Realism or Idealism: Why Not Both?
Idealists, or ‘purists’, can be frustratingly impractical with their ideology. Some will consider any form of political action an endorsement of state power and others will only support political activists that adhere strictly to impractical or impossible standards. Meanwhile, realists have a tendency to dismiss any extreme ideas, including those of ancaps (anarcho-capitalists), as completely worthless if they deviate too far from the current schematic of civilization.
I am not suggesting that all libertarians fit neatly into these two categories, but those who do are prevalent. I’m asserting that these libertarians are needlessly in opposition, when in fact these sides are complementary, not antagonistic. Is it a contradiction for one person to be on both sides of the spectrum simultaneously? Not if we view idealism as the goal and realism as the means to achieve it.
The purpose of idealism is to provide the end goal. Idealism’s only constraint is that it must account for human behavior. In libertarian ideology, anarcho-capitalism is typically considered idealism. No reasonable thinker expects anarcho-capitalism to become mainstream anytime soon. It is only an ethical standard for which to aim. The inability to apply it to the immediate present does not negate the moral arguments for it.
In the past, when slavery was globally accepted and relied upon, the concept of abolition would have been viewed as having catastrophic consequences. When slave labor was the standard means for large-scale production, the idea of automated machinery or any other replacement was impossible to fathom. Today, these concepts are reversed. Blatantly advocating slavery is nearly unheard of, and automated machinery is casually accepted as the go-to method of large-scale production. This is why idealism is not to be easily dismissed. However, what purpose is a goal without means to achieve it?
The purpose of realism is to provide the means to achieve these goals. Realism is pragmatic and practical, focusing only on what can be accomplished in the world we are given today. Realists focus on using methods that bring about change, even if the change is minor or involves compromise.
Having a realistic path is necessary to achieve any goal. As we’ve all heard numerous times, if we want to accomplish a goal, we must break this goal up into smaller, simpler, easily achievable goals. No entrepreneur can succeed with a great idea, but no business plan to implement. In this same manner, no anarchist can eliminate the state solely by preaching Rothbard. Nor can a minarchist limit state power only by reading Adam Smith.
It cannot be considered a “sacrifice of principles” to compromise so long as it’s a net benefit for liberty.
Those such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY 4th), and Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI 3rd) can all be considered realists. While the extent of their impact is debatable, it is difficult to argue that they have achieved nothing.
But why are both idealism and realism necessary?
Say you’re unhappy with your current environment, so you decide to move. The role of the idealist is to decide your destination while the realist charts your path. On the way, you notice the road isn’t perfectly straight. At some points, you may actually be increasing the distance between you and your destination. At other times, you might be traveling north when your destination is northwest. These times are not inefficient, but necessary for progress. This explains the complications of realists. The path to the goal is not always obvious, and idealists can benefit from a realistic approach.
Since both the realists and the idealists are necessary, why not be both? Instead of choosing a side, why not hold a realist position and an idealist position on each issue?
Sometimes these positions are the same, and other times different. For example, is it hypocritical to believe in open borders and to actively support extreme vetting? I argue no.
A welfare/warfare state can complicate things. A policy that works for Japan may not work for South Africa and, in a similar sense, a policy that works for America in 2017 may not for ‘Ancapistan’ in 2517.
There are already a few that could be considered both realistic and idealistic. In fact, an entire branch of anarchism is devoted to a form of practical activism: Agorism.
Agorists advocate withdrawing from government and living as an anarchist through a black or grey market.
As for specific examples, there are three that stand out. Judge Andrew Napolitano considers himself an anarchist, yet is obviously part of ‘the system’ as a judge. Tom Woods, another ancap, has advocated for political involvement as well. Perhaps the most controversial example is Stefan Molyneux, an activist that has written two books on anarchy and yet routinely advocates against open borders in present day America.
Despite these examples, a majority of libertarians appear bonded to either realism or idealism, reluctant to see the viability of the another. Perhaps collaboration between the two can be a solution to the frequent infighting within the libertarian scope.
* Nathan A. Kreider is the Fall 2015 – Spring 2017 president of the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. He runs nkreider.com and tweets from @LibertyNAK regularly.