What does it mean to be an effective advocate of liberty? It means to love what you do and adopt sustainable patterns of thinking and living that contribute to making the world a freer place.
Sustainability is key. Most of today’s attacks on freedom lovers include a dismissal that libertarianism is an ideology for idealistic (or maybe deluded) kids, not one for adults. Sure, you can feel enraptured by the writings of Bastiat or Rand or Rothbard when you are in high school or college. But once you get into the real world, they say, you mature and give up the illusions of a freer world.
I don’t believe this. Within the domain of liberty, we find the path to prosperity, social peace, and human flourishing. Every limitation on the freedom of thought, action, and ownership robs the world of creativity, wealth, and progress.
And yet, freedom is not baked into a world where various forms of despotism are always threatening. It must be won anew in every generation. Indeed, it’s the ones who fancy themselves as grown-ups — able to make big decisions for the rest of humanity — who become the next generation of despots. It is the very foundation of intellectual and moral maturity to resist this level of hubris and to acknowledge the truth of our limitations.
Surely maturity shows us the limits of power. Surely the cause of liberty is worth our lifelong efforts.
But there is a superficial plausibility to the critics’ claims because there is a tendency for libertarians to give up hope. I’ve known many who lost their enthusiasm for liberty for a number of reasons, none of them strictly intellectual. People can begin to feel demoralized on discovering how little they can do to change the world. The gap between dreams and reality grows too large. Idealism fades when you sense you are hitting your head against a brick wall.
What can be done to sustain the passion for liberty throughout a lifetime? Here are my suggestions for seven habits to foster a lifelong attachment to liberty and to live a life that makes the best possible contribution to human well-being.
1. Oppose oppression but love liberty even more.
The dawning of the libertarian consciousness often takes place in two steps.
First, you realize that there is such a thing as a state that is distinct from society at large, a fact that massive swaths of the social sciences (not to mention mainstream media) try to cover up. Second, there is the new awareness that the state is distinct from every other institution in society because it uses aggressive force to achieve its aims. Further, the state actually does not achieve the aims it promises. Rather, it violates rights, undermines economic achievement, fosters dependency, and serves a ruling class rather than the public at large.
At this point in your intellectual journey, you realize that the mainstream alternatives of left and right leave a lot to be desired; neither is a wholly consistent application of a principled opposition to power.
A new consciousness dawns. It can give rise to righteous anger. You see for the first time the difference between how the world is (which can often look dark and gloomy) and what could be. It can be tempting to focus on the negative: wars, police abuse, corruption, looting of the productive, graft in politics, and so on.
This anger is why so many liberty-minded news feeds consist of terrible news. But how much bad news can one person possibly handle? We have no means to directly right wrongs, to change the world for the better in one fell swoop. To see evil that we cannot change can only lead to despair: a trap that too many libertarians fall into.
It is crucial not only to think about the problem but also to see the solutions being lived out all around us. We need to learn to observe the marvelous businesses starting and succeeding every day, the beauty of spontaneous human interaction, the order and prosperity that emerge from the exercise of human choice. We should thrill in the many ways that people go about their lives in casual defiance of the central plan. We can glory in the creations all around us that were never mapped out or approved by politicians, or by the experts in their pay.
In other words, focusing on the solutions rather than solely on the problems can brighten your day and give rise to creativity in the service of the good. Liberty is not just the absence of oppression; it is the presence of well-lived lives and institutions that emerge despite every attempt to stop them. In this sense, freedom is blossoming all over the world. If we can focus on making that positive change, rather than dwelling on what’s wrong with the world, our task becomes more delightful and a dedication to liberty becomes more sustainable.
2. Read broadly and be confident in your ideas.
Political debates can be fun, but they can also be shrill and unproductive, with two sides battling it out and making no intellectual progress. They bring more heat than light. If you are going to change that pattern, you must have the confidence to listen carefully to other ideas and not be threatened by them. With intellectual confidence, you can respond in a way that is sure-footed rather than belligerent. You can be thoughtful rather than reactive.
Think of the difference between the way a street thug behaves and how a martial arts expert carries himself in combat. One is angry, threatening, and reckless. The other is calm, clever, and effective. In a hand-to-hand match between the two, the latter is going to win. Why? Because the martial arts expert has actual skill, whereas the bully only has attitude and emotion. Libertarians should be like skilled experts and exhibit the confidence that comes with that discipline. But becoming a black belt in liberty takes time and learning; it doesn’t happen overnight.
We should also know our opponents’ arguments better than they do and be prepared to respond to them fairly and without caricature, crafting our own arguments in ways that are actually persuasive rather than just forceful or loud. This requires that we spend some time reading and studying other traditions of thought. Our libraries ought to be broad and sample all disciplines and viewpoints.
We should never shy away from ideas that are different from our own. Sometimes our intellectual opponents — even when they are completely wrong — are our most valued benefactors. They help us think through issues, sharpen our skills, and inspire us to research and read more. This is the way we improve. Then we can approach debates with no fear.
This approach will make us far more effective over the long term. Bombast and bromides can shut down opponents, but do they win hearts and minds? Not likely. As Ludwig von Mises emphasized in his great 1927 book Liberalism, it is reason, good arguments, and thoughtfulness — combined with a genuine desire for a better world — that will carry the day.
We don’t want to shut down our opponents, causing them to retreat to their comfortable and familiar way of thinking. We want our opponents to keep asking questions of us, to keep challenging our ideas as we continue to engage them. We want them to keep talking with us and others. The ongoing discussion is a sign of curiosity and openness that we should welcome.
3. Look beyond politics.
For most libertarians, politics is the initial draw. There is nothing wrong with this. It is typical of American culture that it takes campaigns to get people interested in big questions like the role of human freedom, the place of the state, whether war is necessary, and so on.
But it only takes one or two campaigns before people realize that politics is a not a very effective way for changing the world for the better. Our votes matter very little, if at all. We are mostly only voting for people, not policies. And people in politics tend to betray principles. If we put too much stock in politicians — even the best of whom confront a system much larger than they can control — we will feel frustrated and powerless. Plus, there is no nastier business on the planet. Calumnies and deceptions define the political world.
Working in campaigns as a consumption good is fine, if that’s the sort of thing you like. Some people enjoy it. But let’s be realistic. As a production good — a means of producing good outcomes — it is mostly an illusion. Politics tends to be a lagging rather than leading indicator of social change. The first steps toward change are cultural and not political. Politics is reactive, not proactive. If we can make a contribution to changing minds and fostering a culture of liberty, the rest will take care of itself.
There are many other ways to make a difference outside of politics. Think of the way the economy of mobile apps is challenging the status quo in nearly every area of commerce. Municipal taxi monopolies are reeling from the competition from ride-sharing applications. Peer-to-peer housing solutions are making a mess of zoning laws. Cryptocurrency is challenging nationalized money and old-fashioned payment systems. Homeschooling and online education are busting up the state’s education system. These efforts have already accomplished more than any top-down reform.
Indeed, every start-up enterprise is a kind of revolutionary act against the status quo that the state’s regulations and plunderings have conspired to prevent. Their existence is proof that you can’t stop human creativity with any amount of control. At the end of day, we’ll look back to see that start-ups have made a mightier contribution to liberty than all the political campaigns combined. Libertarians have long understood that bottom-up solutions to social problems work better than top-down approaches. It’s the same with building a free society.
4. See everyone as an ideological friend.
Do you know anyone who actually opposes human freedom? I don’t. It’s just that we all have different ways of understanding that idea and different levels of tolerance for its inconsistent application. We should see everyone as a potential ally in the great cause, regardless of sex, race, religion, or station in life.
Modern democratic politics divides people by interest-group affiliation. According to the prevailing ethos, women should prefer one set of politics and men another. Blacks want things one way, whites another — and Hispanics want yet another. Young and old are each opposed to the other, just as are the rich and the poor. In this way, as Frédéric Bastiat never tired of pointing out, politics divides people, creating a war of all against all.
But the classical liberals always emphasized that freedom means a harmony of interests between all groups. Only true liberals favor the common good of all, because they want to remove the major source of division in society. They favor allowing all groups and individuals to cooperate, associate, exchange, and produce to their mutual betterment. Society can manage itself better than any central planner can.
To see this today, in a time of cold war between groups, requires some high-minded thinking. Often, it requires acknowledging the justice of victim-group complaints and drawing attention to how the state has created the problem in the first place. This pertains to a huge range of problems in society, from unemployment to institutionalized racism to persistent poverty, exploitation, and war. It is not the case that we all have different goals; it’s that we disagree on the means to achieve those goals.
Start all discussions with the presumption that the other person is a potential lover of liberty. When someone says something right and true, seize on it and draw it out. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t gain a convert immediately. As with all exchanges of ideas, the goal should be to plant seeds, not harvest a crop. It is through such subtle but persistent efforts that we win over hearts and minds to the cause of liberty.
5. Don’t have all the answers.
It is typical of nonlibertarians that they demand full and complete answers to all human problems that are currently tackled by statist means. Who will care for the poor? How will education work? How will people get health insurance? What is to be done about the problems of racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance? Above all else, who will build the roads? (Never mind that roads are all built by private companies on contract with the state today.)
It is tempting to try to give complete answers. And history can provide some important hints and guides along the way to giving us a vision of what might be. There is a point to drawing attention to the way government intervention has displaced a whole range of private industries: schools, roads, mutual aid, title companies, courts, and more. At the same time, we must resist the temptation to construct a different central plan for freedom. If we take the bait, we set ourselves up for failure.
We do not have all the answers. In freedom, we discover answers through an ongoing process of trial and error. An open society exists to leave the maximum amount of room for innovation and discovery.
F.A. Hayek was correct in his amazing essay “The Case for Freedom”:
Freedom granted only when it is known beforehand that its effects will be beneficial is not freedom. If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear.… Our faith in freedom does not rest on the foreseeable results in particular circumstances but on the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad.… It is because we do not know how individuals will use their freedom that it is so important.
As Leonard Read used to say, the single most notable feature of freedom is its humility. It defers to the results of human action and does not attempt to design them in advance. Freedom does not mean rule by smart libertarians who know better than anyone else. It means the removal of institutionalized sources of power that rule with the arrogant presumption that there is only one way to manage society, and that society can and should be managed.
There is nothing wrong with responding to critics of freedom, “I don’t know the answers, but neither do politicians and bureaucrats, which is why they aren’t in a position to impose their ideas on the rest of us. We need freedom to work out social problems for ourselves. If you see a challenge to be met, it’s guaranteed that others see the same problem. Let’s work together to find the answers. Freedom is a necessary condition for finding the best solutions.”
6. Hack your life.
Once you realize that we are living under a central plan for your life and property, you can start to get creative about finding alternatives. You can use technologies to find a new approach to education. You can find better paths toward personal success. You can better manage your finances without the personal debt encouraged by the policies of the Federal Reserve. You can hack your appliances in ways that make them operate better than the regulations allow.
One way that statist lobbying groups have increased the power of government has been to find ways to apply their principles in public life. The greens have become masters of this approach. They have constructed a whole liturgy for our lives whereby we recycle, bike, ration garbage, take short showers, and so on — never mind that these things do next to nothing for the environment. The point is to personalize the political (the opposite of the left’s principle of politicizing the personal).
We libertarians can personalize the political by finding ways around the central plan. These steps are hugely important because they make liberty real in our lives. It is not just an abstraction we hold in our minds, a vague hope of some world that may or may not dawn in the future. The opportunities to live out freedom are all around us. We only need eyes to see and the courage to act.
Before Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged, she knew that it was not enough to write a novel solely about a decaying social order under the iron hand of a corrupt government. She needed characters who felt empowered to do something about it. She ended up with an epic story about a whole generation of entrepreneurs who moved to Galt’s Gulch to build a better world. Their plan of action, as presented in this book, has influenced libertarians for half a century.
No, that doesn’t mean that we must all bail out and move to New Hampshire. It does mean that we must all look for ways to live and innovate without permission from the ruling class, embracing freedom whether our political masters like it or not.
7. Be joyful.
Factionalism is a major joy killer. There is a temptation to become overly embedded in a small circle of opinion, to look for differences (however minute), and to argue tempestuously. When debates are civil and fair, they can lead to intellectual growth. When they become personal and lead to claims that so-and-so is not a real libertarian, they can lead to broken friendships and general acrimony.
No one wins in such joyless struggles. They cause people to lose focus on the critical goal, which is the rise of liberty and the fall of everything that stands in its way. Social media is a wonderful thing, but sometimes technology can exacerbate squabbles rather than build real community. Remember that it takes two to fight, and you can always walk away. That takes discipline and humility, but it preserves relationships. For our own well-being, we need to focus on building a community of ideas, not on purges based on the false hope of purifying the movement.
There is something seriously wrong if the dawning of libertarian consciousness leads to a dour and dreary attitude toward the world and all its works. It should be easy to adopt a joyful view of the world, especially in our times.
We are seeing the failure of 20th-century statist measures in every area of life. All the statists’ fiscal, monetary, and regulatory plans have all failed. Their programs are unraveling. Governments and their leaders have never been more unpopular. Commerce is making an end-run around their schemes every day.
These should be causes of great joy. Libertarians are on the right side of history. We celebrate and seek to defend human rights against all who would take them away. This is a happy pursuit, one that gives our lives added meaning and significance.
Murray Rothbard used to say that fighting the state should be a joyful occupation. In the end, tyranny cannot work. There is just something wonderful about realizing that and seeing how it plays itself out in the real world. Having such joy was effortless for Rothbard because it was part of his personality. For the rest of us, it takes some practice. We should smile at the inevitable failures of the state, feel happy about the liberty all around us, and take comfort in the hope for a future of liberty that is realizable, partly through our own efforts.
Let us remember that when we are talking about human liberty, we are talking about the whole of what makes life itself beautiful. That is a gigantic subject. There are many pathways into the ideas of liberty and many ways of living the ideas, too. That is a beautiful truth, one worthy of lifelong attention and commitment. To make it effective, we should never forget that liberty is about real life, not merely an intellectual abstraction.
Imagine a small group of people going out into the world armed with these seven habits. Soon, that infectious optimism helps grow the group, as more and more people are drawn to its light. Those who doubt, criticize, and clamber for power will come to be seen not as progressive and forward thinking, but rather as stuck in old ways that don’t work. And the group of networked changemakers will prove their value one experiment at a time. People will turn not to the politicians and the paid experts, but to the geeks, volunteers, and entrepreneurs — to those with a vision of a beautiful future. That’s what freedom looks like. And that’s how you change the world with it.