Rothbard on Power to the Neighborhoods 6

Another Rothbard classic.

My long term goal is to have ATS and ATS-allied groups operating in cities, towns, counties, and regions all over the USA, and working in tandem to advance ideas like this in their own local areas. The rest of my work is simply about developing an intellectual counter-elite and theoretical foundation for these ideas, developing a workable strategy, cultivating constituents for such a project and developing viable activist endeavors towards such an end.

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This article first appeared in the May 15, 1969, issue of The Libertarian Forum.

Norman Mailer’s surprise entry into the Democratic primary for Mayor of New York City, to be held on June 17, provides the most refreshing libertarian political campaign in decades. Mailer has taken everyone by surprise by his platform as well as his sudden entry into the political ranks. The Mailer platform stems from one brilliantly penetrating overriding plank: the absolute decentralization of the swollen New York City bureaucracy into dozens of constituent neighborhood villages. This is the logic of the recent proposals for “decentralization” and “community control” brought to its consistent and ultimate conclusion: the turmoil and plight of our overblown and shattered urban government structures, most especially New York, are to be solved by smashing the urban governmental apparatus, and fragmenting it into a myriad of constituent fragments. Each neighborhood will then be running its own affairs, on all matters, taxation, education, police, welfare, etc. Do conservative whites object to compulsory bussing of black kids into their neighborhood schools? Well, says Mailer, with each neighborhood in absolute control of its own schools this problem could not arise. Do the blacks object to white dictation over the education of black children? This problem too would be solved if Harlem were wholly independent, running its own affairs. In the Mailer plan, black and white could at long last live peacefully side-by-side, with each group and each self-constituted neighborhood running its own affairs.

Mailer and his running mate for City Council President, the writer Jimmy Breslin, realize full well that this striking new idea cuts totally across old-fashioned “left”-“right” lines, that it could logically have an appeal to both groups, or rather to those in both groups that are truly attracted by an essentially libertarian vision. Those who want compulsory integration or those who want the blacks to continue under white rule will not be satisfied with this vision; but those who yearn for liberty, who want whites and blacks to treat each other as independent equals rather than as rulers of one over the other, should flock to the Mailer standard.

Mailer’s other positions flow from his basic libertarian insight. He is opposed to compulsory fluoridation of the water supply, and he favors the freeing of Huey Newton – both libertarian positions in the freeing of the individual and the community from the boot of the State. One of Mailer’s key proposals is that New York City secede from New York State and form a separate 51st State: a position not only consistent with breaking up large governmental bodies but also with the crucial libertarian principle of secession. Secession is a crucial part of the libertarian philosophy: that every state be allowed to secede from the nation, every sub-state from the state, every neighborhood from the city, and, logically, every individual or group from the neighborhood. Mailer’s vision actively promotes this position. He is the first political campaigner since the Civil War to raise the banner of secession, a mighty call which unfortunately became discredited in the eyes of Americans because (a) the South lost the Civil War, and (b) because it was associated in their minds with slavery.

Another superb part of Mailer’s libertarian vision is his reply about where the New York City government would raise funds; he points out that citizens of New York City pay approximately $22 billion in income taxes to the federal government, and that New Yorkers only receive back about $6 billion from federal coffers. Hence, if New Yorkers kept that $22 billion in their own hands… That way lies secession indeed!

While Mailer’s all-out decentralization should appeal to left and right alike, in actual fact so far the great bulk of his support is coming from the kids of the New Left. On the West Side of Manhattan, there is in the New Left-oriented Community Free Democratic club at least a strong bloc of ardent Mailer-Breslin adherents. As far as I know, there is nothing like this support on the Right-wing. Again I put the question to Mrs. Conservative: how come? You’ve been griping, and properly so, about swollen governmental bureaucracy for thirty years. For all that time you’ve been calling for decentralization, for fragmenting the government. Now, at long last, a candidate comes along that takes this position (Mailer calls himself a “left conservative,” by the way). Why aren’t you supporting him?

And so The Libertarian Forum makes its first political endorsement: Mailer for Mayor of New York City and Breslin for President of the City Council. But this of course runs us squarely into the very widespread sentiment among libertarians against any support, vote or endorsement whatever for any political candidate. The contention is that any such support constitutes support of, and joining in with, the State apparatus and is therefore immoral for the libertarian.

While I respect this position, I consider it unduly sectarian.

The point is that whether we vote or endorse or not, the offices of President, Senator, Mayor or whatever will not become vacant; some one will continue to fill these offices during the coming years. Since there is no way for us to opt for keeping these offices vacant, since we will be stuck with someone in these positions come what may, why shouldn’t we at least express a hope that someone rather than someone else will fill such positions? If we know that either X or Y will fill a given political post, why can’t we express our hope that X will win, or, more likely, that Y will lose? Since we are not yet able to reach that blessed state when both can lose, why not do the best we can with the material at hand for the time being? Or, to put it another way, the State apparatus allows us our biennial or quadrennial electoral choice. It is, to be sure, a piddling choice, a marginal choice, a choice which means little and which of and by itself cannot radically change the existing system. But it is at least something, it is at least some kind of a choice that we are allowed between different groups of would-be masters, and often such a choice may be important – as in the Mailer ideas and candidacy for this year. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of the choices, however piddling, that our State rulers permit us to exercise?

I take as my text Lysander Spooner, one of the great Founding Fathers of individualist anarchism. Spooner wrote:

“in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent [to the U. S. government]…. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having even been asked a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments…. Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot, would use it, if they could see any chance of thereby ameliorating their condition. But it would not, therefore, be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or even consented to.”

~ Spooner, No Treason: Larkspur, Colorado, 1966, p. 13

There is another important reason for not necessarily scorning the endorsement of political parties or candidates. And that is the seeming fact that it is almost impossible to organize ordinary middle-class citizens into action except through political parties. Blacks are organized in the ghettoes, students on campuses, workers – for good or ill – in labor unions, but where are the permanent issue-oriented organizations that successfully attract the great bulk of the country in the middle-class? It seems that the middle-class is only organizationally attracted by political parties, party clubs, etc. If this is so, then political parties become a necessary instrument of the libertarian movement, because if we are to achieve victory we must eventually obtain at the very least the passive support, and hopefully a more active support, of the majority of the middle-class of the country. No organizing among the middle-class has been done by the New Left, although there have been perennial futile attempts to organize the industrial workers by the Marxist elements. The issues, I am convinced, are there: high taxes, inflation, inter-racial clashes arising from failure to achieve community control, a losing or stalemated war, all this can be brought home to the majority of the population. The rhetoric, of course, will have to differ from the rhetoric that appeals to students; but the underlying ideas and philosophy can be the same: individual liberty. But it seems clear the organizational form for organizing the middle class will have to be a political party or something very much like it.

Libertarian sectarians should ask themselves seriously: do we want victory? If we really want victory for liberty, then we must employ the means necessary for its attainment, and it looks as if political action will be one – though by no means all – of those necessary means. And so Mailer for Mayor.

Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was the author of Man, Economy, and State, Conceived in Liberty, What Has Government Done to Our Money, For a New Liberty, The Case Against the Fed, and many other books and articles. He was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report.

Copyright © 2005 Ludwig von Mises Institute
All rights reserved.

6 comments

  1. This sounds like something that needs more development and fleshing out. It would be hard to win over those neighborhoods that already enjoy a lot of city resources and attention (the good kind.) A culturally relevant approach is necessary; much like what I envision with decentralized clans/tribal nations is culturally relevant to American Indians.

    I’ve started to talk to a lot of people in Portland, OR about zoning, permitting, etc. and personally know a number of people who are being harassed at the city level for trivial permitting and zoning issues. I’m trying to figure out my best outlet for any writing I do on such matters; ATS/TDA won’t give me the local attention that’s needed. I’ll likely start submitting editorials/opinion pieces to the neighborhood papers.

    A dedicated site exposing and highlighting these sorts of stories might be a good avenue. For instance; my midwife’s husband is facing a $10,000 permit fee to apply for rezoning of his cafe to commercial (which they could reject.) Until then he’s facing a $600/day fine after 30 days. A site that gathers and runs these sort of stories nationwide would reach a lot of people who would otherwise not read an anarchist site like ATS or TDA. It could also run stories on street and neighborhood level problem solving, networking, etc. I could also see it covering and cross posting TDA style counter economic activity at the local level and decentralized manufacturing as those start to develop.

    Our army needs more volunteers.

  2. Here’s my strategy.

    The background: I live in a small town (30,000) in rural England. The town has a long history of fairly radical politics, and this is England so we’re talking about (in no particular order) being on the Parliament team in the Civil War, fighting the state for free town status in the Medieval Period (when it also joined the proto secessionist Hanseatic League), playing a fairly prominent role in the establishment of dissident religious colonies in some place called America, being a centre of protestant radicalism for about 300 years and being deeply involved in a long running luddite campaign against the draining of the local marshes. The most recent expression of these long standing radical tendencies was the election a locally based independent group to run its town council in 2007.

    Decentralisation on the ground becomes localism. I am working on writing a “manifesto for localisation”, this will include political decentralisation (converting elected reps into delegates for crude direct democracies) along with economic localisation initiatives such as establishing a limited public company aimed at buying local social infrastructure such as pubs and a “People’s Supermarket” (stocking agricultural produce from the local farms as well as locally made craft goods). Additionally support for the local Credit Union and Building Society along with a long term ambition to establish a local currency to complement above, etc.

    The plan is then to build an alliance of local none establishment groups, of which there at several, (defectors would be more than welcome thought) behind the localist manifesto. I am fairly confident that I can get enough support to implement some of the projects if not on a massive scale then sufficiently to get attention for the program as a whole. As a bonus I expect that these initiatives will become fairly well known in a national context which will both get the town some much needed positive press and radical decentralisation in the process.

    If this alliance could take control of the town council in the future then it would have the authority to implement serious meaningful decentralisation. (I would personally love to see the council demand its rights under it charter signed by Henry VIII for a start).

    OK it’s not Fort Sumter but it’s a realistic workable strategy which should reframe local politics into a Decentralist/localist Vs centralist/establishment confrontation. Being one of two options is a damn good start. Moreover if I can pull it off it will place decentralisation at the forefront of dissident’s minds when they consider strategies for contesting the establishment, not just locally but nationally.

    I believe that once a community starts down the path of decentralisation it can’t be satisfied until it has achieved complete sovereignty. The trick is therefore not to persuade Cascadia to secede in one hit, but to persuade Astoria that it could rule itself better than Washington DC (or Salem). Once it has established this to be true the rest in inevitable. Moreover one person in Astoria can influence events more easily in Astoria than in Oregon.

    The most difficult aspect of the project is to build this localist faction out of people who tend to either align themselves with ideologies or national movements and very much see each other as bigger enemies than the establishment itself.

    What would be useful is if groups were formed on the net to support these kind of initiatives. There is no reason why a website promoting localism in a specific locality of, say, Nevada could not be written by activists in Austria, Mexico and Korea. Better yet would be a think tank which produced the localist manifesto activists need to carry this kind of project out.

  3. “The trick is therefore not to persuade Cascadia to secede in one hit, but to persuade Astoria that it could rule itself better than Washington DC (or Salem). Once it has established this to be true the rest in inevitable. Moreover one person in Astoria can influence events more easily in Astoria than in Oregon.”

    Totally! Among my people I’m starting at the extended family level (our clans) by encouraging the rebirth of common clan property and the implementation of a shadow justice system. Both already exist to a very limited extent. Eventually, I’d like to see key clan leaders overseeing the fulfillment of contracts and the settling of disputes at the extended family and village level. This is in stark contrast to constructing a region wide justice system from the ground up.

    “The most difficult aspect of the project is to build this localist faction out of people who tend to either align themselves with ideologies or national movements and very much see each other as bigger enemies than the establishment itself.”

    That’s where the culturally relevant approach that you and I are exploring for our respective communities comes in. In this regard, I see much of America’s middle class (or middle class aspiring to be upper middle class) as hopeless. Their culture is defined by late night TV, suburbs, middle class consumerism, and national level politics if anything. Of course, maybe I just don’t know the culturally relevant approach for these folks.

  4. “Totally! Among my people I’m starting at the extended family level (our clans) by encouraging the rebirth of common clan property and the implementation of a shadow justice system. Both already exist to a very limited extent. Eventually, I’d like to see key clan leaders overseeing the fulfillment of contracts and the settling of disputes at the extended family and village level. This is in stark contrast to constructing a region wide justice system from the ground up.”

    I think that is exactly the way to go. It’s time that radical decentralisation moved from the theoretical to something concrete. Even if these initiatives are largely symbolic they provide a working model to point to, which allows people who struggle to envision abstract idea (90% of the population) to grasp the principals involved. Much like architects build scale models.

    “That’s where the culturally relevant approach that you and I are exploring for our respective communities comes in. In this regard, I see much of America’s middle class (or middle class aspiring to be upper middle class) as hopeless. Their culture is defined by late night TV, suburbs, middle class consumerism, and national level politics if anything. Of course, maybe I just don’t know the culturally relevant approach for these folks.”

    I think your right in that we do have a problem with people who see themselves a “winners” of the system. However we have two things going for us with regard to these people. One is that they are unlikely to consider themselves “winners” for too much longer (or many of them at least). Two we can offer something better than your pick from the Sears catalog. Ultimately we, or any other intellectual or political movement aren’t going to get the majority of these people to rise up for anything, however just as they are apathetic to the current system, they will most likely be apathetic to any incoming system. They, 80% of the population, are spectators incapable of taking part in the game. It’s always been like this.

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