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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/4888/gradualism-or-abolitionism/

Gradualism or abolitionism?

April 8, 2006 by

I saw this article by Albert Esplugas some time ago and decided it should be translated to English, so here it is.

Gradualism or abolitionism?

Do we dismantle the interventionist State step by step or at once? How quickly shall the path to liberty be traveled? It is obvious that a libertarian answer cannot be in contradiction with its own principles. It’s not possible, in the defense of freedom, to support a tax increase or the strengthening of the war on drugs. But it is not only necessary to change course to be in line with natural rights. One must also pay attention to the intensity with which those objectives are pursued.

If libertarianism, for example, holds that slavery is unjust, then it cannot even theoretically propose that it be eliminated gradually, for this would mean that as long as it is in the process of being eliminated, it is not unjust and condemnable. Thus, just as measures that go against individual rights are in conflict with an ethics of liberty, so are in conflict measures that prolong the infringement of those rights. In that sense, libertarians must be, philosophically, abolitionists: if slavery is unjust, then it must be immediately abolished and in its entirety. It is a completely different issue whether such a thing is going to happen. In the words of Lloyd Garrison, “we’ve never said that slavery would be abolished at once; we have just said that it should be abolished.” There is no place for theoretical compromises that do not compromise the integrity of the theory itself. Ideally, it is not inconceivable for full liberty become a reality, for, as Rothbard mentioned, injustices are comprised by the actions of some men against others and the existence of injustices depends on their free will. If sudenly everyone becomes convinced that liberty is the most precious good, then aggression would instantly cease to exist. It is not reasonable to think that it is going to happen, even if it’s possible. Therefore, if the abolitionist is hindered from achieving his goal, must he renounce to every partial advance? Must he oppose practical gradualism?

To what the abolitionist must be against is theoretical gradualism, not practical gradualism. Where it is not possible to take giant leaps it is not condemnable but preferable to take small ones. In a context where it is not feasible to end slavery, the abolitionist must not do anything other than demand that the greatest numbers of slaves be freed even if that means saving only a few. He does not advocate the continuation of slavery, for if it were his bidding, he would end it. He has not surrendered at all for he has not been able to achieve that which is simply out of his power.

Two requirements, mentions Rothbard, must be kept in mind when proceeding gradually. The first is to not lose sight of the final objective which is full liberty and knowing that progress is being made slowly only because it cannot be pushed further. The second is to never retreat nor to make sideways motions to reach one goal at the expense of another, nor to use means that are in conflict with that which is desired.

Theoretical gradualism, warned Lloyd Garrison, is perpetuity in practice. That is why in the defense of liberty one must be an abolitionist in theory and if necessary a gradualist in practice. This is all about, after all, being as much of an abolitionist in practice as reality allows, by taking small steps towards the right direction where bigger ones cannot be taken, and always with the eyes on the horizon.


anarkhos April 8, 2006 at 10:29 pm

‘Gradualism’ will only make the special interests riot.

If history is any guide, the answer is ‘neither’. The state will go bankrupt and the question is not how to bring that about, but how to prepare for it so we don’t make the same mistakes.

P.M.Lawrence April 9, 2006 at 12:48 am

All gradualism requires, theoretically, is the recognition that a lot of different things are going on at once and that an abrupt change might very well make things worse in other respects. And Garrison plain didn’t know what he was talking about; gradualism was successfully carried through in both Brazil and the British West Indies, avoiding the mess and human pain that places like the USA got. In fact, the British process even caused a slave rebellien against emancipation, for fear of the associated pain although later on there was pressure to speed up the process.

Paul Edwards April 9, 2006 at 1:00 am

“Two requirements, mentions Rothbard, must be kept in mind when proceeding gradually. The first is to not lose sight of the final objective which is full liberty and knowing that progress is being made slowly only because it cannot be pushed further. The second is to never retreat nor to make sideways motions to reach one goal at the expense of another, nor to use means that are in conflict with that which is desired.”


David J. Heinrich April 9, 2006 at 11:32 am

Mr. Lawrence,

I’d argue that you’re the one who doesn’t know what’s going on. If something is immoral, you cannot say, we should gradually elimiante it. You must say we should abolish it immediately.

Your argument boils down to mere consequentialism — morally worthless. So what? Consequentialism is not a moral argument, and utilitarianism (as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere ont his blog) is worthless, meaningless, and indefensible rubbish.

David C April 9, 2006 at 12:30 pm

Mr. Lawrence,

I am not familiar with the examples that you pointed out, but I am familiar with a lot of others. The instant elimination of slavery at the end of the civil war didn’t cause the plantation economy to fall apart for another 80 years. The instant elimination of prohibition, caused the mob to immediately stop violence, not start it. The instant elimination of price controlls after WW2 caused an economic boom, not an economic shock. The instant implementation of the gold standard after the constitution was enacted caused an immedaite economic recovery, not economic chaos. In fact, it could be arguend that none of these would have gone well if done gradually. There are also other examples like the Soviet Union, where the US pumped in money to prop up the old system to keep stability – it didn’t help them. In cases where an instant transition would fail, there probably isn’t enough momentum to have a smooth transition anyhow.

If we killed the public scholl system tommorow (including it’s funding), maybe kids would be out of school a few months while they make the transition, so what? If we killed social security tommorow, maybe some old people will need to make difficult adjustments – so what, it is better that they do that in a healthy economy than when things get pushed over the economic cliff. Renember when Regan instantly killed the high taxes for the rich – I do.

The fall of Japaneese fudal system after ww2 was pretty instantantious. And what about in countrys where there is rape and genocide? Are you implying that they slowly taper down the rapes and killings so that society can have a “smooth transition”?? If a system is truely evil, then it really is better to kill it first and work out the details later.

Thomas J. Van Wyk April 10, 2006 at 12:31 am

It was Garrison, who once advocated gradual abolition of slavery, but later recanted, while begging for the forgiveness of God and of the slave, who said the following:

“Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.”


Keith Preston April 10, 2006 at 11:35 am

The question of strategy is one of the areas where the thinking of anti-state radicals is the least well-developed. Generally, I favor an approach that I call “anarcho-populism” with populism being the means and anarchism being the ends. I have a website where I and others explore this idea in detail.


Here’s a few of my articles on the question:


My approach is pretty eclectic. I borrow a lot from Bakunin, Tucker, Voltairine De Cleyre, Spanish anarchism and other classical anarchists along with Rothbard, Karl Hess, Kevin Carson, Larry Gambone, Hans Hoppe, national-anarchists like Troy Southgate and David Michael, various precedents from US history, the US militia movement of the 1990s, the Black Panthers, Machiavelli, Mao-tse tung, Martin Van Creveld and much else.

Curt Howland April 10, 2006 at 1:56 pm

It’s interesting how people with whom I can discuss this ask, “And replace it with what?”

It’s a simple matter of being so accustomed to having (program) around that they cannot imagine life without it.

Chattel slavery, for instance, was very expensive to maintain. What if you had been able to say, “Replace your 20 slaves and their families which you have to feed and house and guard, with 40 paid laborers for less money.”

Slavery in the Middle East was abolished by simply saying, “No more slaves. Period.” As their economy shifted to new methods, slaves were released because it was no longer seen as needed.

But these are engineering problems, not political. It’s easy to solve engineering problems because those can be viewed intellectually. Because politics is rooted in emotion, the potential “downside” is always viewed with fear and loathing.

Politics, as recently mentioned in the Mises.org “Free Market” newsletter, is a matter of pressure groups. Offend a pressure group and a politician will find themselves having to work for a living.

Angelo April 10, 2006 at 5:53 pm

Rothbard wrote very well on the subject. He also brought up the concern that a libertarian may be too absolutist, and in his opposition to gradualism he will not accept any steps towards justice short of total abolition of injustice. In which case, he is doomed to never making progress.

Mathieu Bedard April 11, 2006 at 3:29 am

Bastiat about gradualism;

“This is the story of a Champennois shepard. He tells his dog “My good friend, I am so sorry I have to cut your tail… But don’t worry, to save you some pain I’ll only cut off an inch a day!”

Richard Garner April 11, 2006 at 8:06 am

If we should not be gradualists in theory, or risk becoming apologists for state power, does this mean that we should not be the type of libertarians that oppose abolition of immigration controls until after the welfare state has been dismantled?

P.M.Lawrence April 11, 2006 at 11:09 pm

David C, the adverse consequences to instant emancipation didn’t come from harm to the plantation system. I was thinking particularly of the plight of a portion of the freed slaves, a plight which is literally unimaginable to people of our day and age who haven’t looked into what happened. Slavery had – and in some places still has – certain features that make it different from the parallels you draw with phasing out rape etc. I was making comments in relation to gradualism in emancipation, not general advice for all evils.

Mr. Heinrich, I have noticed that you often seem to criticise views you disagree with as consequentialism, without troubling to look any further into the matter. If anything, you are behaving as a consequentialist by ignoring the other, further, evils associated with instant emancipation.

I will clarify.

First of all, when I wrote that Garrison literally didn’t know what he was talking about, I was referring to “theoretical gradualism is perpetuity in practice”. Not only is this false, he should have known it was false from the British example in the West Indies.

Second, when you free slaves, not all of them are in the same situation. Many have already used up most of what freedom could have given them and become too old to take advantage of it. Many of these preferred not to be turned out to starve, if emancipation was to be provided in that way. Forty acres and a mule weren’t forthcoming.

This isn’t theoretical. I mentioned that the British faced a slave rebellion against emancipation because of this well founded fear, a fear that the British approach in fact avoided. But we see the predicament turning up for real in a number of situations. Convicts in French Guiana – as reported by missionaries – feared two things greatly: the plight of the doubles who had had their sentences administratively doubled, and that of the liberes who had been turned loose to fend for themselves at the end of their sentences. We also have the predicament of the indentured Indians who replaced the slaves in the British West Indies, when the indenture system was abolished overnight. They had had contracts that would have given them a grant of land or a lump sum to take back to India when their indentures ended. Instead, those half way through were turned out to fend for themselves; V.S.Naipaul has described their plight.

This issue was so well known that slave laws in many times and places forbade freeing slaves against their will, even under Islam. It’s astonishing until you look into it.

Now do you see the consequentialism implicit in advocating instant emancipation as practical policy? It takes it for granted that the suffering of the portion made worse off can be offset by the greater good of the greater number who still want freedom. It ignores those whose loss is nearly all sunk cost and at least want their declining years looked after. Of course, their wishes can’t be used as an argument against emancipation either – but it does show that gradualism, if practical, is better. And they knew even then that gradualism was practical.

If I had to recommend a policy to them with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been to combine freeing in the womb Brazilian style with giving slaves the right to buy themselves out – available practically everywhere outside the USA – and setting up charities to fund that by grants or better still loans. Just doing the latter would have provided an incentive to breed more slaves, of course. (That’s what’s wrong with today’s charitable efforts to buy out slaves in Africa.)

You will notice that I haven’t made a consequentialist argument anywhere, although there certainly are issues of lesser evil to consider in getting anything done at all. Brazilian vested interests made it hard to do anything more rapidly anyway, and in fact the regime suffered for its principled stand even with gradualist implementation (the vested interests weren’t on side to support the Emperor). And instant emancipation visibly wasn’t practical politics in the USA.

Furthermore, in many times and places the version of freedom on offer was even worse than slavery – many free or “black” Russian peasants found their freedom so uncomfortable that they “voluntarily” accepted serfdom, which is largely why the majority of free peasants under Ivan the Terrible had dropped to a minority by Catherine the Great’s time. For some people, some things can be even worse than slavery. The abstract ethical reference or comparison, of course, is freedom in a real sense, not a mockery with the name of freedom at the mercy of oppressors (compare the relatively comfortable situation of Central Asian slaves with oppressed Tadjik peasants in the tax base and subject to raids).

Manuel Lora April 11, 2006 at 11:13 pm

If I had to recommend a policy to them with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been to combine freeing in the womb Brazilian style with giving slaves the right to buy themselves out – available practically everywhere outside the USA – and setting up charities to fund that by grants or better still loans.

In other words, “If you can’t afford to buy yourself out or find charities to free you, you’re SOL.”?

Peter April 12, 2006 at 7:15 am

And why were these freed slaves “turned out to fend for themselves”? Were their former “owners” not still in need of having their crops harvested? Every freed slave is an immediate job opening! And if they “don’t want to be freed” they can continue to work for slave wages. Makes no sense.

P.M.Lawrence April 13, 2006 at 11:04 pm

I’ve given you the historical facts. Slaves did have a well founded fear of being turned out to perish if they became too old or ill; this was actually what happened to the slave in the English case that eventually led to the end of slavery within England.

Not every slave could be self supporting, would become a potential filler of a new vacancy – many of those who were most scared were those who were worked out and debilitated but kept on at the slave-owners’ expense rather than cause disturbance among the rest of the slaves. They could no more have justified their keep than the octogenarian sailors who could find no other berths than on coffin ships – and the old free workers that Garrison himself routinely fired.

What’s more, the disruption of mass and instant emancipation made it hard for even able bodied slaves to find work, since there wasn’t enough cash in circulation to provide the necessary working capital for so many all at once.

And, Manuel Lora, the reason I would have made that recommendation for that time and place was that there were philanthropists around. I was suggesting the creation of institutions to channel those misguided well meaning tendencies.

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