All Commentary
Wednesday, February 1, 1995

A Matter of Principle: To Educate Or Legislate?

Trying to Effect Change Through Politics Is Wasted Effort

Mr. Bidinotto, a Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest, is a long-time contributor to The Freeman and lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available at $29.95 in cloth and $19.95 in paperback.

These are dizzying days for those of us who have grown gray and weary in the battle for individual liberty.

As I write, the President is publicly jousting with congressional Democratic rivals, and with Republican opponents, over competing initiatives to shrink government, cut spending, and reduce taxes. The current argument among politicians is no longer if such cuts are necessary, but where and how much to cut.

That’s a stunning change from the not-too-distant past, when the very idea of limiting and reducing government was considered out of the question—when the only public debates were over which government agencies to inflate, which program budgets to fatten, which new regulations to impose, and which taxes to hike.

I think politicians are reflecting a philosophical sea change, a turnabout of popular attitudes that has transformed the nature of the debate over the very purposes of government. Some free marketers, though, are more skeptical of the fundamentality and scope of this intellectual shift.

They point out that none of the warring political factions yet propose complete and consistent laissez-faire capitalism. None are trying to terminate popular middle-class “entitlements,” such as Social Security and Medicare, or to end governmental “transfer payments”—what the great nineteenth century economist Frederic Bastiat called “legalized plunder.” After all the new politicians’ tinkering is done, say these skeptics, much of the welfare state will remain intact.

In their view, the radical goal of laissez-faire capitalism implies equally radical political tactics: immediately abolishing all immoral government programs. Halfway reforms, they contend, amount to compromising on moral principles. “The lesser of two evils is still evil,” they insist.

That argument sounds seductively logical. But is it true that there are no contextual distinctions between political ends and political means? Is it true that moral consistency implies immediate abolitionism?

Opposing the abolitionists are the gradualists—in whose camp you may count me. Gradualists draw contextual distinctions between ends and means . . . and they reject the charge that they are “moral compromisers” for doing so.

I, for one, don’t disagree with the radical goal of implementing complete laissez-faire. I share with abolitionists the view that capitalism is the only social system morally compatible with the nature and needs of individuals. In short, I support laissez-faire capitalism on grounds of moral principle.

However, I disagree that the transformation to pure capitalism can be made overnight, through a program of immediate abolition of all statist injustices. I also disagree that an agenda of “halfway measures”—reforms that move us incrementally but steadily in the direction of total liberty—necessarily implies a lack of principle.

Gradualists, too, are utterly uncompromising about our ends: we support no measures that would move us one more inch in the direction of statism. However, in moving toward a freer society, we’re certainly willing to compromise, if necessary, on the day-to-day pace or extent of change. We’re willing to accept “half a loaf” rather than no loaf at all.

Such tactical compromises are not moral compromises. Moving just one step in the wrong direction is a moral compromise. But moving only one step—rather than ten, or one hundred—in the right direction, is not a moral compromise: it’s a tactical agreement among people over how much good can be done in a given context. Similarly, if one can’t stop or abolish an evil initiative or program, it’s not a moral compromise to try to blunt its destructive impact, rendering it less harmful. A tactical compromise over how much bad to avert in a given situation is not a moral compromise, either.

In short, doing some good is better than doing none. Why do abolitionists contend otherwise? I think they’ve failed to distinguish between two vastly different contexts: education and politics. It is one thing to educate; it is quite another thing to legislate.

All of us in the field of persuasion wear the hat of educators. As educators, we can—and should—be one hundred percent uncompromising in our philosophical messages. Indeed, we can afford to be: as individuals, we answer to no one else. We need not pull our punches. We can, and should, say bluntly and uncompromisingly that the initiation of force, fraud, or coercion by government is always wrong—that any governmental program or policy which entails such practices must end.

However, politicians are not educators. They wear a different hat: that of public representatives.

Somebody once said that “politicians, like water, cannot rise higher than their source.” In a representative government— by the very nature of the democratic process—politicians are followers, not leaders, of public opinion. If it’s true, as Ludwig von Mises argued, that the marketplace is a democracy in which consumers rule by voting with their dollars, it’s also true that a democracy is a marketplace in which consumers shop in voting booths for the government personnel and services they want.

So it’s useless to blame politicians, ultimately, for the state of our government. They can rise in office only by reflecting the popular will, and will fall by defying public expectations. Even the greatest of statesmen can advance against popular winds only so far, before being swept aside.

Likewise, unless sustained by popular opinion, political reforms will come undone. That’s why even the best politicians, committed on principle to laissez-faire, may have to curb their radicalism, mute their words, and take the best they can get in a given fight. This does not mean that they are immoral or spineless; rather, they simply realize that they wear a bridle of accountability, and that the voters hold the reins.

If so, then abolitionists err by focusing their energies in the field of politics. Trying to effect change by launching new political parties, running for office on a laissez-faire platform, or working to abolish Social Security and the income tax, are efforts wasted.

Likewise, they are wrong to blame good politicians for not being radical enough. Political reform must be rooted in public attitudes. If incoming politicians are still not going far enough (and they aren’t), it’s only because their masters aren’t yet ready for more dramatic change.

There has indeed been a revolution in the political marketplace, with “consumers” demanding major reforms. But we still have much persuading to do before citizens come to accept our ultimate vision of a totally free society.

Before we are ever given the power to legislate, we must first educate.