Friday, August 29, 2014

Rothbard's Button, Preference Change, and Transition to a Voluntary Society

Rothbard famously claimed that a principled supporter of a voluntary society has to be "a "button pusher" who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed". I regard this metaphor as in one sense rather unfortunate, not because of its alleged "utopianism", but because of its ambiguity, while in another sense as deeply revealing of what being a principled and effective advocate of a voluntary society really involves.

On the one hand, if the abolition in question were to involve the instantaneous incapacitation of the existing ruling class and the disappearance of the financial and military resources that sustain the institutions of power, then this would provide at best a temporary relief. The result of such an abolition would not be the emergence of a voluntary society, but the emergence of what I call "statism without the state", i.e., the situation where a territorial monopoly of violence disappears, but everything else, including the mentality that legitimizes and supports its existence, stays the same. Needless to say, under such circumstances there would appear an almost immediate push for reestablishing a ruling class and the institutions of power.

If, on the other hand, pushing the Rothbardian button were to result in making the majority of the world's population instantly and fully aware of the flagrant evils, inefficiencies, and logical inconsistencies of statism, as well as of the vast economic and moral superiority of a voluntary society, then states would be truly and permanently abolished, joining slavery, legally sanctioned racial discrimination, and the divine right of kings in the dustbin of history.

If Rothbard's claim is to be interpreted in the latter way, it becomes clear that, far from illustrating the difference between the abolitionist and the gradualist approach to creating a voluntary society, it indicates that the difference in question is actually a moot point, since a voluntary society cannot be created by starting with dismantling the institutions of power (be it revolutionarily or gradually), but only by first changing the cultural and moral preferences of the majority. In the context of this latter task, however, there is no tradeoff between the advantages and disadvantages of abolitionism and gradualism to speak of, since, presumably, every advocate of a voluntary society would agree that the quicker the relevant awareness-raising efforts could progress and succeed, the better it would be. Thus, given the right choice of pro-voluntarist tasks and goals, the difference between the abolitionist and the gradualist collapses, indicating that the relevant disputes and trade-offs may lie somewhere else entirely.

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