Viewpoint: On Libertarian "Optimism"


This is my fourth and last "Viewpoint" of the year. I will be starting a new book this summer and will have no time for other work, so this is a farewell column. In it, I propose to discuss that phenomenon recently described, in a REASON panel discussion [May 1978], as libertarian "optimism." It is actually a manifestation of cultism.

A certain type of "optimism," namely, an unrealistic expectation that one's unknown or unpopular ideas will shortly triumph in society, is characteristic of all cults. Typically, cultists are socially alienated people who huddle together in a collective, swallowing whole the non-conventional views of a "father figure," and endlessly seeking reinforcement of those views. One of the chief ways in which cultists seek to manufacture a sense of efficacy is by fantasying that their Truths are rapidly being accepted by the society around them and will shortly dominate the culture. American history has been full of such cults and this pattern is repeated ad nauseam.

When I read the panel discussion on the future of the libertarian movement, I was disturbed to see that certain aspects of it bore the classical earmarks of that cultist fantasy. Much of the discussion was sensible—particularly the contributions of those who differentiated between libertarian theory, which is necessarily radical, and political application, which is necessarily gradualist. But often the discussion was polarized between the "pessimist's" position, which did not anticipate an imminent libertarian triumph in this society, and the "optimist's" position, which did. The "optimist" faction, in fact, declared that Americans are rapidly accepting libertarian ideas and that within 20 years the Libertarian Party will totally abolish statism from American society—indeed from "the planet." This remarkable achievement, say the "optimists," will be, in large measure, due to the "leftward drift" of the libertarian movement.

Setting aside, for a moment, the mysterious question of a leftist fervor for abolishing the State, one might call this the jubilant "optimism" of youth—except for two things: 1) there were no youths at this conference, at least biologically speaking, and 2) this same fantasy of a rapid cultural takeover is voiced by every political splinter cult in the United States.

Take a contemporary example, for instance, that I happen to have researched in detail—the U.S. Labor Party, with its own curious left-right ideological mix. It is "conservative"—pro-technology, pro-industry, pro-growth—at home, and Marxist-redistributionist abroad. For a decade now its members have been completely convinced that their doctrines are spreading like wildfire in the American working class, the unions, Big Business, the Republican Party, and the conservative world. They have believed that their own theoretician and presidential candidate, Lyndon LaRouche, was a significant intellectual force in the world. They thought, in 1976, that he would win 20 percent of the vote (presumably the same 20 percent expected by libertarian "optimists"). And above all, the U.S. Labor Party members have been certain that within a few years—10 to 20 at the outside—they could convert the country—and the world—to their point of view. Like the libertarian "optimists," they too stand ready to supervise their world revolution.

This precise parallelism is not a coincidence. It is standard brand cultist "optimism," which is replicated in every ideological splinter group known to man. It is, of course, not "optimism" at all. It is the compensatory megalomania of the psychologically submissive and the alienated. It should be recognized as such and dismissed.

To abandon such "optimism" does not mean abandonment of the conviction that new ideas can enter the intellectual bloodstream of a society and influence its history. New ideas have indeed influenced society and changed its cultural evolution—and will continue to do so. In fact, the issue is not one of a cheerful or of a gloomy outlook in the future, but whether one's analysis of society is valid, and whether one's educational methods, goals, and expectations are appropriate.

There are objective grounds in America, today, for believing that the cultural atmosphere is conducive to some degree of libertarian education. Certainly there is a general disillusionment with government and a growing resistance to oppressive interference, and to taxes. But one must evaluate this climate with caution. Between that generalized disillusionment with big government and the libertarian philosophy of limited government (not to mention anarchism!) there is an abyss. A self-correcting process has set in; the New Deal values and most government institutions have lost much of their glamor. But, as the polls steadily tell us, the very same citizens who are complaining about big government and big taxes, still want national health insurance, and still approve of massive social programs. The United States remains a Judeo-Christian-altruist culture and a committed social democracy, despite spreading boredom with the unending proliferation of "helpless" minorities. And the fact that disillusionment has set in with certain aspects of our political system does not remotely mean that Americans of any group or class are ready for radical libertarian ideas—particularly for an economics of self-interest which lacks an institutionalized moral base.

In fact, as one of the "pessimistic" panelists pointed out, the American political consensus is historically antagonistic to ideology as such and to "extremist" positions in particular. This is a democracy. What the great bulk of the people think does have practical political significance—as Barry Goldwater and George McGovern would be the first to tell you. It is therefore preposterous nonsense to proclaim an overnight libertarian triumph—and 20 years is "overnight." Such a prediction can only be based on a maniacal degree of wishful thinking; on an abnormal lack of contact with ordinary American life; and on a shocking ignorance of, or indifference to, the political process. And when such a prediction is compounded by an announcement that all statism in the world will be eliminated in two decades—with the aid of leftists!—one can only invoke psychiatric explanations. When I wrote, some months ago, that many leftist-anarchists were dominated by dreams and nightmares, I was not using metaphors. I meant it literally.

Some "pessimistic" members of the panel pointed out accurately that libertarian trends might well be paralyzed if a grave economic crisis occurred in this country. Eminently reputable economists believe this to be possible, even likely, for reasons well known to this magazine's readers. But the "optimists" flatly evaded that issue. And yet it is crucial. In such a crisis the American people would not tolerate a significant dismantling of the State (assuming that they would ever tolerate it). Quite the contrary. If there were a catastrophic crash in the country, or runaway inflation, people by the millions would be unemployed, impoverished, and terror stricken. Social Security funds and unemployment insurance would be worthless. Riots would break out, looters would fill the streets, and rampaging and hungry mobs would render life dangerous and unlivable for those who were still able to survive. In such conditions, the American middle and upper classes would not dismantle the State. They would summon the police, they would call out the armies, orders would be given to shoot to kill, and they would demand—and get—order and protection, from a decisive and powerful government. The probability is overwhelming that an irreversible dictatorship would be instituted. To evade this very real danger and to prattle about a rapid alteration of cultural institutions, that have, in some cases, been millennia in the making, bespeaks a profound capacity for ignoring anything that interferes with one's wishes.

This massive divorce from reality, then, is what underlies libertarian "optimism." It is not a state to emulate. On the contrary, it is one to flee from, if one wants to exercise any serious and lasting influence on this society. The alternative to such "optimism," of course, is not "pessimism"—it is realism. And realism tells us one thing above all today—that we must do everything in our power to prevent an economic collapse. What that means, of course, is that one must protect the institutions in this country on which science, technology, production, wealth, jobs, and physical life depend, even as one seeks to alter those institutions through education. This is not a self-contradictory assignment. It is the precise equivalent of giving a surgical patient oxygen and intravenous feeding. The goal is to make him well—not to carve him to death. In sum, however radical one's theory, gradualism is not an optional political approach—it is the only political approach. Anything else is cultist hallucination, or a nihilistic desire for destruction and disaster—or both.

And on this note, I say goodbye. I am off to write a book. To all of you who have written to me expressing appreciation for my columns: Thank you.