In Defense of Incrementalism
Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
In any political or social philosophy, there are those who believe that they can achieve everything they want all at once or in a series of large jumps, and those who believe that broad-based change should be (or is most rationally) achieved through incremental changes. The advocate of incremental change, I believe, is the more pragmatic of the two and more likely to see advances towards his or her larger goals. Furthermore, incrementalism is more compatible with a voluntary society. Non-incremental change inevitably requires intrusive central planning, compulsory work systems, or violence to bring everyone immediately in line with its goals.
Most decisions made by individuals and groups are made incrementally, because that is the method that has demonstrated the most consistent success. If your goal was to build a house, for example, you could not simply blink a house into existence complete and all at once. You would first need a plan for what you wanted at the end, and then you would need to take steps to realize that plan. Funding needs to be raised. Carpenters, plumbers, and electricians need to be hired. Raw materials need to be purchased. A frame needs to be erected, foundations poured, etc. Each step in the process is an incremental change toward your end goal.
Fundamentally changing society or government is a much more complicated process than building a house, yet there are still those who insist that they can blink their ideal society or government into existence. They forget that there are many factions of people with their own ideas in competition with them. Some of these factions are large, some small, some with vast resources, and there are some that wield considerable political or social clout. None of these factions are going to just step aside and allow you to remake the world into your ideal, especially if that ideal fundamentally conflicts with their own.
As an idealist, Murray Rothbard often fell into this trap. In his article “The Case for Radical Idealism,” Rothbard criticized what he called “gradualism,” or the strategy of “concentrating solely on a gradual whittling away of State power,” as opposed to the radical and instant abolition of the State. By confining themselves to gradual and practical programs that stand a good chance of immediate adoption, he argued, the gradualists “are in grave danger of completely losing sight of the ultimate objective.” As an example, he described a case in which a libertarian politician became lost in opportunism and abandoned his principles for practical reforms. Instead, Rothbard claimed libertarians needed to be more like socialists, who have “pulled” mainstream America in their direction by maintaining a consistent and radical position.
There are two problems with these arguments: 1) Rothbard’s example of the politician who abandoned his principles is entirely anecdotal. There is no reason that a different politician (or any other individual) could not hold an overall goal in mind and still not work gradually, step by step, toward that goal. 2) Rothbard’s characterization of the march of socialism in America is wholly inaccurate. Those committed socialists and communists who have pushed for revolutionary change in the United States have not advanced their agenda at all, while every adoption of the socialist program has come about through gradual steps made by parties perceived to be less radical by the mainstream. The success of socialism in the United States, such as it is, is an argument for incrementalism, not against it.
Rothbard held up two examples that he believed exemplified spokesmen for direct, radical change: Leonard E. Read and William Lloyd Garrison. Leonard E. Read, economist and the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, advocated for the immediate and total abolition of price and wage controls after World War II. William Lloyd Garrison advocated for the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States during the 1830s. The problem is that Leonard E. Read’s rhetorical grandstanding did nothing to abolish price and wage controls, and although slavery was eventually abolished through radical means, it was at the expense of more than 600,000 lives. Even though a more incremental approach would have prolonged the injustice of slavery, it is arguable that it would have achieved the same result in the long run while avoiding all that destruction and bloodshed.
“To really pursue the goal of liberty, the libertarian must desire it attained by the most effective and speediest means available,” Rothbard argued, but Rothbard never bothered to explain what those means would be, especially in the face of the millions of people who depend upon and support the State. How could the State be immediately abolished without a violent backlash? Newton’s third law of motion is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that is just as true when applied to political or social change. In order to preserve the new status quo, a reaction in the opposite direction needs to be prevented. That is why sudden, revolutionary change is almost always accompanied by prison camps, compulsory labor, or mass murder. Incremental change, on the other hand, is a gradual, peaceful change that mitigates the effects of Newton’s law. Therefore, incrementalism is not only more rational, but it is much more compatible with the philosophy of liberty.