Anyone who is enmeshed in the liberty movement is aware to the great schisms that divide us. Though we are relatively few in number, we split and segregate ourselves on multiple fronts, not least of these being how to best enact substantial social change.  We have tirelessly debated over the best way to make our vision for society a reality, with little progress towards consensus.

Generally speaking, there are two philosophies that attempt to answer the question how to achieve social change: 

Hayek is attributed with the “Ideas” school. Friedrich von Hayek was a Nobel Prize-winning economist who argued that policy and public opinion are directed by proliferating good ideas. Teach the ideas in academia, and they’ll spread to the general population, then translate into law. Society changes before law.

Then you have Alinsky and the “Power” school. Saul Alinsky was a community organizer who taught that direct political action from a dedicated minority could change policy and from there the public mood. Use the tactics of political organization, and you will change law. Change law, and you will change society.

Ideas versus power – which is right? Neither alone. Holding one method as superior is a common theme in the liberty movement, one that serves as a detriment to the cause. These two schools of change are complimentary and can only work in conjunction with one another – failure to realize this may well contribute to the protracted pace of the change we are all working toward. As Clark Ruper so succinctly wrote in an article for Students For Liberty:

“These [Hayekian vs. Alinskyian] debates are usually framed as politics versus principles, pragmatism versus idealism, boots on the ground activism versus ivory tower naval gazing. However, these are false distinctions, a debate without a victor. That is because these theories are not competitive, but complementary. Both, and many more, are necessary pre-requisites for a libertarian revolution.”

Like diet and exercise, these two theories reinforce one another. These complimentary schools of thought fortify each other and work best in tandem. The abolition of the slave trade in the United Kingdom is a beautiful example of how utilizing both schools of thought brings about the substantial and lasting change that libertarians yearn for.

In 1807, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce—along with many allies—won one of the greatest social victories of all time: the passage of the Slave Trade Act. Both men were non-violent, and they came from and represented the two different schools of thought.

The battle to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain took place shortly after the American Revolutionary War, and it featured Clarkson and Wilberforce, who came of age during that conflict.

Clarkson was an academic turned activist. After writing an essay at St. John’s College in Cambridge, Clarkson became convinced of the immorality of the slave trade, and set out to end it. He said “that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end.” Clarkson and some friends established the world’s first think tank in May of 1787. Called The Society for the Abolition of The African Slave Trade, its members traveled the country gathering evidence, doing research, and engaging in activism.  They wrote letters, and articles, crafted a logo, distributed leaflets, and gave speeches.  Their efforts began to move the mood of the population in the direction of abolition.

While still a student (also at St. John’s, Cambridge), the 21-year-old Wilberforce was elected to Parliament. Wilberforce, like other politicians, made the necessary thinly-veiled bribes to ensure votes—in this case, around £8,000 (which translates to more than $500,000 in today’s dollars). With an independent mind and strong will, Wilberforce established himself as an independent player in Parliament not beholden to party loyalties.

In 1787, Clarkson came to Wilberforce’s home at Old Palace Yard, Westminster, to meet Wilberforce for the first time. Wilberforce was already opposed to the slave trade, but it took over a year of discussion and education from Clarkson and the other abolitionists to prepare him for the fight he would soon take up in Parliament.

They became fast friends, and they were strong allies in fighting the slave trade. Clarkson led the charge in public outreach, Wilberforce in Parliament. Each piece of their strategy relied on the other. Wilberforce’s actions in parliament affected public opinion and gave them a figure around whom to rally, while public opinion driven by the outreach of Clarkson and the abolitionists heavily influenced who would support Wilberforce’s bills. Clarkson without Wilberforce would never have had direct political action, and the public would have lacked specific measures to support. Wilberforce without Clarkson would never have been able to sway the reluctant MPs.

It took many years, and it took clever parliamentary and legal maneuvering for the Slave Trade Act to pass. The slave traders’ profits had to be cut by the Orders in Council devised by Wilberforce’s legal advisor, James Stephen. Direct legislative action had to combine with swayed public opinion.

There is a lesson for modern libertarians. We need the academics, the policy wonks, the ideas people—all of them. We need Cato, IHS, and FEE. But we also need organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the politicos like Rand Paul, Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, and all the rest. The academics may be better suited to spread the wildfire, but the politicians are needed to contain and direct the flames. As Alexander McCobin so succinctly put it in a speech given at the 2014 International Students For Liberty Conference:

“A new generation of libertarians is developing, forming our own identity and crafting a new strategy for social change. …Second Wave libertarianism unifies the movement, not by an appeal to purity tests or an agreed upon end state, but rather by a commitment to a common principle of liberty that can be defended by diverse justifications and leads to meaningful policy debates.”

Libertarianism is growing and spreading, but we are still a minority and we need all the help we can get, whether it be activists stopping Congress from starting another senseless war or academics writing sound policy refutations to big-government nonsense. We must realize that we are better off finding strength in our differences rather than weakening our cause because of them.

There is injustice to human prosperity brought on by expansive government in our country. You and I both know that – but we need Clarksons and Wilberforces if we hope to (peaceably) rectify it.

  • There is injustice to human prosperity brought on by expansive government in our country. You and I both know that – but we need Clarksons and Wilberforces if we hope to (peaceably) rectify it.

    That, I think, is why it is very common for libertarians to be reluctant to support the ‘pragmatic’ argument. It doesn’t have to be the case, but many people who support a pragmatic method also support concessions. To people who see the state as aggressive, making concessions by trading votes would be anti-libertarian.

    I imagine this is why many anarcho-capitalists still supported Ron Paul, nicknamed ‘Dr. No’ because he voted against bills so consistently. If there were more pragmatic libertarian politicians who held their ground by voting ‘no’ consistently, then I think that more libertarians would be willing to consider pragmatic methods. But if pragmatic means trading votes, then I think many libertarians will continue to refuse to consider that route.

    By the way, regarding law and reform, you might be interested to read John Hasnas’ What’s Wrong With a Little Tort Reform?; here is the link http://bit.ly/1fOgZtX

    Here is an excerpt from towards the end:

    Centrally planned legal reforms are inherently static in nature. The reform is designed to perfect the system once and for all. But for it to accomplish this end, individual rulings must conform to the plan. Therefore, the evolutionary growth of the system through trial and error is cut off. This means that the planners have to get things right the first time. Unfortunately, the inherent limitations on human beings’ insight into the functioning of dynamic social systems usually guarantee that this will not be the case. Because central planning is not self-correcting, centrally planned legal reforms are virtually certain to fail over time.

    These considerations explain my opposition to tort reform. I am opposed to the present proposals for tort reform for the same reasons I am opposed to the past reforms that created the present situation. If the real question of the tort reform debate is not how we can perfect the system, but whether we are better off with an imperfect, but self-correcting system or with the inherently static result of what our best minds blessed with all available information can come up with, I am suggesting that we might do better with the former. To put the matter concisely, sometimes the right thing to do is simply to butt out.