Pushing the Envelope...or Getting It Back, Postage Due?

Reinterpreting an Experience from a Campaign

It is often said that by taking an extreme position, we can encourage others to move in our direction. I used to think so, and thought I had an example of same from an experience as a candidate for public office. Years later I came to realize the opposite.

It was 1988 and I was the Libertarian nominee for assembly from the 80th district in New York. I was invited to speak as a panelist at a forum on housing issues in the Bronx. Another panelist was from the Committee of 100 Democrats, an organization of moderates operating in the Democratic Party. The other panelist was farther to the "left", basically favoring the (further) usurpation of ownership to favor renters, and/or tax-funded subsidization of housing.

At one point in the discussion, the rep from the Committee of 100 said, approximately, "I'm not like the libertarians, who would abolish all rent regulation. We just want to find a formula [of rent regulation] that can satisfy everybody." So I was the bad cop, he was the good cop. By "sacrificing" myself, taking an ostensible position far out on the wing, I made it possible for him to appear to be the moderate. If not for me, he'd be alone on the wing, instead of poised between the extremes. I felt satisfied in having pushed the envelope towards the libertarian extreme, making a more landlord-friendly position appear more respectable than otherwise.

After about a decade I reassessed this experience, and concluded that my presence on that panel did not have an envelope-pushing effect. Instead I realized that because I was there and had raised the issue of abolition, the moderate had to disclaim it to salvage respectability. Once I'd broached it, many audience members probably suspected advocacy of any move toward lessening of regulation as hiding an agenda of total deregulation. I'd put them on guard. The guy from the Committee of 100 would probably have been better off, and a more landlord-firendly position more respectable, had I never opened my mouth.

I think this effect operates in many venues on many issues. It's why Ethan Nadelman has stated that drug policy reform has advanced best when pursued as separate, disconnected prongs, each disclaiming (or at least not claiming) unity with the other reforms: non-drug hemp, medical marijuana, needle exchange, sentencing reform, treatment as an option, and forfeiture reform. When people suspect any of them to be a part of an overall reform movement, it arouses their opposition, but individually each can be judged on its own merits.

There's always the danger of losing traction when you try to get the public to move too fast. I think a lot of people already realized that. However, I think in addition that sometimes the radical position can actually be counter-productive, arousing people into opposition. And one trouble with the Libertarian Party is that it's very hard for anything coming from it to appear anything other than radical, if not extreme.

Robert Goodman
July 2004
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