Pushing One’s Buttons
by Samuel Edward Konkin III
[Refer to the whole issue of The Voluntaryist if you want to know about the button thing more and read the Watner’s article. —dig.ed.]
Carl Watner seems to approvingly cite Robert LeFevre in contrast to Leonard Read concerning pushing a hypothetical button that would end all price controls immediately. I first came across a version of this when Murray Rothbard declared, at the 1969 Libertarian Conference in New York City’s Hotel Diplomat, that if offered a button that would do away with the State apparatus on the spot, he would “blister his finger pushing the button.” The bold challenge was hurled, thus, not only to LeFevre but to Read.
There are two problems with the dichotomy presented: first, the actual opposition of the two premises; second, the interpretation of the hypotheses involved and their consequences.
It is far less obvious to me than it was to LeFevre that one must, to use his term, abdicate Abdication (of State power) in order to push this magic button. Neither Read nor Rothbard bothered to conjecture how such a button arose. Suppose that a group of agorists had somehow managed to buy up all the network and cable television time at a certain time of day and spent considerable advertising funds to induce most of the populace to watch. You are placed before the button which will run the videotape of a George Lucas-produced grabber which rivets the audience to their seat and gets most of them to listen to a new and improved John Galt speech. Upon hearing the words and absorbing the visuals, a sufficient number of people quit their statist jobs, refuse to obey regulations and pay taxes, and possibly defend their neighbors should they be harassed by the few remaining State thugs. (Pacifists may drop the final consequence.) The agorists accomplished the set-up without violating anyone’s rights. The situation is highly speculative and, alas, quite unlikely, but definitely possible. We now have a reasonable pathway to the Rothbard-improved Read hypothesis.
Would Robert LeFevre fail to push that button?
If at least one case can be drawn where the Button-Pushing vs Abdication are not in opposition, then the dichotomy fails. Those who are unable to construct others lack imagination.
Now let’s explicitly deal with interpretation. Suppose I’m offered two buttons. One button will accomplish the end above with the specified means. The other button was connected to the White House “hot line” and would signal my acceptance of the presidency: in desperate straits as the State is rapidly collapsing from massive counter-economic activity, the dying Executive and rump Congress offer me total power (because I seem to know what the hell is going on) to save the situation the best way I can. I’m as convinced as I could be that they are willing to grab at anything and will accept at least my initial edicts. In fact, due to their experience with Friedmanite reform economists, they even expect that most of my dictates will involve abolishing huge chunks of the State, hopefully (to them) saving something.
Set up that way, it is still too easy to take the moral path. I’m even sure Murray Rothbard would push Button One. So let’s add one more condition to get a bit of realism.
We do not know how either group will react. In fact, we are suspicious that we have not yet done sufficient preparatory work and the populace may enjoy the show but there’s a good chance not enough of them are ready to go the rest of the way. And if we push Button One, we have blown our chance for Button Two, for the State’s agents on hands will immediately report our “treason.” For whatever reason, we seem to be more sure that the statists are in dire enough straits to carry out their promises this time. Now which one shall we press?
I cannot speak for all voluntaryists, but I certainly hope each and every Agorist would blister his or her finger along with me pushing the button for the Lady of Liberty and not the Tiger of Statism. Push the button and abdicate.
Editor: Wendy McElroy
August 1985 / Volume 3 Number 5 / Whole # 17