Sunday, May 18, 2008

In a cause that will triumph.

It must have seemed, at numerous points, that the American Revolution was going to fail. Certainly the men who gathered in Philadelphia to sign the treasonous Declaration of Independence pledged their very lives to the cause -- realizing that failure could bring about their execution. Their goal was both simple, profound and difficult.

Simply put, it was independence for the colonies, profound because it was rooted into the philosophical premises of classical liberalism, and difficult because this ragtag bunch of “farmers” were standing up to one of the greatest military forces of their day. It must have surprised many when they won.

For almost all of human history the idea that one human being could “own” another as a piece of property was widely accepted. It was sanctioned by both church and state. The Bible itself supported the institution, offering rules for how to treat slaves but never suggesting their freedom.

A tiny radical fringe started demanding “abolition”. There was no compromise with these people. They were not satisfied with restrictions on slavery. They wanted it abolished, entirely, completely, without exception. How does one even talk to people who refuse to be “reasonable” ?

In 1838 a group of liberals got together to form an organization that would demand free markets and free trade. They did not wish to reform the English tariff system, they wished to abolish it.

One of the leading reformers, businessman Richard Cobden was elected to parliament in 1841. Socialists, and the landlords who benefited from protectionism, both attacked him.

Cobden, and his co-conspirator, Richard Bright had little going for them except for the rightness of their cause. Not only were these radical liberals promoting free markets but they pushed for a reduction in England’s war making abilities. They were peace advocates as well. They were accused of being utopians, unwilling to recognize reality or to compromise.

Cobden’s radical positions were attacked from all sides. Harriet Martineau, in her History of the Peace, wrote that “he was not treated in the House with the courtesy usually accorded to a new member....” Cobden didn’t care. Instead he launched a strong attack on Prime Minister Pee,l to the fury of the House and the Prime Minister. But it was Peel who eventually surrendered to the arguments of Cobden, not the other way around.

The Corn Laws were eventually repealed and Peel said the man responsible was the uncompromising Cobden. Peel said:

I have no wish to rob any person of the credit which is justly due to him for them. But I may say that neither the gentlemen sitting on the benches opposite, nor myself, nor the gentlemen sitting round me—I say that neither of us are the parties who are strictly entitled to the merit. There has been a combination of parties, and that combination of parties together with the influence of the Government, has led to the ultimate success of the measures. But, Sir, there is a name which ought to be associated with the success of these measures: it is not the name of the noble Lord, the member for London, neither is it my name. Sir, the name which ought to be, and which will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of a man who, acting, I believe, from pure and disinterested motives, has advocated their cause with untiring energy, and by appeals to reason, expressed by an eloquence, the more to be admired because it was unaffected and unadorned—the name which ought to be and will be associated with the success of these measures is the name of Richard Cobden. Without scruple, Sir, I attribute the success of these measures to him.

In these incidents the goals varied. Some wanted political independence. Others wanted reforms that were considered impossible; not only that, but they were seeking reforms that overturned established political systems and tradition. Their demands were radical and often faced impossible odds. Yet they clung to their ideals and pushed for them. .

The causes that they promoted were radical but right, controversial but compassionate, unacceptable but unavoidable. Some of them won their battles quickly, others took much longer. In many cases the original visionaries who dreamed of change did not live to see the dream become reality. In spite of that the dreams did become reality.

In each case activists were derided, persecuted, often imprisoned, sometimes killed. They pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to a cause deemed hopeless but one destined to triumph. And they did so without compromise.

It was the purity of their vision that proved to be their strongest rampart. The equivocation of their opponents, the lack of moral clarity in their opposition, proved to be the demise of unjust and immoral policies, laws and traditions.

In First Corinthians, Paul wrote: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” The movements discussed here won their battles. When they sounded the trumpet it was loud, and crisp, and clear. There was no equivocation, no compromise, no promise of victory. Yet victory was theirs.

The abolitionists did not call for reducing slavery, but for ending it. The American Revolutionaries did not seek to be ruled by an Earl in place of a king -- they sought independence. Richard Cobden did not call for reform but for repeal.

Today, many libertarians, so-called, argue that we must cloud our vision, or at the very least, hide it. They argue it is far better to nominate candidates who are less statist than the incumbents but not so “radical” as to scare people. They offer the American public a “me-too” political philosophy. They want to turn the Libertarian Party into a jobs machine for fourth rate politicians. They want to substitute electoral victory for freedom.

They seem to have forgotten that the Libertarian Party was founded with the prime purpose of promoting liberty. Electoral victories, while welcomed, were not the main goal. Such victories, we always knew, would be few and far between. But they were not our purpose. At best, they would be a means to the goal, but never the goal itself.

Today the Libertarian Party seems infested with individuals who have turned the means into an end. They are so anxious to achieve positions that they abandon principles, forgetting that the principles were the goal and positions merely a means to achieving it. Lord Acton warned that power corrupts. These “libertarians” seem to have shown that even the mere illusion of power corrupts.

Victory over oppression and tyranny can not be won by adopting oppressive and tyrannical positions. A drowning man needs oxygen not a different kind of water.

If the Libertarian Party continues down the disastrous road laid out by these Republican-lite types it will cease to have any justification for its existence. Milton Friedman liked to remind Libertarians that their victory would be achieved at the hands of others. Their purpose, he said, was to continue to make the moral case for freedom when others have dropped the torch of liberty. Only through the continual agitation of the radical, moral view does an idea that is outside the mainstream eventually become an acceptable alternative to the equivocating, compromising holders of office. Friedman repeatedly noted that the socialists in America won their victories, not by having their candidates elected, but by having their ideas stolen.

Socialists saw their ideas put into place because they held their ideas on principle -- wrong , but still firmly held and uncompromisingly promoted. The “reform” type of libertarians don’t want the Libertarian torch held high for all to see. At best they want it dimmed to show the public that Libertarians really aren’t that different after all.

However, the value of the Libertarian Party is entirely found in its differences not in its similarities. The abolitionists did not win because they were like the slavers but because they were their polar opposites. Richard Cobden faced down the most powerful politician in England, raked him over the coals, and in the end, won his mind, his respect and his thanks.

Compromise gives comfort to the tyrannical. It tells them that their values are right. After all, if even the libertarians, accept statist premises then control, and regulation and restriction is practical and desirable. The reform types that want the Bob Barrs or the Wayne Allen Roots, are people who would have the trumpet sound an uncertain sound.

What compelled so many people to pledge so much to the Libertarian Party was never the promise of electing fourth rate politicians to office. These people were inspired by the vision of freedom. As Proverbs says: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

And what is true for people is true for parties. Without the libertarian vision there is no libertarian party. There may be a shell with the same name but it will not be a libertarian party no matter what it calls itself. Without a vision the party will truly perish. If even the “Libertarians” are not willing to stand up for liberty then liberty, for the first time, would truly be a lost cause. It is when the darkness seems most likely to envelope and suffocate the candle that its light is most needed.

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