Matt McInnes
Matt McInnes

Pragmatism vs Isolation

What is the best way to achieve freedom in society?

There are many people who claim to believe in freedom but who are prepared to compromise on aspects of this goal in order to settle for some success, and then there are those who feel that any compromise is selling out and is unacceptable. For too long, freedom has been absent from society and this is the sort of premise that many would agree with, however the way to get freedom into society is a fiercely challenged concept.

The problem is that we live in a society, and a world, that is geared up to restrict freedom. As a result, true freedom is a concept that is scary to too many people - and this is where perception halts any such fight.

There are those (and in many cases these people are Objectivists) who maintain that you must fight for absolute freedom and that any movement away from this outcome in order to gain popular support is inherently wrong. Likewise, there are those (and I place myself in this camp of 'pragmatists') who believe that the only way freedom will ever exist to a larger extent in any democratic society is to get 'buy-in' from the rest of the population.

Objectivists argue that the pragmatists are sell-outs and do not believe in real freedom. The pragmatists argue that the Objectivists are serving only to make the cause of freedom extreme. As an ACT supporter, I will explain why I can still vote ACT and claim to believe in freedom.

The Pragmatic Viewpoint

Society in New Zealand is full of inherent infringements upon freedom - from the economic restrictions of the socialists, to the moral restrictions of the conservatives. I certainly do not seek to justify any of these causes. However, the fact remains, regardless that it should not, that society and structures are currently built around these archaic infringements upon freedom.

The 'free pragmatist' believes that the only way to ever have a society where freedom exists is to work within these frameworks, regardless of how abhorrent this may be - to change things in a practical way.

New Zealand politics heralds a good example of this. When the majority of people are voting for the major parties representing socialism and conservatism then there is no way that an Objectivist viewpoint will ever become mainstream. It is too easy to point out flaws in Objectivist thought based on incorrect but widely accepted assumptions. For example, if 99.8% of voters believe that taxation is a legitimate activity of government, then someone who argues that it is not will never get any traction. The vote received at the last election by the Libertarianz is a good illustration of this.

When the Libertarianz challenge the government's right to tax, for example, this challenges the implicit assumptions of people - something that will never be successful in changing public opinion. Why care about public opinion? Because the reality is that without popular public support, ideas will never become mainstream.

The answer for the pragmatist is that you should begin advocating ideas where public acceptance is strong, then move to a point where support is not so overwhelming, but not so small that it can be ignored. It is then that you should advocate selected aspects of your ideal position - knowing that this will break down the public assumptions - and this in time will make movement towards the ideal possible. The obvious political example here is that of ACT.

ACT is seen as having sold out on freedom by many Libertarianz members, however I argue that they have been successful at least in putting tax levels on the agenda. Many people who would vote for ACT probably do not see 20% flat tax as being ideal, but without getting the public to acknowledge and start to debate the level of tax, the abolition of tax will never be considered. This is not selling out, rather playing the game by the rules that exist. In time you move your advocacy point until you have reached your ideal. The end result is a society that finally has freedom - even though it may take 30 years.

Having one or more Members of Parliament is an enormous advantage in championing a cause and it is certainly possible to change your position once you are there. It is not possible to change the rules of the game while you stand on the sideline as an observer.

The Alternatives

The alternatives for people who do not see the pragmatic approach as a valid way to achieve freedom are limited. It is possible to remain a stalwart of total freedom (the 'all-or-nothing' approach) and continue to have your views isolated from the mainstream.

Likewise, it is possible to publicly ridicule the ridiculous public assumptions that exist within society, however this serves to isolate the person who expresses these views as an extremist. The end result of both of these approaches is the knowledge that you are right and society is wrong. A comforting thought but with little relevance to advancing the goal of freedom in society. A 7% taste of freedom is better than a 0.3% dream of it.

Where To From Here?

This argument will continue; however, if the people who believe in the merits of each approach spend less time fighting each other and more time battling the real enemy – i.e., mainstream public opinion against freedom – then there may be some hope for the future. Tolerance of degrees of freedom is what the pragmatists would ask for. But at the end of the day people must make a choice between two paths in promoting liberty: Practical freedom or philosophical isolation.

I argue that a small increase in freedom is better than a large idea that fails to gain traction.

(Libertarianz leader, Peter Cresswell, replies to this article in A Spoonful of Principle.)

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