Libertarian Reform Measures Do Not Advance Liberty

Ever since I discovered libertarianism, there has been a faction within the libertarian movement that has favored and promoted reform of the welfare-warfare state way of life under which we live. Over the decades, those who advocate reform have come to dominate the libertarian movement.

Unfortunately, however, libertarian reform measures do not advance liberty. Instead, they advance reform, which necessarily entails the continued existence of the welfare-warfare state way of life, albeit in some reformed fashion. 

As I have long argued, in order to achieve the genuinely free society, we have to eliminate, not reform, infringements on liberty. If all we do is reform an infringement, the best we can hope for is an improvement in our lives as welfare-warfare state serfs. Even if every single libertarian reform measure were to be adopted today, we would still not be free.

The most popular libertarian reform measures are school vouchers, health-savings accounts, Social Security “privatization,” regulatory reform, slight reductions in the military budget, selective foreign interventionism (i.e., only when it’s in our “national interest”), CIA reform, FISA court reform, surveillance reform, drug-war reform, and even striving to get libertarian-leaning conservatives appointed to run federal welfare agencies and departments. 

Let’s assume that a libertarian reform measure fails to improve the status quo and actually makes the situation worse. What are people going to say? They’re going to say that libertarianism has failed and that we now need to go with socialism and interventionism. 

What they won’t realize is that it isn’t libertarianism that has failed but rather a reform measure that is designed to simply improve the statist system. Again, liberty necessarily entails the removal of infringements on liberty, not their continuation in some sort of reformed fashion.

But what if the libertarian reform measure actually does improve the status quo? At that point what are the odds that the libertarian reformers are going to start calling for the dismantling of their reform measure? The odds are nil. Instead, they will be basking in the praise and glory of having improved the status quo with their reform measure. They aren’t about to suddenly bring an end to that. Instead, they will be coming up with ways to improve and expand their reforms. They will ignore those of us who are calling for the repeal, not the reform, of infringements on liberty.

Consider, for example, school vouchers, perhaps the most popular reform measure advanced by reform-oriented libertarians. Libertarian reformers have been advocating school vouchers for the entire time that FFF has been in existence — some 31 years!

In our first year of operation — 1990, I wrote an article entitled “Letting Go of Socialism,” in which I argued that school vouchers were just another reform measure designed to make the socialist public (I.e. government) school system work better. I maintained that the genuinely free society necessarily entails a separation of school and state.

The libertarian Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman took me to task in a speech that was later transcribed into an article entitled “Say No to Intolerance.” He agreed with my point about ending government involvement in education but maintained that school vouchers were the way to achieve that goal.

Around 30 years ago, the city of Milwaukee adopted a school-voucher program. Contrary to what Friedman maintained, it has never led to the dismantling of public (i.e., government) schooling in Milwaukee. It has always been what I said it was back in 1990 — nothing more than a reform measure designed to improve the socialist education system work more efficiently.

In fact, that is precisely how many libertarian advocates of school vouchers justify their reform measure today. Long ago, they abandoned Friedman’s (mistaken) point that school vouchers would lead to the end of government involvement in education. They realized that if they said that, people would be less likely to support a school-voucher program. So they threw in the towel with respect to freedom and began arguing what I maintained in my article 30 years ago — that school vouchers will supposedly improve the public (i.e., government) school system. The buzz words they use to induce people to support a voucher regime are “school choice” and “competition.”

There is a lively debate over whether school vouchers are a positive or a negative. Libertarian reformers say they are a positive and want to see the program expanded. They point to the 30-year old school-voucher program in Milwaukee as evidence of voucher success.

But do you see the problem? It is precisely what I maintained above — that if a libertarian reform measure were to turn out to be successful, the chances that libertarian advocates of that reform would ever call for its dismantling are nil. Instead, basking in the glow of reform “success,” they would ignore calls for genuine liberty and instead call for improving and expanding their reform measures.

Today, I can’t help but wonder what libertarian reformers from back in the early 1990s think today about their reform measures. Do they still hew to them knowing that they really are not a way to achieve the free society? My hunch is yes. I think they are too vested in reform to shift gears at this point in their lives. At this older age, they have simply surrendered to the inevitability of the welfare-warfare state way of life and have resigned themselves to simply trying to improve it under the rubric of “advancing liberty” through reform.

What befuddles me, however, is why younger libertarians today would favor reform rather than liberty, especially knowing now that reform can never — and will never — achieve the genuinely free society. 

Unlike older libertarians, most younger libertarians haven’t yet been beaten down by life. Imbued with a spirt of optimism, determination, and a faith in freedom, younger libertarians should be at the forefront of advancing the principles of a genuinely free society rather than going down the road that older libertarians today took decades ago and that now unfortunately dominates the libertarian movement — the road of reform — the road of surrender — the road of defeat — the road that continues the welfare-warfare state serfdom under which we live.

The post Libertarian Reform Measures Do Not Advance Liberty appeared first on The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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About The Author

Jacob G. Hornberger

The Future of Freedom Foundation was founded in 1989 by FFF president Jacob Hornberger with the aim of establishing an educational foundation that would advance an uncompromising case for libertarianism in the context of both foreign and domestic policy. The mission of The Future of Freedom Foundation is to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government. Visit

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