Why Libertarians Should Call Themselves Socialists

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There’s a tactic that has been very effective for activists in the past, and I’m wondering if it might be successfully employed by friends of liberty in America today. It’s the tactic of commandeering the label of one’s opponents. Mind you, at the moment, I’m not saying we ought to try it. I’m just introducing the idea for discussion.

Who Were the “Federalists,” Anyway?

For evidence that the tactic works, consider the sad fate of the federalists. I’m referring to the real federalists – not the persons you likely think of when you hear that label.

In textbooks, American revolutionary Richard Henry Lee is described as an “antifederalist.” That’s the label we’ve been taught to apply to those, such as Lee, who opposed the Constitution. Why, then, did Lee sign himself “A Federal Farmer” in the newspaper letters he wrote? While we call him antifederal, he apparently regarded himself as a man of “federal” leanings. Why is the label we use for him the exact opposite of the label he used for himself?

Here’s what happened. In the aftermath of America’s war for independence, a dispute arose. Those on one side – the side that included Lee – initially called themselves federalists, which made sense, since they wanted the United States to be a federation of 13 independent republics. Understandably, they regarded the other side’s members as “nationalists” or “consolidators,” since that side wanted the United States to be consolidated into one big nation. So the dispute began as a disagreement between the federalists (who wanted a federation) and the nationalists (who wanted a nation).

Then the nationalists pulled a fast one. They started calling themselves federalists.

How, asks Herbert J. Storing, did the Constitution’s “opponents come to be called Anti-Federalists? They usually denied, in fact, that the name was either apt or just, and seldom used it themselves. Some of them seemed to think that their proper name had been filched, while their backs were turned as it were, by the pro-Constitution party, which refused to give it back” (“What the Anti-Federalists Were For” [University of Chicago Press, 1981] 9).

“In a clever political ploy,” writes John K. Alexander, “supporters of the proposed Constitution of 1787, who were in fact nationalists, adopted the name ‘Federalist’ and hung the undesirable label ‘Antifederalist’ on their opponents. Despite the misleading nature of these terms, their use is [now] long-established” (“The Selling of the Constitutional Convention: A History of News Coverage” [Madison House, 1990] 39).

The immediate effect was confusion. Lee and the other original federalists were paralyzed. They didn’t know what to do. Some hesitated even to call themselves federalists, since it might be thought that they were advocating what their opponents were advocating. Some tried to reacquire the label and clarify the nomenclature, but managed only to make everything muddier. Here’s how one advocate of a “federal” system – i.e., an opponent of a “national” system – tried to straighten it all out in Boston’s American Herald, Dec. 10, 1787: “A FEDERALIST is a Friend to a Federal Government – an ANTI-FEDERALIST is an Enemy to a Confederation. There-

What are the current socialists going to do? Accuse us of “stealing” their name? Like it’s their “private property” or something?


fore, the FRIENDS to the New Plan of CONSOLIDATION are Anti-Federal, and its Opposers are firm Federal Patriots.” Got that?

To make matters worse, as Storing and Alexander point out, those nationalists who were now calling themselves “federalists” were labeling anyone who disagreed with them an “antifederalist.” Thoroughly confused, the general public no longer had the foggiest idea what the people currently calling themselves “federalists” were for, but at least they seemed to be for something and, therefore, seemed worthy of support. Their opponents, it appeared, were a bunch of nihilists with nothing constructive to offer, since they were just”antifederalists.”

“The attachment to them [the original federalists] of a word which denotes the reverse of their true beliefs, and which moreover implies that they were mere obstructionists, without any positive plan to offer … was a nice piece of misdirection,” observes Jackson Turner Main (“The Antifederalists” [Norton, 1961] viii). “The Antifederalists,” he writes, “indignantly rejected the name, insisting that the proponents of the Constitution really deserved the appellation, and they tried to recover for themselves the more accurate designation of ‘Federalists'” (ix). But it was hopeless. There was simply no way to stop the nationalists from calling themselves federalists, if they wished, nor any way to stop them from calling their opponents anti-federalists.

Modern-day disputants seem very aware of the public-relations danger of being labeled”anti”-something. Both sides of the abortion issue, for instance, take great pains to be known as pro-something, be it “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” But back in the 18th century the bewildering experience of suddenly finding themselves labeled “antifederalist” caught the original federalists utterly unprepared and rendered them rhetorically helpless. The nationalists prevailed – and since the winners write the history books, we nowadays illogically call the nationalists “federalists” and the real federalists “antifederalists.”

Who Is a “Liberal”?

Fast-forward to the late 19th century. At this time, we find the advocates of individual liberty calling themselves liberals. Alas, by the mid-20th century, their opponents – the advo- cates of extensive government interference in people’s lives – had commandeered the label.

Freedom’s friends have made a desperate attempt to retain the appellation “liberal.” Some – among them, Liberty’s own Stephen Cox – have tried using the prefix”classical,” as if that would make it clear to the public that they weren’t advocating what others-likewise calling themselves liberals were advocating. This defense has been as sad and ineffective as any attempt by the original federalists to retain their label by calling themselves”classical federalists.”

Just as confusion arose when both the opponents and the proponents of nationalism called themselves “federalists,” it has now become anybody’s guess what hodgepodge of ideas any people calling themselves “liberals” are for.

But, clearly, “liberals” must be bold, innovative individuals, willing to entertain new ideas. After all, their opponents are called “conservatives,” suggesting that they are timid, overly cautious sorts, comparable to the “conservative investor” who puts his or her savings into bonds guaranteed by the government rather than risking it by starting up a business. The pathetic label “conservative” has been nearly as devastating as “antifederalist” was.

Meet the New “Socialists”

In view of what happened to the original federalists and the original liberals, I have no doubt that thoroughgoing statists in due course – probably within my lifetime – will be widely calling themselves libertarians. Clinton, you may recall, decreed that the era of big government was over, thus taking a few baby steps toward wrapping himself in something of a “libertarian” cloak. How long before he actually starts using the very label?

But maybe – just maybe – we can beat the statists to the punch. Perhaps this time we can tum the tables on them, give them a taste of their own medicine, show them that two can play the same game.

In conversations with friends and letters to the editor I’m going to go right on advocating the elimination of taxes and regulations, but I may just call what I’m advocating socialism. Let the prior”socialists” squirm. Let them holler that what I’m advocating isn’t “real” socialism. Let them try frantically to cling to their label by calling themselves”classical socialists.”

When a capitalist calls himself a socialist, several benefits can accrue. For one thing, people who might not have been willing to listen to him when he was calling himself a capitalist might now give him a hearing. A few of them might just find that he makes a lot of sense. Moreover, despite the abysmal failure of socialism around the globe, many people still get warm and pleasant feelings when they hear the label. A capitalist who adopts the label can capture that warmth while advocating ideas that are actually reasonable.

A third potential benefit of this nomenclature is that it allows the enemies of freedom to save face while capitulating – and this makes it more likely that they will in fact capitulate.

There is a growing entrepreneurial class in China, and these entrepreneurs are helping their nation gradually become more capitalistic. They are foxy – like the 18th-century American nationalists who called themselves federalists and the 20th-century American statists who called themselves liberals. These entrepreneurs are promoting capitalism, but they wisely aren’t calling it that. If they did, the authorities would

Despite the abysmal failure of socialism around the globe, many people still get warm and pleasant feelings when they hear the label.


crackdown. But by using such bizarre labels as “market socialism,” they can get the authorities to look the other way, to capitulate, while pretending to themselves that no “betrayal of socialism” is occurring on their watch.

According to a recent article in Barron’s (July 31, 2006, p. 23), “China saved communism by embracing capitalism.” That, of course, is absurd. One doesn’t and one can’t save tyranny by embracing freedom. In the same article, we are told that the output of state-owned companies in China “now accounts for about 30% of GDP versus 70% 10 years ago,” and that in China today one can find “factories, real estate and other assets owned by companies based in Japan, Korea, Tai- wan, the U.S. and other lands.” Does that sound like “saving communism”? China isn’t saving communism by embracing capitalism. What’s happening is that China’s entrepreneurs are steering the country toward capitalism by embracing the label of capitalism’s opponents – advocating capitalism while calling it communism.

I’ll gladly abandon my label and adopt my opponent’s, if it encourages him to abandon his ideas and adopt mine. I’d rather reside in a capitalist country that calls itself socialist, than reside in a socialist country that calls itself capitalist. Or to put it another way:

I’d rather be a freeman who is erroneously called a slave, than be a slave who is erroneously labeled a freeman.

Over the years, freedom’s friends have tried an extensive array of handles, including libertarian, individualist, capitalist, laissez-faire capitalist, liberal, classical liberal, anarcho-capitalist, and voluntaryist. It doesn’t seem to me that we’ve made much progress with any of these. Maybe it’s time to try something completely different – something that at first glance seems off the wall. Maybe it’s time to pick a label our opponents would never expect us to select. Theirs.

Hey, it’s a free country, right? A freedom-lover ought to be free to call himself whatever the hell he pleases. What are the current socialists going to do? Accuse us of “stealing” their name? Like it’s their “private property” or something?

By swiping the label”federalist,” the nationalists got what they wanted: the United States became one big nation with a heavy-handed central government. By swiping the label”liberal,” the advocates of more taxes and more regulations got what they wanted. Commandeering the label of one’s opponents seems to work.

So what do you think? Shall we give it a try? Might the quickest, most efficient way to turn America into a freer society be for freedom’s advocates to adopt the label of their opponents? If the tactic succeeds, perhaps it won’t be long before a few dictionaries actually define socialism as “a form of society in which people are encouraged to be sociable by interacting consensually.”

Fighting “socialism” is for folks who’ve learned nothing from history. It’s wiser simply to advocate a sounder version of “socialism.” Just ask the original federalists and the original liberals.

The last time an essay of mine appeared in Liberty, the publisher sent me several copies of that issue of the magazine. I gave those copies to my friends. This time, I think I’ll take my contributor’s copies to the University of Wisconsin campus and hand them out to students. “Here, give this a read! It’s the very best socialist magazine you’ll ever come across!”

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