A Journal for Western Man




Working on the Fringes:

How to Create Effective Political, Cultural,

and Intellectual Change

G. Stolyarov II

Issue LVIII- May 17, 2006



“We must cultivate our garden.” ~ Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Candide

            In the endeavor to limit government, spread the ideas of reason, and achieve a new cultural Renaissance, a gradualist approach is superior to a revolutionary one. The world will not become transformed into the rational man’s ideal overnight; if one expects it to, one will inevitably be met with disappointment. One will become afflicted with debilitating pessimism and cynicism that will inhibit one’s motivation and agency in the future. Change is a process, and all processes necessarily take time. Only with time will the world improve—through an evolutionary, not revolutionary, process motivated by the diligent, steady application of the right ideas.

            Evolutionary change is safe; the agent of change should not destroy his existing social environment. He can work within the system or start his own legitimate organization; he can live his entire life without breaking any law or being persecuted by the powers that be. His weapon is the pen, not the sword—the lecture and discussion forum, not the protest rally or militia raid. His ideas may be radical, but his manner need not be; he should seek to perfect his ideas, but understand that they need to apply to an imperfect world. He should thus recognize that any gain—even the slightest—for his ideas is better than no gain at all, so long as no sacrifice is involved.  

            Two types of obstacles stand in the way of this positive evolutionary change; they may best be termed core obstacles and fringe obstacles. The distinction is largely based on public and government focus and opinion, but it is an important distinction to consider in deciding which issues to address. A given core obstacle could someday become a fringe obstacle, and vice versa, and the classification of a given obstacle strongly depends on the context in which it is considered.

            A core obstacle is one well-entrenched in the minds of the public, one which the government is ready to exert its maximum efforts to defend. Billions of dollars, millions of activists, and thousands of politicians are invested in it; the obstacle is extensively propagandized, and numerous vested interests work for its perpetuation. A smaller but prominent movement typically combats the obstacle, but to no avail; the forces preserving it are monolithic and unyielding. The battle over a core obstacle is like trench warfare; there is much expense, much dirt, much anguish, much attrition and no movement either way.

            The proponents of the core obstacle typically develop into a rigid orthodoxy ready to hold its ground and demolish any efforts at dissent. The opponents typically become a similarly rigid counter-orthodoxy, continuing to pursue the same methods that have failed against the orthodoxy for years; the counter-orthodoxy, like the orthodoxy, is hostile to any innovation—believing that even gradual innovation risks depriving it of whatever footholds it might already have. In its quest for a dramatic, all-or-nothing revolution, the counter-orthodoxy actually inhibits positive evolution. Neither the orthodoxy nor the counter-orthodoxy is important in the long run.

            The short-run immobility of core obstacles has many demonstrations in the recent past. Consider the battle over Social Security. Despite the emergence of a vast Republican counter-orthodoxy for partial privatization, nothing has been done. The status quo of Social Security appeals to far too many vested interests to budge. The Republicans, by focusing on one issue alone and not on other fundamentally interrelated obstacles, have stagnated in their endeavor to change anything at all. Social Security is interconnected with a gargantuan network of other government regulations, restrictions, and cultural effects; it is but the outcome of a long-term intellectual and attitudinal development. It will not end unless it is disentangled from its powerful roots.

            Nor will the current battle over immigration result in any positive change. The proponents of free and open immigration think that massive protest rallies and extensive media attention will dissuade Congress from passing legislation hostile to immigrants. The problem, however, is much more fundamental; it is a problem of economic fallacies—like the fixed-pie, zero-sum mentality and the idea that people are entitled to the jobs they currently hold—as well as institutional problems—like the massive welfare system that some immigrants deliberately parasitize. Without addressing these issues, the immigration issue cannot be resolved, and any outcome of the present controversy will bring along massive problems.

            For someone as radical as an Objectivist, libertarian, or principled conservative, trying to immediately address core obstacles is a futile endeavor. Of course, one should think about these issues, decide for oneself what a proper resolution to them might be, and try to articulate these ideas in writing. Yet one’s aim should be toward a possibility of eventual change. One should hope that someday the core issues will fade from public attention. The extensive resources of both the orthodoxy and counter-orthodoxy will then be devoted elsewhere, and one would be able to slip one’s own ideas in unnoticed.

            The radical proponent of reason faces numerous limitations that neither the orthodoxy nor the counter-orthodoxy has. Both are hostile to him, and both would crush him if he posed any serious threat in their eyes. The principled radical endangers both of their secure positions. However, neither the orthodoxy nor the counter-orthodoxy can address all issues at all times. Their efforts are typically focused on the two or three most currently contentious issues; the rest they leave alone, to their natural dynamics.

            Most people treat most issues by default—not holding any explicit principles on them, but absorbing their course of action from long-standing cultural authorities. Most people’s hostility to utility deregulation, repeal of environmental laws, and private space flight is not nearly so great as their opposition to Social Security privatization, open immigration, and the abolition of welfare would be. The former are fringe issues; they do not occupy the mainstream’s attention at present—which means that whoever does focus attention on them will automatically have the upper hand.

            Fringe obstacles are easy to remove—as Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne demonstrated in 2004. Since neither an orthodoxy nor a counter-orthodoxy has rendered the fringe issue emotionally charged, most people are more open to new ideas about the fringe issue than they would be about a core issue. Only the worst leftists opposed SpaceShipOne; public support and admiration for it was immense, and even the government enthusiastically gave its approval to the venture. This is because SpaceShipOne emerged out of a political climate that had almost nothing to say about private space flight one way or the other; NASA, a dinosaur from the 1960s, had already lost much of its glamour and efficacy and did not have many vested interests behind it. It was thus in no position to object to more efficient competition.

            Yet SpaceShipOne has done more for the future of liberty and a New Renaissance than all the battles over immigration and Social Security ever will. It has opened a new frontier for the channeling of creative entrepreneurial energies—a frontier that is as of yet unencumbered by the stagnant bureaucracies that have emerged elsewhere. New space technology will inevitably alter political realities—improving people’s standards of living, giving them access to more resources, and even opening new territories for rational men to colonize. Space exploration will be a great motivator for individual independence, self-reliance, and contempt for petty government restrictions. It will increasingly bring men to look outward technologically, rather than whining about pretend inner psychological deficiencies and relying on government to remedy them. Private space flight cannot but be a stimulus for laissez-faire in general.

            Like private space flight, most fringe issues—when properly addressed—bring much more positive results than a drawn-out, frustrating fight against established defenders of core obstacles. A victory over a fringe obstacle might not be as well-publicized, but it has consequences nonetheless. The people who are informed about the consequences and work to further them are in an automatically better position than those who are ignorant of them. The mainstream—swamped in the core issues—can be easily outmaneuvered by a small, determined, loose association of radicals working on the fringes to eliminate small threats to liberty and reason. 

            Furthermore, fringe victories’ scant media exposure is a good thing. It means that the media behemoth will not attack the gains made for liberty and reason on the fringes. It means that the advocates of positive evolutionary change will be left alone and given what they so crucially need: time to implement this change. The private space industry has been given time, and we are now on the verge of the first private commercial space tourist flights.

            It is easy for the media to leave the fringe workers alone, because these fringe workers are often simply creative private individuals or small organizations. The fringe workers are innocuous in their daily activities; they follow the rules imposed on them when needed but generally try to simply avoid dealing with restrictive higher powers. They are respectable, polite, and decidedly anti-revolutionary—often more so than the mainstream. Revolutions are destabilizing and destroy the background of social continuity necessary for a functioning market economy and successful long-term individual endeavors. Revolutions are also dangerous. Remember than the pro-Enlightenment Girondins in France were not killed by King Louis XVI; they were killed by their own fellow revolutionaries.

            Working on the fringes could be as easy as writing an article on an unpopular issue; an article for a pro-liberty political measure or a pro-reason cultural measure is much more than the status quo has in its defense. Few leftist intellectuals write diatribes about why public utility monopolies must prevail or why NASA should monopolize space exploration. A concerted attack on the fringes of big government will shrink government without many people noticing it. The fringes, meanwhile, will continually move inward. Once private space exploration is fully underway, utility and environmental deregulation will be much easier, followed perhaps by the abolition of eminent domain powers and the privatization of roads and “public transport.” Eventually, social security, welfare, and obstacles to immigration will no longer be core issues; they will be targetable through reasonable efforts, since the infrastructure supporting them will have been dismantled. Furthermore, the attitudes advocating the core obstacles will have been gradually mitigated by diligent work on the fringes.

            It is important to have a well-developed theoretical understanding of what the proper solutions to contemporary problems might be. However, theory in itself does not persuade many people. Only actual success can bring widespread recognition; living out one’s ideas by personal example is much more effective than simply talking about them. So let us pursue success wherever we can find it; even small victories in one’s own personal life count. Overcoming a petty bureaucratic restriction, establishing a useful business, rising to the top of one’s class, getting an academic degree, publishing an article, and consistently displaying one’s intelligence, productivity, and soundness of principles are all long-term catalysts of change. A prosperous, learned, refined, and dignified gentleman sways more people than a rag-tag street protester. Once one has beautified and elevated one’s own life, others will begin to ask what the ideas and methods behind one’s success have been. They, in seeking success, will be motivated to adopt similar ideas and methods.

              In both political and personal matters, avoiding the present fad is always a good idea; if the masses insist on fighting about X, challenge them on Y and win. The political and intellectual fads are typically irrationally overblown, and the core obstacles are too great to overturn. One can write about the present fads and be critical of both the orthodoxy and counter-orthodoxy; just thinking about the core obstacles is useful in the long run. However, one should expect to approach the core issues as an intelligent spectator, not as a participant. One should match one’s expectations and endeavors with one’s realistic capacities and resources; one individual can seldom change the world, but he can often change a neighborhood, organization, company, community, or even town. We should gain footholds where we can and be happy about doing so; instead of lamenting on what has yet to be done, we should focus on what we already can do. Other friends of reason and liberty will work on the fringes in their own way, too, even if we do not notice them. The effects of their actions will add up all the same.

            Working on the fringes will succeed in the long run, because it requires no organized power structure, no top-down coordination, no extreme resource expenditures besides the workers’ regular occupations and hobbies. Even if some fringe workers are thwarted in some of their initiatives, others will continue to make advances. Barring an epidemic, domestic war, or political revolution, we will almost always live in an overall better world tomorrow than the one we have today.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.