Let’s get some definitions out of the way. What is the Rothbard button? It’s essentially an Anarcho-Capitalist purity test. The question is framed this way: If you could just push a button and eliminate all facets of government, on a state and federal level in one instant, would you?
My answer to this is one that I get a lot of flak for on a regular basis, and I honestly could not care less. For one this is a strictly theoretical conversation that only serves to test your “what if” political intestinal fortitude.
Would I push the Rothbard Button? No.
I’ll tell you why.
1. It’s pretty unrealistic.
Since human beings started walking the planet and understanding the environments that surround them, human beings have also been obsessed with anxious thoughts of extremes and despair. Every few years people think the world is going to end because a planet hiding behind the sun is going to jump out and shoot us with a death star, or Jesus is going to come and take the Mormons, or even computers deciding to stop knowing how to work because numerically displaying the year 2000 is too hard to figure out.
The truth is, we’re not that special. There is a reason these predictions come and go constantly. Here is a Wikipedia list
of failed end of days predictions, and a few to keep an eye on in the future.
I mention this to point out, the only way that you’re going to ever realistically have the opportunity to just nuke all forms of government, is in the face of a catastrophic or apocalyptic event. And, even though human beings are always *very* concerned with life as they know it crumbling around them for all of humanity in their lifetimes, the truth of the matter is our lifetimes are just a spec, not even a full drop in the bucket. To assume this kind of monumental event will happen on your specific watch is a bit arrogant.
While predicting that everything is going to just fall down, and we’ll need to replace it with something gives you a great footing for debate, it’s really just that. You have to actually maneuver your way out of the systems and mechanisms that you want to move out of. You can’t just sit back and hope for them to blow up, so you can swoop in and save the day.
Besides, who is to say that your team wins when humanity is ready to flip the fuck out in the face of collapse? It could just as easily be the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and we’re all in Gulags or on production lines pumping out unit after unit of signature bright red lipstick.
2. It ignores basically everything.
I know, I know, that’s a big statement. That’s intentional. Ready for the unpopular libertarian opinion part of the article? Not everything that the state does is useless and ill-conceived. Now, before you go running off screeching about libertarian purity tests, hear me out.
Many of the apparatuses of the state are put in place as an attempt to solve problems. Often times these problems end up getting “solved” but then give way to the creation of new problems, as a result of the actions that were taken to solve the initial problem. This is the often-spotted libertarian talking point of unintended consequences.
If we are to look at the situation objectively, and our desire is to improve the efficiency of inefficient programs, while attempting to mitigate the amount of human suffering, displacement, or despair, it is in our best interest to analyze the systems in place and the problems they were stood up as an attempt to solve. We must then figure out exactly how these institutions or apparatuses can be shifted from the public sector to the private sector. It’s not about just replacing involved mechanisms with nothing. That is how you clear a path for chaos, and in chaos comes desperation.
F.A. Hayek once said: “ ’Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”
This quote is often carted out by libertarians in times of national crisis, to keep people aware of the dangers that often come from state over-reach in the face of “emergencies.” I mention that to say, a majority of libertarians obviously agree with this statement.
Why then, do those same libertarians often think that apocalyptic or crisis-centered emergency situations will somehow lead to freedom?
In my humble opinion, this shouldn’t be about just blowing something up and starting from zero. That’s a not only unrealistic (as stated above) position, but it’s also a slightly ignorant outlook for other reasons.
3. Outside of your niche philosophical political sphere, libertarian ideas are wildly unpopular. Anarchist ideas are borderline offensive to the average American.
So, let’s say you had the ability to push this Rothbard button. And let’s say you’re of the mind that you’d smash the button without hesitation. Do you think that in this situation, your neighbor will magically adhere to the philosophy espoused by Murray Rothbard, and get to being a proper and responsible Ancap?
There are heated debates about the proper role for the Libertarian Party. Individuals have different opinions on what they feel the LP should be pursuing in terms of goals. Some people believe that the goal of the Libertarian Party should be to win elections. The issue here is that winning elections isn’t something that’s historically come easy for the LP. This dynamic of quantifying goals also forces a style of pragmatism that gives the term a negative connotation, because the word pragmatism is used as a method of controlling communication and behavior within the party. The group that thinks the LP should be winning elections is often the group where you’ll hear things like:
“This is why no one takes the LP seriously”
“If you want to win elections, you have to stop acting like this”
“You can’t say that, it’s too radical and it will turn people away”
This is manipulation and control, make no mistake. Now, to remain honest here, I myself have given judgments on how some inside the LP market the message of liberty. On the Think Liberty Podcast, Episode 22
, we discussed messaging and how important it is to political movements. But it’s important to pay attention to the nuance here. Using your own personal perception of a very narrow set of boundaries to form an Overton window is a method of control and manipulation.
Realizing that you can make people understand that private educations systems are preferable to public education systems, can be done without calling teachers welfare whores. Criticizing interventionism and military spending (and scope and size) can be done without calling all veterans murderers.
The other side of this argument looks at how “successful” the LP is and has been at winning elections and how people inside the party tend to leverage the desire for electoral success as a means to control and manipulate the speech and behavior of those in the party, which ultimately leads to a moderate version of libertarian principles. A watered-down message, if you will. They see all of this and they feel it’s more effective to use the LP platform to broaden the boundaries of the Overton window, by delivering the message of libertarian principles without sacrificing the integrity of message to become more palatable.
Both sides are trying to further their efforts of liberty in a way that reaches more of the American public. The difference in these approaches, however, is important. Those who argue that control (and eventual watering down) of the message is necessary in favor of a “pragmatic” approach are likely not paying enough attention to how watered down the message can become, and what the implications of that is.
The Rothbard Button In Conclusion:
Would I love to see a society similar to the one that is outlined within the pages of For a New Liberty? You bet your ass! That book was so pivotal to my discovery of libertarian principles and ideas. Murray Rothbard is brilliant, and it’s not hard to quickly become romanticized by his work. However, what Murray Rothbard laid out is a set of what *could* be if one were allowed to attempt giving a go to the idea of a stateless societal construct. And while his suggestions are fascinating and make a lot of logical sense to those who read and appreciate them, it’s important to ask ourselves: “What’s the most realistic way that this kind of outcome could be achieved?”
Rothbard himself had some ideas, and we all saw what came of those ideas near the later stage of his life. Rothbard was convinced the system could be changed from the inside, using the LP as a vessel for this change. This meant winning elections as libertarians in the Libertarian Party. The populism game can have a real dark side. One minute you’re everyone’s favorite advocate for the non-aggression principle, and the next you’re supporting a political campaign for David Duke
. It’s a slippery slope, folks, and it’s important to not let your quest for libertarian utopia cloud your view of reality.
I’ll leave you with a metaphor I sometimes use, for how I view this transition to a stateless, decentralized society. Imagine you have a table that’s been set in a very particular and deliberate manner. What’s on the table is valuable to you. You want to eat, drink, have utensils to do all of these things on, and with. However, you want to remove the tablecloth that all of those things sit on top of. If you just rip the tablecloth off of the table in one fell swoop, you’re likely to eliminate a lot of what you came to the table to do in the first place. A far more productive approach, if indeed you want to indulge in/use the items that are placed on the table, is to carefully and strategically remove the items in ways that keep them in-tact, remove the tablecloth, and then put back the items you removed.
Read more from Vinny Marshall on Think Liberty here.