Apr 21, 2008

Murray Rothbard on the libertarian movement and two major forms of surrender: selling out and retreatism

In the conservative and libertarian movements there have been two major forms of surrender, of abandonment of the cause. The most common and most glaringly obvious form is one we are all too familiar with: the sellout. The young libertarian or conservative arrives in Washington, at some think-tank or in Congress or as an administrative aide, ready and eager to do battle, to roll back the State in service to his cherished radical cause. And then something happens: sometimes gradually, sometimes with startling suddenness. You go to some cocktail parties, you find that the Enemy seems very pleasant, you start getting enmeshed in Beltway marginalia, and pretty soon you are placing the highest importance on some trivial committee vote, or on some piddling little tax cut or amendment, and eventually you are willing to abandon the battle altogether for a cushy contract, or a plush government job. And as this sellout process continues, you find that your major source of irritation is not the statist enemy, but the troublemakers out in the field who are always yapping about principle and even attacking you for selling out the cause. And pretty soon you and The Enemy have an indistinguishable face.

We are all too familiar with this sellout route and it is easy and proper to become indignant at this moral treason to a cause that is just, to the battle against evil, and to your own once cherished comrades. But there is another form of abandonment that is not as evident and is more insidious – and I don't mean simply loss of energy or interest. In this form, which has been common in the libertarian movement but is also prevalent in sectors of conservatism, the militant decides that the cause is hopeless, and gives up by deciding to abandon the corrupt and rotten world, and retreat in some way to a pure and noble community of one's own. To Randians, it's "Galt's Gulch," from Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. Other libertarians keep seeking to form some underground community, to "capture" a small town in the West, to go "underground" in the forest, or even to build a new libertarian country on an island, in the hills, or whatever. Conservatives have their own forms of retreatism. In each case, the call arises to abandon the wicked world, and to form some tiny alternative community in some backwoods retreat. Long ago, I labeled this view, "retreatism." You could call this strategy "neo-Amish," except that the Amish are productive farmers, and these groups, I'm afraid, never make it up to that stage.

The rationale for retreatism always comes couched in High Moral as well as pseudo-psychological terms. These "purists," for example, claim that they, in contrast to us benighted fighters, are "living liberty," that they are emphasizing "the positive" instead of focusing on the "negative," that they are "living liberty" and living a "pure libertarian life," whereas we grubby souls are still living in the corrupt and contaminated real world. For years, I have been replying to these sets of retreatists that the real world, after all, is good; that we libertarians may be anti-State, but that we are emphatically not anti-society or opposed to the real world, however contaminated it might be. We propose to continue to fight to save the values and the principles and the people we hold dear, even though the battlefield may get muddy. Also, I would cite the great libertarian Randolph Bourne, who proclaimed that we are American patriots, not in the sense of patriotic adherents to the State but to the country, the nation, to our glorious traditions and culture that are under dire attack.

~ Murray Rothbard, "On Resisting Evil," from The Irrepressible Rothbard, Chapter 44

No comments: