Libertarians often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issue of achieving their end goals. With almost every issue that arises in the liberty community, you are sure to come across those who support slow and gradual change as well as those who push for the immediate end of the state. Who is right?
An effective way of judging the success of ‘Gradualism’ is to look at when it is used to further agendas other than those held by libertarians. For example, one can look at the success of the left over the last century or so and see what ‘Gradualism’ has achieved them: Marxism permeates nearly every aspect of society, especially those aspects which libertarians have seen deteriorate (gun rights, private property rights, etc.) The ideas of state-socialism and the like have been taught in high schools as well as colleges and universities for multiple generations; as a result, people across the country (and the world) hold statist policies in high-esteem.
Also, given the current political framework, it is important to take note of how laws and court precedent have gradually changed over time, and almost never abruptly. When working within a static system, gradualism is usually the only recourse possible.
Yet, there are many examples in which sudden (and sometimes even violent) changes in the social and political structures of a society have been successful. The most familiar example of such change is the American Revolution in which the colonies of what is now the United States freed themselves from the rule of Great Britain. Although the seeds of secession were sown many years prior to the Revolution, only was freedom achieved when the colonists were finally willing to use swift action against their oppressors to achieve their goals.
Gradualism only works when it is warranted and when it can be assured that the main goal can be reached after a compromise or ‘gradual’ step. For example, in the recent debates about ‘marriage equality,’ libertarians found themselves split on whether they should advocate equal marriage licensing or abolishing marriage licensing all-together. Libertarians generally agreed that the end goal was ending licensing, but many disagreed on how that goal should be achieved. The proper course of action should have been to end marriage licensing, rather than ensure equal marriage licensing. Why? Well, if equal marriage licensing is instituted, it is likely that it will stay that way, with marriage licensing never being abolished. Those not as sympathetic to liberty as libertarians will be much less willing to work on ending licensing if their end goal is already achieved. For libertarians, the short-term compromise would not serve the purpose of extending the path to the final goal.
However, there are instances in which ‘gradualism’ could be quite effective. One of the most beneficial forms of gradualism in which libertarians are currently succeeding in is the cultivation of libertarian ideals. From quasi-libertarian institutions such as the Republican Liberty Caucus and Cato to more ingrained think tanks such as the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, libertarians are enjoying great achievements and success, with libertarian ideals and values on the rise.
Libertarians should employ gradualism only when it serves as a stepping stone to an assured goal; otherwise, they may fall into the trap of rigidity, in which compromises may prove to be binding. Moving in the same direction, whether it be quickly or slowly, is almost always a good thing, so long as the end goal is always in sight.