I just read an excellent article by Murray Rothbard (circa 1989) called, “Four Strategies for Libertarian Change“. Strategies for social change have long fascinated me. (I ran a student colloquium on the topic when I was with the Mackinac Center’s Students for a Free Economy)
In the article Rothbard describes four approaches with four historical examples and discusses the pros and cons of each. The piece is entertaining and well worth a read on its own, but coupled with the response by my current colleague Steve Davies (starting on page 13 of the linked article) it is especially savory. Davies largely finds Rothbard on point but happily advances the discussion further. He corrects a few of Rothbard’s historical characterizations (Rothbard’s histories are always engaging, but often portray events and figures as more libertarian than they probably were), and adds a dose of Public Choice realism. Most interesting to me, however, is the addition of other potential strategies.
Davies mentions the seldom attempted but often fantasized strategy of letting things get so bad they eventually get better (which I briefly address in this Liberty Magazine Reflection, “Story Time“), and wisely warns against it. He mentions the possibility of violent revolution and rightly dismisses it out of hand. He mentions the libertopian approach of a mass defection from current societal arrangements but, Seasteaders not withstanding, considers this highly impractical if not fundamentally flawed.
The final strategy that Prof. Davies mentions is to me the most promising and intriguing, and probably has the best track-record historically, though it often goes unnoticed. That is the idea that existing coercive institutions can be toppled not primarily by direct attack, but by subterfuge. Rather than convincing people they should give up the status quo, which means convincing them to drop the perceived security of the known and embrace an unknowable future, or overturning it by force or via an elite cadre, instead create the alternative. Convince the world that non-coercive institutions and solutions to social problems are preferable by showing them. If this is done well the act of formally removing state institutions becomes almost a foregone conclusion or a mere formality.
Though Hayek espoused a more ideas-based view of social change in The Intellectuals and Socialism, the Davies approach is quite Hayekian in that it is more of a spontaneous than a planned order. That makes is somewhat unsatisfying to us as libertarian “elite” intellectuals. It’s messy, slow, unpredictable, and nearly always lacks that single climactic moment when freedom defeats statism.
Illustrative of how unsatisfying it can be, consider that we may be witnessing an example of this approach unfolding before our eyes in mail delivery. Public Choice realities being what they are, the likelihood of toppling the state postal monopoly with any amount of education, policy paper publication, or direct civil disobedience is very slim. (Ask Lysander Spooner.) These efforts are not futile and, as Davies points out, work to compliment and aid the undermining process, but ultimately they cannot win the day alone.
We’ve seen the Post Office’s monopoly weaken with the advent of UPS, FedEx, DHL, etc. We’ve seen it’s importance wane with new technologies like email. Sure, policy battles have played a part in this process, but the real impetus was self-interest on the part of parcel delivery entrepreneurs.
It is likely that the Post Office will die a slow death – or maybe never even completely disappear on paper – but one day we will be so used to other methods of delivering goods and information that we will forget it ever existed. I would not be surprised to see the public education system undermined in the same way.
The beauty of this method is that it does not require the agents of change to themselves be libertarian, only self-interested entrepreneurs. Libertarian ideas still play a key role, as do policy and legal efforts, activism and education, but the real change comes when the alternatives to state programs are implemented rather than just talked about as possibilities.
Now a little twist. This approach can be very powerful on an individual level when combined with Rothbard’s first strategy, a sort of Taoist retreatism. In order to make society a happier and freer place, it helps to make oneself happier and freer first. (This is the nut of an argument I made against worrying about elections and reading the news.) We ought to focus less on what makes us unhappy and thwarts our freedom, and more on how to be as free as possible as individuals. Just like UPS undermines the Post Office, we can undermine our own oppressive mindsets and internal institutions by building up freer alternatives underneath them.
I do not mean to be cute or self-helpish. I genuinely believe that a social movement led by unhappy or internally unfree people is doomed to failure. Occasionally retreating from the things we wish to change in the world and realizing that true freedom is not contingent on other people not only improves our own quality of life, but makes us much more attractive to the freedom philosophy’s would-be converts.
First free yourself. Then work towards societal freedom by creating competing solutions to those offered by the state. Simple, right?