Number 108, February 12, 2001
Plenty of Abuse to Go Around

Incrementalism For Liberty: What Works and What Doesn't

by Kent Van Cleave

Special To TLE

[This is a speech given to the Monroe County, IN, LP on 2/5/01. It is very compact, having been restricted to only about 30% of the time the topic really required. Still, it might be of interest to TLE readers.]

How do you cook a frog? Come on, you've heard the bit. Somebody?

Right. You can cook a frog bit by bit, because it never really minds— as long as it's relatively comfortable. Americans lost their freedom bit by bit, because they never really minded, being relatively comfortable all the while.

This is obviously a very effective technique, and Libertarians have been planning how to use this incrementalism to win back the freedom America has lost. After all, we can free America bit by bit, just like we can uncook a frog bit by bit....

Oops. You can't uncook a frog. So maybe we shouldn't take it for granted that the liberty Americans have lost through incrementalism can be regained the same way. We'd better take a closer look at what makes incrementalism work.

The psychological means is the lack of dissatisfaction (or the presence of complacency), leading to a failure to act. That's why evil will prevail when good men do nothing.

I don't doubt that enough dissatisfaction exists out there to motivate some incremental successes for liberty. But you can bet that Americans, now accustomed to a considerable degree of slavery, will reach complacency after only a few modest improvements. Plenty of them are there already. Once that level is reached, people never seek to be free.

The grand slam home run, the ultimate jackpot success for incrementalism in the quest for comfort, is simply this: comfy chains. Fleece-lined manacles, tastefully styled to complement the most sophisticated wardrobe.

Can't we do better than this? Probably not. It has to do with the nature of dissatisfaction.

There are two varieties of dissatisfaction. The first one brings incremental comfort can only lead to a plateau of complacency. It consists in dissatisfaction with one's subjective condition, with how good or bad one generally feels. It is generated exclusively in the primitive reptilian and limbic regions of our brains. This is the type of dissatisfaction that makes the frog jump out of the pot. And if it's absent, the frog is stew.

The other variety is dissatisfaction in principle. It arises when an emotional commitment is made to an idea, and when that commitment is frustrated. For libertarians, the idea is liberty. We can maintain our dissatisfaction in the face of personal comfort—even luxury— so long as we see that our liberty is diminished or threatened. Only this kind of dissatisfaction can, in principle, motivate people committed to an idea to pledge, say, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

What will the average American today pledge in the cause of liberty? Well, just about anything ... that doesn't involve inconvenience or cost or discomfort! Our culture is sick, and pursuit of happiness, narrowly conceived as the pursuit of comfort, is the disease.

I believe that liberty—not comfort—is the "goal" of libertarianism. (Indeed, only through liberty can comfort be maximized—and I think I've adequately explained why liberty can never be attained by those just seeking comfort.) For that reason, the job of libertarians is to restore among Americans the emotional commitment to principle that can sustain them—beyond the plateau of complacency, and all the way to liberty.

Now, this view is in direct conflict with what is probably the primary objective of the national LP and many of its state affiliates. Their objective is to reduce the damage inflicted by government, bit by bit. That is, to increase our comfort level bit by bit.

Here's the most realistic scenario for achieving that goal: Libertarians work their butts off, contribute tons of money to the cause, and work to elect school board members, dog catchers, and mine inspectors—who, theoretically, will impress the voters so much with their stellar performance that there will be a new opportunity for us to elect mayors, state representatives, and eventually even members of Congress. By and by, there will be enough Libertarians in office to actually pass legislation. For us to become a truly effective political force, it should only take ... about 15 or 20 years! Then we can start to turn things around.

Meanwhile, of course, the Demolicans will be tirelessly working to preserve, consolidate, and expand the scope of government. And they can do so quite easily, simply by appealing to the desire for comfort that is so strong in their fellow Americans. They're swimming with the current, not against it like we are.

The upshot of all this is that political incrementalism is still a force that works in favor of tyranny, not freedom. When comfort is the goal and politics is the means, tyranny is the unavoidable result. In a political context, incrementalism can cook liberty, but not uncook it.

Now, I don't want you to despair—but I do want you to worry. As long as Libertarians are bent on convincing voters how much more comfortable they'll be with less government interference and more of their own money in their pockets, we're fighting a losing battle. We can't compete in the comfort game.

But what if liberty were the game? Nobody else could even field a team! It goes without saying that we could win such a game. But how can we get the American people to switch games, as it were, in mid-stream?

The only way is through cultural change—by shifting the focus from the ends (comfort) to the means (liberty).

For some reason, many experienced libertarian activists treat it as a revelation when I mention that the LP is naturally the party of circumscribed means, not of ends. After all, the non-aggression principle simply limits the pursuit of any goal whatsoever to means that are honest and peaceful. The choice of goals is strictly a matter for individual or cooperative choice. Government should be silent on the question of ends. The job of the law, for libertarians, is to eliminate the means of fraud and aggression—period.

For us, the role of politics is just a matter of hiring, democratically, those who will be responsible for protecting our rights by prosecuting use of the prohibited means of aggression and fraud. For most Americans today, politics is a very different thing. It's either the way you get what you can't earn and don't deserve, or the way you do "good" things for people by holding a gun to somebody's head. Politics itself has become the preferred vehicle for committing aggression and fraud.

This contrast, between politics as the selection of guardians and politics as institutionalized aggression, could hardly be starker. Yet, when pressed, just about everybody will agree that the law is supposed to protect your rights.

Therein lies the answer to our question about how to get America to change games. We insist that we're not switching games, but rather restoring the original rules for the ongoing game—and for reasons that can't be disputed by honest, peaceful people who are willing to examine their preconceptions objectively.

The original rules. For fair-minded people—and I believe Americans are, by and large, fair-minded—this is a powerful position. The Founders' definition of government as that which protects individual rights, and their careful limitation of government to a few specifically delegated powers, have never been formally changed by the American people. Today's practices in violation of that conception of government are, quite simply, the work of cheaters who lied about the nature of our government and ignored its legal limits. Therefore, we have knock-down arguments for anyone, no matter what their original position.

For those who, like us, simply want freedom, we say this: The original rules are still the official rules. It's our job to make sure they're respected and followed.

For those who believe in a different role for government, yet believe themselves fair-minded, we point out that the original, still-official rules allow them to propose changes—constitutional amendments—and try to sell them to their fellow Americans. Being fair-minded and peaceful, of course they wouldn't dream of coercively imposing such changes without the consent of their neighbors, would they?

For those who wish to remain cheaters, we simply point out that there are consequences for breaking the rules ... and then work to make sure that they experience those consequences to which they are entitled.

For those who can't seem to abandon their idealistic dreams of a government-created utopia, we need to strip away the platitudes about benevolence to reveal the raw extortion that makes any program compulsory. We must relentlessly remind them that it's dishonest to advocate any law unless you're willing to kill everyone who persistently refuses to conform to it or accept punishment for violating it—for a law that can be ignored without consequence is no law at all, and a law whose violation can be tolerated is not a just law. Now, that's pretty abstract, so here are concrete examples: If an armed robber or rapist refuses to be arrested, we'll accept his death at the hands of arresting officers, because there can be no such thing as a principled insistence on a right to harm others without provocation. If a pot smoker refuses on principle to be arrested for possession, and we wouldn't rather see him dead than free, then we'd better not have a law against possessing marijuana.

The original, official rules aren't the only thing we have going for us. As you can see, the arguments at our disposal for cultural change are moral arguments, not the practical ones used in the comfort game. And history has shown that moral arguments can bring incremental changes to a culture; in fact, they can snowball into a cultural revolution in very little time. It happened with the American Revolution. It happened in the Civil Rights movement. Elsewhere, Gandhi used it to bring civil rights to India, and the French prosecuted their own revolution for liberty and equality (though their idea of equality ended up killing their liberty).

In fact, it was moral arguments—flawed but effective ones—that drove the socialist erosion of liberty in America. The same flawed arguments are used today to justify higher taxes, gun control, denying freedom of association, and so forth. Moral arguments don't appeal to our desire for comfort. In fact, they cry out for reform at the cost of discomfort, or much worse.

America knows moral arguments ... and responds to them.

The strategy I'm offering is this: Turn the libertarian case for comfort through reduced government into a footnote. Our main message is moral by nature, and it needs to be moral in practice: "Stop the aggression!" Our tactics will vary according to the particular subset of society we're dealing with. For neighbors of good will, it's time for "tough love." We can be gentle when we point out the force underlying their favorite policies. But we must be firm and relentless, too.

Ideologues need to be shown that they occupy not the moral high ground, but the gutter. The best technique is to turn the tables, showing their supposed virtues for the vices they really are. This is easiest with liberals, because you can just apply the labels they love to throw around: "hate speech," "intolerance," "elitist," "antisocial," "uncivilized," and "the politics of violence." They fit perfectly. And when they bristle in offense and demand a retraction, there can be no more backing off. "You'll get respect when you earn it. Stop preaching violence against peaceful and honest people."

For ideologues on the right, it's the same story, but with fewer options. Nail them for advocating policies that are "un-American," "immoral," and that "usurp God's judgment."

Finally, there's the politicians and bureaucrats. Are you ready for some fun?

Well, let's tread lightly at first. Some bureaucrats are just neighbors of good will, and we've covered how to handle them politely but firmly. But when it comes to career statists....

The long-time focus of Libertarians has been to replace statist politicians and bureaucrats ... with Libertarian ones. The biggest problem with this isn't just that we can't win that comfort game, as I've explained, but that in trying to play it we usually reduce our effectiveness in a number of ways.

First, we reduce our effectiveness by avoiding the moral arguments so as not to offend the good intentions of mainstream voters. That means we aren't gaining ground where we really can make a difference, in hopes of gaining ground where we're chained to the starting line.

Second, we reduce our effectiveness by playing nicey-nice with our opponents. We're afraid that if we insist that they are doing evil things—not just innocently mistaken ones, but evil ones—that we'll be considered too extreme to win. Of course, since we don't win anyway, you have to wonder why the sacrifice....

Now, I'm not saying we don't want moderate-sounding candidates out there. We do need them to play Mutt (or is it Jeff?) in the old "good cop/bad cop" hustle. After rank-and-file Libertarians have beat up on the Demolicans pretty well, our nice candidates can say, "I know you're not an evil person. But you have to stop advocating all that violence, or nobody will believe it!"

Access politics—where you give up your hard line positions in order to gain admission to "respectable" and "serious" politics— guarantees you'll be used as a pawn in the incremental loss of more liberty. Just look at how the NRA, which assiduously plays that game, has sold the Second Amendment down the river.

No. No more "Mr. Nice Guy." Think about it—what groups have been the most effective in getting their way in the political arena? Confrontational ones. NOW. Environmentalists. Gun grabbers. We could go on and on.

It's time to look at some other psychological motivations. We've talked about discomfort, which causes people to respond to some degree or another. What motivator do we have available that will make you stop what you're doing right now—and strongly consider never doing it again?

Pain. For a politician, pain is a tough question at a press conference. A lost political contribution. A critical letter to the editor. A recall petition. A promise to support her opponent next time. That sort of thing.

For ordinary humans—and politicians will often respond to this, too—ostracism may be the harshest tool. No more invitations, preferably with a note instead explaining how they aren't considered polite company any more—"You'll understand the bind I'm in!" "Sorry, I can't come fix your whatsit—people will think I condone violence, too." Ask your pastor to talk with the bureaucrats in your church, and suggest ways they can do good in a voluntary framework.

Be creative. There's a lot of pain to go around!

In closing, I should probably assure you I'm not trying to create a bunch of sadists here. But I am trying to divert Libertarian resources toward the area in which we can succeed: cultural reform by way of moral suasion. Incremental successes there are generally long-term ones, and they build upon one another. Our political revolution will follow rather quietly on the heels of the cultural one. And when nobody is comfortable being a statist any more, America will already have been free for some time.

Thank you.

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