Contra Gradualism
Applying Principle to Issues

Essay by
Wendy McElroy


November 1997

Anti-slavery abolitionists

It is 1858 and you are living in a Northern town. A man has arrived at your door with papers documenting his ownership of a runaway slave whom you are sheltering. The slave throws himself at your feet, begging to stay while the slaveowner reasons with you. Being philosophically inclined, he comments on the political and social necessity of preserving slavery for the time being. He assures you he is opposed to the institution, but that, without it, the economy of the South would shrivel and crimes of passion by blacks against whites would abound. Slavery must be phased out. After this particular slave has learned a trade to support himself, then he will be freed.

If you reply, "There is no moral or practical consideration that overrides the escaped slave's right to his own body and his own life," you are an abolitionist.

If you reply, "I am opposed to slavery, but the consequences of immediately ending it would be disastrous; therefore, I will return your slave for the transition period," you are a gradualist.

The abolition of slavery was the core issue around which libertarians of the early 19th century rallied. They opposed phasing out slavery just as they would have opposed phasing out rape. Both are moral abominations on which the only proper position is immediate cessation; that is, as fast as is humanly possible. A core issue around which modern libertarians must rally is the abolition of state coercion, as fast as is humanly possible.

Libertarianism is the political philosophy based on the principle of nonaggression. Every human being is a self-owner with inalienable rights. And gradualism is inconsistent with the moral foundation of libertarianism.

A transition period for rights and justice?

Before proceeding, it is useful to distinguish gradualism as a policy from gradualism as a fact of reality. This latter form of gradualism says that, try as you may, it takes time to implement ideas. The transition to a libertarian society would not — because it could not — occur overnight. This is the nature of the temporal reality in which we live. If this is all that is meant by gradualism — if it means "as fast as possible" — then there is no quarrel between "gradualists" and "abolitionists" within the movement.

This is not the formulation of gradualism with which abolitionists are concerned. When abolitionists say that unjust laws ought to be abolished immediately, the "ought" is a moral ought, and "immediately" means as fast as possible.

Abolitionists do not deny reality. They simply insist that as a political policy, individual rights must be given priority over all other moral and practical considerations. Libertarian abolitionists of the 19th century realized that the cessation of slavery would take time, but their message was that the deliberate continuation of slavery as a policy could not be justified. They demanded abolition, not reduction — no "ifs," "ands," or "buts."

Those libertarians of the "ifs," "ands," or "buts" camp maintain that, in some cases, libertarianism ought to favor the gradual phasing out of unjust laws and agencies rather than pushing for immediate abolition, even if the immediate abolition is possible. A commonly cited example is the modern version of slavery — taxation. If taxes were to cease abruptly, it is claimed, the consequences upon those who have paid into Social Security would be calamitous. Therefore taxes must be phased out.

The defining aspect of gradualism is the answer it gives to the key question: Could it ever be too soon to eliminate an unjust law or agency? The abolitionist gives an unqualified "no." If the gradualist does not answer "yes," he answers "maybe." Taxation is theft, but some people might starve if it ceases abruptly. (Please note that I am not denigrating concern for starving people, but merely rejecting the use of force — and particularly governmental force — to solve that problem.)

Here the gradualist is not denying that taxation violates rights; he is claiming that there is a "social good" which has higher priority than individual rights. Since he cannot justify coercion with reference to freedom itself (unless the word is radically redefined), he justifies the willful continuation of theft by posing a dilemma of some kind. Abolition of government laws would result in social chaos; thus, we need a "transition" period during which deliberate rights violations would continue.

The myth of the transition period accomplishes at least two things. It converts libertarianism from a personal philosophy and obligation that should be consistently lived on a day-to-day basis into a symbolic light at the end of a tunnel. Thus, libertarians might have to advocate and participate in the violation of rights in order to humanely achieve a society where no compromise of rights is tolerated. To the Gandhian objection that "the means are the ends in progress," the gradualist might well answer with Lenin's observation that to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Is it necessary to point out that "eggs" is a metaphor for "heads"?

The second accomplishment is a sleight of hand. By positing the transition period, gradualism is suddenly shifted into becoming a strategic rather than a moral question. Gradualism is simply a matter of how we get from here to there.

Abolitionists answer that gradualism is a moral issue. It concerns a question of whether libertarians will sanction the violation of rights as a strategy. They argue that, as a libertarian, it is not within your range of discretion to deliberately violate the rights of any person in any case. It is forbidden, without qualification, by the fundamental principle of the philosophy. You may decide to aggress anyway, but you cannot aggress in the name of libertarian theory. Logic forbids you that option.

The only possible avenue of escape from this contradiction is to compromise the nonaggression principle by watering it down to read: "The initiation of force is wrong except when it is necessary to preserve 'social order' or 'when it is politically expedient' or 'when a libertarian politician says so.'"

If the nonaggression principle is given priority, then the only libertarian approach to unjust laws and agencies is that they must be abolished as soon as is humanly possible — that is, abolitionism.

Other problems with gradualism are worth mentioning. For those who favor libertarian politicians, it is important to have a standard by which to judge the effectiveness and sincerity of a given libertarian officeholder. If, at the end of his term in office, he has accomplished little, he can always contend, "The time was not ripe." Since gradualism has no objective standards, it is a blank check for inactivity and compromise.

Do we draw a line for rights, or not?

A more fundamental problem is the "reductio ad absurdum" of gradualism. Once you admit the principle of subordinating rights to a social good, there is no way to draw the line. If my rights are violated by libertarians to compensate others for injustice (not receiving Social Security into which they have paid, for example), why should the same principle not be applied to me? Surely that injustice done to me should be rectified by violating the rights of the coming generation. This vicious, anti-libertarian doctrine fosters an infinite regress of injustice. As William Lloyd Garrison expressed it, "Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice." The only way to stop injustice is to stop injustice.

Nevertheless, gradualists might reply that a minimal tax would be a small injustice compared with the greater one of depriving old people of Social Security. But it is not clear what standard is being used here. Are we to trust a "gut" reaction that it is better for many people to be deprived of a little freedom than for a few people to be deprived of their governmental income? Even if one alternative could be judged as objectively less unjust, trying to fit either one into a libertarian framework would be pounding a square peg of injustice into the round hole of liberty.

And if it could be demonstrated that I have had more stolen from me through taxation than have many of those on Social Security, could they be forced to compensate me for that greater injustice? The dismal fact is that everyone has had money stolen by the government. The goal of libertarianism is to end that process, not dilute or redirect it.

"Implicit" gradualism

So far I have been talking about what might be called "explicit" gradualism. Let me now introduce the concept of "implicit" gradualism, which uses a different approach. The implicit gradualist might well agree with everything written up to this point, but he would advocate gradualism with regard to spreading libertarian ideas. Thus, libertarian writers and speakers should present issues on a piecemeal basis without ever stating the goal of abolition or the wider libertarian context. Thus, a libertarian should call for decreased taxation without revealing the goal of no taxation. "Taxation is theft" is replaced with a statement that you "have the right to keep more of what you earn."

This is gradualism by concealment — a concealment that is justified as a strategic maneuver to facilitate agreement. After all, if we unload the entire libertarian ideology onto people, they will shrink from its radicalism. They are not ready to hear abstract discussions of justice and natural rights. The implicit gradualists may swear — in private to fellow libertarians — that they favor abolitionism, but they are unwilling to be publicly honest about it.

It is important to point out that it is indeed sometimes inappropriate to bring up the wider framework of libertarianism. In discussing drugs, for example, it is probably inappropriate to divert the conversation in order to show how self-ownership also applies to labor reform. But avoiding extraneous issues is different in kind from avoiding the fundamental principles which apply to all aspects of the issue. It is different from refusing to explicitly extend those principles when they are appropriate. Or from misstating a libertarian position to dull its radical edge.

This policy of calculated misstatement is one of the most unpleasant contributions that electoral politics has made to libertarian theory. Unlike explicit gradualism, however, implicit gradualism does not violate rights. It is more a matter of personal integrity and strategy. It is simply lying by omission.

It must be admitted that since no one has a natural right to hear only the truth, lying is nonaggressive. I contend, however, that it is counter to strict personal integrity and is abysmally poor strategy.

The strategy of publicly applying principle to issues

Strategically, the first question to consider is whether or not there is a distinctively libertarian point of view to political issues. Libertarianism consists of more than advocating certain repeals and reforms. It consists of advocating them for a specific reason. Individual political reforms come with no ideological tag identifying them as libertarian, socialist, conservative, or liberal (in the corrupted sense of the term). Both conservatives and libertarians attack big government and taxes. Both liberals and libertarians call for absolute freedom of speech . . . or, at least, they should. The point is that unless a libertarian gives the underlying reason for a specific proposal, there is nothing intrinsically libertarian about it. If, however, he stands up and states, "I oppose all taxation as theft and support any reduction of taxes as a step toward eliminating it," then his proposal has a libertarian context.

Second, the benefits of consistency and openness must not be underrated. Once people understand and accept the principle of nonaggression, they begin the long slide of applying the principle to specific issues and concluding that everything from mail delivery to roads could be handled on a private and voluntary basis. Communicate the ideology well and the issues will follow; but it doesn't necessarily follow that by communicating the issues well, the ideology will follow.

Third, gradualists claim that libertarianism is too radical to appeal to large numbers of people. One could easily point to other radical philosophies, such as Marxism, which overcame public inertia. But the real problem here is not whether we wish to appear radical. The problem is that we are radical and don't want to admit it. At least, not publicly. The real question is whether the movement will view its own radicalism as a strong point or as a political idiot cousin to be locked in the attic and not discussed.

My final objection is that I suspect many implicit gradualists are simply confessing their inability to communicate radical, abstract ideas well and then making a strategy out of this failure. The enormous appeal and influence of Ayn Rand and Thomas Szasz prove that radical ideas can be presented reasonably and effectively. They can be presented with passion, humor, understatement, allegory, compassion, and moral outrage. The range of presentation is as endless as the personalities of those who espouse the principles.

The alternative to a fanatic, railing abolitionist is not a wishy-washy, evasive gradualist. It is a reasoned, knowledgeable abolitionist who communicates radical ideas effectively.

If libertarians will not present clear and explicit libertarian ideas, who will? These ideas may be accepted or rejected, but they will live or die on the basis of what they are instead of what they are not. It would be tragic if libertarians — the one clear voice for freedom in our time — lack the courage and confidence in themselves to stand proudly and unequivocally for liberty.


© 1997 Wendy McElroy

Appeared in Explore Freedom, November 1997
at the Future of Freedom Foundation

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