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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How a Fringe of Freedom-Lovers Can Change the World

This is part III of a series examining how radical philosophies can effect social change. Part I, “Do Movements Matter?”, explores the ways in which movements fall short of the radical ideals that inspired them. Part II, “The Remnant: An Alternative to Movements,” looks at how the Remnant is a superior solution for social change.

Albert Jay Nock’s famous essay “Isaiah’s Job” includes a description of the It is a source of inspiration to know that there will always be, no matter what, a group of people who go against the grain.Remnant — a small group of individuals tirelessly devoted to the idea of individual freedom — that may strike some as the depressing and pessimistic scribbles of a failed classical liberal at a time of growing state power and decreasing individual autonomy. There is another way to read this, though. It is a source of inspiration and optimism to know that there will always be, no matter what, a group of people who go against the grain. These people may be difficult to find and limited in their number at times, but they are never totally extinguished in the fight against the rising tide of the collective.

From heroes fighting to save people from the crushing gears of the state, like Sir Nicholas Winton during the Holocaust, to the tireless creator striving forward in value creation while others seek government assistance, like John Allison of BB&T during the 2008 Financial Crisis, these individuals are the spark that keeps the slow fire of social change burning on the behalf of the cause of individual liberty.

The Remnant does not just come in the form of individuals fighting against the collective to simply slow the tide of state growth. There are times when this small group of individuals, tirelessly working away at their task, can slowly implement social change that does not require the intervention of the state or a revolution ushering their role. There are at least two ways this can happen.

1. Under-the-Radar Education and Lifestyle

The Remnant can impact social change through slow and steady education and lifestyle choices over many years. It’s important that these two are combined together. This helps the Remnant not only spread its message through different media and outlets, but it also helps change the perception of those outside of the Remnant of the lifestyle choices and social agenda of its members.

Members may organize occasionally to learn the best education and lifestyle practices available, but there is no real “movement” in any formal, organized sense of the word. There is no spokesperson of the Remnant, no “must-be-at-conference,” no dicta, no stasi expelling members who don’t do things correctly. This is because this path to social change is not a conscious path to social change at all. Rather, it is just the organic and spontaneous result of the members of the Remnant living out their lives in the way they see most effective for themselves. As more people discover the Remnant’s lifestyle and the reason’s why its members choose to do and believe the things they do, more may trickle in to their ranks — but there is no organized recruitment effort, no end-goal (besides ad hoc cases to make it easier for members to live their lives), and no over-arching agenda outside of its members.

The social change comes from a result of the means through which the members of the Remnant live out their beliefs, not through a political effort to reach some kind of end, but just by living. 

Case Study: Homeschooling in the United States

One of the best possible examples of social change happening through education The Remnant path to social change comes from members simply living.and lifestyle choices over many years is the rise of homeschooling, or home education, in the United States. Just from 2003 to 2012, the number of families openly home educating their children in the United States jumped more than 61%. And not just among the stereotypical homeschool family.

The reasons for home education are plenty and many families choose to do it because it best reflects their desired lifestyle choices and values. For some, it takes the form of imitating a curriculum-based traditional school. For others, it looks absolutely nothing like school and more resembles free play. There are plenty of variants in between.

The important thing is that all share the common characteristic of being outside of the compulsory state school system in the United States, and all focus more on the family as the core locus of control (with some placing a higher emphasis on the individual children than others).

There was no homeschooling movement in the formal sense of the word. There are conferences, but they work more as tools for parents to discover curricula and to meet each other. There were no leaders and no policy pushes. Besides the occasional ad hoc legal battle between a family and a state government, active policy changes weren’t the first or primary goals of participants in homeschooling. They just wanted to live their lives.

After years of doing exactly this and chronicling their pursuits through books, videos, blogs, and magazines, they saw a dramatic upswing in not only the number of families homeschooling but also in the general acceptance of the practice. People met homeschoolers and saw that they weren’t all wearing denim skirts and churning butter all day. Families decided to homeschool and their children grew up to become functional adults. It wasn’t just that government schools kept failing, but homeschoolers kept exceeding expectations for those outside of the homeschooling Remnant.

What caused the sudden increase during the beginning of the 21st Century? The most likely explanation, beyond the slow-but-steady increasing acceptance of the practice, is simply that technology lowered the cost of home education dramatically. No longer did parents have to hire an expensive math tutor to access what could be found through a simple Google search. Unschooling became easier for those who wanted their children exposed to technology. Home education co-ops could form and connect with each other through the Internet. Technology lowered the cost of home education so much that the perceived benefits outweighed the costs for those on the margin.

2. Production and Entrepreneurship

While the first way that Remnants can change society at large focuses on the internal functions of the Remnant community, the second is more outwardly focused. Production and entrepreneurship are effective ways of changing the experiences of individuals outside of the Remnant without having to sell them on the fundamental values and beliefs of its members.

While effective entrepreneurship does involve a level of organization, it is starkly These aren’t simply services that are opening up existing markets. They’re creating entirely new marketplaces.different than the type of organization involved in political movements. Entrepreneurs recruit what is at first merely a small cadre of fellow-travelers, not unlike a family, to create marginal improvements on the status quo.

These improvements manifest themselves as products that consumers can purchase to use without necessarily passing a litmus test for values or beliefs. It is through using these products that the behaviors of individuals outside of the Remnant change. This is the beginning of social change. What was once unacceptable or unfathomable to many now becomes commonplace. Political actors may follow in the hopes of not losing their jobs, but their action is a mere afterthought, not the driving force.

Case Study: The Sharing Economy

The rise of the Sharing Economy is an oft-cited example of how entrepreneurs can create social change. Savvy entrepreneurs launch companies like Uber and Airbnb, which lead consumers to change their behaviors (e.g., taking Ubers rather than taxis, staying in homes rather than hotels), and politicians eventually follow along in support of the services after they discover (usually the hard way) that consumers actually like the services.

But they go much deeper than that. These aren’t simply services that are opening up existing markets for people by connecting them to resources like empty cars and houses. They’re creating entirely new marketplaces.

Uber’s market is not, contrary to some popular belief, “people who will take cabs.” It’s “people who will get in a car with a stranger who will drop them off at their destination.” Sometimes these two markets overlap, but they don’t have to for Uber to succeed. 

Airbnb’s market is not “people who will stay in hotels.” It’s “people who will stay in a stranger’s home.”

This has a much bigger impact beyond simply disrupting taxis and hotels. It changes our perception of how we view our property. It gives everybody who owns a car or a house (i.e., capital) the ability to become a capitalist. This is a monumental shift in the economy for people who would never otherwise think of themselves as capitalists. 

The great thing about the services is that they don’t require people to explicitly buy into capitalist belief systems in order to have skin in the game to defend capitalism. There are Marxist Uber drivers and customers who don’t want the government to ban Uber. There are hippie progressive homeowners who don’t want to be prevented from renting their house out on Airbnb. It doesn’t matter that their ideologies contradict their beliefs on these issues — they’re now involved in making the world a better place for capitalists.

  • Zak Slayback is a venture capital and private equity professional and a small business owner. He is the author of How to Get Ahead (McGraw-Hill, 2019) and wrote the foreword to John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (New Society Publishers, 2017). He lives in the United States and writes at He is a Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow and FEE alum.