Out of the Living Room
The movement has grown up; it's time to put aside bickering, and start working in the real world.
Ten years! In some ways, it seems like a lifetime ago. In those ten years, American politics and culture have radically and irreversibly changed. Not the least of those changes is the birth and flowering of the libertarian movement, a process which REASON, as the longest-lived libertarian magazine, helped immeasurably to achieve. Ten years ago, all the libertarians in the country could fit comfortably into a medium-sized living room; now we are a large, growing, and multifaceted movement, making an increasingly vivid impact on American thinking, attitudes, and institutions.
In the last few years, I have become increasingly convinced that this rapid and astonishing growth of the libertarian movement is no flash in the pan, but rather that libertarianism is destined to have a widespread and deepening influence on American life. More: that we are on the road to the victory of liberty.
Let us contemplate the drastic changes in American attitudes toward policies and institutions that were sacrosanct only 10 years ago. For example:
The public school. Ten years ago, the public school system was above criticism; anyone even mildly critical was treated as a social leper. Now, the public school system is under widespread attack from all ends of the ideological spectrum. It is increasingly recognized that the public schools (a) don't teach, (b) are often centers of crime, of violence, (c) create social conflicts by imposing uniformity on children in their areas; and (d) are just plain too expensive. All over the country, school bonds are being turned down by the voters, an unthinkable event a decade ago.
Social Security. Ten years ago, the Social Security system was right up there with public schools in the public hagiography. Any criticism was considered an attack on the aged. But now, even the Establishment acknowledges what a few free-market critics have said all along: that the Social Security system is bankrupt, that it is several trillion dollars in the hole, and that it is in no sense worthy of the honorable name of "insurance."
Victimless crime laws. The idea that the State is supposed to compel people to act in accordance with various canons of morality is now being increasingly discredited. Apart from considerations of libertarian principle, laws against marijuana, gambling, pornography, and sexual activities simply cannot be enforced, and attempts to enforce them only lead to corruption, black markets, and selective harrassment. All this is becoming more and more recognized by the public.
Global intervention. The Wilson-Franklin Roosevelt policy of global intervention and crusading was taken for granted by most Americans in the mid-1960's; but now the failure in Vietnam has brought about much sober caution and rethinking by Americans. Both domestic and foreign intervention is now more and more seen as counterproductive.
The FBI. Ten years ago, the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, were literally revered in America, and were beyond public criticism. No one cared much about the widespread invasions of civil liberty conducted by the FBI and other secret intelligence arms of government. But now, after Watergate, all this is changed, these agencies are being subjected to careful scrutiny, and J. Edgar Hoover has been at least retrospectively toppled from his pedestal as public idol Number One.
Watergate and the Presidency. This brings us to the most important desanctification that the last decade has brought us. The President was on the way to almost absolute power in America, and the magic phrases "national security" or "executive privilege" or just "the President wishes" were covers for all manner of unconstitutional tyranny. But with Watergate, all that has changed. No one any longer considers the President as sovereign, no one now considers him above the law, and no one holds impeachment to be an unthinkable and obsolete weapon against him. But best of all, Watergate—as politicians continue to mourn—has ended the blind trust of Americans in government that had infected them for so many decades. Everyone now has a healthy distrust and skepticism toward politicians, bureaucrats and their designs. And thanks to Bert Lance, even Jimmy Carter's born-again cardigan sweaters have not been able to reverse the tide.
So—we have a new and growing libertarian movement in America, and we have a new social and political climate of Americans who are now open and sympathetic to libertarian solutions and directions. Where should we go from here?
Libertarians should realize that we are now large enough to put into practice in our own movement the principle of the division of labor which we champion for society at large. In other words, not every individual or organization or magazine has to—or can—do everything. There is room in our movement now for a variegated set of institutions: for core organizations and periodicals that will refine and disseminate libertarian theory; for a libertarian political party that cleaves to principle in pointing to the goal and the means of rolling back statism in American life; and for ways for libertarians to exercise great leverage in our society by reaching and working with allies for specific libertarian goals. In short, not only is it not a "sellout" for libertarians to work with non-libertarians in accomplishing specific goals (e.g. repeal of a property tax or of a drug law), but this is the only way that these goals can be accomplished. By working with such allies, libertarians not only exercise great leverage, they also help to "widen the consciousness" of the public by showing how libertarianism offers a uniquely consistent political creed that applies to all the vital issues of the day. Libertarians, in fact, have a remarkable opportunity to do this, since we can, on different issues, find allies all across the increasingly obsolete left-right spectrum. (For, happily, there are few people who are in favor of government domination of everything.) Part of our strategy is to demonstrate that libertarians are beyond "left" and "right," that we are, if I may be facetious, "above" that one-dimensional line altogether.
And so now that we are out of the living room, now that we have a mature movement, we must act accordingly. We must realize that, contrary to Pogo, the "enemy" is not "us" but statism. We must realize that we don't have to agree on every fine point, on every syllogism and lemma, before we try to advance our cause in the real world. We must not return to the old "living room" ways of the 1960's when any libertarian with a different view of strategy or tactics was condemned as a degenerate. We must realize that we are a diverse movement, with people of different interests, abilities, and strategic visions that are capable of working harmoniously toward our common goal. Fruitless bickering can be a lot of fun, especially for those who are not personally involved. But something a lot more serious than an evening's entertainment is involved. We have the glorious opportunity of helping to bring about the triumph of liberty in America. Let's not blow it.
Contributing Editor Murray Rothbard is on leave from his teaching position at the Polytechnic Institute of New York, pursuing research and writing at the Cato Institute. A new paperback edition of his For A New Liberty is scheduled for release later this year by Macmillan.