The Pragmatic Benefits of ‘Radicalism’

Ron Paul libertarians are typically labeled “radicals.”  I don’t like this word because it carries a pejorative (rather than merely descriptive) connotation and thus is often used to glibly dismiss the views of people without bothering to thoughtfully engage them.

Radicals are often dismissed as impractical people who uncritically hew to abstract principles no matter the real-world consequences.  But this criticism misses the broad social impact of radicalism.

By virtue of their existence, radicals help frame debates. Social science has shown that if a “radical” position (minarchist Ron Paul libertarianism, let’s say) is perceived to have a politically significant following, then the “mainstream” (or “median”) in some respects moves to accommodate their views.  By developing a politically significant (if still “radical”) following, libertarians won’t be able to compel them to legalize all drugs, but they’ll make a difference in legalize marijuana; they won’t abolish the Military Industrial Complex, but they’ll cause the nation to consider more severe military budget cuts than it otherwise would have. They may not (yet?) be able to abolish the Federal Reserve, but they’ll compel Congress to seriously consider a thorough audit of it. These are the pragmatic, real world consequences of radicalism.

One of the more persuasive criticisms of radicals is that they dogmatically adhere to abstract, a priori principles, and that this prevents them from engaging the real world. Yet there are two sides to this coin. For mainstreamers, by being so entangled in often trivial battles of “real world” politics, can lose sight of the moral principles that supposedly inspire his or her activism.

A particularly embarrassing illustration of this came recently when, with some heroic exceptions, prominent progressives acquiesced to (in my view) unarguably the most radical power claimed by a President in decades: the right to kill an American citizen without a trial.  On the other hand, the “radical” libertarians, inspired by Rand Paul, were quick to condemn Obama’s “warrantless execution” program in unflinching terms.   

Rather than obsessing over his personal motives (OMG, a politician who wants to use an issue he clearly cares about to promote his …. political prospects!), liberals and progressives should take a moment to thank Rand Paul and his followers for reminding them of their principles. We also should use the occasion to extend the perspective of these “radicals” a platform in a national debate that they are all too often shut out from.  

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