"Contra Gradualism" (by Wendy McElroy)

I happened again today on this classic essay by Wendy McElroy I hadn't looked at in a while, and wanted to share it with those who may not have already read it. You can find it online at http://www.wendymcelroy.com/grad.htm .

Love & Liberty,

        ((( starchild )))


by Wendy McElroy

It is 1858 and you are living in a Northern town. A man has arrived at your door with papers documenting his ownership of a run away slave whom you are sheltering. The slave throws himself at your feet begging to stay while the slave-owner reasons with you. Being philosophically inclined, he comments on the political and social necessity of preserving slavery for the time being. He assures you he is opposed to the institution, but that without it the economy of the South would shrivel and crimes of passion by blacks against whites would abound. Slavery must be phased out. When the black man is educated and able to support himself, then he will be freed.

If you reply, "There is no moral or practical consideration that overrides this man's right to his own body," you are an abolitionist.

If you reply, "I am opposed to slavery, but the consequences of immediately ending it are disastrous; therefore, I return your slave for the transition period," you are a gradualist.

The abolition of slavery was the core issue around which libertarians of the early nineteenth century rallied. They opposed phasing it out as they would have opposed phasing out rape. Both are moral abominations on which the only proper position is immediate cessation; that is, as fast as is humanly possible. A core issue around which modern libertarians must rally is the abolition of the state, as fast as is humanly possible.

Libertarianism is the political philosophy based on the principle of nonaggression. Every human being is a self owner with inalienable rights. And gradualism is inconsistent with the moral foundation of libertarianism.

Before proceeding, it is useful to distinguish gradual- ism as a policy from gradualism as a fact of reality. This latter form of gradualism says that, try as you may, it takes time to implement ideas. The transition to a libertarian society would not - because it could not - occur overnight. This is the nature of temporal reality in which we live. If this is all that is meant by gradualism -- if it means 'as fast as possible' -- then there is no quarrel between so called 'gradualists' and 'abolitionists' within the movement.

This is not the formulation of gradualism with which abolitionists are concerned. When abolitionists say that unjust laws ought to be abolished immediately, the "ought" is a moral ought, and "immediately" means no more than as fast as possible.

Abolitionists do not deny reality; they simply insist that - as a political policy, individual rights must be given priority over all other moral and practical considerations. Libertarian abolitionists of the nineteenth century realized that the cessation of slavery would take time, but their message was that the deliberate continuation of slavery as a policy could not be justified. They demanded abolition - no "ifs,"" ands," or "buts."

Those libertarians of the "ifs," "ands," or "buts" camp maintain that, in some cases, libertarianism ought to favor the gradual phasing out of unjust laws and agencies rather than pushing for immediate abolition, even if that immediate abolition is possible. A commonly cited example is the modern version of slavery - taxation. If taxes were to cease abruptly, it is claimed, the consequences upon those who have paid into social security would be calamitous. Therefore taxes must be phased out.

[For the sake of this analysis, I will label the foregoing position as "explicit" gradualism and introduce the concept of "implicit" gradualism later.]

The defining aspect of explicit gradualism is the answer it gives to the key question: Could it ever be too soon to eliminate an unjust law or agency? The abolitionist gives an unqualified "no." If the gradualist does not answer "yes," he answers "maybe." Taxation is theft but some people might starve if it ceases abruptly. (Please note that I am not denigrating concern for starving people, but merely rejecting the use of force - and particularly governmental force - to solve this problem.)

Here the explicit gradualist is not denying that taxation violates rights; he is claiming that there is a "social good" which has higher priority than individual rights. Since he cannot justify coercion with reference to freedom itself (unless the word is radically redefined), he justifies the willful continuation of theft by posing a dilemma of some kind. Abolition of government laws would result in social chaos; thus, we need a "transition" period during which deliberate rights violations would continue

The myth of the transition period accomplishes at least two things. It converts libertarianism from a personal philosophy and obligation that should be consistently lived on a day-to-day basis into a symbolic light at the end of a tunnel. Thus, libertarians might have to advocate and participate, in the violation of rights in order to humanely achieve a society where no compromise of rights is tolerated. To the insightful Gandhi objection that "The means are the ends in progress," the explicit gradualist might well answer with a quote from Lenin: "You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette." Is it necessary to point out that "eggs" is a metaphor for "heads"?

The second accomplishment is a slight of hand. By posing the transition period, gradualism is suddenly shifted into a strategic rather than a moral question. Gradualism is simply a matter of getting from here to there.

Abolitionists answer: on the contrary, however, gradualism is a matter of whether libertarians will sanction the violation of rights as a strategy. As a libertarian, it is not within your range of discretion to deliberately violate the rights of any person in any case. It is forbidden, without qualification, by the fundamental principle of the philosophy. You may decide to aggress anyway, but you cannot aggress in the name of libertarian theory. Logic forbids you that option.

The only possible avenue of escape from this contradiction is to compromise the non-aggression principle by watering it down to read: "The initiation of force, is wrong except when it is necessary to preserve "social order," or "...when it is politically expedient," or "...when a libertarian politician says so. "

If the non-aggression principle is given priority then the only libertarian approach to unjust laws and agencies is that they must be abolished as soon as is humanly possible; that is, abolitionism.

Other problems with explicit gradualism are worth mentioning. For those who favor libertarian politicians (I do not) it is important to have a standard by which to judge the effectiveness and sincerity of libertarian office-holders, If, at the end of four years, your politician has accomplished little, he can always contend, "The time was not ripe." Since gradualism has no objective standards, it is a blank check for inactivity and compromise.

A more fundamental problem is the "reductio ad absurdum" of gradualism. Once you admit the principle of subordinating rights to a social good, there is no way to draw the line. If my rights are violated by libertarians to compensate others for injustice (not receiving social security, for example), why should the same principle not be applied to me? Surely that injustice done to me should go rectified by violating the rights of the coming generation. This vicious, antilibertarian doctrine fosters an infinite regress of injustice. As William Lloyd Garrison expressed it, "Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice." The only way to stop injustice is to stop injustice.

Nevertheless, gradualists might reply that a minimal tax would be a small injustice compared to the greater one of depriving old people of social security. But it is not clear what standard is being used here. Are we to trust a "gut" reaction that it is better for many people to be deprived of a little than for few to be deprived of a great deal? Even if one could be judged less unjust, trying to fit either one into a libertarian framework would be pounding a square peg of injustice into the round hole of liberty. And if it could be demonstrated that I have had more stolen from me through taxation than have many of those on social security, could they be forced to compensate me for that greater injustice? The dismal fact is that everyone has had money stolen by the government; the goal of libertarianism is to end that process, not to dilute or redirect it.

Let me now introduce the concept of "implicit" gradualism, which uses a different approach. The implicit gradualist might well agree with everything written up to this point, but he would advocate gradualism with regard to spreading libertarian ideas. Thus, libertarian writers and speakers should present issues on a piecemeal basis without ever stating the goal of abolition or the wider libertarian context. Thus, a libertarian should call for decreased taxation without revealing the goal of no taxation. 'Taxation is theft" is replaced with a statement that you "have the right to keep more of what you earn."

This is gradualism by concealment - a concealment that is justified as a strategic maneuver to facilitate agreement. After all, if we unload the entire libertarian ideology onto people, they will shrink from its radicalism. They are not ready to hear abstract discussions of justice and natural rights. The implicit gradualists may swear - in private to fellow libertarians - that they favor abolitionism, but they are unwilling to be publicly honest about it.

It is important to point out that it is indeed sometimes inappropriate to bring up the wider framework of libertarianism. In discussing drugs, for example, it is probably inappropriate to divert the conversation in order to show how self ownership also applies to abortion or labor reform. This is different in kind, however, from actively avoiding the fundamental principles ... of refusing to extend them when they are appropriate. And it is also different from misstating a libertarian position to dull its radical edge.

This policy of calculated misstatement is one of the most unpleasant contributions that electoral politics has made to libertarian theory. Unlike explicit gradualism, however, implicit gradualism does not violate rights. It is more a matter of personal integrity and strategy. It is simply lying by omission.

In defense of such lying it must be admitted that, since no one has a natural right to hear only the truth, lying is non-aggressive. I contend, however, that it is counter to strict personal integrity and is abysmally poor strategy.

Strategically, the first question to consider is whether or not there is a distinctively libertarian point of view to political issues. Libertarianism consists of more than advocating certain repeals and reform; it consists of advocating them for a specific reason. Individual political reforms come with no ideological tag identifying them as libertarian, socialist, conservative or liberal. Both conservatives and libertarians attack big government and taxes. Both liberals and libertarians call for pro-choice abortion laws...or, at least, they should. The point is that unless a libertarian gives the reason for a specific proposal, there is nothing intrinsically libertarian about it. If, however, he stands up and states, "I oppose all taxation as theft and support any reduction of taxes as a step toward that end," then his proposal has a libertarian context.

Secondly, the benefits of consistency and openness must not be underrated. Once people understand and accept the principle of non-aggression, they begin the long slide of applying it to specific issues and concluding that everything from roads to a court system could be handled on a voluntary basis. Communicate the ideology well and the issues will follow; the adverse is not necessarily true.

Third, gradualists claim that libertarianism is too radical to appeal to large numbers of people. But the problem here is not whether we wish to appear radical; the problem is that we are radical and don't want to admit it. At least, not publicly. The issue is whether our radicalism will be viewed as a strong-point or as an political idiot cousin to be locked in the attic and not discussed.

My final objection is that I suspect many implicit gradualists, are simply confessing their inability to communicate radical, abstract ideas well and then making a strategy out of this failure. The enormous appeal and influence of Ayn Rand and Thomas Szasz proves that radical ideas can be presented reasonably and effectively. They can be presented with passion, humor, understatement, allegory, compassion and anger. The range of presentation is as endless as the personalities of those who espouse the principles.

The alternative to a fanatic, railing abolitionist is not a wishy-washy, evasive gradualist. It is a reasoned, knowledgeable abolitionist who communicates radical ideas effectively.

If libertarians do not present clear and explicit libertarian ideas, who will? These ideas may be accepted or rejected, but they will live or die on the basis of what they are instead of what they are not. It would be tragic if the one clear voice for freedom in our time did not have enough confidence in itself to speak up without apology.