Should We Organize for Liberty?

© 1986 by Robert James Bidinotto. Mr. Bidinotto is contributing editor for On Principle, a biweekly newsletter of political analysis.

The mark of the idealist is his desire to “do something,” to make over the world in the image of his ideals. But there is nothing more tragic than the idealist whose means contradict his ends.

While advocates of liberty understand the contradictions of collectivism, many have failed to recognize contradictions of ends and means within their own camp. The problem usually arises in organized, cooperative activities to promote their shared convictions.

This problem is both sad and enduring. Pro-freedom journals have long chronicled the bitter machinations of feuding factions. Cults of personality and chronic organizational rifts preoccupy many inhabitants of our ideological world. impressive sums of time and money have been expended on bloodletting that would have been the envy of medieval physicians.

What concerns us here are not unavoidable conflicts over philosophical ends, but those avoidable conflicts arising from inappropriate means. Such unnecessary strife is diverting precious thought, energy, and resources from the battle for individual human liberty.

Some years ago, I drafted some thoughts on this subject. Recently, I was reminded of them when I read the late Leonard Read’s “How to Gain Liberty,” and found that he had anticipated many of my own conclusions:

Organization, though much used, seems to be little understood. In the field of extending individual liberty, organization has strictly limited, technical possibilities. Unless these limitations are scrupulously observed, organization will inflict on liberty more harm than good; thwart, not abet, the spread of under standing.[1]

In short, Mr. Read would have asked us to consider the meaning of our principles—and then consider whether those principles really animate our organized activities.

Individualism and Collectivism

The battle for individual liberty is rooted in the wider battle of individualism versus collectivism.

Individualism is a social philosophy prescribing full personal self-responsibility. The individualist accepts the responsibility of thinking for himself (independence), and of acting consistently on his unborrowed vision (integrity).

Collectivism is a social philosophy prescribing individual subordination to some wider collective. It requires individuals to abandon personal moral responsibility, trading their independence and integrity for unthinking obedience and helpless dependency.

To accept uncritically the ideas of others, rendering oneself blind and vulnerable, is the antithesis of independence. And to sever one’s thoughts from one’s actions, heading on an inconsistent and self-defeating course, is the antithesis of integrity.

These considerations are not irrelevant asides. They lead logically to the following conclusion: No activity to establish liberty can succeed while dispensing with the moral and psychological requirements of individualism. Phrased another way: No activity to establish liberty can succeed which fosters authoritarian and dependent personalities.

As Leonard Read put it:

Just as government becomes dangerous when its coercive, restrictive, and destructive powers are extended into the creative areas, so do voluntary organizations pervert and destroy the benefits of intellect when the capacity to merge is carried to the point of subjecting individual judgments to the will of the majority or group. Truth, as each person sees it, is the best that the mind of man has to offer. Its distortion, inevitable when achieving a collective chorus, does injury to understanding.

Is it possible that some groups espousing the free society are “subjecting individual judgments to the will of the majority or group”? Has a form of collectivism afflicted even pro-freedom organizations? Is it even possible to “organize individualism”?

There are several types of cooperative ideological efforts, some consistent with individualism, some not.

I. Orthodoxies

I was once a leader in an idealistic group which promoted a systematic philosophical position. Soon my concern for the identity and integrity of the group drew me into the unwanted role of an ideological policeman of fellow members. More of my efforts became diverted into that role than in advancing the purposes of the group. Board meetings became heated shouting matches, as each of us attempted to preserve the “consistency” of the group as we individually saw it. Our common affiliation turned former friends and allies into bitter foes and rivals. Predictably, the group fell apart.

Some years later, I was hired by a decent, idealistic businessman to head a project to promote the free market system. I had assumed the two of us agreed on what “the free market system” implied. But I soon discovered that we had serious disagreements, even of thrust or emphasis. Paralyzed by competing loyalties to my job, and to my own views, the project failed and the two of us parted company.

Both projects failed because they were structured to be ideological orthodoxies.

An ideological orthodoxy is any group or publication supporting a specific system of ideas, and permitting only authorized interpretations of those ideas to be advanced in the name of the group.

This last qualification is critical. Whose interpretation is to represent the views of all members? Some authority has to define the collective position of any group advancing a systematic viewpoint. If the group’s position is to appear self-consistent, the implications of general principles must be decided upon for all. That is why the orthodoxy cannot tolerate dissent.

The basic problem of the orthodoxy is that of public representation. If people promote a common philosophy individually, no orthodoxy could arise: each person would be assumed to be speaking for himself. But the structure of the orthodoxy links everyone’s views and reputation, making each member a de facto “spokesman” or “representative” of the Common philosophy.

Soon, the leaders become preoccupied with being “misrepresented” by zealous followers; and they then feel impelled to restrain members from making “unauthorized” public statements. For anyone to think independently, creatively, innovatively—or even to disagree occasionally—raises the specter of public “mis representation.” Thus conformity, usually far from the intention of the leadership, becomes the glue holding the group together.

What alternatives are left to an individual in such a structure? He may decide to impose his perspective on the group, by “taking over”—in which case he suppresses the independence of other participants. He may decide to suppress his own views and “go along,” even though he may disagree in principle with some of the group’s positions—in which case he undermines his personal integrity. Or he may decide to quit—in which case he preserves his own independence and integrity by undermining the group.

Hence the endless factionalism, excommunications, schisms, and heretic-burnings which have characterized orthodoxies throughout history. Hence the interminable power straggles, as competing members attempt to purify the group from what they see as heresies. And hence the unsavory behavior that too often afflicts such groups: boot-licking, back- stabbing, bullying, blindness. Authoritarianism and appeasement are the inevitable by-products of every effort to make thought a group process.

Paradoxically, the orthodoxy is spawned of two laudable impulses: the desire for cooperative ideological action, and the desire for integrity and consistency. But when the scope of agreement must include an entire intellectual system, the two impulses contradict each other. That is because no two minds can consistently interpret the vast implications of general principles exactly the same way.

No mind can represent another—not systematically, not philosophically. Total agreement can be based only upon a totally shared context of understanding. That is clearly impossible. And that is the inescapable problem of the orthodoxy. Only the illusion of harmony exists in such groups, an illusion rooted in dogmatic self- suppression, and enforced by authoritarian measures.

Among advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, relatively few orthodoxies have arisen; but those few have had explosive histories. Needless to say, they are hardly consistent with independence and integrity. Orthodox structures may indeed be appropriate to advance collectivism; but they have nothing in common with in dividualism and liberty. They “pervert and destroy the benefits of intellect”—as Mr. Read observed—by “subjecting individual judgments to the will of the majority or group.”

II. Coalitions

In reaction, many proponents of liberty have attempted to escape from the trap of orthodoxy, via the route of coalitions.

Coalitions attempt to build a broad consensus around some vaguely ideological label, slogan, or premise. Common examples include the more ideological political parties, or those groups and publications bearing ambiguous designations such as liberal, conservative, libertarian, socialist, and so on. But unlike the orthodoxy, the coalition’s exact ideology is never precisely defined, unambiguously identified, or fully systematized.

Why? Because identifying such philosophical ramifications would impose “divisive” ideological requirements on members—leading them back into orthodoxy. So, ideological coalitions characteristically issue moralistic pronouncements, while cautiously tiptoeing around any rationales for such pronouncements. In the name of “tolerance,” the coalition rejects authoritarianism . . . for agnosticism.

Lacking a common theoretical base, the coalition’s concerns are reduced to the lowest common denominators of agreement: usually, their common label, and some common enemy.

The common label sustains the illusion of a definite ideological position, while its undefined status permits unrestricted recruiting. Meanwhile, the common enemy cements the coalition, by diverting attention from its unresolved (and unmentionable) identity problems.

Thus the futility of the ideological coalition. It cannot offer a fundamental challenge to society, since it avoids any systematic theory. Eschewing theoretical roots, it cannot tell the public why its pronouncements should be accepted. The same agnosticism that binds the coalition, leaves acceptance of its declarations and assertions in the realm of blind faith.

This is especially apparent in the history of the more ideological political parties. As orthodoxies, such parties rarely attract a broad constituency. Broadening their base of support requires them to tolerate a wider spectrum of members; and to trade explicit, controversial doctrines for more ambiguous slogans and generalizations. But such coalition-building waters down the philosophical identity of the party. So, at some point, party “purists” decide to move in the opposite direction—toward purging heretics and reimposing strict doctrinal requirements. The resulting orthodoxy once again drastically narrows the party’s public appeal.

The dilemma of the ideological political party is that it is attempting to do two competing things: change public opinion, and win public approval. The former can be done only by challenging the audience; the latter, only by resembling it.[2] This dilemma is shared by most coalition groups.

Many pro-freedom organizations and publications are structured as loose, eclectic coalitions. Most have proved impotent and unstable. Invariably, some members become impatient with intellectual self-suppression in the name of “unity,” and try to take over. A running battle then ensues between the group’s “purists” and it’s “pragmatists.” Members are tugged between the two sides, seldom realizing that both are united against the definition of individualism: the authoritarian “purists,” against independent judgment; the agnostic “pragmatists,” against definitions as such.

Happily, the alternatives among cooperative ideological projects are. not limited to orthodoxies or coalitions.

III. Forums

Forums are groups and publications whose participants maintain a platform to promote a range of diverging views.

The essential difference between forums, and orthodoxies or coalitions, is that forums are directed toward the self-education of participants, while both orthodoxies and coalitions are aimed at educating an external audience with a (presumed) common perspective.

There are several types of forums.

1. Unlimited forums are intellectual market-places, open to any and all ideas, with each participant given an unrestricted platform and impartial consideration. It is clearly understood that no participant necessarily represents anyone other than himself. Examples include most letters-to-the-editor columns, broadcast “talk” programs, many “think tanks,” debating societies, and public speaking forums.

Any forum requires some criteria for selecting participants, of course. But in an unlimited forum, that does not include the need to hold certain ideological perspectives. Instead, the choice of participants is usually based upon their reputation, the controversy they might provoke, or the fundamental alternative that they might offer.

The most common objection to supporting an unlimited forum is that one will frequently assist the propagation of views he opposes. But the same criticism might be made of any marketplace. If one truly believes that his perspective would fare well in public competition with others, he will welcome the existence of an unlimited forum. Just as a man should welcome the existence of the economic marketplace (even though he may not like all the goods and services offered), so should he regard a marketplace of ideas as to his long-term interests.

This is especially true for those holding unpopular views in a culture where an intellectual Establishment often ignores minority perspectives. The existence of an outlet for new and unpopular ideas is in the best interests of everyone—most of all, to the world’s smallest minority: the individual. An unlimited forum facilitates innovation, in a manner which respects the integrity and independence of all participants.

2. Limited forums, by contrast, allow only certain categories of views or subjects to be considered, but permit divergent viewpoints and interpretations within those categories. They may be limited either topically, or philo sophically.

a) Topical forums limit participation not by ideological content, but by intellectual context. Examples: the various professional journals, each restricted in subject matter to a narrow field of concern. Within each field of study, divergent viewpoints openly compete. Nobody represents anyone but himself; innovation is encouraged; and the individualist virtues of independence and integrity are fully respected.

b) Philosophical forums limit participation to those sharing common philosophical premises or perspectives; but within that context, various interpretations compete. Examples: journals devoted to the study of Marxism, or Austrian economics, or Freudian psychology—in which writers sharing a common theoretical approach debate fine points and applications. Likewise, a journal or a public speaking forum might devote itself to the study of liberty, and admit a range of contesting perspectives.[3]

There is nothing in the structure of the philosophical forum that violates the requirements of individualism. The only danger is that a philosophical forum may drift beyond its proper limits, and become instead a dogmatic orthodoxy or an agnostic coalition.

For instance, a journal which admits only those articles strictly conforming to some officially authorized “party line” is not a forum. And a journal which advocates a variety of specific political reforms, but which is incoherently eclectic in its arguments and contributors, is not philosophical.

The basic issue is the difference between study and propaganda, between personal education and public activism. A forum aims at the self-education of its participants; coalitions and orthodoxies aim to offer an allegedly united perspective to the public. The philosophical forum, focused on self-education, respects the integrity and independence of participants. The coalition and orthodoxy, requiring unified action, do not.

Those involved in a philosophical forum must be extremely careful that its activities do not cross the boundary line from self-education to public propaganda. To the extent that this occurs, the forum will find itself becoming more unstable and divided over the question: Whose interpretation of our “common” perspective are we going to promote?

The temptation to move from self-education to public activism was often addressed by Leonard Read, and never more forthrightly than in “How to Gain Liberty”:

The best thing to do even in an intellectual fight for liberty, many think, is to organize—which is a form of action. Usually they think in terms of organizing someone else to do something instead of organizing their own time and energies . . . . This mania for organizing is usually little more than an effort, doubtless unwitting, to transfer responsibility from oneself to some other person or persons whose competence is often unknown. . . .

Is there any way, beyond self-education, for individualists to make common cause?

IV. Ad Hoc Projects

Ad hoc projects are organized with predefined and carefully delimited positions on predetermined issues.

Examples: A committee is formed by fans of a book to distribute it to libraries. A film project is undertaken by those who like a particular story. A petition is circulated by those who agree with its wording. Backers of a particular political candidate work to elect him to office.

Observe that while such projects require some agreement by all participants, that agreement is specific, delimited, and predetermined. No system of abstract ideas, requiring somebody’s eventual interpretation, is promoted; participants do not “represent” each other beyond the predetermined area of agreement; and thus, the independence and integrity of all is respected and maintained.

By definition, any group based upon some abstract idea(s), and which must constantly interpret or apply its doctrines to new issues, is not limited and is not ad hoc. Groups always redefining their identities with new platforms, goals, and positions are guilty of a kind of “bait-and-switch” fraud. They are not the same groups established by their founders. After joining with certain expectations, a member may be dismayed to find his group turning into something quite different.

I was once a board member of an ad hoc organization promoting passage of state tax-limitation laws. To this end, the group rallied broad support and was highly successful. But in time, its leaders began to plot ambitious goals beyond the realm of taxation. In addition, they proposed that all board members make their public positions conform to those of the board’s majority. The combined effect was to require conformity on unlimited future issues. Needless to say, a number of us quit; and the “new” group has since achieved nothing.

Ad hoc projects bypass such problems by being structured to avoid them. They minimize discord, are flexible in what they can be designed to accomplish, focus everyone’s energies on a narrow range of concerns, respect the individuality of all participants, and thus maximize the chances of success. They recognize what I shall call “Bidinotto’s Law of Organizations”: The narrower a group’s philosophical agenda, the broader its public appeal; the broader the range of required agreement, the narrower its public appeal.

Ad hoc projects are the best means of engaging in political activism. Those attracted to politics should not try to “take over” the major parties—or even establish some “party of principle” of their own. For all the reasons cited above, such attempts will result either in an orthodoxy, or some unstable and ineffective coalition. Instead, would-be candidates should run either as independents, or as nominal members of the (non-ideological) major parties—fully recognizing that a political candidacy is not the best forum for public education.

The Ideal Alternative

Limiting cooperative efforts to those structures consistent with individualism might seem depressingly restrictive—especially to those whose fantasy is to lead a mass crusade. Those so moved would do well to read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer.[4] Their vision might be called many things; “individualist” is not one of them.

But it is not my purpose to single out individuals and groups for criticism. Most idealistic activists are not aware that there are principles underlying organizational structures, and have simply chosen among the available options. This writer himself has learned the principles of individualist cooperation the hard way.

The greatest lesson I learned is that the ideal solution to the problems of organized individualism is the simple individualism of a personal career. The most influential and innovative idealists in history have acted alone, in personal undertakings, loyal only to the inner voice of their convictions. Those at a loss for things to do, would do well to follow their example. Said Leonard Read:

Action? The casual thinker might imagine that the best course is to try to tell others what to do and how to think. But reason supplies a contrary answer. It suggests that pursuit of one’s own personal understanding is the only practical action for one to take. . . . Some persons will assert . . . that this suggested student approach—this process of self-improvement—is too slow to meet the challenge of these times. . . . But, in my opinion, there is no short cut. The only way to truth—that is, to understanding—is through one’s own person.

The world is stampeding toward collectivism in an orgy of organizing. Let advocates of liberty remember that in individual understanding lies our power, and in the individual life, our glory. []

1.   Leonard Read, “How to Gain Liberty,” a 1955 essay reprinted in The Freeman, January 1986. All subsequent quotations from Mr. Read are from this article.

2.   Robert James Bidinotto, “Marketing the Free Market.” Notes from FEE, January 1984, In this essay. I dealt with these two competing approaches as, respectively, the “exemplar” and the “salesman” strategies.

3.   The Freeman has been fulfilling this role for many years.

4.   Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (New York; Harper & Row, 1951).