Ross Poole. Sydney Libertarianism 1967


Source: Broadsheet # 51, May, 1967;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

By “meliorism” I understand a certain kind of social activity or behaviour – a kid of activity which is distinguished from other kinds of activity, not so much by any quality or style of the activity itself, but by its having certain ends or aims. Meliorist activity is that activity which has as its end, or is aimed at, some social improvement. This account of what meliorism is agrees, I think, substantially with that of Molnar’s.

I might, however, be queried by some libertarians. They would argue that meliorist activity has a certain style – it involves a certain mode of behaviour, it has a certain intrinsic character. The adjectives “servile,” conformist,” “devious.” Etc., spring to mind as ways that libertarians have characterized what they take to be the intrinsic character of meliorism. However, to define meliorism as activity carried out in this manner would be to beg the question against those who claim that one can achieve worthwhile results in the social sphere without, as it were, sacrificing one’s persona; integrity in the process, And it does seem to be an empirical question which we should not prejudge whether or not meliorism is always accompanied by a certain characteristic style of behaviour. It seems best, therefore, to adopt as a starting point a general characterization of meliorism as that activity directed towards the end of social improvement.

Libertarians have in the past been verse to taking place in meliorist activity; they have usually, though not always, been content to air their grievances without trying to remedy them. Molnar has argued for a substantial modification of this attitude. He has based his position on an examination and criticism of certain arguments which he takes to be used as support for the libertarian attitude, and which he claims do not in fact support that attitude.

I agree with Molnar to this extent: IF the libertarian opposition to meliorism is based on the arguments that he considers, then that opposition is not justified. To the extent that libertarians have defended their anti-meliorism by resorting to these considerations, then their defense has been an inadequate one. But, against this, I want to argue that the libertarian aversion to meliorism is based on considerations which Molnar ignores and that those are crucial for an understanding of the libertarian attitude. I will further suggest that these considerations are basic to libertarianism – basic in the sense that if one were to reject them one would cease to be a libertarian. As a consequence of this, where Molnar suggests that libertarianism and meliorism – albeit of a restrained and selective kind – are compatible, I will argue that they are incompatible. Where Molnar asks that we reject the general question “What is wrong with meliorism?,” I think we should accept it, and try to answer it.

This will involve going over some pretty familiar material. Still, it seems worth going over if just to give it a certain emphasis which might be missed, It is also necessary because it seems that it is just this familiar material that Molnar has chosen to ignore.

Libertarians, as we know, are anarchists, though admittedly anarchist of a rather strange breed. Before we get onto those elements in libertarian thinking which distinguish them from other anarchists, it will be as well to stress at least one element in libertarian thinking which they share with classical anarchists. This is, of course, the enormous, perhaps inordinate, stress on freedom – freedom, that set of conditions in which human activity can be carried on unhindered, and in which individual and group interests can be expressed without barrier. Together with this is the correlative opposition to those forces and institutions which limit that freedom. Whereas other political creeds have, with explicitly or implicitly, settled for a limited freedom, anarchists and libertarians have held out in the name of complete freedom, and have maintained, or tired to maintain, an uncompromising attitude towards those forces that stand in the way of that freedom.

It is because libertarians try to maintain this position that they are anarchists; if they ceased to hold this position they would cease to be anarchists – they would be ratbags of a different kind. What I want to stress is that this attitude is basic to libertarianism, and because it is an attitude it is not, as such, subject to argument or proof. Libertarians just have this attitude: it is their starting point. It is not the conclusion of an argument nor a terminus arrived at from the consideration of premises.

Given that libertarians qualify as anarchists because of this basic common ground, we can now point out how libertarians differ from most other anarchists, certainly from those in the classical tradition. Libertarians believe that the achievement of a society in which this ideal of freedom is realized is impossible; they believe that no amount of propaganda, education, or political struggle will bring about a society even remotely resembling the anarchist utopias. (I don’t want to consider questions as to how this belief is justified. I think it is justified, though I think that the justification is not quite as straightforward a matter as libertarians have tended to believe. But this is by the way). The point is that it is this belief that distinguished libertarians from other anarchists, just as it is the uncompromising attitude towards freedom that distinguishes libertarians and anarchists from other political creeds.

Years ago, Molnar himself pointed out (Libertarian #1, 1957, p. 12) that the classical anarchists were not just utopian dreamers, but that there was another strand in their thought. On occasion, they stressed the reality of the present and actual engagement with authority, of the immediate struggle for emancipation. Rather than the far distant, perhaps illusory, utopia, which they conceived to be the outcome of that struggle. It was in this mood that Bakunin wrote: “to think of the future is criminal.” And it is this strain in anarchist thinking which is attractive to libertarians. But with an important difference. The anarchists usually though of their activity as a means to a certain end – the establishment of a free society. Libertarians, although they believe that that end is impossible, nevertheless continue with activity which is similar in kind to that of the anarchists because they see that activity as an end in itself.

Libertarians are concerned with the content of their activity i.e., its quality as such, and are not concerned with the ends that it may or may not achieve. Libertarians see certain sorts of action as expressive of their belief in freedom being free is, in a sense, acting in a certain way. They are concerned with the activity, not for what it is hoped that it will bring about, but because they think that it is worth doing for its own sake. This is, I believe, the content, or an important part of the content, of the notion of permanent protest.

Of course, this does apply, nor is it meant to apply, to all activity undertaken by libertarians. It does not, f or instance, apply to that activity which is concerned just with the mundane tasks of living, e.g., drinking, eating, etc. But it certainly does apply to activity in the socio-political sphere.

There may well be difficulties in demarcating this area precisely, but perhaps it will be sufficient in this context to say that is just that area in which we are being invited to participate in “restrained and selective” meliorism.

Given all this, we can immediately see the opposition or, perhaps better, the lack of contact between the meliorist and the libertarian. Meliorists and reformers are concerned with ends – their activity is calculated to achieve certain results. For the meliorist, the style of the activity, the manner in which it is carried out must, to some extent be subordinate to the ends that he hopes to achieve by that activity. This is because meliorist activity is activity directed towards change or improvement, i.e., the end must govern to some, though perhaps only a limited extent, the means. If this is not the case, then the activity is wrongly describe as being meliorist. Libertarians, on the other hand, are concerned with a certain kind of style of activity and the consequences of this activity are a subordinate consideration. It may be that some activity undertaken by libertarians will have as a consequence some improvement of the social scene; it may also be the case that its consequence is some change that we would not regard as an improvement; much more likely, it will not have any important consequences at all. But all these considerations concerning the outcome of the activity will be subordinate to questions concerning the character of the activity as such. It is this difference of emphasis which sets the libertarian apart from the meliorist – even the “restrained and selective” meliorist.

Molnar, in the course of his paper, considered and rejected certain views which might be held to buttress an anti-meliorist stance. I have agreed that, as they stand, these considerations do not support a general opposition to meliorism. However, in the light of what I have said so far, some at least can be reformulated so as to appear much more plausible, not perhaps as arguments in their own right, nut as adjuncts to the basic position. For example, Molnar, in my view, quite correctly, rejected the thesis that meliorism is ineffective, As a universal generalization this appears to be plainly false. Nut what is more plausible, and what, perhaps, is meant by many who have made this claim, is the view that libertarian activity, if it is to be considered meliorist, will be seen as ineffective meliorism.

What I have in mind is the libertarian reaction to the ill-informed criticism of libertarianism which runs: “what do you hope to achieve?” The short answer to this is, of course, “Nothing.” Any achievement would be an unexpected bonus. It is just a mistake to judge libertarian activity by the same standards as meliorist activity; the latter is to be judged by its effectiveness, the former by other rhetoric entirely. The point here is that the libertarian has no need to make the claim that all meliorism is ineffective. All he wants to say is that libertarian activity is ineffective. And this is undoubtedly true, just because libertarian activity is not aimed at effects.

Another of Molnar’s criticisms was directed at the view that, as a consequence of taking part in reformist activity, the initial liberal aims of the reformer are always corrupted, and are replaced by interest in authority, power and manipulation. In short, he “sells out.” Now, considered as an empirical thesis, this is most probably false. At the very least, it needs a lot more evidence than has thus been adduced. But once again it is a thesis which libertarians have no need to defend, for, given the libertarian’s overriding interest in a certain sort of activity for its own sake, and the reformer’s interest in activity as a means to an end, then it follows that a libertarian cannot become a reformer without ceasing to be a libertarian. If ceasing to be a libertarian is taken to be a species of “selling out” (and I understand that it is taken this way in the best circles), then the thesis “He who takes up reform, sells out” is, when restricted to a certain class of people, viz. libertarians, not a generalization backed by insufficient evidence, but an analytic truth.

The libertarian position is not, as I have outlined it, free from obscurities and difficulties. Questions which deserve discussion and clarification include the notion of “doing something for its own sake,” as distinguished from “doing something as a means to an end.” An account of this would have to be more complex that the rather simplistic discussion contained in this paper. It might, I think, allow that a certain activity, which is worth doing for its own sake, might have ends, and intended ends, of a certain sort. For example, the work of a creative artist might have certain ends, e.g., earning a living, despite the fact that it is primarily worth doing for its own sake. Analogously, libertarian activity might have certain ends, but these would be subordinate consideration to that if the activity conceived as an end in itself.

Further problems concern the characterization of the style of libertarian activity, and the range of activity covered by the tenets that I have outlined. These questions deserve, and perhaps will get, more attention than they have been given in this paper, or by libertarians in the past.

But these are questions which I can only mention without further discussion. They arise out of a position which is, I think, central to libertarian thinking, and which Molnar has ignored. Because of this, his conclusion – that libertarians should change their attitude to meliorism – has been insufficiently argued for, I have been concerned to indicate what I take to be the basis of the libertarian opposition to meliorism; until that basis has been subjected to conclusive criticism, I see on reason to accept the thesis that the libertarian attitude stands in need of revision.

Ross Poole