Monday, June 6, 2016

What Should a Hardcore Libertarian Do in This Crazy Political Election Cycle?

By Robert Wenzel

I have seen a number of recommendations as to what a libertarian should do in this political cycle.

There are some who advocate support for Donald Trump others for the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.

I am not happy with either of these options. Trump is just terrible on almost all his policy positions, both foreign and domestic. His reactionary stance against the establishment is not enough for me. He is worse than the establishment---and I realize this is a horrific charge to make but that is how I see it.

Gary Johnson is, of course, an opportunist willing to lie about the fundamental principles of libertarianism  (well,he is lying to the degree he understands libertarian principles in the first place) to garner more followers.

So we have a man that is worse than the establishment, a libertarian distortion machine that has no chance of winning and Hillary Clinton an interventionist who will likely ramp up Obama interventionist policies.

There is not much here for the hardcore libertarian. What to do?

Fortunately, we have something of a manual, left to us by the great libertarian Murray Rothbard, in the form of a memorandum written in July 1961, addressed to F.A. Harper and Geroge Resch, and marked STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL. (It is chapter 1 of  Strictly Confidential: The Private Volker Fund Memos of Murray N. Rothbard, edited by David Gordon).

I consider this memo to be Rothbard's most important libertarian activist writing, I have read the memo many times. I have marked up, underlined, written in the margins, placed asterisks and exclamation points on my copy of this memo to a greater degree than any other piece of writing I have ever read.

It is Rothbard explaining to us how to advance liberty,

Rothbard shrewdly takes the framework of Lenin's  revolutionary strategy and uses it to build a strategy for advancing freedom:
Here we stand, then, a “hard core” of libertarian-individualist“revolutionaries,” anxious not only to develop our own understanding of this wonderful system of thought, but also anxious to spread its principles—and its policies—to the rest of society. How do we go about it?
I think that here we can learn a great deal from Lenin and the
Leninists—not too much, of course, because the Leninist goals are
the opposite of ours—but particularly the idea that the Leninist party
is the main, or indeed only, moral principle. We are not interested in
seizing power and governing the State, and we therefore proclaim,
not only adhere to, such values as truth, individual happiness, etc.,
which the Leninists subordinate to their party’s victory.
But from one aspect of Lenin’s theory of strategy we can learn much:
the setting forth of what “revolutionaries” can do to advance their principles,
as opposed to the contrasting “deviations from the correct line,”
which the Leninists have called “left-wing sectarianism” and “rightwing
opportunism.” (In our case, the terminology would be reversed,
perhaps: “left-wing opportunism” and “right-wing sectarianism.”) 
On occasion, I have been called a "sectarian" for my principled stance on liberty. But this is a misunderstanding of  what a sectarian is. Rothbard explains:
The sectarian strategists (e.g., the current Trotskyite sects) are
those who pass out leaflets on street corners, state their full ideological
position at all times, and consider any collaboration in halfway
measures as “opportunist,” “selling out the cause,” etc. They are
undoubtedly noble, but almost always ineffective. 
Sectarianism, in other words, is an advocate who demands full simpatico ideological positions from those he associates with on all positions.

This is different from one who is willing to form alliances in popular front activities with those who on specific issues take a position consistent with libertarianism--but  such alliances do not mean crossing the line to support non-libertarian positions.

I am in full support of such alliances.

Rothbard called such a position, between sectarianism and opportunism, centrism and wrote:
 The hardcore man is working for his idea on two levels:
in a “popular” or “united” front for limited libertarian goals, and to
try to influence his colleagues as well as the masses in the direction
of the total system. (This is the essence of the much-misunderstood
Leninist theory of “infiltration.”)
The effective centrist avoids the pitfalls of “opportunism” by
keeping the objective firmly in view, and, in particular, by never
acting in a manner, or speaking in a manner, inconsistent with the full
libertarian position.
To be inconsistent in the name of “practicality” is
to betray the libertarian position itself, and is worthy of the utmost
Gary Johnson and his supporters are, of course, horrific violators of libertarian principle in the name of “practicality." It is correct for Rothbard to call for "the utmost condemnation" for such activity.

Charles Murray in his recent call for a universal basic income is another example of a violator for the sake of practicality. In Leninist terms, Murray, like Johnson, is a liquidationist.

Rothbard explains:
In the name of practicality, the opportunist not only loses any
chance of advancing others toward the ultimate goal, but he himself
gradually loses sight of that goal—as happens with any “sellout” of
principle. Thus, suppose that one is writing about taxation. It is not
incumbent on the libertarian to always proclaim his full “anarchist”
position in whatever he writes; but it is incumbent upon him in no
way to praise taxation or condone it; he should simply leave this
perhaps glaring vacuum, and wait for the eager reader to begin to
question and perhaps come to you for further enlightenment. But
if the libertarian says, “Of course, some taxes must be levied,” or
something of the sort, he has betrayed the cause.
Examples of “opportunist liquidationists” recently: the host of
so-called “anarchists” who went around telling all their friends that
good old Dick Nixon is “really a libertarian.”
So how does this apply to the current election cycle? Rothbard in his memo provided a key goal for hardcore libertarians. He was discussing how to approach specific policy issues in populist front activities but the same basic principles can be applied to election years such as the one we have. He wrote:
[T]he hardcore man, the “militant”libertarian, works to advance not only the total system, but all steps toward that system. In this way, we achieve “unity of theory andpractice,” we spurn the pitfalls of base opportunism, while making ourselves much more effective than our brothers, the sectarians... 
(2) In the course of this work, the hardcore libertarian should try
to advance the knowledge of both the masses and his fellow [populist front]
members, toward fuller libertarian ideals. In short, to “push” his
colleagues and others toward the direction of hardcore libertarian
thought itself. (In Communist-Leninist terms, this is called “recruiting
for the Party,” or pushing colleagues at least some way along
this road.) The hardcore man is working for his idea on two levels:
in a “popular” or “united” front for limited libertarian goals, and to
try to influence his colleagues as well as the masses in the direction
of the total system.
When there is little difference between what would happen on the policy front if Hillary Clinton becomes president or Donald Trump (Though I suspect Trump would be worse), there is no reason for a libertarian to be active in favor of either. When it comes to populist front activities, the role of the libertarian should be to provide ammo to the Hillary Clinton supporters where Trump is extremely anti-libertarian, say on trade. Libertarians should hammer away to Clinton supporters that Trump is Neanderthal when it comes to trade.

To Trump supporters, we can provide ammo on how evil Obamacare is and how Clinton will extend it.

Supporters of one or the other are always looking for solid arguments to destroy their opponents. They will listen to us on these points.

When you have strong arguments that help a person in a direction he wants to go, the person will pay attention, even if the individual doesn't buy everything you are saying.

The great economist Ludwig von Mises experienced this phenomenon early in his career in Vienna, Austria. Jörg Guido Hülsmann wrote in Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism:
Mises then turned to proposed legislation concerning private
inheritance and donations as well as corporate taxation and corporate
law. He reported on the former topic to a plenary Kammer
meeting in early December 1909. Mises pointed out that
the higher taxation and the complicated procedures of the
planned law would hurt business life, and he emphasized again
that the stipulations of the new law would treat the agrarian
population better than urban circles in commerce and industry.
But he also brought more far-reaching considerations into play,
noticing that the legislation would subject Austria’s courts to the
control of the financial administration.
Other young economists also gave reports at the meeting, but
theirs did not have as great an impact on the public or the press.
Mises’s reports set new standards both for analytical scope and
rigor and for their political audacity. The wind of change blew
through the Kammer. Even though Kammer executives did not
always share the views expressed in the reports of their new
employee, they benefited politically from the fact that his
seemingly extreme positions were always backed up with such
thorough research, that the Kammer was able to reach more
favorable compromises in the political process.

The goal for us current day is to get a few of the smarter once thinking about arguments from a libertarian perspective on subjects where they are inclined to think favorably about the conclusion relative to their candidate. If we can get the masses to start thinking in our direction, all the better. But this is not as important. It is the smart ones, the communicators that we are after. They are what F.A. Hayek called the second-hand dealers in ideas. As Rothbard put it in the memo:
  I need not dwell here on the overriding
importance of the intellectuals and scholars in forming a libertarian
cadre. For the filiation of ideas and influence works as a pyramid, from
the highest-level intellectuals to lower levels, from graduate school to
college, from treatise authors to journalists, on down to the housewife
and man in the street. In this pyramid, one scholar is worth a thousand
housewives, in the matter of influence, import, etc.

Though this doesn't mean we shouldn't work directly on the masses when the opportunity presents itself.

If there is a Marxist-Lennist at a Tump rally causing trouble, there is no reason a libertarian shouldn't point this out to Trump supporters. If neocons have become failures in the face of Trump, there is no reason this shouldn't be pointed out to Trump supporters,

 As far as Johnson is concerned, his opportunism is of the worst kind. He must be used as a foil. When someone speaks of him, our immediate response must be, "But he  is not a real libertarian. He doesn't even come close." And then unload both intellectual barrels against him.

This does not mean I object to him getting into the debates with Trump and Clinton. That would be great. The more publicity he gets as a "libertarian," the more discussion about libertarianism will occur and the more opportunity we will have to unload on his non-libertarian liquidationist positions by those seeking to understand what libertarianism is. We should never publicly support him, just blast him for his non-libertarian stances---but hope he gets a lot of publicity so we can blast him even more.

As for support between Trump and Clinton, they would be both terrible, so for libertarians who vote there is no choice here. I have never voted and will not this year.

This does not mean I would never vote in the future. If there was a major significant difference between two candidates that could result in a major collapse of my standard of living if one was elected  versus another which would result in only minor irritations to my living standard, I would vote. If say, Joseph Stalin were to run against Margaret Thatcher, in a geographic area where I lived, I would unhesitatingly vote, and vote for the old crony bag over Stalin.

That option is not before us this cycle. This cycle is about two serious interventionists and an opportunist flying under the libertarian flag.

The only option we have is to conduct some populist front activities pointing out where these psychopaths are most evil. Liquidationist support should not be an option.

As Rothbard put it:
To restate my view of the proper strategy: we must, first and
foremost, nourish and increase the hard core; we must, then, try to
diffuse and advance principles and action as far as possible in the
direction of hardcore doctrines. To abandon the hard core is liquidationist;
to abandon all hardcore leverage upon others is to remain
sterile and ineffective. We must combine the two elements; we must,
in short, nourish and develop a hard core, which will then permeate
and exert leverage upon others...Without a strong hardcore center, the “infiltration” process inevitably leads not to the “revolutionary” goal of exerting leverage on less-advanced persons, not to drawing new members into the hard core, but to the weakening and dissolving of the hard core itself. 

 Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher at and at Target Liberty. He is also author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics. His linked page is here. His San Francisco Review of Books essays are here.


  1. We minarchists should be running for office and spreading libertarian ideas everywhere. That's what we SHOULD be doing.

    1. We've had a senator from Nebraska change party affiliation: from republican to libertarian, yet none of the libertarian sites have carried the story.

      Go figure.

    2. Re: Brutus,

      Well, Reason did report on it. See:

    3. F.T.,

      That's great. I guess I expected a little noise from the non-beltway types. So far, silencio.

  2. ─ To Trump supporters, we can provide ammo on how evil Obamacare is and how Clinton will extend it. ─

    Sure, IF you really trust El Trumpo would get rid of Obamacare, instead of merely re-branding it and calling it 'Huge!'

    ─ When someone speaks of [Johnson], our immediate response must be, "But he is not a real libertarian. He doesn't even come close." ─

    Try that and then receive the quizzical look from your friends who ask themselves 'what's the deal with this guy?' As far as I am concerned, Johnson is much more libertarian than El Trumpo and HillRod. One only has to READ what Trumpistas think El Trumpo will do once he becomes president to realize that his supporters are completely unsympathetic to libertarianism, free markets and individual rights. Most people who will vote this November are either Marxians or Fascists. And unless you're intellectually dishonest, you can't argue that Johnson is either.

    1. He would force the cake bakers to bake a cake using their private property against their will. Which category of libertarianism/freedom does this fall underneath (That is just 1 example.)?

      The point is libertarians can make more of a difference being advocates of actual libertarianism, not supporting candidates who want to use libertarianism for their own purposes while undermining it's principles.

  3. Declining to participate in the established political process is not tantamount to doing nothing or to resigning oneself to victimization or to implicitly approving the actions of those who currently control politics and government. It's only a withdrawal from being a part of the joke. You are still free to search for feasible and effective actions you can take to improve your situation, actions that are not manifestly ridiculous and do not soil your moral hands. - Robert Higgs