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Gradualism or abolitionism?

April 8, 2006

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.

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