"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain." ~ Frederic Bastiat
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.