Anarchy 85/Meliorism—a reply
It might, however, be queried by some libertarians. They would argue that meliorist activity has a certain style—
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-
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—
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—
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 (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 wrote: “to think of the future is criminal”. And it is this strain in anarchist thinking which
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-
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 ends—
What I have in mind here is the libertarian reaction to the ill-
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,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
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—