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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Anti-Force Is the Common Denominator

Allow me to alter something the great humorist Will Rogers said: “I’m not a member of any organized group. I’m a libertarian.” I wince a bit as I say that, though. Let me explain.

Labels such as “libertarian” aren’t always illuminating. Sometimes they serve as expedient substitutes for thought—as in, “Oh, he’s one of those!” When pressed to cough up a label to describe myself, I sometimes employ “libertarian” but not without adding a caveat or two so no one assumes I’m referring to a political party or that my position on certain hot-button issues must be this or that. On other occasions I call myself a “classical liberal,” but unless I have time to explain it, confused listeners wonder how that differs from the “liberals” of today. “Voluntaryist” (of the British philosopher Auberon Herbert variety) describes my political, ethical, and economic leanings most accurately—unfortunately, though, few people have ever heard the term.

I am also other things as well. I’m an “Austrian” economist (while appreciating numerous positive contributions from other schools of thought). I’m a Christian who is also a rationalist because I believe reason in an ordered universe is a divine gift. Though I don’t embrace Ayn Rand’s atheism, like her I am a fervent advocate of capitalism who endorses man’s inalienable rights, the roles of the producer and entrepreneur, and the magnificence of the creative mind. I’m a conservative in the sense that I value many time-tested traditions, even if I oppose mandating them by legislative fiat. I’m a moralist because I think moral principles like honesty, independence, courage, and self-discipline are both good and indispensable ingredients for a free society. Readers might recall that in the January issue I happily labeled myself a latter-day “Locofoco.”

Each person’s order of values, focus of attention, and expertise are unique to him—so one can be a libertarian, broadly speaking, and still call himself an Objectivist or an Austrian or a voluntaryist or a classical liberal or a Christian or an atheist or a moralist or a conservative or even two or more of those things.

Blessed with many friends in all these camps, I endeavor to make enemies in none. I lament those occasions when disagreement leads to hostility between people who are otherwise allies on most issues. If you aim to make progress for the larger cause, then tolerance, bridge-building, and finding common ground (none of which necessitates compromise on fundamental principles) seem more appropriate than picking fights. What’s the point of self-righteous breast-beating?

While I don’t label myself an Objectivist, I love this quote (and many others) from Ayn Rand: “When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion—when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing—when you see money flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors—when you see that men get richer by graft and pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you—when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice—you may know that your society is doomed.”

A friend posted this on Facebook recently: “If FEE and other libertarian-leaning orgs would drop all their religious baggage, I could support them wholeheartedly.” I felt compelled to reply, “No one at FEE claims that you must be ‘religious’ to value and support liberty. We respect all people of faith, or no faith, so long as they do not initiate force against their fellow citizens. And because we judge people for the individuals they are, not for the ‘group’ someone says they’re in or by the label somebody attaches to them, we don’t condemn all people of faith for the wrongs of a few any more than we would condemn all atheists for the wrongs of a Stalin or a Mao. A person’s faith or lack thereof is just that—personal—and not a requirement to support property rights.”

I wasn’t trying to convert that person to my faith, nor did I seek to escalate the exchange into a parting of the ways. I attempted to defuse it by emphasizing what I thought was friendly territory: Both of us would like to see much less initiation of force in society. We live in a world where lots of misguided people are not satisfied that there’s enough of it yet. They advocate more initiation of force, as evidenced by their desires to deal with every problem under the sun by creating another tax-supported government program. I saw this Facebook acquaintance as an ally not an enemy. And that’s the way it ought to be, it seems to me, if those of us who believe in liberty really want to win.

Allow me to share with you a few paragraphs from my May 2007 Freeman column. They might form a basis for more amicable relations between factions that now see themselves as opponents:

A mature, responsible adult neither seeks undue power over other adults nor wishes to see others subjected to anyone’s controlling schemes and fantasies: This is the traditional meaning of liberty. It’s the rationale for limiting the force of government in our lives. In a free society the power of love, not the love of power, governs our behavior.

Consider what we do in our political lives these days—and an unfortunate erosion of freedom becomes painfully evident. It’s a commentary on the ascendancy of the love of power over the power of love. We have granted command of over 40 percent of our incomes to federal, state, and local governments, compared to 6 or 7 percent a century ago. And more than a few Americans seem to think that 40 percent still isn’t enough.

We claim to love our fellow citizens while we hand government ever more power over their lives, hopes, and pocketbooks. We’ve erected what Margaret Thatcher derisively termed the “nanny state,” in which we as adults are pushed around, dictated to, hemmed in, and smothered with good intentions as if we’re still children.

It boils down to this: I don’t much care what you call yourself, but if you want to see a hefty reduction in the initiation of force in society, then you’re an ally I want to collaborate with. Let’s focus not on our differences but on changing the ideas of those who are working in the other direction.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is