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November 2001
Volume 19, Number 11

The Dangers of Compromise
Gene Callahan

Many "pragmatic" right-wingers criticize libertarians for attempting to be too ideologically pure. "Look," they say, "we want a freer society as well. But your radical proposals will never be enacted, and they just turn off moderates." Or we hear, "If you don't support the Republican candidate, you're just helping to elect the Democratic one." "You have to grow up," they tell us, "only adolescents think they can have everything their own way."

This position is most closely associated with those known as neoconservatives. While they are certainly not the only ones who take this stance, for the sake of having a convenient tag, I will refer to this as the "neocon project" for the rest of this article.

Now, the issue of how to live in the real world of limited possibilities without betraying one's ideals is a complex one, and many intelligent people have offered many different solutions. I won't go into that question here, but will instead address the above position on a pragmatic, real-world basis.

However, on this pragmatic basis, the neocon project must be considered a failure. The neocons came to conservatives and said, "Look, dogmatic opposition to anti-discrimination laws (that is, anti-property rights laws), progressive taxation, wealth redistribution, and so on, is getting you nowhere. We have a better way."

The better way was to haggle with the Left over policy details, to try to eke out little victories on this bill, tiny wins on that one. "The Left," they told us, "did not win its victories all at once, but through tiny, incremental steps. We have to use their strategy to turn the tide."

It turns out that this strategy has at least three problems. The first is a lack of conceptual clarity. The most effective arguments of the Right are those from first principle: people have a right to choose how to live their own lives; a constitutionally limited government prevents a slide into totalitarianism; it is wrong to take money from one person by force just because you'd like to give it to someone else; and so on. Joe Factoryworker from flyover country may not agree with all of the principled arguments of the Right, but at least he can understand them. He can sense that someone is trying to engage him in important decisions. However, he has no interest in reading a 117-page Heritage Foundation study on the fiscal impact of Social Security privatization.

The answer to the puzzle of why the Left does best in elections with those at the ends of the educational spectrum is that the Left's program appeals to two groups: those who feel they will be in charge of a managed society (that is, the most educated), and those most easily duped by political demagoguery (that is, the least educated). By moving the debate to policy details, the neocons have trod onto the favorite ground of the first of these groups: they are attempting to beat the Left at wonkishness.

Second, the analysis of interventionism forwarded by Mises, Rothbard, Kirzner, Ikeda, and others demonstrates that interventionist policies are inherently unstable, and tend to progress toward socialism or collapse into full laissez-faire. The botched "deregulation" of the electricity market in California is a salient example of the dangers of a compromised approach.

Inevitably, those on the Left (for example, Paul Krugman, in this particular instance) will point to such examples as "market failure," and use them to discredit the laissez-faire position. Now, the neocons have, post facto, joined in the chorus crying that this wasn't real deregulation--but isn't this just the sort of pragmatic policy that they continually recommend? Wouldn't they have criticized anyone holding out for true deregulation as being "too pure"?

The third problem is that a policy of not making explicit what we're really going for is contrary to the Right's philosophical orientation, but is aligned with that of the Left. The primacy of individual freedom, which implies voluntary choices, is a keystone of any coherent philosophy from the Right. But since that is so, we must confront people with the reality of the long-run choices they face. We can fight for incremental change today, but if it's the allegiance of free people to our side for which we wish, then we must be clear about our ultimate aims.

Meanwhile, for those on the Left, it is entirely coherent to hide their long-run goals behind a baffling series of single-issue struggles. After all, it is a commonly held idea on the Left that "choice" is really an illusion, and that people are primarily conditioned by their historical and social circumstances. If the workers are blind to their true interests due to an oppressive ideological superstructure, then it is perfectly justifiable to trick them out of their false consciousness, a little bit at a time. In other words, the Left can dissemble with a much clearer conscience than we can!

As we would predict from contemplating the above difficulties, the neocon project has failed to deliver smaller government. We may elect George W. Bush president (preferable to Al Gore, yes!), but he comes into office with a multi-billion dollar list of new government programs. Under Bush, the federal government will grow by 4 percent, as compared to the 5 percent it would have under Gore. Promising us a "breakthrough new diet, guaranteed to painlessly reduce the size of the Federal Government," the neocons have instead merely slowed the weight gain a bit. But gaining less weight per week is no way to lose weight.

Aside from these more general considerations, the neocons' contention that, in order to win elections, we must take baby steps toward liberty, is empirically on shaky ground. The most stunning and complete Republican electoral victory in recent years was in the "Contract with America" year of 1994. No party-wide position since then has been as strongly pro-liberty, or as effective.

When the neocon project hopped on board the "bus of the Right," we gained a passenger who promised to show us a shortcut to our destination. But after years of following his directions, we just keep getting farther away.

However, there are two scenarios under which we might consider the neocon project successful. The first is that liberty, at least at present, is a losing proposition, and the best we can hope for is slow defeat. However, if this is true, the case for sticking to first principles seems stronger to me, not weaker. When the survivors of the collapse of the socialist utopia dig out of the rubble, at least they will be able to find a few voices from the past telling them what went wrong.

The other scenario is that the goal of the neocons is not liberty but influence. While I am reluctant to ascribe such base motives to anyone without giving him the benefit of the doubt, this must be held out as a possibility.

In high school, some of us learned that it wasn't worth compromising our basic principles in return for popularity or influence. Others take longer to learn that same lesson. (And I suspect that none of us ever learn it so well that the temptation to so compromise stops rearing its ugly head.) Mises knew this all along. His lifetime motto, adopted from Virgil, was "Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito," or "Do not give in to evil but proceed ever more boldly against it."

Gene Callahan is author of Economics for Real People: An Introduction to the Austrian School (Mises Institute, forthcoming) (


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