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TGIF: What Are Libertarians Out to Accomplish?

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When I was researching my recent article on Nathaniel Branden, who died last month, I came across an audio file of a talk Branden gave at the 1979 Libertarian Party national convention in Los Angeles. I was at the convention, but I don’t remember attending the talk. I might have been busy with other things; on the other hand, I find it hard to believe that I had anything more important to do during that hour.

At any rate, the talk, “What Happens When the Libertarian Movement Begins to Succeed?,” is remarkable in more than one respect. For one thing, Branden was commenting on all the attention libertarianism was getting — in 1979! At that time, the media were covering the libertarian movement more than ever, although that isn’t saying much. Ed Clark, a libertarian who was listed on the ballot as an independent, had run quite a successful campaign for governor of California the year before, by libertarian standards, winning 377,960 votes, 5.46 percent of the total.

The party in California had also gotten publicity earlier that year for supporting ballot Proposition 13, a cap on the state’s property tax, and for opposing Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative, which would have denied jobs in the government’s schools to gay people. The LP’s position prevailed in both cases. Because of things like this, the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to the convention, and other prominent newspapers and magazines later published stories. The 2,000-plus conventioneers were filled with excitement.

So Branden was justified in thinking that something good was happening. It wasn’t the first time some of us felt that way. In 1971, the year before the first LP presidential ticket, John Hospers and Tonie Nathan, got an electoral vote, the New York Times Magazine published a five-thousand-word article by two libertarian college seniors: Stan Lehr and Louis Rossetto Jr., later a co-founder of Wired magazine. The article was titled “The New Right Credo — Libertarianism” (I gag on the title too), and it discussed the political and economic ideas of Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and others. Here’s a passage:

While conservatives preached that all laws should be obeyed until repealed, libertarians placed the welfare of the individual over that of the state and argued that an individual is morally justified, for instance, in resisting the draft or smoking marijuana. Moreover, while traditionalists placed a premium value on stability and order, the libertarians were not all that opposed — in principle, at any rate — to the basic idea of shaking up or even overthrowing the liberal state. Most important, libertarians did not want to become apologists for and defenders of the existing order.

Rossetto and Lehr even reached back to Spinoza, a favorite of mine, to trace the roots of the libertarian philosophy:

All laws which can be violated without doing any one any injury are laughed at. Nay, so far are they from doing anything to control the desires and passions of men that, on the contrary, they direct and incite men’s thoughts the more toward those very objects, for we always strive toward what is forbidden and desire the things we are not allowed to have. And men of leisure are never deficient in the ingenuity needed to enable them to outwit laws framed to regulate things which cannot be entirely forbidden.… He who tries to determine everything by law will foment crime rather than lessen it.

The article closed with this quote, playing off the famous John F. Kennedy line, from David Friedman, author of the excellent The Machinery of Freedom, which will soon be out in a new edition: “Ask not what government can do for you … ask rather what government is doing to you.”

What was going on eight years later made those earlier years pale in comparison. Imagine what Branden must have thought in his last years, as the word libertarian became a recognized, if not fully understood, political category routinely included in public discussions of politics. (No doubt Ron Paul deserves much credit for this, though other sources of this recognition could be identified.)

As a psychologist, Branden was interested in how success might be received by libertarians. He had no doubt that as advocates of liberty, most libertarians would welcome the increasing public notice and growing number of adherents. But at the same time he realized that some number of libertarians had mixed motives and were attracted to the movement at least in part precisely because it was a minority, or fringe, movement that was ignored when not disparaged by most people. (Branden regarded such persons as having a “negative self-concept.) Thus someone with merely a rebel temperament, who never expected his ideas to prevail among the benighted masses, might be put off by the mainstreaming of libertarianism. If this libertarian saw himself as heroically fated to be on the righteous but losing side, how would he react to success?

Branden suggested that this might explain some of the infighting the movement (like other movements) was experiencing; anxious about impending success, some may feel the need to compensate by creating destructive factions within the movement. (I am reminded — along with many others, I’ll bet — of the hilarious scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian in which members of the People’s Front of Judea explain that the only things they hate more than the Romans are the Judean People’s Front and the Judean Popular People’s Front.)

If you’ll bear with the longish quote, here’s what Branden said (hat tip to David Boaz):

So it becomes very interesting to ask ourselves — and obviously I don’t wish to imply this applies to all of us, it doesn’t — but these are trends to watch for in ourselves and in our colleagues…: “Okay, suppose that I or my friends or my colleagues, while genuinely believing in these ideals, at the same time have this unrecognized negative self-concept of which Branden speaks. That means that my self-sabotaging behavior wouldn’t happen on a conscious level, but it would happen. How would it happen? What kinds of mistakes might we make?”

Well, for example, suppose that you’re talking with people that don’t already share your views, and yet you believe your views have evidence and reason to support them. Now, if you really believe that you’re in this to win; to see your ideas prevail, then you give a lot of thought to how to become a good communicator, how to reach human minds, how to appeal to human intelligence.

What do you do if you’re really in it to keep proving that you’re a heroic — but doomed — martyr? What do you do if your deepest belief [about people that don’t already share your views] is, “You’re never going to get it. You’re hopelessly corrupt. I may be one of the two or three last moral people on Earth. What am I doing at this party anyway?”

You engage in a lot of flaming rhetoric — you talk about statists, you talk about looters, you talk about parasites in contexts where you know this language is Greek to your listener. Why should you care? Your dialogue isn’t directed to him anyway — it’s directed to the spectator-you watching you being a hero. He knows what you mean — don’t get confused over the fact that your listeners don’t. The show isn’t for them anyway.

Branden was appealing to libertarians to be ruthlessly honest with themselves about why they were activists. If the reason was something other than achieving a free society through persuasion, then self-examination would be in order. If one’s motives were mixed, then introspection might identify why one engaged in self-sabotage, such as intentionally alienating nonlibertarians.

Branden’s observation about the use of words that nonlibertarians don’t understand is important. Among ourselves, “statist” is the severest term of condemnation. But who else gets that? We need to pay more attention to what we say. For example, when we talk about decentralizing power, which of course is a good thing, we must not forget that many people reasonably associate local authority with slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching with impunity, and central authority with the abolition of those evils. That doesn’t mean we should abandon the idea, only that we should think carefully about how we explain it. Let’s make sure people hear what we say. If our goal is to persuade others of the value of freedom, it’s a mistake to assume that any confusion is the listener’s problem. It’s our problem.

What Branden was doing in his speech was applying his “art of living consciously” to libertarian activism. He urged us to ask ourselves explicitly what we are trying to achieve when we talk to nonlibertarians, most of whom are actually at least half libertarians. Are we trying to win people over or merely trying to feel good about ourselves, to feel more righteous than thou, or to display our erudition?

So, one of the signs that we want to look out for, and one of the most important signs, happens in how we approach communication. Are we really out to reach human beings? Are we really out to build a bridge to somebody whose context may be very different from our own? Do we still remember that a lot of what we now regard as self-evident once upon a time wasn’t self-evident? Or do we walk into a conversation on the premise: I’ll give you one chance, after which you’re irredeemably evil?

You see, that could be called a communication problem, but I think it would be too superficial to describe it in that manner. I would call it a “phony image” problem: you’re not in it to win, you’re not in it to persuade, you’re not in it to convince, you’re not in it to reach out and touch another human mind; you’re out to make yourself out as the lowly unappreciated misunderstood heroic martyr you always knew you were, ever since your mother gave more attention to your brother.

Branden went on to note that some libertarians “cannot seem to come off the level of extreme generality” and that this could indicate that martyrdom, not persuasion, is their goal. I recommend that we all pay close attention to that part of the talk.

Through this speech Branden once again demonstrated his value to the libertarian cause. We would all profit by taking his advice.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.