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Both Theory and Praxis: Rothbard’s Plan for Laissez-Faire Activism

The United States has not had a large, organized laissez-faire political movement since the 1890s, when the Democratic Party explicitly embraced an agenda of low taxes, restrained foreign policy, political decentralization, and opposition to a central bank. Certainly, since that time, laissez-faire factions have been part of various political coalitions and parties. The Old Right, for example, ...

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The United States has not had a large, organized laissez-faire political movement since the 1890s, when the Democratic Party explicitly embraced an agenda of low taxes, restrained foreign policy, political decentralization, and opposition to a central bank. Certainly, since that time, laissez-faire factions have been part of various political coalitions and parties. The Old Right, for example, embraced laissez-faire both in foreign policy and in the movement’s opposition to the New Deal. And the post–World War II era included laissez-faire activists as one group within the conservative movement.

But the conservatives were led primarily by hard-core interventionists in foreign policy. For them, even domestic laissez-faire was a minor afterthought. After all, William F. Buckley, perhaps at the top of the movement’s leadership, demanded that Americans be prepared to accept "for the duration" of the Cold War a "totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores."

Obviously any political movement dominated by such views could not embrace laissez-faire with sincerity. Thus, for more than a century now, the minority-bound parties of laissez-faire have asked themselves: How can an effective and growing movement be sustained? 

The answer lies in a two-pronged approach: first, an intellectual and ideological battle must be waged to win over at least some key portions of the public. But once this has been done—or perhaps while it is being done—others must also work to translate this intellectual foundation into practice.

Not surprisingly, Murray Rothbard had some ideas on this. 

Rothbard on Strategy

Few laissez-faire advocates have given the problem more thought than Murray Rothbard, who concerned himself not only with the problems of ideological coherence, but also with the problem of political organization. That is, he wondered if the laissez-faire advocate should focus primarily on spreading and explaining why the ideology of laissez-faire is best or if he should focus on political activism and organization.

Rothbard explains defines the first of these strategies, known as “educationism”:

Roughly: We have arrived at the truth, but most people are still deluded believers in error; therefore, we must educate these people—via lectures, discussions, books, pamphlets, newspapers, or whatever—until they become converted to the correct point of view. For a minority to become a majority, a process of persuasion and conversion must take place—in a word, education.

Some commentators have claimed that Rothbard has condemned educationism, but this is not the case. Rothbard condemned only the idea that educationism is sufficient in itself, noting:

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with this strategy so far as it goes. All new truths or creeds, be they scientific, artistic, religious, or political, must proceed in roughly this way: the new truth rippling out from the initial discoverers to disciples and proteges, to writers and journalists, to intellectuals and the lay public. By itself, however, pure educationism is a naive strategy because it avoids pondering some difficult problems, e.g., how are we to confront the problem of power? (emphasis added)

The Need to First Shape Public Opinion

It should be self-evident that a just and moral political regime can only exist in the long term if a sufficiently large number of people actually believe in ideas which support such a regime. Ludwig von Mises made this point on numerous occasions. Mises noted that no matter what political strategies are employed in choosing rulers or enacting policy, it is the ideological views of the public which ultimately decide the nature of the regime, and "If they prefer bad doctrines, nothing can prevent disaster."

We see today the outcome of decades of ideological drift toward the anticapitalist left. Although laissez-faire political factions exist, they cannot win national elections without pandering to the anticapitalist views now endemic among the majority. There is not a sufficient foundation of laissez-faire public opinion to support a truly laissez-faire political movement. Nor does abolishing democracy solve the problem. Even in authoritarian regimes, ideological groups must still do battle for the minds of the ruling elite, and even nondemocratic regimes cannot sustain themselves in the long-term if they are in conflict with the public’s ideological views.

Translating Theory into Practice

But as Rothbard understood, even after a certain ideology manages to win over a nontrivial portion of the population, there still must be political activists to translate these views into practice.

That is, these activists must confront a number of difficult questions, including:

Do we have to convert a large majority, a narrow one, or merely a critical mass of an articulate and dedicated minority? And if we perform such a conversion, what will happen to the State? Will it wither away (or wither to an ultraminimal nugget) by itself, automatically, as it were? And are there one or more groups that we should concentrate on in our agitation? Should we invest our necessarily scarce resources on one more likely group of converts rather than another? Should we be consistent and overt in our agitation, or should we practice the arts of deception until we are ready to strike? Are we most likely to make gains during one state of affairs in society rather than another? Will economic, military, or social crisis benefit our movement or hurt it? None of these problems is an easy one, and unfortunately the general run of laissez-faire thinkers and activists has devoted very little time to considering, let alone solving, them.

In his essay “Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change toward Laissez Faire” Rothbard attempts to make some headway in answering these questions. In the process, Rothbard discusses several different models, including civil disobedience, “retreatism,” and revolution from the top (i.e., converting the monarch). But Rothbard finds none of these to be likely candidates for success in light of modern political realities.

Laissez-Faire “Leninism”

Rather than endorse any of these models for political action, Rothbard instead settles on a fourth option, which he calls “the cadre leading the mass.” This method, Rothbard asserts, is exemplified in the methods employed by the British philosopher and activist James Mill. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Mill was successful as a member of the Radical liberal movement which embraced both democracy and laissez-faire. As Rothbard explains, Mill would prove to be enormously effective in converting key members of the British ruling class and in advancing the interests of his specific “cadre” of liberals:

While, as a high official of the East India Company, he could not run for Parliament himself, Mill was the unquestioned cadre leader of the small but important group of from ten to twenty Philosophic Radicals who enjoyed a brief day in the sun in Parliament during the 1830s. Although the Radicals proclaimed themselves Benthamites, the aging Bentham had little to do personally with the group. Most of the parliamentary Philosophic Radicals had been converted personally by Mill, beginning with Ricardo over a decade earlier, and including his son John Stuart, who, after Mill's death in 1836, succeeded his father as Radical leader. James Mill had also converted the official leader of the Radicals in Parliament, the banker and historian of ancient Greece, George Grote (1794–1871). 

But Mill was not content to merely convert people to his cause intellectually. He demanded political action as well. In this way, Rothbard observes, Mill performed as something of a proto-Leninist:

Charismatic, humorless, and didactic, Mill had all the strengths and weaknesses of the modem Leninist cadre type. The Millian circle also included a fiery cadre woman, Mrs. Harriet Lewin Grote (1792–1873), an imperious and assertive militant whose home became the salon and social center for the parliamentary Radicals. She was widely known as the "Queen of the Radicals," and it was of her that [Richard] Cobden wrote, "had she been a man, she would have been the leader of a party."… A typical testimony was that of William Ellis, a young friend of John's, who wrote in later years of his experience of James Mill: "He worked a complete change in me. He taught me how to think and what to live for."

This all came to fruition with the passage of the Reform Bill which represented a major change in the British political system and a victory for the liberals:

With radical democracy and universal suffrage set as his long-term goal, Mill, in true Leninist fashion, was willing to settle for a far less but still substantially radical "transition demand" as a way station: the Reform Bill of 1832, which greatly widened the suffrage to the middle class. To Mill, extension of democracy was more important than laissez faire, since the latter was supposed to be a semiautomatic consequence of the truly fundamental process of dethroning the ruling class and substituting rule by all the people.

Unfortunately, the Millian Radicals’ extreme focus on democracy was more than a little problematic. It ended up alienating the Radicals from the more mainstream—but also highly successful—laissez-faire liberals under Cobden and the Anti–Corn Law League. Moreover, in hindsight, it is clear that the Radicals’ view of democracy as a political mechanism sure to secure laissez-faire was naïve.

Mill also employed dishonest means to destroy his enemies. Yet, for Rothbard there was no doubting Mill’s success as a “brilliant” tactician who excelled in a role as a “unifier of theory and praxis” even when not employing his more morally dubious methods. He managed to form a critical core of sympathetic members within Parliament who were able to push new legislation as the larger Radical movement influenced the opinions of both ordinary people and intellectuals.

So how can the modern-day laissez-faire activist expand on Rothbard's methods today? It would appear it is necessary to build up institutions that serve both sides of the equation.

On one side is the intellectual battle, and obviously, Rothbard was not opposed to employing intellectual means to spread good ideas and denounce harmful ideas. He did this for decades as a popular writer, as a scholar, and as the head of academic affairs at the Mises Institute, an organization devoted to the educational side of laissez-faire activism. Without institutions like the Mises Institute to provide ideological moorings, any attempt at political activism ends up becoming intellectually adrift and instead consumed by political processes and tactics devoted to no particular outcome

At the same time, political activists must employ these intellectual resources in targeting political opinion to the point that it can be a foundation on which to build political networks, factions, and coalitions that can translate theory into practice. Rothbard was the rare person who, like Mill, devoted himself to both theory and praxis. Most ordinary people are likely to be engaged in either one or the other. Both, however, are necessary, and one without the other is unlikely to achieve the desired ends. 

Ryan McMaken
Ryan W. McMaken is the editor of Mises Daily and The Austrian. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014.

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