I’m spending a few days at the State Policy Network annual convention. It might sound boring, but it has actually been tremendously fascinating and intellectually exhilarating.
There are 1,300 people here, most of whom are associated with a think tank, research firm, consulting group, or lobbying team dedicated to holding back government expansion in every area of life. Nearly everyone here would identify themselves as some kind of libertarian. But it is not ideology on display here, but rather the nuts and bolts of policy effectiveness.
This large and growing network is a kind of defense structure against despotism at all levels of society. You may not have noticed, but the freedom movement has become incredibly sophisticated over the last 15 or so years. Every state has at least one liberty think tank or research institute. They pump out policy studies. Their staff are available for interviews. They go on TV. They write for local papers. They get to know the policy process and work to hack it. They are technologically advanced and have become experts in communication.
And what do they focus on? Taxes, bond ripoffs, infrastructure scams, over-policing, asset forfeiture, government schooling monopolies, zoning laws, professional licensure, and a thousand other ways that government restricts our liberties. They aren’t just against stuff; they also work to defend entrepreneurship, free enterprise, technology, privacy, and liberty in general. These institutes are small and work in cooperation with many outside specialists.
The Vanguard of Freedom Lovers
It’s best to think of this large and growing network as a kind of defense structure against despotism at all levels of society. Government’s natural tendency is to expand; these groups, so essential for our freedoms, are the counterweight. And their counterpressure is applied in every area: media, legislative, legal, and intellectual.
It’s remarkable how effective the network is becoming. As just one example among a thousand, the Beacon Center of Tennessee was hugely instrumental in the repeal of the income tax in the state, making Tennessee one of only two states to have ever done this. The Center was the driving force for making this happen, with studies, ads, testimony, and doing the hard work of personal networking to achieve it. Its activities might not have been a sufficient condition for success, but they were necessary.
There is no one magic button to cause freedom to appear. I went to a seminar put on by the team that made this happen, and I was thrilled to learn about all the techniques and strategies they used. I was struck by the sheer complexity of the policy-making system and how it all comes together. Also, I was encouraged to learn just how possible it truly is to disrupt the system if you know exactly what you are doing.
Many pieces of the puzzle have to come together. There is no one magic button. You need public opinion. You need good writers and reporters. You need sympathetic legislators and even judges. You need friendly academics. You need the best technology for reaching the public. It is a science and an art. But when it all comes together, beautiful things for human freedom can happen.
As I listened to the presentation, my mind went back to an essay written by Henry Hazlitt in 1968. He was frustrated that so many libertarians are content with spouting cliches and generalities, but not enough were interested in beating back statism with real skill, expertise, and technique brought to bear on specific issues. He rightly said that the aloof and amateurish approach would never work, and that we needed to adopt a better way.
And so he said the following:
We libertarians cannot content ourselves merely with repeating pious generalities about liberty, free enterprise, and limited government. To assert and repeat these general principles is absolutely necessary, of course, either as prologue or conclusion. But if we hope to be individually or collectively effective, we must individually master a great deal of detailed knowledge, and make ourselves specialists in one or two lines, so that we can show how our libertarian principles apply in special fields, and so that we can convincingly dispute the proponents of statist schemes…
This means, among other things, that libertarians must form and maintain organizations not only to promote their broad principles...but to promote these principles in special fields…. We need not fear that too many of these specialized organizations will be formed. The real danger is the opposite.
None of this apparatus existed in 1968. But today it is happening, and not just at state-based think tanks. In academia, economists, historians, and philosophers are teaching all over the country. They no longer think of themselves as a tiny embattled minority, but rather a genuine alternative to the mainstream. And it is happening in business too. In the essay linked above, Hazlitt regrets how business is too timid to defend itself. That is not as true now as it was then.
Hold Your Head High
Some libertarians are so down in the mouth, so cynical, so convinced of the downward trajectory of history, that they have become addicted to their own defeatism.Too often, I’ve heard libertarians despair about the task before them. I’ve even heard people putting down the organizations that are actually working toward the good, treating them as useless nonprofits. This is a ridiculous attitude. What we have now is a real infrastructure of resistance. It is doing great work right now.
It’s actually strange, if you think about it. Some libertarians are so down in the mouth, so cynical, so convinced of the downward trajectory of history, that they have become addicted to their own defeatism. Depression is their drug. They can’t even recognize the victories all around them. (For that matter, they can’t even celebrate when, for example, the top of the Libertarian Party ticket is polling higher than any third party in a quarter of a century; on the contrary, many have used their networks to disparage that too!)
But given all these organizations, you ask, where is our freedom? You might consider all the unseen good these organizations are doing. Every day, they are actually preventing what would otherwise be the expansion of government at a huge and breakneck speed. That is the first task: to stop things from getting worse. And they are also working to improve life by pushing back against the pro-government onslaught, actually reversing regulations and taxes and violations of human rights. No, there is no utopia on the horizon, but we are making progress.
Cheers to the Donors!
What if this machinery of freedom had existed in the 1930s?And let me add a final tribute here to the extraordinary donors who are making this possible. Sadly, there is no real commercial marketplace for freedom advocacy. It comes about through people willing to donate to support the cause. And they do so in the interest of the highest ideals. There are always other things to do with your money, but donating to support the cause of freedom itself requires a special level of insight, dedication, and commitment. Without these contributions, none of this infrastructure could exist.
What if this machinery of freedom had existed in the 1930s? The 1960s? The 1970s? Might history have turned out differently? Might the calamity of statism on the march been set back a bit or even reversed? It is entirely possible. But back in the day, we didn’t have much aside from a few think tanks and a handful of scholars. Now we have a real, powerful, and growing network in place. That’s absolutely thrilling.
And let me emphasize again: the people I’ve met at this event are idealists, but idealists with a strategy in mind. They are experts in their chosen fields. They are prepared to enter the fray, get their hands dirty, and do the hard work of showing that freedom works better than imposition. And it is working, every day, and more and more each year.
As Hazlitt says, the danger is not that we have too many organizations and experts but quite the reverse. As he persuasively argues, it is not enough that we be right. It is not enough to congratulate yourself in your knowledge that public policy is on the wrong track. It is not enough just to be content that you understand the difference between right and wrong. To make a difference requires that we meet the advocates of statism where they live and work and make a case for the contrary.
This takes hard work, dedication, sophistication, detailed knowledge, and expertise in communication. Since 1968, the freedom movement has grown up. It is a lovely thing to see.