The Pitfalls of Pure Policy Reform and the Abolitionist Outlook
This talk was originally given on February 27th at the International Students For Liberty Conference in Washington, D.C.

I would like to emphasize that abolitionism is not a strategy that proposes an all-or-nothing stance or one that refuses cooperation and coalitions with non-abolitionists. It’s a particular theoretical framework for viewing social change and I think it can help libertarians and anarchists be better strategists.

That said, there are, in my mind, three major, practical, worries that abolitionists must be vigilant about regarding pure policy approaches:

1. The Incentive Problem: People in the marketplace like money, but a relatively unnoticed fact is that people in the political apparatus also like money. In fact, the people in the political process are a lot like people in the marketplace: self-interested. When politicians follow the money, the state tends to concentrate benefits for small coalitions that are able to utilize the state apparatus for their own material gain, and disperse the costs of those policies to large groups of unorganized people who are usually rationally ignorant of the facts of the matter. That is, there is simply no incentive for the average person to educate themselves on policy debates because they don’t have the reins of power. If learning about policy serves no practical use for you, and instead it just makes you aware of these previously unnoticed costs, then it might be rational to simply stay out of it, and do what you enjoy.

Consider the effects of a government subsidy to pizzerias. The pizzeria owners have an enormous incentive to not only educate themselves on this policy, but to also take active steps in spending their own resources to lobby for the government to implement these subsidies (as long as the gains from the subsidies aren’t less than the resources spent influencing the government). But the money that gets used to pay for those subsidies is a relatively tiny part of the overall government budget, and the amount the average taxpayer is actually losing to pay for those subsidies is only a few cents of their overall tax burden. Why would people go through all the work of educating themselves, and working together to influence policy to remove these subsidies if it only saves them a tiny amount of money? The system is simply rigged in favor of those who have the most influence and resources.

2. The Knowledge Problem: The nature of the state makes reform efforts not only hard to get off the ground, but likely to backfire. For example, the growing usage of women’s prisons in the 19th century was intended as a response to the abuse and violence women faced while incarcerated alongside men. But if we are looking at our broader goal of freedom, instead of just the electoral victories, this “reform” was actually a disaster because it only resulted in more women being incarcerated. Following the opening of the first women’s prison in 1859, the total number of women sentenced to prison tripled. Another example of ultimately misguided reforms was the Quakers’ attempts at implementing solitary confinement in order to facilitate reflection and rehabilitation, which turned out be just another form of torture. We must not mistake good intentions for good results. We live in a complicated world with a vast, complex, extended social order that is impossible to fully comprehend. Abolitionists should be wary of pure policy efforts because they are often risky and counterproductive.

3. The Darth Vader Problem: The institutional structure of electoral politics makes it very difficult to change the system from the inside. Just as Luke Skywalker was rightly suspicious of his father’s promise to deliver peace to the galaxy via the iron fist of an empire ruled by father and son, abolitionists should be skeptical of “radicals” who attempt to bring liberty via the political process. Even genuine and radical people who try to use the government to achieve their ends end up becoming part of the system they once fought against. For example, a young, radical Bernie Sanders was arrested in 1963 for taking part in a civil rights sit-in. But by 1999, Sanders, now a Senator, was enthusiastic about Clinton bombing Yugoslavia, which prompted a group of anti-war radical leftists to organize a sit-in at his office, where they were arrested after he refused to talk to them. This is not special to Bernie. This is what electoral politics does to people. The bright, wide-eyed Sanders of ’63 was replaced with a darker, colder, machine-like replacement by ’99, hardly worthy of the same name, and member of the same oppressor class that he was once pitted against. Bernie should have heeded the moral of Luke’s rejection of the Dark side. Politics is corrupting and in the state, like the Empire, only the worst get on top.

There is another, more foundational, worry that makes me skeptical of an overarching view of social change that places “policy” front and center. In this pure policy framework, “reforms” are usually thought of as efforts that aim to utilize the existing legal structure. With our end goal of maximum liberty in mind, the concept of “reform” can include many other potential marginal victories for liberty.

Instead of starting with question like, “who do we need to campaign for?” or, “what laws do we need to pass or repeal?” libertarians should start with questions like, “what does liberty look like?” We can’t fight for something unless we know what we’re fighting for. By placing the electoral results ahead of the philosophy, it’s difficult to even make sense of what a “marginal improvement” looks like. Without a clear vision, it’s incredibly easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal, allowing your cause to either become diluted to the point of being unrecognizable, or to be latched on to by people who want to use your message to promote their own agenda. The abolitionist framework keeps our ultimate goal front and center at all times, which avoids the pitfalls of the pure policy approach and reveals social change to be a entrepreneurial, collaborative, and spontaneous process.

Charles Johnson explains,

“…the reverse strategy: to get rid of the tyranny by first aiming at the enforcement, rather than aiming at the law, by making the border control and internal immigration cops as irrelevant as you can make them. What you would do, then, is to work on building up more or less loose networks of black-market and grey-market operators, who can help illegal immigrants get into the country without being caught out by the Border Guard, who provide safe houses for them to stay on during their journey, who can help them get the papers that they need to skirt surveillance by La Migra, who can hook them up with work and places to live under the table, etc. etc. etc. To the extent that you can succeed in doing this, you’ve made immigration enforcement irrelevant.”

What the abolitionist framework offers is a way to make sense of these illegal, but just, actions in the context of social change. It expands our view of potential avenues for marginal increases in liberty, and paves the way for everyone, regardless of their ability or interest to engage in politics, to engage in actions that move people toward a freer society. Since this broadened framework sees promise in strategies that attack, not just the law, but the enforcement of the law, as real ways to increase liberty, what are some ways to fight the enforcement aspect of the criminal justice system? Drawing on Nathan Goodman’s practical outline, here are some activities and projects that can lead to marginal increases in liberty, but are only realized as such in the abolitionist framework and not the pure policy framework:

Whether or not you agree with Jason and I that the entire criminal justice system should come burning to the ground, strategically speaking, our ultimate goal must be front and center. And that goal is maximum liberty, not specific electoral outcomes. We must reject the pure policy framework in favor of the abolitionist framework. If my fellow panelists are using their efforts to start a fire, then there’s room for collaboration.

At the end of the day libertarians think the government is very bad at doing things. States suffer from pervasive knowledge and incentive problems, which is why we trust the marketplace, civil society, and other social institutions to bring about a good society. … So why do we keep asking the government to bring about a free society? Lets make one ourselves.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory