James Leroy Wilson's blog

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Incrementalist Hard-Liner

Logan Ferree weighs in on Libertarian Catfights over purity and pragmatism. Douglas Wilson, an anti-abortion, conservative Christian pastor, has some constructive comments on the issue of purity and pragmatism, only in a different context and over a different issue. Addressing the anti-Roe v Wade incrementalists vs hardliners (such as the South Dakota legislature), he writes,
Because of [their] incrementalist approach, many pro-lifers have lamented the recent bill that made it through the South Dakota legislature, and was signed into law by the governor. They have lamented it as an example of over-reaching, and as a bill that will surely be struck down in the lower federal courts, one that will almost certainly never make it to the Supreme Court. So why do it then? Waste of time, right?

No. The reason is that incrementalism does not work unless there is a significant group of people who want it all now. Pro-lifers should take a look at the leftist playbook. The incrementalists are the ones who make it happen. The hard-liners are the reason it happens.

Hardliners point the way. If he thinks the nation is headed "south" (i.e., downward to hell), the hardliner points north. And then those who may agree that the nation is headed south, but disagree that the nation should immediately turn around and head straight north, are the ones who may point east or west, and drag the south-going nation someplace other than straight south. Enough of this incremental persuasion, and perhaps soon enough it won't be going in a southern direction at all. It may instead zig zag and keep changing course from west to east, and that frustrates the pro-north hardliners to the end of their days. But at least it stops going south!

Yet, it is the intellectual and moral ammunition - the clarity and consistency - of the hardliners pointing north that, in bits and pieces, persuades the moderates and pragmatists, who in turn persuade our leaders to change the course headed due south.

It should be noted, also, that the hard-line/incrementalist distinction is not absolute, no more than a right-handed person never uses the left hand. Every hard-liner has closet incremental strategies, and every pragmatist/incrementalist has a "hard-line" direction he wants to take. Moderation is, itself, devoid of meaning, content, virtue, and courage. Its only merit is in favoring a compromise which at worst forestalls inevitable doom, and at best changes course in a better, if not ideal direction.

Moreover, we can't pretend that any one's "libertarianism" is in line with anyone else's, let alone with a common standard or dogma. I believe there should be some minimal standard for the concept of libertarianism:

1. Pro-peace/anti-intervention in the affairs of other countries
2. Pro-freedom of speech/anti-censorship
3. Pro-self-defense/anti-gun control
4. Pro-self-determination on health choices and lifestyle/anti-Drug War
5. Pro-freedom of association
6. A general and substantial decrease in the tax burden.
7. A general and substantical descrease in our dependence on government for health, education, and income.
8. General and non-prejudicial freedom of commerce and trade.

But, there is a wide range of disagreement in how to arrange our priorities and how to bring this all about. Some self-described libertarians would add to this list, some would subtract form it, and many others would prioritize these things differently. And then there are cultists who adopt the thoughts of someone else. People who line up to defend and expand a dogma are people who want to fight, but refuse to think. But the the inconvenient fact is, our thoughts are as unique as our fingerprints. A point isn't persuasive just because somebody says that some deceased thinker said it was so.

Me? My "north" will always influenced by the intellectual tools provided by Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, Ayn Rand, and Henry George - all of whom disagreed, or would have disagreed, significantly with each other. I take from them that which makes the most sense to me, not what must be believed by their followers. And my "incrementalism" is informed by the Constitution of the United States, Machiavelli, my own still-undeveloped conception of the "landlord state," my acceptance of sociological realities such as the lust for power and status, and my judgments of particular situations, where I might not equate Mexican immigration with Welsh immigration, or Muslim immigration with Scandinavian Lutheran immigration.

There are very few who can effectively persuade most people to buy a whole program, but that's not the same as persuading people on particular issues. And that's where the battleground is, on the separate issues, not on the ideology. It's a matter of persuading the people bit by bit, point by point. And it is easier to build coalitions and alliances there, than it is to build them on an entire ideology or program.

My own "incrementalism" will be defined by where I think we ought to be, and my "hard line" will always be informed by my understanding of the realities we face. So I am neither a hard-liner nor an incrementalist, yet I am both.


  1. here, here to being both. now - if we have to be hard-liners for peace - how do we do it against the drumbeat of war? do hard-liners cancel each other out by being equal and opposite? If everyone is not a hard-liner at times, what motivates them to finally get off their butt and do something?

    But doing something and doing anything are not necessarily synonymous - and for everybody doing something right, there is somebody doing something wrong. Since right and wrong are relative, we have to understand the distinction on a personal basis and do what is best for us. Rand philosophy - virtue of selfishness. but - where is the coorperation? hmmm.

    i wrote a poem this morning as lemme, before i read this post, but with similar meaning conveyed. Politically - it is time to reorganize the independent movement - from the people up to the leaders, to replace the rulers that continually change the rules. but as franklin said - a republic if you can keep it. do we want a republic - the answer may come before we know it - and it may not be yes.

  2. Hardliners do have a big role to play in keeping the pressure on incrementalists. But I think that hardliners do have a small obligation to be there to support the incrementalists to some degree. If hardliners don't offer some degree of support there's no carrot at the end of the stick leading the incrementalists down the road.