I volunteer for American Red Cross as a disaster team leader, responding to house fires and other small-scale incidents in the Detroit area to help people in need with basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter for the night. An acquaintance of mine recently said to me, “I’m shocked that you’d do that. I mean, you’re a libertarian, aren’t you? Shouldn’t those people sift through the ashes to find an unburned bootstrap to pull themselves up by?”
“I’m just practicing what I preach,” I told him. “I don’t want to live in a society where people don’t help each other when tragedy strikes, but I just don’t think the government’s the right way to deliver that help. I choose to spend my time this way, and donors choose to support the Red Cross so that I have the resources to help people when they need it. We’re all working together to do good voluntarily because we think it’s the right thing to do. So, I’d argue that my volunteer disaster relief isn’t inconsistent with libertarianism; rather, it’s a perfect example of what we talk about.”
“If more libertarians were like that, I’d take you guys more seriously,” he responded.
“Most are,” I assured him. “The selfish jerks are just louder about it.”
In this interaction, I recognized both the problem and a solution in the fight to educate people on what a free society really means. The problem, as we all know too well, is that we’re assumed to love liberty because it allows us to be selfish and cruel. We’re all heartless, mustache-twirling baby formula poisoners, lunch counter segregationists, and toll road ticket-takers who like our smokestacks like we like our marijuana — unfiltered.
And to be sure, there are plenty of people who consider themselves libertarians who love the idea of freedom because they like the idea of a society where nobody can stop them from being as terrible as they want to be. You may have met them on the Internet.
Don’t Be Brutal
We want the same things. Where you and I may disagree is how to get there. Unfortunately, a philosophy that gives people the freedom to be jerks as long as they’re not hurting anybody else does seem to attract jerks to its cause. Jeffrey Tucker at the Foundation for Economic Education memorably named these “brutalist” libertarians, as opposed to “humanitarians.” Which team would you rather be on?
Personally, I'm not a libertarian because I care about what's good for me; I'm a libertarian because I care about what's good for everyone. And I truly believe that in this, I’m firmly in the mainstream of libertarianism. Most libertarians of my acquaintance are decent, caring people who do good in their communities. They want the world to be freer not only for themselves but because they believe freedom makes life better for everyone.
That’s why the best way to fight the stereotype and misperceptions isn’t to say, “Well, actually,” and quote Rand or Mises or Hayek or Friedman or whomever. (That comes later.) The best way to change minds one at a time about what kind of society we’d have if people like us got our way is simply to show how much you care about living in a good and decent society. Make it clear that you’re trying to create, not destroy. Start not from philosophical first principles, but from humanitarian ones that you share with your audience.
For example, I said to my skeptical acquaintance, “We want the same things. You and I both want people to be happy and healthy and prosperous. We want kids to grow up smart and capable and better off than we are. We want clean water and clean air and safe food. We want to be safe to go about our lives free from fear of anybody else, for whatever reason. Where you and I may disagree is how to get there.
“Personally, I believe a society where people make their own choices about what’s best for them is more likely to achieve those goals that than one where politicians decide who gets what,” I added. “I spent time in Eastern Europe right after the Wall came down in the early 1990s. They’d tried for equality and produced misery.”
It’s the Society, Stupid
Don’t champion liberty. Champion the good that liberty can do. Showing a concern for society but disdain (at best) for government can be challenging for some audiences to understand. I personally borrow heavily from Frédéric Bastiat in explaining this dichotomy: I want people to have food, but I don’t think government farms are the answer. I want people to be able to practice their religious faith free from persecution, but I don’t think government churches are the answer. I want people to have jobs, but I don’t think a government-run economy is the answer. I want kids to be educated, but I don’t think government schools are the answer.
If you lead by agreeing with your audience on basic human decency, you’ve struck a blow against our stereotypes and created the potential for more agreement. If it turns out they agree with you on that important stuff, what else might they find you saying that makes sense? And if they talk to enough libertarians who approach the future that way, who knows what could happen?
In short, don’t champion liberty. Rather, champion the good that liberty can do. Show that you care and that there’s more of us like that out there than there are the jerks who give freedom a bad name. Be the humanitarian, not the brutalist, and win both hearts and minds for freedom.