In my most recent article for Free Life, I discussed a number of ways in which libertarianism differs from many statist philosophies at the fundamental level. One of these ways is the fact that it is more accurate to regard libertarianism as a behavioural ethic rather than as a grand, political system. This present article will echo and develop this particular theme in order to lay some basic groundwork for a libertarian political strategy.
Can we “Push the Button”?
The dedicated libertarian should want to see an end to statism in the quickest manner available. For those who adhere to more of an “anarchist” philosophy, such a desire would mean consigning as much of the state as we can to the dustbin of history in the shortest possible time; for those who lean more towards minarchism or to some other level of tolerance of a “nightwatchman” state, it would entail confining the state’s functions to the provision of defence, law and order, and to one or two minor roles.
A fitting example of this kind of fervour came as early as 1946 in a lecture given by Leonard Read entitled I’d Push the Button. Read imagined that, if there was a button in front of him that would release all wage and price controls immediately so as to restore the genuine free market, he would push it, without question. While Read’s preoccupation was with the specific kinds of state interference he specified, the symbolism of a giant, red button bringing about instant, radical change was likely to make a lasting impression during an era in which the very real spectre of the nuclear button was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Decades after Read’s lecture, Murray N Rothbard advocated extending the notion of button pushing beyond wage and price controls, demanding “the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty”.
It is true, of course, that any form of injustice should be removed by the quickest means possible, taking precedence over any other consideration. When confronted, for instance, by the institution of slavery, it is difficult to argue that the emancipation of those toiling in bondage should rank below the welfare of the slave masters, or the “practical” concerns of transitioning to a new labour system. Moreover, twentieth century examples of where free markets have flourished, such as in Hong Kong under John James Cowperthwaite, and in New Zealand under Roger Douglas, succeeded precisely because they were radical and uncompromising in sweeping away socialistic rot.
In stating this, however, we should remember that the adjective possible is as operative as the word quickest. Thus, while the notion of “pushing the button” may serve as a useful symbol, or metaphor, for keeping our eye on the ultimate goal, we cannot allow a literal interpretation of it to blind us to the realities of working towards a freer world. To analogise, a lottery win would very much “push the button” on one’s own lifestyle, delivering untold riches in an instant. But if the lottery player was to eye only the glittering prize, whiling away his days spending all of those millions in his head, then he would end up discarding all reasonable and practical steps towards becoming wealthier over time. Given that the cold, hard reality of probability all but guarantees his loss in every draw of the numbers, this kind of gambler consigns himself to the status of a romantic dreamer rather than that of a practical person.