Libertarians are a persistent community. Ever since we started developing theories about free markets, non-aggression, and human flourishing, we have necessarily been interested in how we get from here to there. While our end goals are vital to flesh out and understand, what’s the point if they’re never realized? What’s all this for if we never get free?

It seems then, that libertarians need theories of social change. We need ideas about how to achieve a free society. Many libertarians have historically turned to political institutions as a force for change. Libertarians spend lots of time working on political rallying, campaigning, voting, and public policy analysis and proposals. I believe these efforts are well intentioned and the right line of work for many passionate, politically oriented people (you should do what you love, not what is “socially beneficial”). But in terms of pragmatic accounts of social change, I think politics is simply a bad means to achieve liberty.

We must not ignore the reasons for supporting our ends in talking about our means. If there is conceptual tension between your means and your ends, you’ve got a problem. Rationality demands that some kind of adjustment is necessary to bring your ends and means into cohesive alignment. While it may seem obvious that the way to decrease the size and scope of the state is to elect leaders who will do that, I think a deeper analysis reveals that the idea of state driven social change through political action rests upon a logic completely at odds with libertarianism. There is conceptual tension between our means and ends.

While some have argued that political action (primarily voting) is in tension with our ends because it relies on aggression, I’m not convinced of this view. Ethically, voting can be a form of self-defense. Rather than this line of argument about what counts as aggression, I’m merely making the pragmatic case against politically directed social change. My argument is that even if it was ethical to vote, voting is still not going to achieve liberty in practice.social-change-will-save-the-world

We can see why every libertarian is committed to thinking state driven social change is impossible by examining general libertarian principles about the nature of government. Libertarians generally think the government is bad at doing things, right? That’s the simplest way to boil down every libertarian argument. We think the government is just bad at solving problems. Therefore, we should rely on other mechanisms to solve our problems, like markets, private charity, mutual aid, direct action, and so forth.

We rely on a variety of empirical and conceptual arguments to justify the basic claim that the government is bad at stuff, but any which way, we all think it’s a good rule of thumb. What this argument ultimately shows is that, “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it,” to put it in Milton Friedman’s words. There are certain constraints on concentrated power that make it a very dangerous and uncertain means to our ends. Almost all libertarian theory attempts to show and explain those constraints. That is, almost all libertarian theory shows us why our ends are for not without the appropriate means, and that even with good ends, government is almost always a poor means.

The burden of proof, then, is on the advocate of state action. It is on them to show why anyone should think the state can achieve their desired ends. It is up to the supporter of government to explain why their project won’t be prone to the knowledge and incentive problems that seem to plague all government action.

Libertarians think political philosophy is historically very good at explaining all these ways in which society could and should look, but that it tends to be pretty bad at providing a good way to make society look that way (and you thought libertarians had poorly developed theories of social change!). This is primarily because political philosophy often asks the government to make society look a certain way, and the key insight of libertarians, whether it be Mises and the calculation problem argument, Hayek and the knowledge problem argument, Friedman and the “four ways to spend money” argument, Buchanan and the public choice argument, Caplan and the irrational voter argument, or any other libertarian argument against government action, is that the government probably isn’t going to achieve what the political philosophers want. Libertarianism takes the hard-nosed, realist view that even with the best intentions, the government is a bad means to peoples’ desired ends. Much of political philosophy takes the rainbows-and-unicorns, utopian view that the government is merely a vending machine where you put in a certain amount of money (or political support), press a button, and automatically and mechanically get what you want.

Bastiat wrote,

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Libertarians, then, do support quality and accessible healthcare and education. We do support care for the poor and market regulation. We do support the provision of roads and environmental conservation. We just don’t think the government is very good at achieving these things. So, in order to bring our ends and means into cohesive alignment, we ditch our well-intentioned, but impractical ends in favor of the realistic solution (liberty).

What if we apply all the above arguments to social change? Why would the government be bad at providing all these great things, but be good at providing social change? Are politicians not subject to knowledge and incentive problems even when libertarians are voting for them? Wouldn’t it be odd to think liberty can be brought about through government? What makes social change the exception?


This article was originally published on May 19, 2015 at Students For Liberty.
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