Principled Pragmatism: Reframing the Debate
By: Clayton Hunt
In the wake of the nomination of Johnson/Weld for the Libertarian Party 2016 ticket, there have been many that have felt left out of the party, as foreseen by Caryn Ann Harlos in her nominating speech for Will Coley there is a faction of party members that are discontented and are still critical of the ticket. In response many Johnson supporters have deemed them “purists” and “unrealistic” claiming that while Johnson and Weld have flaws in their adherence to the principles of libertarianism, they are the pragmatic choice to represent the party as a radical calling for immediate drastic changes would scare off voters back into the folds of the old parties, or into the unrelenting embrace of political apathy that seems to hold much of the nation.
Though I believe the animosity is rooted in the schism of wonk vs. geek it does raise the question: is someone who is a “purist” or “radical” excluded from being pragmatic? Mike Shipley in the Libertarian Party Radical Caucus members group raised the salient point that no, there is no requirement that a principled libertarian cannot be pragmatic. In fact, it is a strict adherence to the principles that is pragmatic. Radicals don’t go out and work for the party to have a small debate club, or to just recreate it into a think tank, we also aren’t “afraid of winning” either, we just share David Nolan's consideration as to the importance of putting up candidates to properly communicate the message of libertarianism. Would I, and many other radicals push Rothbard’s Button? Of course, until my fingers bled, but even Rothbard, an influential early member of the party laid out that “There is not a single abolitionist who would not grab a feasible method, or a gradual gain if it came his way. The difference is that the abolitionist always holds high the banner of his ultimate goal, never hides his basic principles, and wishes to get to his goal as fast as humanly possible. Hence, while the abolitionist will accept a gradual step in the right direction if that is all that he can achieve, he always accepts it grudgingly, as merely a first step toward a goal which he always keeps blazingly clear. The abolitionist is a "button pusher" who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately if such a button existed. But the abolitionist also knows that alas, such a button does not exist and that he will take a bit of the loaf if necessary – while always preferring the whole loaf if he can achieve it.” So it is not a case of whether or not one can accept gradual pragmatism, but whether one is willing to openly admit their ultimate goal of true liberty, or even don’t share that same goal. As in the big tent of the libertarian party, there are those who may not be able to accept the exiting of the state from one sector or another, to use the “libertarian train” metaphor, they just will be getting off at an earlier stop.
Our approach is to openly admit our goals and educate others to hopefully see what we believe and eventually agree with us. But this isn’t just the work of a think tank, this is the necessary work it will take to forge a political base that will make the Libertarian Party a major player in politics across the nation. While protest votes due to the old parties’ putting up arguably the worst candidates in recent history is a promising feat, bound to give us results like never before, it takes education and differentiation to retain voters and grow the base of reliable Libertarian support. So the Radicals will continue on demanding a world set free in our lifetime, and be planting trees whose shade we may never sit under because Rothbard’s Button doesn’t exist.