All Commentary
Tuesday, January 1, 1974

The Voluntarist’s Role

Mr. Foley, a partner in Souther, Spaulding, Kinsey, Williamson & Schwabe, practices law in Portland, Oregon.

The committed libertarian abides on at least two levels. Initially, a practitioner of freedom must understand that which he practices. We never cease being students of liberty. No one can truly say that he has fully mastered the art, for the process appears to be an ongoing endeavor. Self-understanding of freedom represents an obligation which cannot be fulfilled, even with a lifetime of effort. The role of the free market, the concept of limited government, the ideal of individual freedom and initiative in a voluntary society, all command attention to their myriad applications in day-to-day living.

Nevertheless, seminal mastery of the idea of liberty impels recognition of a second-level enterprise: implementation of the freedom ethic. At this level of development, the voluntarist¹ has gained sufficient maturity and knowledge to enjoy a partial command of his subject; he now quests for ways and means of branching forth, of inculcating like beliefs in other individuals in the hope that practice will replace theory in our world.

An immediate problem confronts each of us as we emerge from the cocoon of internal analysis to the incipient butterfly of action — we are outnumbered, we are outflanked, and we face a plethora of brush fires scorching what precious little freedom remains to us. Too often the tendency is to throw up our hands in horror, bemoan the lack of full-time “freedom fighters,” and drop out of the fray.

Such a reaction should not surprise anyone, for we perceive attacks on liberty on all fronts. Reflect briefly on a few. The Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 commandeers the allegedly private but actually publicly controlled banking system into full-time espionage by requiring all banks to microfilm and preserve copies of all of our checks for governmental inspection and use. Now, if a private citizen or entity undertook such a project to build a dossier on every citizen in the nation, or if the FBI pursued such a course of conduct without court authority, the hue and cry of “police state” would ring in our ears; yet, when a benevolent government deals thus with its citizens in the economic realm, scarcely a bleat is heard above the din of approval. Nevertheless, one cannot imagine a more virulent excursion into personal rights; whose business is it if I write checks to FEE, or to the IRS, or to the local massage parlor? Not the state’s business, to be sure!

Laws Against Gold

Again, consider the legislative norms and executive decrees which coalesce and prohibit American citizens from owning gold.2 Perhaps a case might be made for inhibiting certain individuals with proven dangerous propensities from possessing instruments of destruction, like hydrogen bombs, plastic explosives or M-1 rifles. No such case exists for depriving anyone from converting the value he has created into any form he desires: gold, tobacco, wampum, or Hershey bars. Some befuddled economist named Keynes once labeled gold a “barbarous relic”; that act provides no reason to prohibit me from seeking refuge in a metal which I believe constitutes a store of value in these perilous economic times. The voluntarist believes that the creator of value ought to be able to spend, save, or waste that value in any way he sees fit, so long as he does no harm to others exercising an equal and reciprocal freedom. Only the possessor can assimilate and reflectively act upon the myriad bits of information which integrate into making the decision of the best choice for the actor under the circumstances.

Protectors of Consumers

Another petty coercion appears in the self-styled knights-errant who pose in the garb of protectors of the consumer. The Nader-like “public interest research groups” (PIRG’s), which proliferate like rabbits, offer an apt example.

Now, I normally feel competent, as a consumer, to decide what I wish to purchase; at the very least, I possess adequate acumen that if I try a bar of Grandma’s Lye Soap and discover that it is not up to snuff, I usually have little difficulty in dissuading myself from identical future purchases. A like-minded citizenry, operating on choice rather than coercion, will see to it that Grandma’s Lye Soap goes out of business if it fails to produce desirable results. This vote — the dollar vote — represents the true key to economic democracy. Only producers who offer something of value desired by purchasers will continue to operate. The inefficient or incompetent producer will exhibit only a warehouse of unsold lye soap for his effort.

PIRG’s arouse my animosity not because of their ends, some of which are laudable, but because of the means used to achieve those ends.3 PIRG’s seek to warn consumers of frauds and deceptions. While doubting that such unofficial alarm systems operate very effectively and efficiently, few men of good will condone force or fraud in any guise, and all cheer efforts to allay such practices.

But PIRG’s invite rational attack because their very means are coercive and deceptive: most are funded by monies extorted from other individuals (often nonconsenting students merely seeking an education at state supported institutions of higher learning) or taxpayers who do not agree with the ends sought, the means employed, or who simply want to exercise their own right of free choice. No libertarian can consistently deny the right of others to band together for protection against fraud; he can take umbrage at being mulcted to support their activities.

Safety Glasses

Can our sensitivities stand yet another example? The Safety Optics Act represents Congressional and bureaucratic usurpation of private rights to the nth degree. All eyeglasses (save a very few) must conform to rigid standards better fit for construction workers or jackhammer operators than for lawyers or housewives. These almost impossible requirements, enacted in the guise of public safety, increase the cost of prescription lenses (needlessly for the aged who generally can ill afford the charge and who seldom engage in hazardous activities), not to mention the time one must forego needed lenses while his new glasses undergo endless testing. No one challenges the propriety of a party bargaining for strong, glare treated, shatterproof, crack-resistant eyeglasses on a voluntary basis, but no one should compel another individual to accept only those lenses some person or group thinks “desirable.” Risk is a part of living and, contrary to a peculiar statist notion, no one can legislate the risk out of life and produce an entirely wholesome and antiseptic world. Eliminate risk (assuming the possibility), and you have eliminated one element which forms the very verve and vitality of life.

Unwarranted Interferences

Other petty coercions appear hourly on the modern scene. While too numerous to catalog, the aspiring voluntarist can learn to recognize them and to accept these irritations for their true nature. Any time the state, the organized force of society, aids one individual or group at the expense of another individual or group, or inhibits free action of any citizen not engaged in coercive practices, it has overstepped its proper bounds and trampled freedom in the process. Every subsidy, every restraint of free trade, every inhibition on personal voluntary action, every censorship, and all other rules of that ilk, demand condemnation precisely because they represent irrational and immoral interferences with the sacred life given to each human being.

The existence and proliferation of these mighty and petty ravages of freedom typically impel the second-stage volunteer to one of two courses of conduct. Either he laments his case as hopeless and hides himself into seclusion (the passive reaction), or he “rails against folly,”4 peripatetically flailing about at real and imagined targets (the active reaction).

The passive reaction mourns the lack of full-time “freedom fighters” to wage battle on behalf of all who love liberty. Yet each of us should commit himself to the fray. We cannot combat by proxy and exhibit the effectiveness necessary to carry the day. Success requires analysis, input and action from diverse individuals and groups, not a canned, one-dimensional, sterile approach.

The active reaction: action. Refuse to comply! Circumvent the law! To jail, if necessary, all to make a point! But to whom would the point be made? To the countless pre-reflective individuals, both within and without the political apparatus? Not likely, for they cannot comprehend the meaning connected with the act. A few, if they knew, might understand. The actor, too, would understand and would rest easily with his conscience for he would know that he performed morally by refusing to become a willing participant in coercion. A free man in an unfree world.

The Reflective Reaction

An alternative exists: the reflective reaction: persuasion first of self, then of those roundabout who voluntarily listen, whose thirst for understanding brings them within the ambit of your light. Isn’t this more sensible than “railing against folly,” than running off in six different directions at once, waiving at poltergeists and tilting at windmills? A cool, calculated and objective approach merits consideration, and, probably, assures a greater measure of success and satisfaction.

By this methodology I do not advocate some mere passive resistance, retiring to a virgin mountaintop where one can think great thoughts. Whilst I remain of philosophical bent, I advocate action, but reflective, effective action. The time is now, the need acute, the task tremendous. We must summon all of our strength, our intelligence, our prayers to the endeavor; but this means convening our energies and employing them in a calculated and rational manner. The engaging little statists who tear about our society can be effectively defanged if individualists keep the faith, improve their own understanding, eschew preaching, exhibit a joyful demeanor, live their lives consistently in accordance with their philosophy, and light a few brush fires of their own along the way. Let us briefly examine these guidelines.

Keep the Faith

First, we must keep the faith. Withdrawal admits defeat. It hides our light from the rest of the world, for the faithless exude poor candlepower. We must believe, truly believe, in our basic precepts and act upon that belief.

Second, each of us must improve his understanding of the nature and philosophy of the freedom doctrine. As noted at the outset, this never-ending task will consume our whole life and dominate our whole being, for no one of us can accomplish perfect freedom even with a lifetime of effort. Reading, thinking, conversing with others of both like and unlike minds will propel us on our way in this regard. Growth represents our goal, for man is a “becoming” creature.

Third, we must avoid the tendency to preach to others, for no one listens much to a “know-it‑all.”5 Like the converted sinner filled to the brim with the miracle of his conversion, the libertarian after long periods of study often appears so full of exuberance that he feels he must spray forth his beliefs or burst. Yet we know from common experience that the energetic young preacher detracts from his message when he intrudes so deeply into the conversation that he dominates all others. Each of us wants very much to be heard, to have other beings place value on his utterances. The libertarian must learn to listen as well as to speak, to offer his light in small bits, easy to assimilate. Electricity provides wonderful gifts, but none of our appliances can effectively use this source as it arrives from the powerhouse; the energy must be broken down into usable quantities and forces by means of a series of complicated distribution systems and transformers. The freedom devotee must provide his own transformer. Patience and perseverance represent ultimate values in this regard.

Compassion and Joy

Fourth, forget not the need for calmness, compassion and joy. Treat each human being as a human being, not as an object to be mauled and manipulated. Statists view mankind as so much putty to be molded by the social architect; libertarians conceive of man as possessed of a soul, of dignity, of intrinsic worth qua person. Far too often, gloom and darkness pervade the setting of the voluntarist and seem to follow him about like a dark cloud. Perhaps this state is caused by the gravity of the situation where statism seems to be winning on every side, or by the serious questions we constantly consider. But such an attitude ignores the solace of our own beliefs and the essential nature of our endeavor. The freedom philosophy offers a lilting rhapsody to man in this world; the tenets of our faith recognize that individuals, while imperfect, are capable of great creative and productive strides. Long faces have no place here, for life for the free man offers an exciting challenge and an exhilarating road to follow. Above all, we must retain a sense of humor ere we lose our stability and our effectiveness in the process. An ability to laugh, even at ourselves, in the face of overwhelming chaos, bodes well for the future success. Fifth, we must live our lives consistently and in accordance with our philosophy. Consistency represents a major virtue. All too often purported believers in the freedom ethic act altogether irrationally when they move from their chosen discipline into a related arena. Nothing can quell a questing audience more quickly than an actor who belies his words by inconsistent deeds. The libertarian who accepts government subsidies or competitive advantages deviates as much from his beliefs as the hypocritical Christian who cheats his fellow man on Monday morning. No one will be attracted to voluntarism by cant or deceit. No one can truly express libertarian thought without living his life in harmony with those principles.

Signal Fires

Sixth, after all of the foregoing we must light a few brush fires along the way, to illuminate the path we call right and just. Libertarians assume a defensive posture in many instances: they are labeled “against” social security, wage and price and rent controls, the Federal Reserve System, criminalization of sexual conduct between consenting adults, and myriad other sanctions. Our role includes patient explanation of the fundamental principles underlying these positions: it also includes much more. Each of us must explain the affirmative of the individualist faith: belief in the dignity of individual man and his power to choose rationally between alternatives, in the right of each human being to live his life strictly, solely, and uniquely in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience without interference from others save in the event that he acts coercively or fraudulently.

The signal fires I suggest can take many forms far beyond my limited imagination — so long as they truly reflect these basic principles. For example, libertarians living in a state which permits direct legislative action (initiative, referendum, recall) can refer odious legislation, initiate laws which repeal subsidies, recall venal public officials, and the like. Committed libertarians can seek elective office if such a course does not conflict with their concern with power.6 Yet reflective people must sound a caveat, for political power is power — force — and such tools must be carefully used lest we violate the noncoercive principles underlying the freedom ethic.

Respect Differences

My advocacy of brush fires exemplifies a concomitant thought:

I do not join the throng which decries the so-called fragmentation of the “right,” the tendency of libertarians to heed distinct tocsins. Some of us exhibit more concern with an ordered civilization; some of us carry the label “traditionalist,” others “libertarian,” still others “conservative”; some of us consider defense posture important, while others denounce local interferences with our lives in one of the many real and touching guises. Yet our very real strength lies in our diversity, our individuality, not in our being a “cohesive political force”; save the latter for the modern-day liberal who enjoys one mindedness! We may exhibit minor philosophical differences between each other —after all, men are individuals, not carbon copies of one another —but we possess many more values in common with other voluntarists than we do with the statists.

Finally, let us display optimism in the ultimate success of our venture. It is quite easy to harken to the many and varied lootings of value which occur daily and to fall into despondency, but such an attitude serves no one well. See the light against the dark morning sky: each evil little scheme presents one or more of us with a grand opportunity to light his candle for freedom.


¹ I use “libertarian” and “voluntarist” interchangeably to mean one committed to the precepts of individual liberty briefly noted in the opening paragraph.

² See Holzer, Henry Marsh, “How Americans Lost Their Right to Own Gold —and Became Criminals in the Process,” 39 Brooklyn Law Review 517-557 (1973).

3 Remember Emerson’s caveat: “The ends pre-exist in the means.” See Read, Leonard E., “The Bloom Pre-Exists in the Seed,” Let Freedom Reign (The Foundation For Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-On-Hudson, New York 1969) 78-86. Nowhere does this warning appear more starkly than in the instant setting.

4 See Read, Leonard E., “Railing Against Folly” (unpublished essay).

5 See Read, Leonard E., Who’s Listening? (The Foundation For Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 1973) especially 1-10.

6 Like Dr. Ludwig von Mises, if granted power, I would abdicate; that position does not mean that all voluntarists share such a view. Certainly, we need lawmakers and judges to administer common justice, adjudicate disputes, define crimes, prepare and provision armies, and administer those relatively few laws necessary to a free and ordered society.  

  • Ridgway K. Foley Jr. is a litigation lawyer who is passionate about individual and economic freedom, and has authored numerous scholarly articles on related subjects.