Incrementalism vs. Revolution

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.”