Volume 2, Number 4, Fall, 1984



By John T. Sanders

The libertarian future has been portrayed, in essay and fiction, as the more or less total victory of tolerance over authoritarianism. Libertarian fiction offers examples, it is true, of continued conflict between statists and freedom fighters, but conflict among libertarians has largely been ignored. It is time, however, for the issue to be confronted, and libertarian futurists may be especially well suited to face it.

Socialists George Orwell and Arthur Koestler directed the attention of the world toward the internal problems they perceived within socialism in such remarkable books as Animal Farm and Darkness At Noon. Ursula Le Guin, in The Dispossessed, has shown us the dangers of peer pressure and convention that would be faced in an anarchistic society.

But what of libertarian writers? We read a great deal about some solid front of freedom lovers battling the forces of statism, but there is little or no literature that discusses problems within libertarianism that may confound or confuse the struggle for liberty.

It might be thought that no such problems exist. Or, if such problems are admitted, it might be argued that the time is not yet right to confront them openly. The 1983 Libertarian Party National convention, and the 1984 campaigns suggest otherwise. These events offer examples of power struggles within libertarianism, and one simp1y must face the fact that such conflicts are likely to color a society that has committed itself to freedom. One is forced to wonder about the political and social ramifications of such conflicts, as well as possible resolutions.

What do I have in mind? Let me assign labels to the participants in the most dramatic recent conflict: call it a conflict between Purists and Pragmatists. (I do not wish to malign either side in my choice of labels: and I hope that the labels will not stick to them, since labeling and categorizing inherently obscure the ideas of individuals. The labels are intended only to serve the exposition.)

The Purists are those who are committed to a particular fleshed-out version of libertarianism. They seek, for example, to write a Party platform that goes well beyond capturing the common ground that all libertarians might share (general as that may be), and spells out particular libertarian positions on a vast array of contemporary issues. From this description, it is clear that there is room for many species of Purist. In 1983 and 1984, one such species took the field.

The Pragmatists, on the other hand, tend to play down differences among libertarians; they even try to minimize differences between libertarians and others. Their main concern seems to be success in calling public attention to libertarian concerns. Their efforts are devoted to media coverage, vote totals, and the like. The Pragmatists controlled the Party during the 1980 Presidential election, and they, too, came to do battle at the 1983 convention.

The Purists field candidates whose views are in line with a particular version of libertarianism. They are predictable and clearly chosen for their ability to represent an already worked-out doctrine. They do not pander to the masses; they speak clear libertarian truth, as it has been written.

The Pragmatists choose candidates who are likely to capture the attention of the mainstream. They are typically more imaginative and more interested in "politically viable" solutions to problems.

Purists castigate Pragmatists for their "lack of principle." They ask: "If the Pragmatists capture the attention of the mainstream, what reason is there to believe that what they say will be identifiably libertarian?" The Pragmatists, on the other hand, are concerned that the Purists won’t be listened to at all. Purists, in the Pragmatist’s views tend to form ineffectual private clubs.

Each of the contending groups has shown its willingness to try to control the movement. It is a classical political power struggle that has been going on. If either one is more than temporarily successfully and if libertarianism as conceived by the winner is itself successful in the broader society, will we not see particular libertarians trying to control society in the way that we have seen them trying to control the movement? If not, why not?

Karl Marx wrote a lot about eventually getting rid of government. As is well known, he believed that the first step, though, was to win control of government. Why? Because the proletarian movement had to be protected from the efforts of deposed bourgeois interests to reestablish class dominance. We can see what this "self-defense" has come to in the case of contemporary "freedom-loving" communist nations.

What will libertarians in political office do to defend a libertarian society against the efforts of statists to re-establish control? More germane to this essay, what would Purists do to prevent the rise of Pragmatists? And what would Pragmatists do to suppress the Purists?

This is the likely subject, I think, not only of essays, but of a future Prometheus Award winning novel. In the meantime. it would be interesting to see this issue discussed among libertarian futurists.

John T. Sanders teaches philosophy at the Rochester institute of Technology, and is the author of The Ethical Argument Against Government.

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