Anarchy 85/Meliorism—a reply

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a reply


  By “melio­rism” I under­stand a certain kind of social acti­vity or beha­viour—a kind of acti­vity which is dis­tin­guished from other kinds of acti­vity, not so much by any quality or style of the acti­vity itself, but by its having certain ends or aims. Melio­rist acti­vity is that acti­vity which has as its end, or is aimed at, some social im­prove­ment. This account of what melio­rism is agrees, I think, sub­stan­tial­ly with that of Molnar’s.

  It might, however, be queried by some liber­tari­ans. They would argue that melio­rist acti­vity has a certain style—it in­volves a certain mode of beha­viour, it has a certain in­trin­sic cha­rac­ter. The adjec­tives “servile”, “con­for­mist”, “devious”, etc., spring to mind as ways that liber­tari­ans have cha­rac­ter­ised what they take to be the in­trin­sic cha­rac­ter of melio­rism. However, to define melio­rism as acti­vity carried out in this manner would be to beg the ques­tion against those who claim that one can achieve worth­while results in the social sphere without, as it were, sacri­fi­cing one’s personal integ­rity in the process. And it does seem to be an empi­rical ques­tion which we should not pre-judge whether or not melio­rism is always accom­pa­nied by a certain cha­rac­teris­tic style of beha­viour. It seems best, there­fore, to adopt as a star­ting point a general cha­rac­teri­sa­tion of melio­rism as that acti­vity direc­ted towards the end of social im­prove­ment.

  Liber­tari­ans have in the past been averse to taking part in melio­rist acti­vity; they have usually, though not always, been content to air their grie­van­ces without trying to remedy them. Molnar has argued for a sub­stan­tial modi­fica­tion of this atti­tude. He has based his posi­tion on an exa­mina­tion and criti­cism of certain argu­ments which he takes to be used as support for the liber­ta­rian atti­tude, and which he claims do not in fact support that atti­tude.

  I agree with Molnar to this extent: if the liber­ta­rian oppo­si­tion to melio­rism is based on the argu­ments that he consi­ders, then that oppo­si­tion is not jus­ti­fied. To the extent that liber­tari­ans have defen­ded their anti-melio­rism by resor­ting to these consi­dera­tions, then their defence has been an in­ade­quate one. But, against this, I want to argue that the liber­ta­rian aver­sion to melio­rism is based on consi­dera­tions which Molnar ignores, and that these are crucial for an under­stan­ding of the liber­ta­rian atti­tude. I will further suggest that these consi­dera­tions are basic to liber­tari­anism—basic in the sense that if one were to reject them one would cease to be a liber­ta­rian. As a conse­quence of this, where Molnar sug­gests that liber­tari­anism and melio­rism—albeit of a res­trained and selec­tive kind—are compa­tible, I will argue that they are incom­pa­tible. Where Molnar asks that we reject the general
ques­tion “What is wrong with melio­rism?”, I think we should accept it, and try to answer it.

  This will involve going over some pretty fami­liar mate­rial. Still, it seems worth going over if just to give it a certain empha­sis which might be missed. It is also neces­sary because it seems that it is just this fami­liar mate­rial that Molnar has chosen to ignore.

  Liberta­rians, as we know, are anar­chists, though admit­ted­ly anar­chists of a rather strange breed. Before we get into those ele­ments in liber­ta­rian thin­king which dis­tin­guish them from other anar­chists, it will be as well to stress at least one element in liber­ta­rian thin­king which they share with clas­sical anar­chists. This is, of course, the enor­mous, perhaps inor­di­nate, stress on freedom—freedom, that set of condi­tions in which human acti­vity can be carried on unhin­dered, and in which indi­vi­dual and group inte­rests can be ex­pressed without barrier. Toge­ther with this is the corre­la­tive oppo­si­tion to those forces and insti­tu­tions which limit that freedom. Whereas other poli­tical creeds have, either expli­citly or impli­citly, settled for a limited freedom, anar­chists and liber­tari­ans have held out in the name of complete freedom, and have main­tained, or tried to main­tain, an uncom­promi­sing atti­tude towards those forces that stand in the way of that freedom.

  It is because liber­tari­ans try to main­tain this posi­tion that they are anar­chists; if they ceased to hold this posi­tion they would cease to be anar­chists—they would be ratbags of a diffe­rent kind. What I want to stress is that this atti­tude is basic to liber­tari­anism, and because it is an atti­tude it is not, as such, subject to argu­ment or proof. Liber­tari­ans just have this atti­tude: it is their star­ting point. It is not the con­clu­sion of an argu­ment, nor a ter­mi­nus arrived at from the consi­dera­tion of pre­mi­ses.

  Given that liber­tari­ans qualify as anar­chists because of this basic common ground, we can now point out how liber­tari­ans differ from most other anar­chists, cer­tain­ly from those in the clas­sical tradi­tion. Liber­tari­ans believe that the a­chieve­ment of a society in which this ideal of freedom is rea­lised is impos­sible; they believe that no amount of propa­ganda, edu­ca­tion, or poli­tical strug­gle will bring about a society even re­mote­ly resem­bling the anar­chist utopia. (I don’t want to con­si­der ques­tions as to how this belief is justi­fied. I think it is justi­fied, though I think that the justi­fica­tion is not quite as straight­for­ward a matter as liber­tari­ans have tended to believe. But this is by the way.) The point is that it is this belief that dis­tin­gui­shes liber­tari­ans from other anar­chists, just as it is the uncom­promi­sing atti­tude towards freedom that dis­tin­gui­shes liber­tari­ans and anar­chists from other poli­tical creeds.

  Years ago, Molnar himself pointed out (Libertarian No. I (1957), p. 12) that the clas­sical anar­chists were not just utopian dream­ers, but that there was another strand in their thought. On occa­sion, they stressed the reality of the present and actual en­gage­ment with autho­rity, of the im­medi­ate strug­gle for eman­cipa­tion, rather than the far distant, perhaps illu­sory, utopia, which they con­ceived to be the outcome of that strug­gle. It was in this mood that Bakunin wrote: “to think of the future is cri­mi­nal”. And it is this strain in anar­chist thin­king which
is at­trac­tive to liber­tari­ans. But with an impor­tant diffe­rence. The anar­chists usually thought of their acti­vity as a means to a certain end—the estab­lish­ment of a free society. Liber­tari­ans, al­though they believe that that end is impos­sible, never­the­less con­tinue with acti­vity which is similar in kind to that of the anar­chists because they see that acti­vity as an end in itself.

  Liber­tari­ans are con­cerned with the content of their acti­vity, i.e., its quality as such, and are not con­cerned with the ends that it may or may not achieve. Liber­tari­ans see certain sorts of action as ex­pres­sive of their belief in freedom; being free is, in a sense, acting in a certain way. They are con­cerned with the acti­vity, not for what it is hoped that it will bring about, but because they think that it is worth doing for its own sake. That is, I believe, the content, or an impor­tant part of the content, of the notion of perma­nent protest.

  Of course, this does not apply, nor is it meant to apply, to all acti­vity under­taken by liber­tari­ans. It does not, for in­stance, apply to that acti­vity which is con­cerned just with the mundane task of living, e.g., drin­king, eating, etc. But it cer­tain­ly does apply to acti­vity in the socio-poli­tical sphere. There may well be diffi­cul­ties in demar­ca­ting this area pre­cise­ly, but perhaps it will be suf­fi­cient in this context to say that it is just that area in which we are being invited to parti­ci­pate in “res­trained and selec­tive” melio­rism.

  Given all this, we can imme­di­ately see the oppo­si­tion or, perhaps better, the lack of contact between the melio­rist and the liber­ta­rian. Melio­rists and refor­mers are con­cerned with endstheir acti­vity is cal­cula­ted to achieve certain results. For the melio­rist, the style of the acti­vity, the manner in which it is carried out must, to some extent, be subor­di­nate to the ends that he hopes to achieve by that acti­vity. This is because melio­rist acti­vity is acti­vity direc­ted towards change or im­prove­ment, i.e., the end must govern to some, though perhaps only a limited extent, the means. If this is not the case, then the acti­vity is wrongly des­cribed as being melio­rist. Liber­tari­ans, on the other hand, are con­cerned with a certain kind of style of acti­vity, and the conse­quen­ces of this acti­vity are a subor­di­nate consi­dera­tion. It may be that some acti­vity under­taken by liber­tari­ans will have as a conse­quence some im­prove­ment of the social scene; it may also be the case that its conse­quence is some change that we would not regard as an im­prove­ment; much more likely, it will not have any impor­tant conse­quen­ces at all. But all these consi­dera­tions con­cer­ning the out­come of the acti­vity will be subor­di­nate to ques­tions con­cer­ning the cha­rac­ter of the acti­vity as such. It is this dif­fer­ence of empha­sis which sets the liber­ta­rian apart from the melio­rist—even the “res­trained and selec­tive” melio­rist.

  Molnar, in the course of his paper, consi­dered and rejec­ted certain views which might be held to but­tress an anti-melio­rist stance. I have agreed that, as they stand, these consi­dera­tions do not support a general oppo­si­tion to melio­rism. However, in the light of what I have said so far, some at least can be refor­mula­ted so as to appear much more plau­sible, not perhaps as argu­ments in their own right,
but as ad­juncts to the basic posi­tion. For example, Molnar, in my view quite cor­rect­ly, rejec­ted the thesis that melio­rism is inef­fec­tive. As a uni­ver­sal gene­rali­sa­tion this appears to be plainly false. But what is more plau­sible, and what, perhaps, is meant by many who have made this claim, is the view that liber­ta­rian acti­vity, if it is to be consi­dered melio­rist, will be seen as inef­fec­tive melio­rism.

  What I have in mind here is the liber­ta­rian reac­tion to the ill-informed criti­cism of liber­tari­anism which runs: “What do you hope to achieve?” The short answer to this is, of course, “Nothing”. Any a­chieve­ment would be an unex­pec­ted bonus. It is just a mistake to judge liber­ta­rian acti­vity by the same stan­dards as melio­rist acti­vity; the latter is to be judged by its effec­tive­ness, the former by other cri­teria en­tire­ly. The point here is that the liber­ta­rian has no need to make the claim that all melio­rism is inef­fec­tive. All he wants to say is that liber­ta­rian acti­vity is inef­fec­tive. And this is un­doubt­edly true, just because liber­ta­rian acti­vity is not aimed at effects.

  Another of Molnar’s criti­cisms was direc­ted at the view that, as a conse­quence of taking part in refor­mist acti­vity, the initial liberal aims of the refor­mer are always cor­rup­ted, and are re­placed by interest in autho­rity, power, and mani­pula­tion. In short, he “sells out”. Now, consi­dered as an empi­rical thesis, this is most pro­bably false. At the very least, it needs a lot more evi­dence than has thus far been adduced. But once again it is a thesis which liber­tari­ans have no need to defend, for, given the liber­tari­an’s over­ri­ding inte­rest in a certain sort of acti­vity for its own sake, and the refor­mer’s inte­rest in acti­vity as a means to an end, then it follows that a liber­ta­rian cannot become a refor­mer without ceasing to be a liber­ta­rian. If ceasing to be a liber­ta­rian is taken to be a species of “selling out” (and I under­stand that it is taken this way in the best circles), then the thesis “he who takes up reform, sells out” is, when res­tric­ted to a certain class of people, viz. liber­tari­ans, not a gene­rali­sa­tion backed by insuf­fi­cient evi­dence, but an ana­ly­tic truth.

  The liber­ta­rian posi­tion is not, as I have out­lined it, free from obscu­ri­ties and dif­ficul­ties. Ques­tions which reserve dis­cus­sion and clari­fica­tion include the notion of “doing some­thing for its own sake”, as dis­tin­guished from “doing some­thing as a means to an end”. An account of this would have to be more complex than the rather simpliste dis­cus­sion con­tined in this paper. It might, I think, allow that a certin acti­vity, which is worth doing for its own sake and is in fact done for its own sake, might have ends, and inten­ded ends, of a certain sort. For example, the work of a crea­tive artist might have certain ends, e.g., earning a living, despite the fact that it is pri­mari­ly worth doing for its own sake. An­alo­gous­ly, liber­ta­rian acti­vity might also have certain ends, but these would be a subor­di­nate consi­dera­tion to that of the acti­vity con­ceived as an end in itself.

  Further prob­lems concern the cha­rac­teri­sa­tion of the style of liber­ta­rian acti­vity, and the range of acti­vity covered by the tenets that I have out­lined. These ques­tions deserve, and perhaps will get, more atten­tion than they have been given in this paper, or by liber­tari­ans
in the past.

  But these are ques­tions which I can only mention without further dis­cus­sion. They arise out of a posi­tion which is, I think, central to liber­ta­rian thin­king, and which Molnar has ignored. Because of this, his con­clu­sion—that liber­tari­ans should change their atti­tude to melio­rism—has been insuf­fi­cient­ly argued for. I have been con­cerned to indi­cate what I take to be the basis of the liber­ta­rian oppo­si­tion to melio­rism; until that basis has been sub­jec­ted to con­clu­sive criti­cism, I see no reason to accept the thesis that the liber­ta­rian atti­tude stands in need of revi­sion.