Matthew La Corte recently wrote an article titled “The Radical Case for Pragmatic Libertarianism”, which argued that in order for the radical ideas of individual liberty to ever become a reality, we need to be more pragmatic. For him, that means holding our noses and directly appealing to policy-makers. Along with that comes promoting policies that might not be perfectly libertarian, but are at least marginally more libertarian.

For what it’s worth, I agree that libertarians should be more pragmatic, and as he writes, “Young libertarians should avoid rigid devotion to Utopian outcomes at the expense of incremental policy improvements.” Steps forward should always be embraced, even if they don’t go the full mile. What’s missing from La Corte’s post, though, is a consideration of the possibility that what he touts as “pragmatic libertarianism” might actually be an impractical strategy towards those marginal increases in freedom.

Reformism Doesn’t Bring Real Reforms

La Corte writes as if radicals oppose reformism because it falls short of perfection. He’s right that libertarians shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but this is a misrepresentation of anti-reformist worries. The real concern is whether or not the good we’re talking about actually is a good in the first place.

When La Corte says that policy-makers don’t respond to incentives of money and power in a perfectly mechanical way, he’s correct. Yet this doesn’t justify the hand-waving response he gives to public choice concerns, which are especially damaging for direct lobbying strategies like the one he supports.

The anti-reformists La Corte attacks are not opposed to innocent policy improvements with humble results. What they are really opposed to is what’s most likely to actually emerge from reformist strategies: policy changes that loudly give us one step forward while quietly taking two steps backward.

Examples are not difficult to find. Libertarian opponents of “free trade agreements” such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership are not opposed to them simply because they don’t remove any and all trade barriers. Typically, the concern is that while they do allow for some limited trade liberalization in certain areas, they greatly bolster state intervention in others. In the case of the TPP, it strengthens and extends the grip of “intellectual property,” which destroys trade and innovation by granting legally-protected monopolies. Viewed this way, the TPP does not actually reduce protectionism, it just gives us protectionism without borders.

Similarly, penal reforms have often resulted in prison expansion, increasing incarceration. Many today push for a Carbon Tax, passing off obvious rent-seeking as a market-based approach to the environment. In its infancy, even the Affordable Care Act was originally proposed as a free market solution by the Heritage Foundation.

When La Corte argues against opposing marginal increases in freedom because they don’t give us utopia, he argues against an entirely imaginary strawman. Perhaps if he were to provide specific examples of what he had in mind, this would clarify the discussion.

Reject the Policy Framework

The more important problem with La Corte’s argument is that it assumes our only options are either getting the state to pass incremental policy reforms, or getting it to abolish itself[1] overnight. What this ignores is an approach that rejects the policy framework altogether.

By “the policy framework” I mean the line of thinking that assumes our basic goal is for the state to change its particular policies – for example, that it no longer considers drugs illegal, and no longer tells its police to put drug users in prison. An alternative, non-policy, way of seeing libertarian goals is to focus on ensuring individuals are secure against rights violations, and can fully flourish in markets and civil society. Obviously, policy is still relevant here – if drug policies were overturned, drug users would be much more secure against rights violations, but the policy change itself is not the ultimate goal. This careful distinction becomes important when those basic goals can be better achieved directly, rather than through changes in policy.

For example, the basic goal of protecting the drug users’ rights is not likely to be solved soon through shifting state policies. Policy changes are rare, and often tepid, only letting up on less socially stigmatized drugs like marijuana. Unsurprisingly, these limited legalizations usually come bundled with new privileges for the politically well-connected.

However, significant marginal increases in the freedom of drug users can come about through direct action. This is not speculative. Ross Ulbricht proved it by helping to create the Silk Road, where purchasing drugs was made much safer, without that goal getting distorted by the political process.

Similarly, it is extraordinarily unlikely that state actors will be convinced through lobbying to relax the increasingly egregious laws surrounding intellectual property. It doesn’t really matter, though, because those laws are becoming more and more irrelevant due to direct action in the form of large-scale file-sharing. Serious immigration reform is unlikely, and white populism is likely to oust any legislators who go too far in the right direction. Yet this clearly does not stop the undocumented from coming to America, and anything that helps that is a very real increase in freedom.

Another practical benefit of this non-policy approach is that it allows for wider participation – not just from policy analysts, and not just from intellectuals. We each have unique talents, knowledge, and circumstances that uniquely position us to make our own contributions to the cause of freedom.

When La Corte argues against strategies dedicated to preaching the gospel of liberty and waiting for the rapture, he is again attacking a strawman. There’s more we can do beyond that and appealing to power – we can immediately seize marginal increases in freedom on our own.

For more ideas of what libertarianism beyond a policy framework would look like, I recommend this post by Charles W. Johnson, and these two articles by Jeffrey Tucker and Max Borders.

[1] Or, for non-anarchist libertarians, to abolish all of its illegitimate policies.

This article was written by Students For Liberty blog team member Jason Lee Byas