February 4, 2016

Radicalism as Strategy



The most common objection to my twopart assault on extremist political tactics has been an insistence on the value of extreme or “extremist” political principles. Both Ilya Somin, a libertarian law professor at George Mason, and Brian Doherty, an editor of Reason and the author of a terrific history of the libertarian movement, replied to my posts by standing up for the strategic utility of immoderate or extreme political ideals. In this post, I’ll address one of Somin’s arguments, which Doherty repeats and endorses. I’ll take up Doherty’s reply in a separate piece.

In my posts on extremism and moderation, I distinguished between “extremism,” which I took to be about political tactics, and “radicalism,” which I took to be about political or philosophical convictions. On its face, Goldwater’s slogan—”Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”—is about political action: the defense of liberty, the pursuit of justice. So I sought to shoot down the slogan by arguing that extremist tactics are generally vicious and that moderate tactics are generally virtuous.

It wasn’t my aim to show that moderate principles are better than radical principles, but a number of my comments in defense of moderation clearly do cut in that direction. For example, I said that our political ideals often reflect accidents of history, such as happening to have read Ayn Rand before reading Karl Marx. I said that the pervasiveness of disagreement about moral and political principles implies that  our convictions are far from obvious, and so we ought to be open to the possibility that we’re missing something in the same way we think others are missing something. And I said that openness to the possibility that we’re wrong makes us more likely to catch the errors that we have made, and therefore more likely to arrive at principles that aren’t mistaken. No doubt all this is why Somin and Doherty saw fit to defend the strategic value of radical libertarian principles.

Of course,  as Somin says, when we’re talking about a belief or principle, the first question to ask is whether it’s true. If a true moral or political principle is “radical” or “extreme” relative to prevailing opinion, the next question—the political question—is how to get the world to match up with whatever it is the principle seems to require.

In his post, Somin suggests that radicalism has an inherent strategic advantage:

Another advantage of advocating extreme positions is that the presence of strong, articulate advocates of them makes more moderate reformers seem mainstream and reasonable by comparison. The existence of extreme, but intellectually serious advocates of Open Borders helps the cause of more moderate immigration reformers in the long run. If Open Borders is seen as an extreme, but legitimate part of public discourse, moderate reform can no longer itself be portrayed as unthinkable extremism.

This is a common trope of libertarian strategy. I call it the “go for a mile, get an inch” strategy. I like that label because I think it hints at the problem with the idea that you can shift the center in your favored direction simply by making a serious case for the extreme position.

Remember how opponents of Obamacare went to pains to show that advocates of Obamacare secretly saw it as a stalking horse for a single-payer system? Why would they do that? Wouldn’t that make Obamacare “seem more mainstream and moderate by comparison” to single-payer? Nope. Not at all. On the contrary, it helped summon fierce political resistance by recasting a relatively conservative form of healthcare reform (previously advanced by the Heritage Foundation and implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts) as in vitro socialism. It made tactical sense for conservatives to try to catch Ezra Klein or Peter Orszag admitting that Obamacare was just a step down the path to single-payer, and it made sense for progressive who really did see it this way to hide it.

I happen to know quite a few libertarians and conservatives who think that every incremental increase in welfare benefits or tax rates threatens to put us on a slippery slope to full-blown socialist leveling. Imagine what ideological social democrats think about libertarian proposals for incremental decreases in welfare benefits or tax rates. They think they would, if implemented, puts us on a slippery slope to devil-take-the-hindmost laissez faire plutocracy! When a radical libertarian stakes out the extreme position, it simply persuades them that they’re right and makes it easier to recruit political resistance to the incremental step.

Let me put it another way, and see if you can sense the strategic incoherence:

If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. So don’t give them as much as an inch. But if we advertise that we want to go at least a mile in the opposite direction, it will totally open them up to conceding our inch.

Now “go for a mile, take an inch” isn’t necessarily ineffective. If the mile-away target is fairly popular, publicly stumping for it can whip up enthusiasm for the “take-an-inch” proposal among the people who really, really want to go the whole mile. If there are enough of those people, then their numbers and enthusiasm may be able to overcome the resistance thrown up by people opposed to ceding that inch. If, for example, a single-payer healthcare system had been more popular with the American public, attacking Obamacare as a stalking horse for single-payer might have weakened rather than strengthened political resistance to the president’s plan.

What if your ideal, extreme, mile-away target is wildly unpopular? Somin actually defines extremism in terms of unpopularity.  “To the extent we [libertarians] qualify as extremists,” he writes, “it is usually because we hold many views that are highly unpopular.” In that case, it’s likely to be self-defeating to even mention that the “take-an-inch” policy puts us closer to a thing a mile down the road practically everyone despises. Insistently advertising that you really only want the inch because you want the mile is actually a great way to lose an inch.

It would seem to me that if your extreme ideal is wildly unpopular, and you’ve faced up to the fact that publicizing it creates resistance to incremental reform in the direction of your ideal, you’ve got a choice to make. You can try to make the ideal less unpopular and give up on incremental reform for the time being. Or you can shut up about your toxic ideal and pursue incremental reform by appealing to ideals that actually are popular. It makes sense for different people and different organizations to do different things, depending on their priorities. But you really can’t do both things at once and expect to make very much incremental progress on the policy front.

That’s why I flat-out disagree with Somin when he says that “The existence of extreme, but intellectually serious advocates of Open Borders helps the cause of more moderate immigration reformers in the long run.” I don’t think it helps at all, because open borders is a wildly unpopular position. (It seems that open borders is wildly unpopular even with members of the Libertarian Party.) Associating your moderate pro-immigration advocacy with open borders is at least as likely to neutralize the positive effect of your advocacy work as it is to make your incremental proposal seem moderate and acceptable in comparison.

Indeed, I think you’re likely to do more for the cause of liberal immigration by arguing that, for example, there is a basic human right of free movement, as many open-borders advocates believe, but that it’s possible to justify some border controls and limits on immigration anyway. (This is, in fact, what I believe to be true.) A relatively moderate position on the policy implications of a basic human right to free movement makes it more likely that people will be willing to recognize and honor that right. (Think about the extent to which climate-change skepticism is driven by a fear that even recognizing the fact of global warming might jeopardize free-market, pro-growth economic policy.) When more people come to recognize a basic right to free movement, you can go on to capitalize on broadened recognition to argue forcefully and effectively for liberalizing reform, but without neutralizing your progress by fueling the suspicion that it’s all a plot to abolish border controls.

Now, how unpopular is radical or extreme libertarianism as a package? In my opinion, “wildly” is probably a fair way to describe it. According to Pew, about 11% of Americans call themselves “libertarian” and know what that means. But Pew found that these “Self-described libertarians tend to be modestly more supportive of some libertarian positions, but few of them hold consistent libertarian opinions on the role of government, foreign policy and social issues.” In other words, there’s very little evidence of the existence of more than a small handful of consistent libertarians, much less radical ones. Indeed, so few Americans fit anything resembling a consistent libertarian profile that Pew left libertarians out of its classification of American political types. Even consistently moderate libertarians are very thin on the ground.

Meanwhile, progressive hostility toward libertarianism has increased sharply in recent years. The vehemence of the new anti-libertarian rhetoric is pretty silly, and very often founded on ignorance, error, and willful misrepresentation. But it’s clear enough that lots of people think libertarians make a great all-purpose villain. If a corporation screws somebody over, well, that’s just radical capitalism in action! When government fails, it’s because libertarian anti-government sentiment has undermined confidence that government can work! Some libertarians interpret these attacks as a sign that libertarianism has finally become such a powerful cultural force that the left is lashing out in panic.

A more realistic interpretation is that libertarian radicalism is so unpopular that it’s politically effective to try to attach everything the right wants to do to libertarian radicalism. So what if there’s barely any libertarian constituency in American politics! Several decades of libertarian-conservative fusionism credibly connects most of the American right to “extreme” libertarian ideas and the institutions that promote them. Because these ideas are so unpopular, it’s only natural that left-leaning pundits would exploit this liability, and try to convince the public that mainstream Republicans, such as the Speaker of the House, are secret Ayn Rand cultists who want to abolish taxes, Medicare, and food stamps.

It’s just like pointing out that Bernie Sanders is an atheist or that he honeymooned in the Soviet Union. You don’t do it because there’s a real chance atheists or unreconstructed socialists are about to gain political power. You do it because it’s easy. You do it because it hurts.