April 04, 2005

Purism and Principle

As a libertarian, I've been in many a discussion purism and principle. The debate ends up dissolving into insults between incrementalists and anti-incrementalists. The problem is defining the terms.

First, I have to affirm that principle is absolutely integral to politics. Politics without principle is not only pointless but dangerous and potentially lethal. The issue is that nobody wants politics to be unprincipled.

The anti-incrementalists, who are sometimes called purists, always accuse the incrementalists of being moderates, sell-outs and hypocrites. The incrementalists accuse the anti-incrementalists of ivory tower irrelevance, which is why the incrementalists are often confused for moderates. While moderates are going to stick with the incrementalists, not all incrementalists are moderate.

The problem, again, is defining the terms. While the anti-incrementalists present incrementalism and compromise as selling out, this always includes a hidden premise: that incrementalism's goal is to stop at an unfree or less-free world than a doctrinaire libertarian would want. That's not necessarily so.

There are TWO issues here: speed and destination. While a lot of the intra-libertarian dispute is over destination, the incrementalist debate is about speed. But just because you want to travel at 60 mph instead of 125 mph doesn't mean you still don't want to get to the same destination. Speed is NOT the same as destination.

The anti-incrementalist libertarians need to realize this fact. I might suggest we pursue medical marijuana instead of immediate legalization, or suggest tax cuts instead of abolishing the IRS on day one, but that doesn't mean I have a different hope in the end. Now, obviously the incrementalists are prone to accepting the status quo for much longer than the anti-incrementalists are and that causes friction over destination as well. But we should all agree on the speed.

Trying to pass everything at once a) won't happen and b) will only give our opponents ammo to use against us. Trying to pass everything as a sensible pace and allowing enough time between reforms for people to see their efficacy is not an ideological issue (or shouldn't be). It's just a strategy, and a particularly effective one. There are other problems getting in the way of libertarian electoral success, but speed OUGHT to be an easily solvable one.

McQuain hit the whole point on why anti-incrementalism is so popular (not just in the LP, either) - "To purists like my friend Billy, its more important to be right than be effective." It's about self-identity; being extreme, pure and revolutionary gives a self-image of someone ethical, moral, righteous and correct. It can be hard to abandon this cuddly ideological shield and expose it to pragmatism, even if you end up changing nothing more than your strategy.

PS - I should point out that I'm a registered libertarian and a member of the Free State Project.

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