In my video challenging
Stefan Molyneux’s critique of Ron Paul, I referred to a historical example of
political action bringing about considerably greater liberty: the Anti-Corn Law
League – led by Richard Cobden and John Bright – which managed in 1846 to
achieve the repeal of the British import barriers on grain. My paper “Lessons
from Successful Free-Trade Activism: The Arguments and Methods of Richard
Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League” highlights how Cobden and Bright were able
to achieve this important advance for free trade. I used this historical
achievement to counter those critics of Ron Paul who suggest that political
action in general is never an
effective way of liberating the individual.
Nick Ford of The Anarchist Township recently published a rebuttal to my argument, and I aim here to offer my replies and provide further arguments to demonstrate my earlier point: the effectiveness of the Anti-Corn Law League shows that political action at least could have a chance in increasing available liberty – though, of course, this kind of success is never guaranteed.
Before I delve into Mr. Ford’s specific observations, I would like to briefly outline the areas of strong similarity between Ron Paul’s campaign and the efforts of Cobden and Bright to repeal the Corn Laws. I readily admit that differences between these two approaches exist – not the least of which are the elementary facts that they are approximately 165 years apart temporally, an ocean apart spatially, and formed to respond to different sets of concrete concerns within the general premise of attempting to roll back unfreedom. However, the crux of my position is that the similarities are strong enough that the Anti-Corn Law League can be considered a prominent illustration of the viability of political action in bringing about more freedom, in some circumstances.
Briefly, here are the major areas of similarity I can identify:
(1) The repeal of unjustified interventions was achieved by working through the extant political process.
(2) The individuals spearheading the Anti-Corn Law League – Cobden and Bright – pursued political office in Parliament in order to achieve the repeal of the unjustified interventions.
(3) At the beginning of its efforts, the Anti-Corn Law League was out of favor with the political and economic elites. Yet, through persistence and rational argumentation over the course of nearly a decade, it was able to sway both elite and public opinion.
(4) A well-coordinated political organization, aiming at mass enrollment, was essential to the success of the Anti-Corn Law League’s efforts. This organized effort used the most sophisticated technology and tactics of its time in innovative ways.
(5) The Anti-Corn Law League focused on stepwise liberalization by identifying the most ruinous intervention and targeting it first. (I shall discuss laterhow this approach is similar to both the effects of Ron Paul’s campaign and what Ron Paul would do if he were elected President.)
(6) The Anti-Corn Law League was an ecumenical movement that welcomed individuals from a variety of backgrounds and worldviews, as long as those individuals shared the League’s essential objective. It has also been widely observed that Ron Paul’s campaign has drawn an incredibly diverse following from numerous subcultures and areas of the conventional “political spectrum”.
(7) The Anti-Corn Law League, like Ron Paul, maintained impeccable civility in the face of vitriol and foul play by its opponents.
(8) The Anti-Corn Law League, like Ron Paul, remained steadfast to its principles even when compromising those principles would have been politically easier.
Addressing Mr. Ford’ s Observations of Dissimilarity
Mr. Ford writes: “For example the very act of making this organization [the Anti-Corn Law League] in [and] of itself is doing something entirely different than what Ron Paul is doing and trying to do. While Ron Paul wants himself on the tip top of a 21st century, modern, state-capitalist empire Bright and Cobden instead just wanted to reverse one single policy from the [British] empire in the mid to late 19th century on the basis of mass public support. Which sounds more practical to you?”
I respond: I do not find this argument persuasive, as both movements have actually worked simultaneously within and outside the political process. While heading the Anti-Corn Law League, both Cobden and Bright were members of Parliament and attempted to exert influence over the governance of the British Empire by affecting how Parliament voted on the issue of trade. Ron Paul, during his tenure as a United States Representative, also led the Campaign for Liberty – a nonprofit organization aimed at pro-freedom political and economic reforms, but not itself a part of any government. So both Paul and Cobden worked simultaneously within and outside governmental positions. It is true that Cobden never wanted to be Prime Minister (the closest position in terms of executive power to what the US President would have today) – but in 19th-century Britain, the power of the Legislative branch was much stronger than it is in the United States today; indeed, the Prime Minister was of Parliament and did Parliament’s bidding. In the 21st-century, it is unfortunately the case that astonishing amounts of power have become concentrated in the person of the President – so, to roll back unfreedom in a significant way, Presidential cooperation and even initiative are needed in many situations.
Mr. Ford writes: “Ron Paul doesn’t want to just repeal one law but he wants to repeal an entire system of domination, coercion, class warfare, and more by limiting the [federal government’s] interference in our lives. How does Mr. Stolyarov think that these two cases are in the least analogous even apart from the strategies used that he brings up?”
I respond: Politically, the Britain of Cobden’s day was much freer than the United States today – in terms of the sheer number of interventions in existence – though, perhaps, it can be argued that the effects of individual interventions like the Corn Laws on human suffering might have been greater in a time when many more people lived on the edge of subsistence. When the major infringements on liberty can be readily enumerated – and each infringement can be attributed to just a few laws, as opposed to a vast, interrelated network of them – it is more feasible to achieve major gains for freedom by just targeting one law or group of laws. In this sense, it is true that Ron Paul would have much more to repeal than Cobden and Bright did, since our political system is much farther gone down the road to serfdom than theirs had been. In that respect, it could be said that his agenda is more ambitious than that of Cobden and Bright – but it still does not mean that there would be no selective focus on the worst interventions. For instance, Ron Paul’s emphasis on the economic wreckage created by the Federal Reserve is on par in terms of focus to Cobden and Bright’s emphasis on the harms of the Corn Laws. Certainly, the phrases “Audit the Fed” and “End the Fed” have become inextricably identified with the Ron Paul movement.
Ron Paul also has a clear understanding of the need to focus on specific areas of US federal interventions – namely, monetary policy and foreign policy – first. As President, Ron Paul would have the authority to unilaterally, immediately withdraw the US military from tens of foreign occupations, greatly reducing the waste of lives and taxpayer money. At the same time, he would pursue a thorough audit of the Federal Reserve and would thereby galvanize public opinion to take more radical steps to limit the power of that secretive institution. (In this respect, he would be similar to another political figure, US President Andrew Jackson, whose determined actions successfully put an end to the Second Bank of the United States in 1836 and left the US without a central bank for the next 77 years. Jackson’s battle against the central bank of his time is another excellent example of successful pro-liberty political action.)
It is clear from the above that, as President, Ron Paul would need to pursue some simultaneous action in multiple areas – even if such basic areas as domestic economic policy and foreign military policy are considered. And while his movement is not limited to targeting just one set of laws, it nonetheless can target strong public opposition at highly specific interventions in a variety of areas. Today, it is necessary to do this, because unfreedom currently advances on multiple fronts as well – and the best defense against such encroachments is a good offense in the form of rolling back and repealing harmful interventions wherever this is feasible.
Mr. Ford writes: “I know Mr. Stolyarov’s basic point was that political action can amass great amounts of political change for the better sometimes but even if this is the case… so what? That was then (the 19th century in Britain) and this is now (the 21st century in the US) to compare the two is to ignore the differences in culture, historical development, politics, economic development and so on. In other words, to compare these two is not even the same as apples and oranges. We’re talking about apples and pears man… apples and pears!”
I respond: Mr. Ford’s words here seem strongly to imply that the “differences in culture, historical development, politics, economic development and so on” between 19th-century Britain and the 21st-century United States somehow preclude the ability to amass great amounts of political change by influencing public and elite opinion. If this is so, Mr. Ford has not yet provided any concrete evidence to show that doing this is more difficult today than it would have been in Cobden’s Britain. Indeed, much evidence would point the other way. Technologies such as the Internet and mobile devices enable information to be spread much more efficiently and cheaply than even Cobden’s penny postage could manage. Furthermore, today’s technologies allow anyone who wants it the unprecedented opportunity to attain a self-education in politics, economics, and philosophy – as well as to cross-check the validity of information that emanates from “mainstream” or other sources. My 2008 essay “Liberation by Internet: How Technology Destroys Tyranny” discussed this empowering effect of the Internet even before some of its greatest manifestations occurred. If, even in the face of recent developments such as the Arab Spring, Mr. Ford does not believe that today’s technological proliferation increases the chances of a mass political movement succeeding in removing deleterious top-down interventions, I would like to know the reasons behind his skepticism.
Mr. Ford writes [In response to my observation that Cobden and Bright endeavored to steer clear of partisan politics]: “Well it looks to me like Mr. Stolyarov sees ‘partisan politics’ as a hamper to political opportunities in a political system if I’m reading him correctly and so does Cobden for that matter. So what’s the difference for Paul exactly? Isn’t Paul not only acting within ‘partisan politics’ constantly as a [representative] but even more so as someone who’s running for president? What [exactly] is the difference?”
I respond: In fact, in their disdain for partisan politics, Cobden, Bright, and Ron Paul have exactly the same approach. Cobden and Bright formally belonged to the Liberal Party – one of the two dominant parties in British Parliament – though they did occasionally run on independent platforms. The same is the case for Ron Paul. While he formally belongs to the Republican Party, he also ran for President as the Libertarian Party’s candidate in 1988. Furthermore, political-party membership is not the same as partisanship. Partisanship is rigid adherence to the party platform, often at the expense of principle, truth, and a willingness to work with persons of other persuasions when those persons support worthwhile objectives. Ron Paul clearly rejects partisanship of this sort, as he has departed from and opposed the Republican Party platform on numerous issues: foreign policy, the drug war, the War on Terror, the security/surveillance state, bailouts, and the role of religion in government – just to name a few. Ron Paul has also clearly illustrated a willingness to work with others of different persuasions on shared objectives. He has, for example, co-sponsored legislation with such Democrats as Barney Frank on marijuana decriminalization and Bernie Sanders on Federal Reserve transparency. A principled, non-partisan, pro-liberty politician never lets party lines get in the way of the principles of methodological and ethical individualism, or of obtaining the support of others in accomplishing actual, concrete gains for individual freedom.
Mr. Ford writes: “All of that aside, let’s move on to the next one that seems particularly against what Paul is doing with his presidential campaign which is how Cobden and company went about their approach. It wasn’t with mere calls for reform or anything like that it was a call for immediate repeal of the Corn Laws. But if Ron Paul is actually a voluntaryist (at least in the long term and there’s some evidence for that as I’ve pointed out above) then it seems like he cannot do such a thing within the current culture, political or economic structure that exists. Especially insofar as he wants to join it and try to change it from within. Now to be fair, it’s not necessarily his fault that this is the case but it certainly changes the sort of message involved. After all Ron Paul is the one who is calling for [reformism] here and not the repeal of government in its totality. But again, to be fair to Paul and I think this point is valid either way irrespective of Paul, the US (and more generally the world) is not ready for anarchism and we need to therefore make transitional or revolutionarily gradual steps towards it in my opinion. Politics doesn’t fit that bill for me. Education is a great way to do it and as Kevin Carson has pointed out there’s even some legitimacy to be said for a political program for anarchists. But actually becoming president over others and instituting laws or tearing down old ones seems practically and morally problematic to me.”
I respond: With regard to the call for immediate repeal, I do not see any dissimilarity here. Cobden and Bright wanted to immediately repeal the Corn Laws, not the British Empire itself. Likewise, there are many laws Ron Paul would repeal immediately if he had the chance – for instance, the PATRIOT Act, and the laws authorizing the War on Drugs, groping at airports, and the depredations of the Environmental Protection Agency. He would not call for gradual phasing-out of drug raids, invasive TSA searches, or federal imprisonment of property owners who choose to peacefully develop their own land. In all their activism, Cobden and Bright remained loyal subjects of the British Empire, and Ron Paul would always (I think) remain a sincere adherent to the United States Constitution (though he would likely want to amend that document as well, at least to repeal the federal income tax). Immediate repeal of numerous bad laws is compatible with maintaining the existing system of government (while, of course, reducing what it can do to its citizens).
More generally, I do not see anything morally problematic with becoming an
officeholder or even the leader of a government, provided that one’s purpose is to remove deleterious impositions on
people’s lives. Why is it un-libertarian in any way to get rid of an
un-libertarian policy? If a libertarian is not in a position to repeal such a
policy, can it seriously be expected that the policy would be repealed at all?
If it would be repealed, who would do it? Could such a repeal realistically be
expected from a supporter of that
policy? I would consider that highly unlikely at best. So why should it be seen
as productive to discourage libertarians from seeking the most direct way in
which they could actually repeal un-libertarian policies in the real world?
Libertarians of all stripes would do well to also recognize that, as President, Ron Paul would be a placeholder of an office that could be used for great evil if occupied by a person who does not adhere to the principles of liberty. If Ron Paul is President, it means that, for four to eight years, nobody else can be. The “somebody else” – be he Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, or any other establishment politician – would most likely greatly increase the scope of unfreedom. At least Ron Paul would not have that kind of effect.
Lastly on this point, I am curious as to why Mr. Ford appears to have no particular reservations toward liberty-minded people like Cobden, Bright, and Ron Paul serving as legislators, but he finds it particularly problematic for them to be heads of state. What, if any, ethical difference is there between those functions in his mind, when both by definition influence the political process? (Of course, my stance on this matter is that there is nothing morally wrong with being either a libertarian legislator or a libertarian executive, and I hope that this where further consideration of this question will also lead Mr. Ford.)
Mr. Ford writes: “There are structural problems or obstacles that are too big from within the system for Paul to have much of a chance. This is especially the case because paradoxically while Ron Paul doesn’t have corporate support and this [more] likely means he’s probably more likely to want to do change it means he probably won’t be able to. Why? Well the corporations are a big factor in donations to political campaigns (especially due to the court ruling about it). Also, Ron Paul, last I checked doesn’t care much for lobbyists or many of the major powers inside the political and economic systems of the day. And if it’s correct that large amounts of wealth is still concentrated in a small number of hands up top then I doubt his grassroots attempt will do much.”
I respond: While it is undoubtedly true that special interests attempt to exert control over the current political system through donations and lobbying, this is far from an insurmountable obstacle. With decentralized technology, it is likelier than ever that the general public will be able to bypass the influence of special interests in deciding how to cast its votes – since the special interests (such as the large, politically connected media corporations) no longer hold a near-monopoly on the dissemination of information.
Furthermore, the influence of certain concentrated economic interests on the political process is nothing new. Recall that Cobden and Bright had to contend with the support for the Corn Laws of the immensely wealthy and powerful British aristocratic landowners, who tended to align themselves with the Tory Party. By diligent activism, persuasion, and economic education, they managed to greatly weaken the political power of that economic bloc and to convince many wealthy landowners to switch sides in the debate.
If lobbyists and donations from economically powerful interests were truly an insurmountable obstacle to achieving pro-liberty political change, then there would never be any such change at any time in history. It is true that it takes persistence, principle, and tactical cleverness to overcome a system that invites such influence. But there is nothing to suggest that Ron Paul is not up to this task.
Mr. Ford writes: “The moral problem I want to bring up is whether electing people, asking them to implement certain policies (or wishing them to) unilaterally on a populace is moral on libertarian grounds. After all, how can you have laws without enforcement especially insofar as a state is concerned? For example: If Ron Paul enacts border control he or his armed guards for the border are going to have to enforce this belief by killing some “troublesome” brown people who want to cross the borders. How would Ron Paul deal with this obvious contradiction if aggression is so wrong in his view except in defense?”
I respond: On the issue of border control in particular, I have significant differences with Ron Paul’s position – in that I support free and open immigration. However, Ron Paul himself has admitted (in the video on the page to which Mr. Ford linked) that it is not practical to enact the kinds of physical border-control measures that would require systematic coercion to enforce. It appears that Dr. Paul prefers to “control” illegal immigration by denying amnesty and government benefits to illegal immigrants, as well as birthright citizenship to their children. While, again, I find these positions to be at least partially problematic, I do not think that killing people will ever be a part of the approach a Paul administration uses. If one takes even the least charitable interpretation of what Ron Paul would do as President – there could be some forcible deportations, which have already been happening in mass under Obama. Deportation (requiring a person to leave the country – perhaps even escorting a person to the border) is wrong to inflict, in my view, on those who did not commit violent crime. But it is a far cry from killing.
On the more general claim made by Mr. Ford, there should be no moral issue with reducing the scope of certain problematic laws and interventions. For instance, could a politician who, hypothetically, only reduced the income tax by 5% across the board but did nothing else (perhaps because the political process did not allow him to) be considered immoral on libertarian grounds? Certainly not! While he did not bring about complete freedom (however defined), he did bring about more freedom by enabling people to keep 5% more of the money they earned. Failing to bring about a perfect libertarian society does not by itself qualify one for moral condemnation – for, if it did, we would all be guilty. After all, we do not live in a libertarian society today. How dare I or you or Mr. Ford sanction living in such a society – where all sorts of abuses are going on all around us! But wait… we may not stop any of them, either, because if we stopped one without instantaneously and simultaneously stopping all the others, we would still be guilty of condoning all the remaining abuses – and guilty for stopping that one abuse, too, since that required us to impose our will on the people who wanted to inflict that abuse! So, no matter what happens or what we do, we cannot win under that interpretation of morality. I hope that this reductio ad absurdum exercise has shown the need to recognize the merits of approaches that take us unambiguously in the right direction, even if they do not entirely get us to the condition of freedom we would desire.
Mr. Ford writes: “That’s just one big problem I see, in general how is it right to do this? If we take down laws from presidential action or approve new ones that are better are we not just forcing our opinions on the majority of people? Even if our opinions are right does this give us the right to force it on others through the political process?”
I respond: To remove the ability of certain other people to coerce still other people does not involve “forcing” anyone – except perhaps in retaliation for aggression. There is a clear difference, for instance, between a criminal pointing a gun to someone’s head and a passer-by knocking that gun out of the criminal’s hand. To remove the impact of a harmful, liberty-violating program does not by itself impose harm or violate the rights of anyone. It is important to remember that rights and wishes are not the same. Another person’s wish to draft you into the military or force you to provide free health care to strangers would not, for instance, give him the right to do so. A regime that rigorously adheres to individual rights is surely going to displease some people, who will consider the prohibitions against violations of rights to be “imposition” or “force” by their incorrect understanding. But, if there are indeed objective, universal natural rights that exist by virtue of what human beings are rather than by whatever happen to be people’s subjective opinions – then it is those objective rights, not the wishes of anyone and everyone, that governments ought to respect and enforce. If rights were subjective and defined by opinion instead of natural law, then government-provided health care, protectionist tariffs, and agricultural subsidies could be seen as “rights”. Some quite vocal constituencies do want them, after all.
Mr. Ford writes: “I wonder if Mr. Stolyarov would deny that the political process in general relies on the gun because even if he identifies as a [minarchist] even some minarchists still recognize that or recognize it to a point. But then they just try to reason that it’s “necessary force” to keep society together.”
I respond: In practice there is no gun involved in much of the political process, and the agencies that enforce many laws have no guns among their staff. (This is, unfortunately, becoming less common at the federal level.) Furthermore, to the extent that laws are enforced through voluntary compliance (without any reliance on punishment), “the gun” is not necessary; this is one reason why respect for the rule of law is so important in a free society.
But, beyond that, if one accepts the minarchist premise (I know that Mr. Ford does not) that a legitimate function of governments is to protect individuals against physical aggression, then it may be entirely appropriate for a government to use guns in defense of its subjects, within a rigorously defined sphere. I see this as a highly limited power that should be aimed primarily at preventing violence – and, if that fails, at retribution and restitution against the violent offender. (Unlike many minarchists, I do not think that war can be legitimate – so the power I describe is much more limited and would be targeted against individual criminals rather than entire peoples.) But the government that can do this best would never need to fire a gun at all – even though guns (or their future equivalents) would most likely need to be kept around as deterrents to any random thug who happens to come by and who would otherwise easily overpower a society of peaceful, unarmed individuals.
Mr. Ford writes [In response to my observation that Cobden and Bright focused on mass enrollment]: “So how exactly do I see Ron Paul differing? Well for one thing have presidential candidates ever done a candidacy based on whether the general public thinks they should or not? Now I know this begs the questions what the ‘general public’ may mean to some. But all I mean by that is the majority of people want them to run or not. I think clearly if they actually polled people beforehand a lot of politicians may not or may run instead of running just on the basis of having a ‘team’ together and a bunch of money ready. I doubt what Ron Paul has done to prepare for his candidacy is much different. Now if this is just for educational purposes then I don’t have as many problems with it (though I still have some but I’ll reserve them for another time perhaps) but clearly Paul and many of his supporters want him to go a lot farther than that.”
I respond: The Anti-Corn Law League did not start with massive public support behind it. The League had to work to acquire such support by means of education and activism. This is the case for any movement or cause whatsoever. The focus on mass enrollment was so effective precisely because the League was able to change public opinion it the direction of free trade. Likewise, the Ron Paul movement has been one of the most vigorous and effective in reaching out directly to the grassroots and bypassing the established special interests in such communications – all the while pursuing political channels for improvement. Ron Paul keeps winning straw polls and gathering millions of dollars in donations from ordinary (non-politically-connected) people. If that is not mass enrollment, I know not what is. I think Mr. Ford misunderstands my identification of mass enrollment as a strength of the League as somehow meaning that the League had mass support to begin with. It did not, and no reformist idea ever can, by definition, at the very beginning of a campaign to make it a reality. And yes, this means that the inception of any such effort requires a core group of dedicated thinkers who then develop a strategy of how to reach out to a broader audience and obtain its participation.
Mr. Ford writes: “Moving on, apparently ‘focus’ (or as he titles it ‘a single object’) was the important thing for Cobden, Bright and others…so what sort of focus does Paul have? Well sure he has some main focuses for sure…but that’s the problem he has many different main focuses and unlike the League (no not the justice league…) he also has to do them on a much larger scale than what the League did. I’ve mentioned the problems of scale a few times now I think so I don’t think I’ll say much more about this.”
I respond: As I alluded to before, it is true that this is probably the most significant difference between the Ron Paul campaign and the Anti-Corn Law League – and I will grant that Ron Paul’s focus extends beyond a single issue. Largely, I think this is because the galloping advances of totalitarianism in our time need to be countered and reversed simultaneously on multiple fronts – but I agree that this is a way in which the two movements are dissimilar. Still, all the other similarities I identified ought to strongly suggest that political action can have a chance in bringing about greater liberty (without implying any kind of guarantee of success, for such guarantees do not exist).
I hope that this discussion has illustrated in greater detail the relevance of the Anti-Corn Law League’s success as at least a partial model for how liberty might be achieved in our time. I would welcome a further response from Mr. Ford on any of the matters addressed here.