into the last corner of the last resort.…

The Internal Revenue collector sent me a bill, including fine, for my not having paid the self-employment tax one year.…I sent a check. At intervals since then, various Authorities have been trying to force a social security number on me. They telephone and tell me I must have it. I get forms, my humble request to social security benefits, with command, Sign here and return. I put them in the wastebasket. I get orders to appear at such an hour, such a date, at such an office, with all records and receipts to show cause—I reply that it is not convenient for me to appear—etc. etc. I even get an order to appear and support with my claim for refund of the tax-and-fine that I paid. I return this, writing across it, I have made no such claim. The telephone rings, and I am informed that I am being given the necessary social security number; I say I have none and I shall not have one. I will have nothing to do with that fraud because it is treason, it will wreck this country as it wrecked Germany. I won't have it; you can't make me. [The Lady and the Tycoon, ed. Roger L. MacBride (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1973), p. 204.]

This kind of position—refusal to take from government—usually leads to a disinclination or refusal to contribute to it either. If one should not take dirty money, why should one add to its amount?

There's not much one can do about paying sales tax: the only way to avoid the tax is not to buy the article. But income tax, the largest single source of government revenue, is something else again. The success of income tax resistance depends less on the efforts of any one individual than on how many others also engage in it.

If a comparatively small number doesn't file, and the enforcement remains stringent, then those few people are going to be heavily fined and perhaps imprisoned, and at the very least many valuable hours of their time will be taken in audits. The system will simply mop the floor with them. If several more millions decline to file or to pay, the situation may get out of hand; but is is also possible that the government will then increase the army of enforcers (increasing our taxes to do so), so that there will be still more tax-martyrs. In the end this tactic may be effective by giving publicity to the fact of widespread resistance, but on the other hand it may not be effective at all—it depends not on the resistance per se but on the amount of publicity it receives. (Resistance to the British by Gandhi was effective because they allowed him to speak; resistance in the Soviet Union was squelched at the source, and no one else knows how much someone resisted in the cellars of the Lubiyanka before he was shot.) But if half of the population declined to pay, it would surely break the system. There wouldn't be enough enforcers to keep the system going, and it would break down.

Some libertarians believe that everyone should be a tax rebel, refusing to file any return whatever. Others believe that everyone should at least agitate regularly on IRS premises and make his opposition known. The matter is not that simple, however. What techniques should be used to combat the IRS depends on one's particular circumstances. Consider an analogous case: should a young adult male in France during World War II join the resistance movement? If he has a wife and family to support, surely this makes a difference—they depend on him, and he may never return. On the other hand, if no one actively resists the tyranny, there will be no release from it. Somebody has to do it; in fact a great many people have to join together to do it, or it will not get done. But "Therefore you should do it" doesn't follow. In the case of the IRS, a great deal depends on the assessment of what you can get by with, on whether you believe that all use made of the money is evil, and on how much punishment you are prepared to take if apprehended.

At the moment there are said to be about 5 million people in the United States who are legally obliged to file income tax returns but don't. Many of them are small fry (from the government's point of view) who aren't worth being swept into the net. But sporadically some are found and dealt with harshly. Moreover, when the government spends as it does today, and shows every indication of spending more with every passing year, it will be determined to get its loot one way or the other; so if many people don't pay, and it isn't worth the trouble and expense to track down everyone, they will raise the rates and make the rest of us pay more.

Thus, even a considerable amount of protest and failure to pay will not be likely to result in the destruction of the system, but rather in the destruction of the individuals who won't comply. Any one individual should not be optimistic about his solo contribution to the cause. At the same time, if nobody makes the sacrifice of being fined or imprisoned and perhaps becoming a martyr, the IRS is unlikely to be made to bite the dust. (I say unlikely, not impossible: it is possible that even without martyrs, with only public indignation at increasing tax burdens and high-handed enforcement methods, voters will bring down the IRS themselves by voting out of office any congressman who supports it—at the moment, a wildly optimistic supposition.) The variation in circumstances from case to case, plus the uncertainty of outcome of each alternative course of action, renders extremely difficult the decision as to what to do in an individual case.


The most important, and certainly the most disputed, of the tactical questions dividing libertarians is this: In getting from here to there, what strategies should be adopted during the transition period? Some examples will illustrate how troublesome this question can become.

Libertarians believe in private charity but not in tax-supported welfare. But many of those now on welfare have been put into that position through no fault of their own, through the actions of government—for example, in increasing taxes that bankrupt businesses and thus create unemployment, in expanding the money supply (inflation), in endless regulations, in subsidizing one business and thereby making it harder for others to survive, and in thousands of other ways interfering with the free market. If all welfare benefits were cut off suddenly tomorrow morning, before the benefits of an unfettered economy gave employment to those now on welfare, the results would be catastrophic. There would be a great deal of suffering, even starvation, rioting and looting, the burning and sacking of cities.

Nevertheless, some libertarians say, "Would you initiate the use of force (via taxation) for even one day in order to keep this suffering from occurring?" In reply, some would say it is immoral to extract one penny of further taxation from anyone for any reason: in effect, "no interim period." There is a certain youthful idealism in this reply, as well as hot-headedness; one can sympathize with it while not agreeing with it. For one must proceed in the context of the situation; one can't just act as if the past mistakes were not made or as if one could wipe them all out with a stroke of the pen. My own suggestion is that the first step would not involve changing welfare payments at all (other than to eliminate cheaters and those who could find work but won't). It would begin at the other end by creating employment, and this of course would be done by taking the brakes off the economy—introducing laissez faire, stopping "business welfare" in the form of subsidies, protection, etc., etc., but also lifting restrictions on business activity. Once economic freedom was permitted at last to flourish, gradually the problem of welfare would take care of itself. It would be evident after a time of laissez faire that the small amount of poverty remaining (the ill, the aged, etc.) could more easily and efficiently be handled through private contributions. You wouldn't begin with the effect (poverty) but with the cause (failure to permit the free market to operate).

Or consider social security. Millions of people have paid into it for many years. Many of them knew or suspected what a fraud it would turn out to be but were forced against their will to pay into it if they expected to hold jobs. The people now "contributing" expect to receive benefits in their years of retirement, which presupposes the power to tax the next generation, for where else is the promised money to come from? When libertarians abolish taxation, including the social security tax, what happens to the people who have been paying into the system for all these years? Shall we say "Sorry, you'd better trust somebody else next time?" Are they not at least entitled to get back what they were forced to put in (plus a bonus for inflation)?

Certainly social security as a compulsory system should be abolished tomorrow morning. That part is easy, but it does not solve the problem of what should be done in the case of the people who have already paid money into the system and can't receive it back unless others are taxed. Often when one harm has been committed or loss sustained, no way to neutralize the harm or right the wrong is possible without the occurrence of further harm or loss. If this is not obvious in the case of social security, what of benefits to veterans? Is this contract suddenly to be revoked? To argue that the wars they fought in were unjustified, etc. is nothing to the purpose: the fact is that they did fight and they were killed or wounded, and the government undertook a contractual obligation to pay them some restitution.

Sometimes two pieces of coercive legislation are interlocked so that it is questionable whether one of them should be eliminated until the other is also. In some states it is not mandatory for motocycle drivers to wear helmets for their own protection. But if they have head injuries, as often happens, many of them are sustained for years or for life in hospitals at taxpayers' expense. Accordingly (it could be argued), shouldn't the law require the wearing of helmets in order to decrease taxes for the rest of us? As long as state welfare and disability payments are on the books and paid for out of general taxation, it would seem desirable to require the cyclist to take such safety measures, not to force him to protect himself, but to keep him from being a burden to those not involved in his choices.

Is it proper to destroy draft files? (The issue is not a live one just now, but could become active again at any time.) It performs one good: it keeps those men whose files are destroyed from being drafted, or at least delays it until new files are prepared. But of course, destroying files doesn't eliminate the draft, or even help to; it only redistributes the supply of draftees, causing more men to be drafted from other parts of the region.

Libertarians do not believe in public schools. At present these provide an extremely low quality of education. Assuming that an infusion of more money would improve their quality (which is dubious), should one vote for higher taxes to support public schools, seeing that most parents are financially unable to send their children to private ones? Most libertarians would say no, because this would only make the system of public education more entrenched; still, there is the interim problem of getting a decent education now for children whose parents (thanks to government taxes and inflation) can't afford to send them to private schools.

Most libertarians would applaud the recent court ruling (subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court) that cars near the Mexican border may not be stopped and searched by police just because they contain people with Spanish faces. We don't want people hassled just because they are coming from across the border. But now consider: most of the Mexicans thus entering are illegal aliens who can find no jobs in the States and end up on public relief, which is paid for heavily by the citizens of the counties adjacent to Mexico. In some counties the welfare rolls have been doubled as a result. Until the welfare laws are repealed, isn't it justifiable, one might ask, to take measures against this happening? Like so many changes, the two seem to be interlocked.

As Robert Nozick writes in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, "Although to introduce socialism as the punishment for our sins would be to go too far, past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive state in order to rectify them" (p. 231). This is the major point of dispute among libertarians.

Of all issues, national defense is the most troublesome, from the point of view not only of libertarian principles (which I cannot discuss here) but of libertarian strategy. Wars, threats of wars, and even sharp rises in military expenditures increase every citizen's tax burden and give more power to the State, power which is seldom withdrawn after the emergency is over. There is every reason for being suspicious about boosting the power of the military. At the same time, foreign threats to a nation's security do sometimes occur, and if they are not met with a strong military stance, invasion and conquest could be the result. Sometimes it is necessary to increase a nation's military power, even at the price of higher taxes and more powerful centralized government, in order to protect the people and enable them to survive at all to enjoy more freedom later. To increase national defense is always a risk; but there may be times (and in my opinion 1977 is one of them) when there is far greater risk in not having the defense.


It seems inevitable, then, especially in the initial stages of a libertarian presidency, that many compromises will have to be made. Not all changes for the better can occur at once, and then one must decide which is more important and which has the greatest chance of passing. If measure A is top priority and measure B is secondary, then in order to push A through the Congress it may be necessary (and justifiable) to table B. Some libertarians would scream "Compromise!" at this, and a libertarian president who ensured A by sacrificing B would be flayed alive by some of his own erstwhile supporters. But at least by tabling B the more important A would be attained, and without it we would get neither.

Suppose that A is the restoration of a laissez faire economy and B is a desirable tax reduction; and suppose that, in spite of reduced current expenses resulting from trimming the bureaucracy, the tax rate during the current year can't be reduced without incurring more debt or inflation (because of veterans' benefits, or reduction of the national debt, or whatever). If we could be sure that A would be achieved even though B would be tabled, it would seem wise to do so; at least we would be getting something instead of (as now) nothing.

But not everyone, not even every libertarian, will agree on priorities. Some will say that a return to economic sanity, important as it is, is less important than civil rights, victimless crimes, and penal reform, particularly since some progress is being made in these latter fields and victories are easier to achieve. Then those in political office will have to thrash out which priorities are most important and which have the greatest chance of successful implementation. My own view is that while the entire area of civil rights is tremendously important, the economy at the moment is "top priority." It is this more than anything else that will determine the future of our nation. We are now headed toward "galloping socialism" in the form of higher inflation, loss of savings and incentive to save, worthlessness of the currency, followed by price controls and shortages, followed in turn by hunger riots, civil disorder, and a "strong man" fascist-type government to "restore law and order." To short-circuit that dismal scenario, what is needed is at least the following: drastic cuts in federal spending, the elimination of inflation, the restoration of sound currency, and the lifting of controls on enterprise, after which business confidence would follow, then business expansion, resulting in greater employment, etc. If the trend toward omnipotent government continues, the isolated victories in the realm of civil liberties will be short-lived in any case; another Huey Long would make short shrift of them in the name of "national emergency" when he achieved power. And that is why the achievement of a laissez faire economy is the most important single goal to work for at the present moment: without it, any other gains will be temporary anyway.

This, I think, is the main thing we must concentrate on now in order to get from here to there. If we don't, our politicians will have spent us into such a fix that the goal of laissez faire will be unattainable in our time in our republic; we shall have reached the point of no return. And then in response to the question "How do we get from here to there?" we shall have to reply, "Sorry, brother—there ain't no way to get there any more."

The Libertarian Party's first presidential candidate in 1972, John Hospers, teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Libertarianism, among other books, and a frequent contributor to REASON.