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TGIF: What Should Libertarians Do?


If the libertarian movement is to be the vehicle — actually, collection of vehicles — for the advancement of liberty, then libertarians need to master the art of persuasion. That’s hardly news, but it’s easily forgotten.

I start from the assumption that we don’t want merely to feel good by making hard-core libertarian declarations about abolishing this or that government violation of liberty. Rather, we want to actually eliminate the myriad violations. So what we say and how we say it matter.

Libertarians simultaneously ask little of people and a lot. We ask little when we preach nonaggression, because most people already practice nonaggression in their own lives. They’d sooner flap their arms to fly to the moon than murder, assault, or rob another person. (See my “One Moral Standard for All.”) What most people don’t understand is that when government officials commit murder, assault, and robbery, these acts have the same moral status as private acts of aggression — or worse, since government officials claim to protect our freedom. We have to get people to see that there is only one code of just conduct applicable to everyone. But they are a long way toward the goal line, and we need to understand that.

On the other hand, we ask a lot when we ask people to believe that free markets work. Most people know nothing about economics. Except in the most micro sense, they do not engage in the “economic way of thinking.” If they’ve taken an economics course, they’ve forgotten what they heard in class — which is okay because it was probably some variant of Keynesianism, although that is then reinforced by most of what they hear outside of school.

The upshot is that most people have never heard of unplanned, undesigned, or spontaneous order. When they hear libertarians talking about markets unregulated by the state, they can’t digest the idea. How can there be order without a top-down designer or regulator? How can markets regulate themselves? Those are reasonable questions for the economically unschooled. The explicit order they are familiar with is associated with someone’s conscious plan. Asking them to believe we can have order writ large without plan or command is like asking them to believe that if you quickly removed a table, the dishes wouldn’t fall to the floor.

Our job is to teach one of liberalism’s most groundbreaking insights, namely, that societies run themselves without plan or command — when allowed. That insight was beautifully summarized by Thomas Paine in Rights of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.

John Quincy Adams, when secretary of state in 1821, said something similar, though with a partly religious explanation:

From the day of the Declaration [of Independence], the people of the North American union, and of its constituent states, were associated bodies of civilized men and Christians, in a state of nature, but not of anarchy [by which he meant a Hobbesian war of all against all]. They were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledged as the rules of their conduct. They were bound by the principles which they themselves had proclaimed in the declaration. They were bound by all those tender and endearing sympathies, the absence of which, in the British government and nation, towards them, was the primary cause of the distressing conflict in which they had been precipitated by the headlong rashness and unfeeling insolence of their oppressors. They were bound by all the beneficent laws and institutions, which their forefathers had brought with them from their mother country, not as servitudes but as rights. They were bound by habits of hardy industry, by frugal and hospitable manners, by the general sentiments of social equality, by pure and virtuous morals; and lastly they were bound by the grappling-hooks of common suffering under the scourge of oppression.… Had there been among them no other law, they would have been a law unto themselves. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, society runs itself. Violence and discoordination are the result of interference with the natural social and economic laws that emerge through free human cooperation and mutual aid in the striving for individual and community flourishing.

If people don’t generally understand that, they also won’t understand how prices are formed on the free market, how supply and demand are brought into balance without an external power governing the process. This is hardly an intuitive idea; few people figure it out for themselves. (I and most libertarians I know needed a lot of help from Adam Smith, Bastiat, Hazlitt, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and others.) So of course most people think politicians must act to keep prices from rising too high and wages from falling too low, must prevent depressions, mass unemployment, and monopoly. Otherwise, selfish market actors will exploit the mass of people.

If you tell most people that the government should exit the economy, you’d get the equivalent of this answer: “You want to replace something, however imperfect, with nothing?” Given their premises, it is understandable that they’d think that. We have to get them to examine their premises. But at this point, they lack the requisite social and economic knowledge. This is why Bastiat and Hazlitt spent so much time writing for lay readers who knew nothing about economics.

Finally, most people are bombarded with disinformation that government is their friend, that it acts to protect the vulnerable from exploitative special interests. Part of the libertarian’s work is to show that the truth is precisely the opposite. Historically, the state has been the tool of exploitation for the well-connected, allowing an elite to acquire wealth and power, at the people’s expense, that would be unachievable in a freed society.

Our objective is not merely to find libertarians or to persuade people to hold pure libertarian policy positions. Rather, it is to help people to understand the freedom philosophy so they will be the best possible advocates of liberty. It’s not enough to be able to recite the bottom-line position on any particular matter. We have to understand why that position is the right one. That requires a deep understanding of liberty and society. And that’s why the striving for liberty is a life-long commitment.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of 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.