Libertarian Strategy: Reply to Mr. Katz

Murray Rothbard was a prolific writer. Thanks to the Mises Institute, much of his work can be found online, but there are still many articles that anarcho-capitalists have never read because only physical copies exist. For one such article, that changes today.

Simon Franek sends along this article that he found in the FEE archive. It is from the May 1973 edition of New Libertarian Notes. Click the image below for the PDF.


Computer generated plain text:

Howard Katz performs the neat trick of simultaneously accusing me of being too
right-wing (now) and too left-wing (before) (NLN, April). Before turning to the more
important matter of basic strategic theory, let us clean up the specifics.
First, on consistency. Mr. Katz trumpets his own consistency on the issues (presumably,
in contrast to my own positions). Yet, on most of his specifics I too was consistent,
and in the same way, then and now; I too opposed fair housing laws and the
persecution of the gypsy cab driver; the Wagner Act and price-wage controls, etc. I
differ with him on the “coddling criminals” of the Warren Court (then and now) because
most of the Court’s decisions in this area were supremely libertarian. My view, then
and now, is that the accused should be “coddled” (i.e. allowed the full rights of the
innocent), and such decisions as Miranda did precisely that. I am against preventive
detention for the same reason. ! believe, then and now, that the people who shouldn’t
be “coddled” are convicted criminals.

Secondly, I continue to differ with Mr. Katz on his estimate of the New Left. 1 don’t
think it can be dismissed simply as a “vicious anti-libertarian movement.” The
New Left was a mixed movement, and the mix changed very rapidly in the short period
of its existence (for a couple of years it was predominantly anarchist). Overweighting its
libertarian elements is scarcely the same as saying that it had no such elements at all;
and much of the overweighting was due to the difficulty of keeping up with its rapid
changes. Furthermore, while (he New Left was scarcely a supporter of property rights,
Mr. Katz’s examples betray a typical conservative confusion about property rights
themselves; for People’s Park was the property of a state university and
Columbia’s large income from the Federal government meant that it was scarcely
private in any meaningful sense of that term. Not only that: but the revolt at
Columbia focused on the illegitimacy of (a) its funds from the federal government, and
(b) its use of local government coercion to seize property in a public park. Mr. Katz’s
confusion reveals once again the apparent inability of our “limited government”
libertarians to distinguish sharply between public and private, and to recognize the
illegitimacy of any government property, even in those functions (e.g. education)
which they would concede to be illegitimate in the abstract.

But the main point about the New Left is that Mr. Katz tends to ignore its major
thrust, which was libertarian: fierce opposition to the draft and to the Vietnam
War. I contend that these were the major political issues of the late 60’s, both for the
libertarian and for the country as a whole, and that therefore a (strictly tactical)
alliance with the New Left was very much in order. I don’t know which New Leftists Mr.
Katz means when he says that they favored national service; the ones I knew and read
were against the draft, lock, stock, and barrel.
This brings me to the vital questions of strategic theory. There are two crucial
points to be made. One is that the major political issues have changed since the late 60’s. Then the vital issues were the interrelated draft and Vietnam War. Both, if
not totally gone, have, praise be. faded away, and presumably will not be critical
issues in the 70’s. 1 judge that these critical issues will be (a) economic (taxes, inflation,
welfare, etc.), and (b) “social” (crime, coerced integration of housing and schools,
etc.). On both these issues we largely agree with Middle America, and hence the major
point of my proposed “Middle America orientation” for the coming historical
period. Mr. Katz may ridicule these changes in orientation as “Sad Sackism,” but the
point “is that, while libertarian theory remains consistent and unchanging, the
major political issues change over different historical periods, and it would be strategic
folly for us not to adjust our political focus accordingly.

But there is something even more important to be said about strategy. For Mr.
Katz makes what I judge to be the crucial error of the Conservative: by locating the
major threat to liberty in the “majority.” Hence, his strategic advice to go always
against the views of the majority in any historical period. Apart from his absurd
error of thinking that the New Left was at any time “dominant” or constituted a
majority, his concentration on the majority (“In a democracy it is the majority who has
the power to violate rights”) highlights the great gulf between his strategic viewpoint
and my own. For 1 hold that at all times the great threat to liberty comes not from the
majority but from the State; it is the State apparatus, the professional bureaucracy,
politicians, and their highly-placed supporters, which at any and all times is the
engine of despotism. Aside from an occasional lynching or street brawl, the
majority of the public apathetically goes about its own business of everyday life. It is
the State that is in the fulltime business of governing, i.e. of oppression. It is true that I
look around for plausible allies in every historical period; but I do so in order to find
allies against the State: to provide some sort of mass pressure from below so as to check,
modify, or roll back State oppression.

It is theoretically possible for limited-government libertarians to have this
“radical” view of the State, and to look upon the majority of the public as potential
allies in the struggle against government. In fact, the laissez-faire radicals of the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the C’obdens and the Mills, and Mr. Katz’s
heroes the Jeffersonians and Jacksonians. did have precisely this view. And yet, for
some reason, there are scarcely any of our limited archist friends today who have this
radical perspective. Which means that converting limited archists to anarchism is
not just a theoretical abstraction to be relevant at some distant date in the future,
but of vital strategic importance for liberty here and now.

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