4. Actions in the theoretical field

The part played by the pure theorist is essential in the battle for freedom. His role consists basically of a radical search for the scientific truth, without any prior commitments. In order to make it possible to break the vicious circle of the politically impossible, the pure theorist plays, in the long term, the most important role. There is no doubt that ideas make the world go round or that, one way or another, their influence always filters through to the social body in the end and leaves its mark.

Moreover, it is precisely in the field of libertarian theory where most advances have been made. Today, we may say that, in this field, there has been a runaway victory over the theories which have been used to justify socialism or interventionism to date. It is sufficient to mention, for example, how the analysis of the Austrian School of Economics (Mises and Hayek) on the impossibility of socialism, has been confirmed after several decades of controversy, not only by the fall of real socialism in Eastern Europe, but also by the apparently insoluble crisis into which the interventionist or “welfare” state has fallen all over the western world.(8)

At the theoretical level, perhaps the most important principle of action consists of continuing the search for the scientific truth, without making any concessions aimed at achieving short-term advantages or political influence in return. As Hayek said, “I don’t think the work of the politician and the true student of society are compatible. Indeed it seems to me that in order to be successful as a politician, to become a political leader, it is almost essential that you have no original ideas on social matters but just express what the majority feel … I think [the economist] ought to avoid committing himself to a party – or even devoting himself predominantly to some one good cause. That not only warps his judgement – but the influence it gives him is almost certainly bought at the price of intellectual independence. Too much anxiety to get a particular thing done, or to keep one’s influence over a particular group, is almost certain to be an obstacle to his saying many unpopular things he ought to say – and leads to his compromising with ‘dominant views’ which have to be accepted, and even accepting views which would not stand serious examination”.(9)

In short, Hayek places us on guard against the activity of, for example, some libertarian distinguished members of the School of Chicago when they present what are merely “compromise solutions” as scientific conclusions in their studies. This has been the case, for example, of many of their prescriptions, like the monetary growth rule, flexible exchange rates, “negative income tax”, school vouchers, immigration reform and others, which have been widely debated at a scientific level and even among the population in general. The presentation and defense of these positions without making the final theoretical objectives explicit or explaining that, to a great extent, they were only intended to achieve a politically acceptable compromise, has been to the detriment of the prestige of their role as theorists of liberty.(10) Thus, the leading role in the theoretical defense of free market principles, little by little has been taken over by the Austrian School, much purer in its theory of liberty and much less committed to the search for short-term political “solutions”.

In order to avoid this and other risks, the most appropriate strategy which should be planned in the theoretical field is what, following William H. Hutt, we will call dual strategy and consists basically of the following.(11)Firstly, the study of the essential principles of free market theory and its consequences should be studied, defining the final goals which it is intended to attain in the long term and their essential theoretical implications without any kind of prior commitment. At the same time, in the shorter term, a policy to bring us closer to these goals can and should be designed, remembering that this policy must always be consistent with them.

“Compromise solutions” which lead in the opposite direction of the pre-fixed goals or which conceal or confuse the citizens as to the final objectives and their implications must be avoided. Only this strategy may make it possible to attain, in the medium- and long-term, the political ends which today seem, perhaps, difficult to achieve.

The essential points of the dual strategy to be developed by all libertarian theorists should be, therefore, the following:

a) To study the theoretical principles and the ultimate consequences derived from them with tenacity and persistence, making no concessions to short-term political demands.

b) Never to give up the above activity; to carry out a labour of education and dissemination of the essential theoretical principles and their implications among the citizens.

c) Without losing sight of the ultimate goals and their implications or abandoning the labour of education and dissemination, to work on the theoretical design of alternative transition processes which, without ever violating the theoretical principles, always lead in the right direction.

d) If acceptance of a short-term political commitment is unavoidable, it must always pass the test of not violating the essential principles (i.e. the commitment must never imply moving further away from them). Moreover, it will be necessary to explain to the citizens that it is a short-term concession or commitment, due to political circumstances rather than to a theoretical principle which is the logical and inevitable consequence of libertarian ideas.

Only activity in the theoretical field which always strictly follows these principles can avoid the most dangerous risk for any free market strategist, which is to commit the error of day-to-day political pragmatism, forgetting, when faced with the exertion and difficulties which overwhelm the person who has to take short-term political decisions, the ultimate objectives pursued, in view of the supposed political impossibility of attaining them. Pragmatism is the most dangerous vice for the libertarian and, in the past, has had devastating effects on its ideology. It has systematically led to the agreement and adoption of political decisions aimed at getting into power or remaining there which, in many cases, were essentially inconsistent (i.e. leading in the opposite direction) with those which should have been the ultimate objectives to be pursued from the libertarian standpoint. Moreover, the discussion exclusively of what was politically viable in the very short term and the fact that the scientists themselves relegated the final goals to second place, or even forgot them completely, has often prevented a detailed study of the theoretical principles and of the necessary process for disseminating them from being made. All this has, in the past, meant a continual loss of the content of free market ideology which, in many cases, has become totally blurred and diluted with other programs, interests and ideologies.

Fortunately, at the present time, circumstances have changed and libertarian theorists are again on the offensive, studying the purest theoretical principles and disseminating their contents and implications among the population. This explains the great revival and renewed impetus of the market economy and libertarianism all over the world.

 

 

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(8) It is exciting to read how the most conspicuous former socialist theorists, such as Robert L. Heilbroner, acknowledge the failure of socialism and the triumph of the theories of the Austrian School, concluding that “Mises was right … socialism has been the great tragedy of this century”. Robert L. Heilbroner, “Analysis and Vision in the History of Modern Economic Thought”, Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 28, September 1990, pp. 1097 and 1010-1011. See also his articles published in The New Yorker, “The Triumph of Capitalism”, January 23, 1989, and “Reflections after Communism”, September 10, 1990, pp. 91-100.

(9) F.A. Hayek, “On Being an Economist”, Chapter Two of The Trend of Economic Thinking: Essays on Political Economists and Economic History, Vol. III of The Collected Works of F.A. Hayek, W.W. Bartley III and Stephen Kresge (eds.), Routledge, London 1991, pp. 45-46.

(10) Very recently, one of the distinguished members of the Mont Pèlerin Society regretted that “it is frustrating when our Chicago allies employ their manifest talents in helping the state to do more efficiently that which it either shouldn’t be doing or of which it should be doing much less”. Edward H. Crane, “A Property Rights Approach to Social Security and Immigration Reform”, comment on Gary S. Becker’s paper “An Open Door for Immigrants”, presented at the Mont Pèlerin Society Regional Meeting, Cancun, Mexico, January 1996, manuscript pending publication, p. 6.

(11) William H. Hutt, Politically Impossible … ?, The Institute of Economic Affairs, London 1971. I have tried to apply the principles of this dual strategy in the specific field of the analysis of the crisis and reform of the social security in my article “The Crisis and Reform of Social Security: An Economic Analysis from the Austrian Perspective”, Journal des Économistes et des Études Humaines, Vol. V. , No. 1, Paris and Aix-en-Provence, March 1994, pp. 127-155.