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Lecturing on Libertarianism to High School Students


Yesterday, I had a great time sharing ideas on liberty at a very impressive private school in Virginia Beach, Cape Henry Collegiate School.

I started the day speaking to two combined classes consisting of about 20 seniors. Most of them already had a basic understanding of libertarianism. In fact, their teacher had just recently taken them to a forum where John Stossel was speaking.

So, I began the class by giving a quick 5-minute summary of libertarian philosophy and principles and some of our positions on such issues as the welfare state, the managed economy, the drug war, and the warfare state and then opened the session up to a free-wheeling discussion of libertarianism.

It turned out to be a fantastic session. Arguments, debates, and discussions broke out and didn’t let up for the entire hour. Not that everyone agreed with everything I said, of course, but I never expect that to happen anyway. What mattered is that the students were thinking, analyzing, challenging, and debating—a teacher’s dream.

Then, I delivered a talk on libertarianism to the entire high-school student body, about 400 students plus several teachers.

I began my talk asking the students to imagine that we lived in a society in which the federal government ran all the churches. Every parent was required by law to take his children to church every Sunday, given that religious and moral principles are important to a society. Churches are funded by taxes.

The result of such a system, however, is a tremendous mess. Children hate religion and have no interest in God. Many people scoff at religious and moral values. Conflict, discord, and hostility are a permanent part of the system. There is tremendous waste, fraud, and abuse. Corruption is endemic. The Sunday sermons are boring.

So, everyone is exhorted to come together and help fix the system. All sorts of reform plans are proposed. The most popular one is to increase taxes and funding, so that higher salaries can be paid to the minister and staff. But nothing does any good.

Finally, one day someone stands up and makes a statement that startles everyone: No reform will ever fix the public-churching system. You people are wasting your time and energy. What we need to do is simply get the federal government out of the religion business. We need to separate church and state—a total free market in religion.

Everyone is shocked. Why, no one would go to church if the law didn’t force them to. And who would build the churches if the government didn’t? Where would the poor go to church? Anyone who supports such a proposal obviously hates God.

Yet, that’s precisely the type of system in which we have all been born and raised—one in which the government plays no role in religious affairs.

Now, take that principle, I said to the students, and apply it to charity, education, commerce, drug use, and, in fact, to all peaceful behavior, and you have a fairy good understanding of what libertarians believe and why we believe it.

We would separate charity and the state because we believe that people should be free to decide for themselves whether to help others or not. For us, that’s what freedom is all about–the right to make the choice, one way or the other. When the government forces people to care for others, that’s an infringement on freedom.

Thus, while others expend their energies trying to reform such welfare-state programs as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, corporate bailouts, and foreign aid to dictatorships, we libertarians would repeal all such programs and leave people free to decide whether to help out or care for others, including their parents and the poor.

We would separate school and state, in the same way we have a separation of church and state. No more government involvement in education. No more compulsory-attendance laws, school taxes, and state curricula. A total free market in education, one in which families have the responsibility over the educational decisions of their children and in which entrepreneurs are vying for their business with an ever-increasing array of educational products and services.

We would also separate commerce and the state, I told the students. No more government-managed economy. No more U.S. presidents serving as job-creator-in-chief. Instead, a total free enterprise system, one in which commerce is free of government control, regulation, and management.

I pointed to minimum-wage laws as one example of where government interference in the economy is so harmful. The minimum wage locks out of the labor market everyone whose labor is valued at less than the established minimum. That’s why the unemployment rate for black teenagers is over 40 percent and for white teenagers over 20 percent.

I told the students that libertarians would legalize all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine. It was during that part of my talk that every side conversation came to an immediate halt and all attention was focused on my talk. I explained that genuine freedom entails the right to ingest whatever an adult wants to ingest and that when the government has the authority to jail people for putting bad things into their mouths, that cannot be considered a free society.

I explained that it is only within a society based on the widest ambit of freedom of choice that people are best able to grow to their full potential, which is, I pointed out, the mission of the school.  Moreover, a free society, by virtue of freedom of choice, is one that nurtures the values that we all hold dear—e.g., caring, compassion, responsibility, conscience, and morality.

I summarized the libertarian position by saying that people should be free to live their lives any way they choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful. No murder, robbery, rape, burglary, fraud, theft, and other trespasses on the rights of others.

I then turned to foreign policy and pointed out that the threat of terrorism is directly rooted in the U.S. government’s interventionist policy abroad—the sanctions, embargoes, assassinations, kidnappings, regime-change operations, support of dictatorships, torture and abuse, coups, invasions, occupations, and the like. I pointed out that even 9/11 wasn’t the first stage in a giant terrorist invasion of the United States but instead retaliation for horrible things the U.S. government was doing to people in the Middle East, including the brutal system of sanctions on Iraq that contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.

I told them that the basic dispute is that people over there are saying to our government: Get out of our countries. Leave us alone. Go home.

And our government’s position is: No, we have the authority to stay here in your countries and interfere with your political processes. It’s part of our freedom as Americans. We will stay and kill anyone who resists our authority.

I said that the only solution to this mess is to abandon all overseas bases and bring all U.S. troops home from everywhere and then discharge them into the private sector and to dismantle the entire Cold-War-era military-industrial complex and national-security state.

The talk took about 30 minutes, leaving about 25 minutes for Q&A. The teacher who invited me to give the talks later told me that he had never seen so many hands go up for a speaker in a general assembly. It was awesome. Question after question after question. After 25 minutes, we had to end the discussion while there were still lots of people wanting to ask questions.

I can’t tell you how much fun it was sharing ideas on liberty with such a bright bunch of students—ones who are not afraid to consider, confront, and discuss provocative ideas. Many thanks to the administrators, teachers, and students at Cape Henry for such a nice reception.


This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.