Posted July 10, 2007
Reprinted from Whole Number 22
of The Last Ditch, October 28, 1998


Realism does not equal defeatism


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We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little. We cannot act collectively. We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual....
Every time I hear someone arguing that the political process is hopelessly corrupt and that political activity is pointless, sooner or later some critic is bound to whine, "So we should just lie down and let them walk all over us, huh?" If he is a little more articulate, he will say instead, "That's just defeatism."

A noteworthy instance occurred in June [1998]. A disappointed Libertarian Party member known to most of us only as "Karen" had called the Rush Limbaugh Show and made her pessimistic case in striking fashion. Limbaugh couldn't let it go — he was still talking about her in October — and neither could his callers. For that matter, she had made such an impression that local radio-talk shows continued the conversation about her. And over and over one heard objections to Karen consisting of little more than allegations that she was just a defeatist. Sometimes the objections weren't even that penetrating. The substitute for the local host I happened to catch wanted to be sympathetic to Karen, but he chalked up her sense of hopelessness to her residing in North Dakota and not having as much money as Limbaugh.

Of course, The Last Ditch receives no end of such criticism. From the time that "Who we are; what we're up to" was published in the first issue, with its epigraph taken from 1984, reiterated above, we have been told that we are just too pessimistic. And inevitably, when we address groups or converse with others the question comes up, "So what's your solution?"

Before I get to my solution let me spend some time with this notion of defeatism.

Old Pontiacs

Let's say you take your 1982 Pontiac, with 185,000 miles on the clock, to an auto mechanic about a problem. He tells you what the problem is and adds that there are underlying problems; to fix the whole shebang will cost you so much that you would be better off getting a new car, or even a new used car. You call him a defeatist and take the car to another mechanic who fixes the primary problem and charges you $500.

Six months later, you're back to the first mechanic who tells you that your new problem is an outgrowth of the underlying problems he told you about last time; he is willing to work on the car, but it will cost you so much that you'd be better off getting another car. You call him a defeatist and take the car to another mechanic who fixes the new problem and charges you another $500.

And four months later you're back to the first mechanic. You get the idea.

Your choice is simple: you can continue to pour your resources into your 1982 Pontiac, or you can try something else. You do not really call your first mechanic a defeatist. People say that only when the subject is politics. And when he tells you that you would be better off getting a new car, you don't ask him, "Which one?"

He has given you the overall solution: do something else. Stop bringing this car to him. But because you are sure the car can be fixed, you keep sinking your resources into it. You are not trying to find a real solution to your problem; you're just doing what you've always done; and you have somehow gotten it into your head that doing what you've always done equals a real solution, and that not doing it equals becoming a Luddite.

There is an important difference between political action and taking your 1982 Pontiac with 185,000 miles into the shop, though: after the second mechanic works on your car and charges you $500, you really get something for your money: another few months out of the car.

When you undertake political action and support a candidate, and your guy wins, it means that instead of being sold out by someone you opposed you will be betrayed by someone you supported.

A man who works for a free-market consumer advocacy group listened to some of my objections to participating in the political process and offered this as his best counterargument: Think how much worse things would be if he and his organization and others like them didn't make even the small efforts I was criticizing. Why, Hillary Clinton's health program might have gone through Congress!

His remarks might have carried some weight if Kennedy-Kassebaum, which further regulated the health care industry and brought it closer to complete nationalization, and which provides cover for creating a national I.D./internal passport, had not subsequently passed in the Senate 100-0. That triumph reminded me of the effort during the Bush years to delay the outlawing of Freon, an effort that was defeated 96-0. (I stress: this last was merely an administrative effort to delay the outlawing of the product, not even to block the outlawing of it. And not one vote was cast in favor of the delay.)

An employee of the Department of Education, who used to work on education policy in the Presidential Palace during the George ("The Education President") Bush regime, described to me how a bill would come to his office and he and others would labor mightily for months to remove or alter one passage. And when they were successful, they were jubilant, forgetting that the other 5,000 pages had passed!

What is being offered here as an opposition against tidal waves amounts to spooning a little bit of water out of the ocean. And pouring it into a hole dug in the beach, where it seeps through the sand and makes its way back into the ocean. That is what passes for opposition to massive efforts to tyrannize free people.

The Party

I am not here concerned primarily with the Libertarian Party, but its members and I in large measure share a common view of liberty, so I must set aside some space to single it out. After all, one expects statists to be drawn into the political process, but libertarians ...?

One sees the Party year after year spending its (low) millions of dollars, directing the time and enthusiasm of lovers of liberty into an essentially useless activity. How useless? In 1996, the LP presidential candidate, Harry Browne, who was on the ballot in every state, got fewer votes than Ralph Nader, who hardly campaigned at all and who was on the ballot in fewer than half the states. Moreover, Nader outpolled Browne in every state where he was on the ballot, except Louisiana.

The virtual invisibility of the Party — despite ads, despite exciting showings in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, despite C-Span coverage — is illustrated more recently by the 1998 National Survey of Christian Voters ("A nationwide poll of 2,000,000 politically active Christians"). In the section dealing with education, none of the questions deals with the libertarian take on that issues, such as vouchers, let alone the separation of school from state. In the section dealing with level of political involvement, the first question reads: "On most issues I consider myself to be a: [ ] Liberal  [ ] Moderate  [ ] Conservative  [ ] Other  __________." The second question reads: "My current political party affiliation is: [ ] Republican  [ ] Democrat  [ ] Reform Party  [ ] Independent  [ ] Other __________."

I should think that the aspect of this survey most demeaning of the Party is not that the Libertarians are not even mentioned, but that the Reform Party — with less history, with less participation in the political process, and with only minuscule participation in congressional races in 1996 — still is recognized as an organization that one must take account of. The reason is that the Libertarian Party is still simply not capable of playing with the big boys on the political sandlot — for which it should be honored. What LP members do not seem to understand, however, is that when the Party is ready to play with the big boys, its fundamental character will necessarily have changed to the point where it can be a factor in political collusions.

After 26 years, the Party's greatest achievement remains the two electoral votes it got the first election year of its existence; other than that it must be seen to have had a negligible effect on the political system. [*] Contrary to its aspirations, the LP is the "third party" only in its own literature and news releases. Anyone with a name or a billion bucks can get more coverage and more votes with a simple announcement than the LP can get with 26 years of ballot-access drives, campaigns, and participation in a handful of debates. Even in cases where the Party may have affected the outcome of an election, it is not at all clear that the outcome was beneficial to it or to the liberty it attempts to promote.

But I am not saying that the Party's activity is useless merely because it is ineffectual. That is a contingency that could change if the Party got more money or better leadership or something. The Party's virtual invisibility exemplifies the uselessness of its political activity and serves as a measure of it; it does not define it. Political action is useless to lovers of liberty because it is the handmaiden of power, and can be no other.

But what harm does the LP do? Only this: it is a pit that for a quarter of a century has sapped the energy, time, enthusiasm, and talents of libertarians, to say nothing of the money that it has devoured.

Yes, of course people are free to spend their own money and time however they desire. And if that includes spending it on political action — on think tanks, campaigns, or advocacy groups — they are and should be free to do it. Even so, though I respect my activist friends, I must dismiss — fairly, I think — their busy political activism as tyranny-friendly activity.

But let us return to that question that is always hurled in the face of those of us who oppose political action: What's your solution?


First of all, the question presupposes that there is a solution. Not all questions have true answers. Some questions are simply meaningless ("How many Euclidean triangles can dance on the head of a pin?"); some commit logical errors in their formulation ("Where can I find the barber who shaves all and only those who don't shave themselves?"); some are dishonest ("When will you stop listening to that music?"); and some simply have no answer: their presuppositions are so wrong that they preclude an answer. An example of the last is "What did Jeeves and Captain Ahab quarrel about?" Another is "How can I get my 1982 Pontiac with 185,000 miles on it fixed?"

I submit that most of the questions asking what to do about the existing dictatorship usually presuppose that the United State is not governed by a dictatorship at all, that it is a more-or-less benign republic that has gone wrong in a few particulars. If your view of the problem is wrong, you will probably ask questions about it that are not germane to the real problem, and any answers you get will be useless in the context. Because the United State is not a more-or-less benign republic, strategies appropriate to effecting change in a republic will not work. It is an empire, ruled by a dictatorial permanent regime; any strategies appropriate to affecting change must be designed with that in mind.

But what do I suggest? First let me be a tad full of myself and say that the world is just going to have to stop waiting for Ronn Neff to come up with a solution to its problems before it turns its own attention to them. If libertarians had not entered the political arena nearly 30 years ago, and instead had recognized what we were up against and focused on it to attempt to understand its true nature, the country would not have been left with a mere handful of libertarians who were free to think about nonpolitical solutions (supposing any exist). There would have been thousands of libertarians addressing the matter. Would any of them have arrived at a solution (again, supposing there is one)? Who can say? What is certain is that dialogues and conversations would have taken place in journals, newsletters, conferences, living rooms, and bars that never took place. Concepts would have been formed that remain stillborn. Would that have been fruitful? I submit that it could not have failed to be more fruitful than discussions of whether to back the flat tax or the national sales tax, or whether to use the Chilean model for phasing out Social Security.

Involvement in a process that expands and can only expand tyranny has robbed liberty of that creativity and energy. In the question "What is your solution?" there is a compliment that I am a clever guy. And I enjoy the compliment. But I am realistic enough to know that I too see less clearly because others have turned their gaze in the wrong direction. I too have been robbed of the benefits of those discussions, conversations, and concepts.

Yes, yes, says the impatient reader, but what is your solution? Really, he says, aren't you saying that we should just lie down and let the tanks roll over us? To this I might reply that I make it a point not to implicitly impute any legitimacy to the tank commander's efforts; I do not try to bargain with him before he gives the order to roll. I do not try to send the tanks to roll over someone else. And I do not try to talk anyone into letting me get inside one of the tanks so that I can steer it over someone else. I believe that the tanks are evil because of what they are, not because they are inconvenient to me.

My solution is that we not be bought. Yes, I will use Federal Reserve notes, the public roads, and even a public library. We live in so expansively wicked a world that not participating in its wickedness on some levels is probably impossible. What is possible is to draw a line and not to cross it.

But when I look at the libertarian movement and the patriot movement, that's not what I see. What I see are lovers of liberty drawing their lines and then redrawing them even when that sneering bully the state can't be bothered to step across them. I see lovers of liberty seeking position, recognition, and even money from the state (forgetting that it is when you reach for the money that the handcuffs are snapped on) and then trying to fight the state. It is true that the product of our labor will be stolen from us in taxes no matter who employs us. And the stolen part of that product will be used against us. It may be that that is unavoidable.

What is avoidable is selling our skills, our talents, and the products of our labor to our enemies. And we don't have to join in the stealing of the product of others.

Something we can always deny them

I was once asked whether I thought mankind would ever be free from the state.

Ever? That was a big word, but the breakfast companion who asked me the question was probably wondering whether the state was just another evil like any other, whether the best possible to us was to limit it in some way, as we take steps to minimize crime. At least that was how I took his question when I answered that I was willing to suppose it would always be with us.

But, I added, let's consider the shopkeeper who makes a monthly payment of protection money to some thug working for Albert Anastasia. He may be weak, and it may not be possible for him ever to be free from such racketeers. But he is always free and always able in the oratory of his mind not to confer any legitimacy to the thug or his boss. Never to begin thinking that, after all, someone will always pluck the chickens and Anastasia is not such a bad guy. Never to think that working with him might not be so bad. And never to imagine he can reform Anastasia by encouraging one of his sons to get into the organization. It is certainly possible for him to feel shame for his weakness. He may have to swallow his gorge, but unlike that of so many I see in the libertarian and patriot movements, at least his gorge rises.

It may not be possible ever for us to be without the state. But surely it is possible for everyone ruled by it to have the integrity of that shopkeeper and withhold the crown of legitimacy from it.

What good will not being bought do? It will keep our minds clear just long enough that we will begin to see just how desperate matters are. The state's legitimacy exists only in the minds of those it rules. A man caught in the system cannot see beyond it. A man bought by the system eventually sees even less. So true are those statements that for the sake of emphasis I accept this: Even by using the public library or the Interstates or Federal Reserve notes my sight, too, is clouded; matters are likely to be much more desperate than they appear to be.

Do I call that a plan? Of course not; I call it a feeble, inadequate grasp at integrity. It is a pitiable struggle to live in the light of what is true and what is real, rather than in the murk of fantasy, pretense, and (to revive an Old English term) naught-iness, i.e., nothingness.

What is my solution? To encourage lovers of liberty and Western culture wherever I find them to stop looking in the wrong direction toward the murk, and to clear their minds of tyranny-expanding, tyranny-friendly activities and naught-iness. Once they are looking in the right direction, looking in the general direction of what is true and real, they will see things they didn't see before, and they will see things I do not and cannot see.

One reason Polite Totalitarianism is successful is that its nature is precisely to enlist our assistance in our own enslavement, and one of the tools at its command is to enlist us in the charade of loyal opposition. And there are millions of minds and muscles enlisted in the service of the state; we who are its enemies number so few. Even the half-a-loaf libertarians number in the thousands; the one more who stands in front of me asking what my solution is will never be missed if he abandons their doomed enterprise. His presence and efforts would swell the ranks of those who are the enemies of the state and its permanent regime. We have a dictatorship in this country not because the state had the answers to man's afflictions. We have it because the lovers of liberty were few and were not heard, except when they were complicit in the state's growth.

You lovers of liberty, dictatorship does not need your voice to spin out reforms: It will accomplish the reformed enslavement of the rest of us nicely without it. Its ecological programs will destroy the economy or starve us or freeze us soon or eventually, with or without you. It will choke the asthmatics who depend on ozone-attacking inhalers, with or without you. Its health-care programs will leave children to die of diseases that should have disappeared half a century earlier, with or without you; when it saves Social Security, it will gobble up our substance and distort investment, with or without you; and its tax reforms will hide abuses and horrors whether you help design them or not.

It is liberty, not "reform," that needs your voice. It might, after all, be your voice that strikes a blow, in the end, against some of the problems of power and the habits of obedience; it might be your voice that teaches us a way around some of the ugliness and the naught-iness.

Will such a blow bring down leviathan? Probably not. Whatever problems you solve, whatever lessons we learn from the habits you expose may not be useful for a century or more. "At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little."

That's little enough, to be sure. But those who persist in searching for political solutions to the present tyranny are not willing to do even that much; they are not extending that area of sanity; they are constricting it. Or rather, they are extending the area of insanity.

"We cannot act collectively." But we can act individually. "We can only spread our knowledge outwards from individual to individual," that is, from one individual of supreme and unrepeatable value to another individual of supreme and unrepeatable value.

My solution, then, is to persuade productive minds to stop trying to get their 1982 Pontiac with 185,000 miles fixed. Those who persist in tinkering with it, who bring in one big-name mechanic after another to tinker with it, have proclaimed their confidence in a process that is illegitimate and that cannot succeed. In doing so, they have neglected all other avenues of investigation. They who charge us with defeatism are saying that to abandon the political process is to abandon the struggle. Which implies that there is no struggle outside of the political process; that unless we can succeed in the realm dominated and defined by the state, there is no success. They are saying that all truthful struggle, in the end, depends on what happens in an arena in which the state has set the rules and in which only the state can ultimately prevail.

Now that's defeatism.

Posted July 10, 2007

Published in 1998, 2007 by WTM Enterprises

A reader's question,
which prompted an extensive reply by Mr. Neff.

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* One of those two votes was for the woman who was the LP's 1972 vice-presidential candidate, a fact that no liberal or feminist who is not a libertarian seems to be aware of. Tony Nathan's place in history as the first woman to get an electoral vote has been completely upstaged and obscured by the miserable campaign in 1984 of the ill-fated Geraldine Ferraro. The LP is unable even to defend historical fact, let alone liberty.

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