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Going Full Monty

In all intellectual spheres comes a time when people debate how rigorously one must adhere to the “party line” in order to be considered a true “party member.” On the libertarian side of things, Murray Rothbard was perhaps the most stringent and forceful proponent of pushing ideological purity. Rothbard understood that the world was miles away from being a libertarian paradise, and he is well aware of the existence of millions of people who would prefer the world to make steps in the direction of freedom. But Rothbard forcefully argued that if you are a true friend of liberty, then the only policy position you could ever advocate for is an immediate and dramatic reform of all political rules and regulations to 100% freedom. The classic defense of such a view would be to invoke policy positions as they relate to slavery. Would it be appropriate to move toward a little less slavery? No.

These sorts of “purity” litmus tests of how “good” a libertarian (or Marxist or Progressive or what have you …) bother me and I am sure they bother most people. I see their allure, I really do. But I think two points should be made. First, while I understand that having the pure and consistent idea held by folks is a way to make people know that such views exist, without qualifying such positions they are virtually assured to turn everyone off. For example, one “extreme” view that I hold is the immediate and complete abolition of government from the K12 schooling enterprise. But by saying that people immediate think I am advocating for knocking down every single school, sending every unionized teacher to Siberia, and forcing stupidity on a generation of students. My belief is that to intelligently argue for the abolition of government schooling  a clear vision of what that means has to be presented, and so too does a clear vision for what a transition looks like and that we must anticipate what the worries of folks might be. In short, I simply do not think the chances for ending government schooling are nonzero if we simply argue for this extreme position.

But second I think the libertarian movement ought to take a lesson from behavioral economics. People have a psychological aversion to extremes and are psychologically much more comfortable with small changes — the classic frog in the pot story. So just as Hayek sometimes worried that incremental changes in the direction of central planning could get us over time to a very collectivized society, in part because it can change the psychology of a people, the process works in the other direction. I really do believe that people will welcome small movements toward freedom and in targeted areas. For example, most folks understand the Post Office is done. But rather than end it tomorrow (my preference), perhaps allowing first-class mail delivery in rural and expensive areas by private companies (i.e. the unprofitable routes that the post office tells us would never be served privately) would be a start. And over time as people become accustomed to the well-functioning of private mail delivery (after all, I know some people who use UPS and FedEx almost daily), then the freedom idea is very likely to be spread over to another area. The insights of behavioral economics clearly demonstrate that people have a far easier time “going full monty” on private education if we already are full monty on private postal service than if we jump right to it. In other words, you simply have to adjust the frame of reference for people when thinking of reforms.

By the way, the left has been extremely successful at doing just this for almost 100 years, and in fact it has been an express strategy on their part in several areas of policy. Examine Paul Starr’s political history of health care reform – and he clearly makes the point that all early compromises on health policy are acceptable because proponents of single-payer health care understand that moving incrementally toward it would be inevitable. Just get people comfortable, for example, that “the VA works and doesn’t pull the plug on Vets” … and then people get comfortable with more subsidies for Medicaid … and then people get more comfortable with additional government interventions. You might think of it as a sort of Trojan Horse strategy. And if it works in moves toward collectivism, then surely it will work in the other direction. Sadly, the non-left is not very deft at using this strategy and allows the left to completely demagogue any moves toward freedom as radical and scary.

Does this mean your mental preference for what society should look like ought not be full-monty? Not at all. But unless you are incredibly brilliant and charismatic it is going to be extremely hard to be taken seriously if such a pure vision is regularly presented. Of course, the fact that a classical liberal view of the world is considered extreme is depressing and requires many posts of its own.

3 Responses to “Going Full Monty”

  1. Rod says:

    Isn’t it a precept of Marxism that political change toward the inevitable reign of communism proceeds by “two steps forward, one step back”?

    The advocates of public schools have done a very good job of extolling the virtues of public education. They cite the benefits of a system that is available to everyone, as opposed to a selected few, and they say that universal education leads to greater preparation for life and work and that everyone thus benefits from it economically. (That’s an argument used to squelch the objections of childless couples who will not have children in the public schools.

    What gets me is the demand by the government school advocates that the government schools should get ALL of the tax revenues for education, and that, further, charter schools and other government-sanctioned schools “take dollars from the public schools.

    Our local parochial school recently announced that they would be closing their doors, but for years they had a sign on their front yard saying that the school saved X dollars (I forget the amount) for the local public schools by educating the Catholic school kids. They got no thanks for those savings, of course, because from the public schools’ point of view, each kid not attending the public schools denied them another subsidy from the state, which recently has been using borrowed money from China to furnish those subsidies.

    I’ve always enjoyed reading Murray Rothbard, but I wonder: is he related to the villain in Swan Lake?

  2. jb says:

    I have concluded that incrementalism is essential if the end goal is entirely privatized K-12 education (which I favor). People are already beginning to see the general success of charter schools and, equally important, that some charter schools invariably fail in the process. For now, efforts to expand choice (charters, vouchers) appear to be aimed at helping poor, largely minority districts only. I don’t have a problem with that. Once suburban middle class voters see inner city kids are in schools better than those in the ‘burbs they will demand choice as well. Or am I dreaming?

  3. Harry says:

    Was it Mao or Lenin who said, “Two steps forward, one step back”?

    As WC says, that has been the strategy of the left for a hundred years, boiling us as frogs.

    We give away our freedom in small increments, often on the local level where the appeal is for general welfare, including health and safety. Out public officials pass laws telling us where to plant trees of a particular species. And who is against giving our children an education? Is Rizzo such a misanthrope that he denies my daughter a progressive education?

    WC is right that we should turn the tables. Why not ask the progressives, or whatever they call themselves for pure consistency, with all cards played face up?

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