In any political or social philosophy, there are those who believe they can achieve their goals all at once or in a series of large jumps, and those who believe broad-based change should be (or is most rationally) achieved through incremental change. Incremental change is the more pragmatic and beneficial method, and more likely to achieve long term success. Incrementalism is also more compatible with a voluntary society. Revolutionary change inevitably requires intrusive central planning, compulsory work systems, or violence to bring everyone immediately in line with its goals.
Most goals are achieved through incremental action–one step building on another. If you wanted to build a house, you can’t simply blink it into existence complete and all at once. Yes, you need a vision for how it will look, but you also need a blueprint and a plan of action. You need to raise funds, hire carpenters, plumbers, and electricians, and purchase raw materials. A frame needs to be erected, foundations poured, etc. Each step in the process is an incremental change toward your end goal.
Fundamentally changing society or government is a much more complicated process than building a house. It’s easy to forget there are many competing factions with their own ideas for how to govern. Some are large, some small, some with vast resources, and some that wield considerable political or social clout. None of them are going to just step aside and allow you to remake the country into something that fundamentally conflicts with their own vision and goals.
As an idealist, Murray Rothbard often fell into this trap. In his article “The Case for Radical Idealism,” Rothbard criticized what he called “gradualism,” or the strategy of “concentrating solely on a gradual whittling away of State power,” as opposed to the radical and instant abolition of the State. By confining themselves to gradual and practical programs that stand a good chance of immediate adoption, he argued, the gradualists “are in grave danger of completely losing sight of the ultimate objective.”
As an example, he described a case in which a libertarian politician became lost in opportunism and abandoned his principles for practical reforms. Instead, Rothbard claimed libertarians needed to be more like socialists, who have “pulled” mainstream America in their direction by maintaining a consistent and radical position.
There are two problems with these arguments: 1) Rothbard’s example of the politician who abandoned his principles is entirely anecdotal. There is no reason that a different politician (or any other individual) could not hold an overall goal in mind and still not work gradually, step by step, toward that goal. 2) Rothbard’s characterization of the march of socialism in America is not accurate.
Committed socialists and communists who pushed for revolutionary change in the United States (the diehard, “true believers”) have not advanced their agenda at all. Every time this country has adopted elements of the socialist program, it was at the behest of one of the two major parties, who adopted socialist ideas to win votes and diminish the popularity of competitors. The success of socialism in the United States, such as it is, is an argument for incrementalism, not against it.
Rothbard gave two examples of spokesmen for direct, radical change: Leonard E. Read and William Lloyd Garrison. Leonard E. Read, economist and the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education, advocated for the immediate and total abolition of price and wage controls after World War II. William Lloyd Garrison advocated for the immediate abolition of slavery in the United States during the 1830s.
Read’s rhetorical grandstanding did nothing to abolish price and wage controls, however, and although slavery was eventually abolished through radical means, it was at the expense of more than 600,000 lives. Even though a more incremental approach would have prolonged the injustice of slavery, it is arguable it would have achieved the same result in the long run while avoiding all that destruction and bloodshed.
“To really pursue the goal of liberty, the libertarian must desire it attained by the most effective and speediest means available,” Rothbard argued, but Rothbard never bothered to elaborate on those means. What about the millions of people who depend on and support the State? How could the State be immediately abolished without a violent backlash? Newton’s third law of motion is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that is just as true when applied to political or social change.
To preserve the new status quo, revolutionaries must prevent a strong reaction in the opposite direction. That is why sudden, revolutionary change is almost always accompanied by prison camps, compulsory labor, or mass murder. Incremental change, on the other hand, is a gradual, peaceful change that mitigates the effects of Newton’s law. Incrementalism is not only more rational, but it is more compatible with the philosophy of liberty.