January 1, 2013 essays

Thoughts on Libertarian Strategy for the New Year

Smith discusses his ideas about “strategic Taoism.”

The advent of a new year is a good time—or at least as good a time as any—for libertarians to ponder their successes and failures. Given the dismal political developments over the past year, I thought this would be an appropriate time to offer some thoughts about strategies to achieve a free society. 

The word “strategy,” which derives from the Greek word for “office of a general,” originally referred to the art of military command “as applied to the overall planning and conduct of large-scale combat operations.” It is now used in a broader sense to mean the “art or skill of using stratagems in politics, business, courtship, and the like.” (American Heritage Dictionary.)

Quoting dictionary definitions will not take us far in discussions of libertarian strategy, but the connotations of the word raise some interesting issues. Why do we typically speak of a “strategies” to achieve a free society, rather than of “plans”? Possibly because “strategy” sounds more impressive, more formidable, than “plan.” Or possibly because “plans” to change society sound suspiciously like a type of social engineering. But what is strategic theory, in the final analysis, except a species of social engineering? The libertarian strategist has a theory of social causation: put those causes in place, he argues, and predictable effects should follow.

But between the seeming necessity of cause and effect stand the individual and his subjective valuations. This unpredictable creature renders foolish armies of social planners and technocrats, and he threatens to render equally foolish the libertarian strategist who claims to know that her plan, and her plan alone, will succeed.

Military strategy presupposes a tolerably clear idea of what would constitute success on the battlefield, e.g., the destruction, surrender, or retreat of the enemy. At some time and in some place those goals will be achieved or they will not, and the results (in most cases) will be visible for all to see. There exists a criterion, in other words, by which the general can evaluate success and failure; and, having committed to a particular strategy, the general himself is open to evaluation by others.

If a general loses one battle after another but insists that he is winning the war in the long run, his claim would be met with extreme skepticism. Nor would the general be taken seriously if he explained away each of his defeats: he would have won the battle if only the weather had been better or if only the enemy had not been so formidable. Nor would the general gain credibility if he claimed that, despite his many defeats, he did better than any other general could have done, or that his country is still better off than it would have been without him. Nor would he fare better if, in order to win a minor skirmish here and there, he left his homeland undefended and allowed it to be overrun by the enemy. Obvious parallels suggest themselves in the realm of libertarian strategy.

Having grown more ecumenical with age, I look forward to the day when libertarians stop viewing other libertarians as opponents who should be denounced for their deviationist views on strategy. By this I do not mean that libertarians should try to achieve a watered-down consensus or stop arguing with one other. On the contrary, vigorous internal debate is essential to the vitality of every ideological movement, including our own. But I do think that arguments should promote intellectual progress within the movement and a deeper understanding of our traditions, successes, failures and prospects.

Let the arguments continue, certainly, but let’s also try to find whatever may be of value in opposing arguments and frankly discuss the weak spots in our own. Only through this process of give and take can we gain a more comprehensive view of strategic issues and increase the prospects for a free society. I would rather be free than right.

For years I have used the label “strategic Taoism” to signify my own ideas about libertarian strategy. Permit me to explain…

Like many Chinese words, Tao (the Way) is rich in connotations. It can refer to following one’s own nature or to a harmonious cooperation among different people. This is a spontaneous order, one that arises without conscious planning or coercion. These ideas are expressed in the Tao Te Ching, the most libertarian of ancient texts.

If you want to be a great leader,
you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control,
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.

Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

What I call strategic Taoism, or the negative way, favors the spontaneous development of creative strategies within the libertarian movement. By this I do not mean a nebulous “feel good” approach, nor am I suggesting that a free society will somehow spring into existence without rigorous thought and strenuous effort. What I mean is that strategic thinking, which is a form of practical wisdom, is highly contextual and should incorporate the diverse talents and specialized skills of libertarians.

For the purpose of analysis, we can contrast strategic Taoism with another approach, namely, the positive way of strategic Confucianism. Although these strategic models are loosely based on their traditional counterparts, I interpret and adapt them freely, laying no claim to philosophical accuracy. They are intended merely to serve as ideal types, or stylized representations, of different strategic visions.

In calling Confucianism “the positive way,” I mean that it offers specific plans to achieve a free society, while insisting that every libertarian should assist in the development of its plans. Such plans typically involve hierarchical organizations and political campaigns. Although the Confucianist does not disparage self-development and individual initiative, he tends to see these as non-strategies. A true strategy, according to the Confucianist, must be planned and consciously coordinated.

Although Taoism and Confucianism do not always conflict, these ideal types allow us to highlight some significant differences in perspective and attitude. For example, both strategies believe in education, but they sometimes disagree over the nature and purpose of that education. The Confucianist has a quantitative view, measuring the success of an educational campaign in terms of the number of people that libertarians are able to influence. The Taoist, in contrast, stresses educational quality, not numbers. He believes that the thorough education of a few people is of greater strategic value than the superficial education of many people.

Taoism is ultimately a kind of strategic individualism. Whereas Confucianism favors a grand, organized strategy in which all libertarians should participate, Taoism is more a way of life in which personal development is merged with social and political change. Taoism can accommodate a wide range of different plans. These plans adjust to each other and form a coherent movement largely by spontaneous methods, rather than by conscious design. Taoism leads to a libertarian movement that is at once harmonious and individualistic. It encourages unity in diversity.

Perhaps the most valuable feature of strategic Taoism is its stress on creativity. Fully aware that the benefits of freedom cannot be predicted or foreseen, it taps into the creative energy of every libertarian by stimulating original ideas and perspectives. Activities within the movement (internal debates, supper clubs, etc.) are vital to the success of libertarianism, largely because we don’t know what will emerge from them. By generating controversy and excitement, they make the libertarian movement an interesting place to be, even when it isn’t moving anywhere.

Strategic Taoism makes few predictions and no promises about the future of freedom. Working from the classical Stoic distinction between that which is within our control (the internal) and that which is not within our control (the external), it maintains that we should focus on the internal and leave the external to take care of itself. Thus Taoism embraces neither optimism nor pessimism; it regards both as irrelevant.

Place a crystal ball in front of the libertarian Taoist in which he can see the future with infallible certainty. If the future of freedom is bright, he will continue on his present course. But if the future of freedom is dismal, he will also continue on his present course. The Taoist will not allow the future, which he cannot control, to dictate his ideals and actions, which he can control.

While working to achieve a free society, the strategic Taoist understands that his ideal may never be realized, for such is the nature of every ideal. He upholds freedom not for the sake of a future that does not exist but for the sake of the ideal itself. Even if he thinks that freedom will eventually die, the Taoist will never forsake it—just as he will not forsake his loved ones because he knows that they, too, will eventually die.