A Pragmatic Approach to Anti-Statism

Column by Michael Kleen.

Exclusive to STR

The modern state is the reality of the contemporary world. I say it is the reality because there are few things in the world that the state does not touch. There are few remaining frontiers (aside from perhaps the Internet) where liberty can be expressed in its fullest nature. Even the most adamant anarchist is forced to live within the state, to live by its rules, to pay taxes to it, to take aid from it, or face destitution, sanction, or imprisonment. The state is inescapable for all but a fortunate few.
Given this reality, the anti-statist is forced to walk a fine line between belief and practice. Every day, your principles run counter to the world as you encounter it— your principles even threaten the very existence of that world, and will therefore run up against vocal, even violent, opposition from everyone around you who depends upon the state for their welfare. You pause to think, grudgingly, but nevertheless—Even I depend upon the state for my welfare. How can you reconcile this strange existence?
There are two ways to confront this duality: ideologically and pragmatically. All anti-statists, whether ideologues or pragmatists, desire similar ends. Both would love to live in a stateless world, a world where the individual would be free to pursue his or her own goals and desires as long as those goals and desires do not trample on the liberty of others. Unlike the pragmatist, who is willing to settle for something rather than nothing, the ideologue has a very rigid, uncompromising, and “all or nothing” approach to this dream. Anyone who doesn’t agree with him or her is ignorant, simpleminded, or dangerous. They will settle for nothing less than total conformity with their ideas.
The ideologue, however, has a problem. Barring some unlikely event in which everyone suddenly forgets about the state, how do you get from where we are now to where you want to be without compromising or working with the overwhelming majority of the population who rely on the status quo? How do you “fix the problem” if you reject many of the tools available to fix it?
Even if someone is moving toward the goal of abolishing the state, or even toward lessening its influence or its ability to tax or harm, the ideologue rejects those efforts because they do not conform 100 percent to his or her end goals. It does not matter that this individual has done more to advance the anti-statist agenda than the ideologue ever has. To the ideologue, this person has “sold out” or is “evil” and an “enemy.” Meanwhile, the ideologue continues to occupy the same reality (perhaps lives in the same town or city) and directly benefits from the efforts of this individual.
A pragmatist, on the other hand, accepts a situation as it is and makes the best of it. Pragmatism requires looking at our own behaviors and ideas and asking ourselves whether or not they work and whether they are getting us where we want to go. In other words: do what you can, with what you have, where you are. A pragmatic anti-statist realizes that no one has ever built a successful movement by rejecting or ostracizing everyone with whom he or she disagrees. He or she is willing to accept any advance, however small, toward his or her larger goals.
In contrast, demanding ideological purity is a comfortable position for the ideologue to take because it allows him or her to criticize everything and to do nothing, since no action in the real world will ever be in 100 percent conformity with his or her goals. For the ideologue, the answer to every disagreement is simple—“just turn to the ideological vending machine and out comes the prepared formulae” (in the words of Daniel Bell). The pragmatist has no such luxury. It is not that the pragmatist desires the abolition of the state any less, it is that the pragmatist recognizes that there are many steps on the road to that goal, some of which might be necessary even if they leave a bad aftertaste.
The political and social history of the United States is pretty clear about which outlook has been most successful. American socialists, for example, have become masters of gradual change through pragmatic means, ever since most of them gave up on revolution after the First World War (and again after the Vietnam War). Every ideologically-driven socialist, communist, or Marxist party in the United States has completely failed to advance their agenda, while the more pragmatic leftists have made significant advances toward their long-term goals.
Given the predominance of the state in the contemporary world, the pragmatic approach is the most sensible approach for the anti-statist as well. Furthermore, because the political process is so distasteful (given that it supports the status quo), it is even more imperative that every option remain on the table. Hunting for heretics and burning bridges in a quest for ideological purity will lead to nothing but disaffection and disorganization, something that an already individualist-oriented movement can ill afford.


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Michael Kleen's picture
Columns on STR: 36

Michael Kleen is the Editor-in-Chief of Untimely Meditations, publisher of Black Oak Presents, and proprietor of Black Oak Media. He holds a M.A. in History and a M.S. in Education, and is the author of Statism and its Discontents, a collection of columns on the topics of Statism, liberty, and their conflict. His columns have appeared in a variety of publications and websites, including Strike-the-Root.


wkmac's picture

This is why I think war and military empire should be a front burner issue. Not only is it an issue that defies the typical left/right construct that to me is nothing but a chinese finger trap but it is war that causes so many imbalances in society that both the right and left often rail about in regards to overreaching gov't. One side screams about poverty and the other side screams about paying for it while neither ever consider the harm done of extracting monetized labor out of the local economy and via central planning giving it to the big boys to play with. The very ill they both speak of have their root in the State itself and yet both look to the state to fix it all. Both fear anti-statism in that abandoning the State will allow the otherside to gain power and win the day. Opposition to war and empire IMO is a training wheels issue so we can learn how to work with yet respect each other without the chinese fingertrap.

From an anti-statist pragmatist POV, it just seems on so many levels to address effects that both the the right and left don't like yet creates further problems in society. I'm not saying for those who think the Federal Reserve is the problem or the security state is troubling should drop all they are doing and refocus but instead if you drill down to the heart of statism and look at it's core, you'll find good people on both the so-called left and right who oppose it and one area that I see more and more a growing consensus is war and the military state. Also pulling out $1 trillion plus annually from local economies to fund this venture will cause other consequences across society and what if that amount was just cut in half, just in economics what would the benefits be if $500 billion were either not borrowed from future generations or left to work in local economies? Could local economics improve thus the pressures on safety net programs lessen making both those on the left concerned with poverty growth happy while those on the right have less taken from their pocket?

One does have to ask the question, are we being idealogues to achieve a collaspe of the whole thing or are we afraid to go piecemeal because if things starts to turn to the positive and get better, a comfort zone is reached, our idea of perfection will be put aside andthe state to lesser degree will live on for another day? On an evolutionary scale, are we ready to evolve away for such organized, centralized, heirarchial societies to begin with? On that level, are pragmatic steps the better way to go and have a 1000 year vision instead of wanting it for ourselves next week?

I like next week too but at some point the pragmatic wins need to happen. I'm not one for voting but Ron Paul has forced a very different conversation to enter the landscape and people who onced thought themselves opposites are now shoulder to shoulder on the battle fronts they agree. And inside that, names like Proudhon, Tucker, Spooner and Rothbard are gaining wider audience than they once had along with Locke, Bastiat, Mises Garrett and Mencken. Paleo is seen as a positive and Neo is becoming the negative. Classical left is being discussed for it's free market traditions more than it's typical "Matrix" creations.

We can't ignore how important this has been to the larger discussion and the pragmatist idea is worthy of some consideration at some level. However, being a realist or is that pragmatist, I'm not holding my breathe that we idealogues are just going to quietly change overnight either! LOL!

Good article and good ideas to ponder. Very timely IMO.

J3rBear's picture

It's also important to remember that pragmatism can be a tempting tool that can easily drag one away from rational principles. It is the cliche "slippery slope". We live in a world of moral relativism precisely because people simple do what is practical or what works. And of course, one can substantiate any action by pointing out it's practicalities or effects. I'm very wary of arguments such as the one made above.

Paul's picture

I can see both sides of this argument. A fine example is what is going on with concealed carry of firearms.

Originally only Vermont allowed concealed carry (CC) with no need for permits. At that time I believe only Washington state allowed CC with permits. But then the dam broke for some reason after Florida adopted CC with permits. By now we have about 40 states with "shall issue" CC laws.

The interesting thing is that permitless CC is now starting to spread. At this point Vermont, Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming have this type of law, and several other states are considering it. See the animated graphic here:

Now, the ideological position is clearly for permitless CC, and CC requiring a permit is an imposition. Yet I believe the current spread of permitless CC would not be occurring without the intermediate stage first. I think the first stage got people used to the idea of a significant percentage of people walking around armed. After that took place and mayhem did not occur, it allowed further questioning, such as, "Should I really need permission from a bureaucrat to protect my family?" And people are getting it; they are realizing the answer is no.

So these events support the pragmatic position (also because the whole thing was done within the system, legislatively). Yet, pragmatism can indeed be taken too far. NRA has become infamous among many gun owners for lobbying in OPPOSITION to the spread of permitless CC. I suppose their rationale was a desire not to appear too radical among the legislators they deal with every day. But it's one thing to remain uninvolved in the permitless battles, another thing entirely to oppose them and kill their chance for passage. They have gone down that slippery slope.

If one uses the pragmatic approach, it's important to keep the ideal firmly in mind at all times, and recognize when one is on the boundary of being too pragmatic.

Michael Kleen's picture

These are all some very good observations, and I agree that pragmatism can be taken too far. That's why it should be practiced, like most other things, in moderation.

Paul's picture

On further reflection, I should say there is a huge problem with the pragmatic approach that we haven't considered here. Michael writes, "He or she is willing to accept any advance, however small, toward his or her larger goals."

The problem is with focusing entirely on the single issue. My example above was permitted CC leading eventually to permitless CC. All well and good, if that is all one is concerned about. Sure looks like an advance, eh?

The problem is, while you are spending a lot of effort getting forward progress on this one issue, you are taking a beating everywhere else. So on net, you are not getting an advance. You have just invested a lot of time in a setback.

Indeed, my monitoring of the situation, with the Wyoming Liberty Index, noted year after year 3 or 4 times as many liberty-harming bills as liberty enhancing bills. After a while, it doesn't matter that Wyoming passed permitless CC just recently. We are still worse off.

What's the solution to this dilemma? I think revolution will be the end result, whether we try to be pragmatic or ideological.