Both Theory and Praxis: Rothbard’s Plan for Laissez-Faire Activism
The United States has not had a large, organized laissez-faire political movement since the 1890s, when the Democratic Party explicitly embraced an agenda of low taxes, restrained foreign policy, political decentralization, and opposition to a central bank. Certainly, since that time, laissez-faire factions have been part of various political coalitions and parties. The Old Right, for example, embraced laissez-faire both in foreign policy and in the movement’s opposition to the New Deal. And the post–World War II era included laissez-faire groups as one group within the conservative movement.
But the conservatives were led primarily by hard-core interventionists in foreign policy. For them, even domestic laissez-faire was a minor afterthought. After all, William F. Buckley, perhaps at the top of the movement’s leadership, demanded that Americans be prepared to accept “for the duration” of the Cold War a “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”
Obviously any political movement dominated by such views could not embrace laissez-faire with sincerity. Thus, for more than a century now, the minority-bound parties of laissez-faire have asked themselves: How can an effective and growing movement be sustained?
The answer lies in a two-pronged approach: first, an intellectual and ideological battle must be waged to win over at least some key portions of the public. But once this has been done—or perhaps while it is being done—others must also work to translate this intellectual foundation into practice.
Not surprisingly, Murray Rothbard had some ideas on this.
Rothbard on Strategy
Few laissez-faire advocates have given the problem more thought than Murray Rothbard, who concerned himself not only with the problems of ideological coherence, but also with the problem of political organization. That is, he wondered if the laissez-faire advocate should focus primarily on spreading and explaining why the ideology of laissez-faire is best or if he should focus on political activism and organization.
Rothbard explains defines the first of these strategies, known as “educationism”:
Roughly: We have arrived at the truth, but most people are still deluded believers in error; therefore, we must educate these people—via lectures, discussions, books, pamphlets, newspapers, or whatever—until they become converted to the correct point of view. For a minority to become a majority, a process of persuasion and conversion must take place—in a word, education.
Some commentators have claimed that Rothbard has condemned educationism, but this is not the case. Rothbard condemned only the idea that educationism is sufficient in itself, noting:
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with this strategy so far as it goes. All new truths or creeds, be they scientific, artistic, religious, or political, must proceed in roughly this way: the new truth rippling out from the initial discoverers to disciples and proteges, to writers and journalists, to intellectuals and the lay public. By itself, however, pure educationism is a naive strategy because it avoids pondering some difficult problems, e.g., how are we to confront the pr
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