Incrementalism and Freedom
by Ari Armstrong, July 14, 2000
Obviously, we're not going to wake up in the morning to a libertarian world. Achieving a free society will take time. However, might there be some critical point in time when the pillars of the state give way to the mighty gales of freedom? Or will freedom come more like a gentle wind, guiding society to distant libertarian shores?
We might try a different analogy. Within the theory of evolution, some believe life evolves slowly, with imperceptible changes adding up over millions of years to create significant changes. Others, however, believe history is punctuated with critical moments where everything changes all at once. Libertarian political theorists have similar disagreements.
History is filled with examples of both slow and sudden changes. The enlightenment ideals carried on by John Locke took centuries to develop, yet the American Revolution institutionalized an essentially Lockean form of government within a few short years. As Marshall Fritz (head of the Separation of School and State Alliance) points out, socialism was on the decline for decades in Europe before the Berlin wall was burst open in a few days. Socialists were quite adept at focusing their theories into the New Deal of Roosevelt.
The Big Moments in history rarely take place because of the plans of any single person or group. Social forces can build for years or centuries before events reach a head. It remains an open question, however, whether we as libertarians should work for incremental change or try to help pave the way for those rare monumental changes.
A recent debate about Social Security between Jacob Hornberger ("Bumper") and Harry Browne illustrates this division. Browne's plan entails selling off public lands to buy annuities for current Social Security recipients, and ending the tax all together. Now, that's a fairly radical plan, and one I happen to love because it kills two socialist birds with one stone. But I understand Bumper doesn't like the idea because it somehow legitimizes the concept of Social Security benefits as a right. Thus, Bumper advocates sudden repeal, while Browne's plan is relatively incrementalist.
Another incrementalist plan advocated by George Reisman (and me) is simply to raise the retirement age for Social Security pay-outs steadily until it surpasses the life span. That would effectively phase out the system, and eventually the system could be repealed almost as an afterthought.
Should libertarians advocate sudden or incremental change toward freedom? The obvious answer is, "YES!" So long as we're all fighting for the same principles, we're helping both options become better possibilities.
What must be avoided at all costs, however, is more incremental socialism. The great danger of the modern libertarian movement is that many mistakenly believe schemes of market socialism will somehow lead incrementally to freedom.
Perhaps the best illustration of this point entails educational vouchers. Many conservative and libertarian organizations support vouchers. For instance, in the June 29, 2000 newsletter from Colorado's Independence Institute, Jon Caldara writes,
Great news from the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday for all of us concerned with educational choice! The court just ruled by an unexpected 6-3 majority in Mitchell v. Helms that public provision of computers and other materials to students attending religious schools is Constitutional... Bit by bit, empowering families with educational choice is becoming a reality.
The trouble with vouchers, as Fritz points out, is that they open the door to government regulation of currently private schools. If we want to move to a system where government no longer controls our children's education, wonders Fritz, then why would we want to go from government controlling 89% of students' education to controlling 95%? Is going from 89% to 95% government control somehow going to bring us to 0%?
Fritz anticipates the day when government schools collapse under the weight of their own bureaucracies and market education is reinstated. But he works on his own incrementalist plan toward that end: convincing parents to withdraw their children from government schools and teach them at home or at private institutions. Thus, Fritz' critics are off the mark when they accuse him of having no practical plan for change.
Another plan for market socialism involves merit-based pay for government school teachers. The Austrian Economics study group recently discusses this issue. It turns out Herbert Spencer predicted in the 1800s that merit-based pay for government school teachers would have disastrous consequences. Today we find teachers foregoing real education in favor of teaching to standardized tests. In some cases, we even find teachers who encourage or assist their students to cheat on such tests.
Returning to the topic of Social Security, George Bush's plan, which is an adaptation of the plan lauded by the usually libertarian Cato Institute, is another type of market socialism. Right now, the Social Security tax takes about 15% of each worker's income. Bush wants to add an additional 2% tax to create mandatory, government-regulated savings accounts. Cato's claim is that this 2% will be subtracted from the Social Security tax, but that's legislative legerdemain. Bush does NOT want to reduce current Social Security pay-outs. Thus, the tax burden must necessarily remain at the same level, whether it's taken directly or subsidized by the general income tax. So in effect Bush is leaving the current Social Security burden in place, and adding to it the additional burden of mandatory accounts. To adapt Fritz' insight, how is going from a 15% burden to a 17% burden somehow going to bring us closer to 0%? Let's push for Browne's plan, or Reisman's plan, but libertarians need to stop wishing for Cato's plan -- or we just might get it.
(A technical aside: the Cato plan does call for a reduction of current workers' future benefits. However, if this is the plan for phasing out the Social Security system, then it can be accomplished without imposing a system of mandatory, regulated accounts. The Cato plan is deceptive, in that it gives the impression that the current Social Security burden will be reduced because of the mandatory accounts, when in fact that's not the case at all.)
Market socialism isn't freedom. Converting a government program to market socialism doesn't move us closer to liberty. Allowing a government program to expand under cover of market socialism moves us closer to statism.
What's important is that we fight for the right principles. If we legitimize market socialism by pretending that's our goal, then we make it harder to achieve true liberty in the future. Yes, we're going to lose many battles along the way, and sometimes political compromise is impossible to avoid. But if we never compromise our principles, we may just win the war.