I received a very interesting email this week, asking the following question of me: “What keeps you from giving up, abandoning all hope, and despairing when so few people seem to be able to grasp that freedom is better than control?”
Those of us living today obviously live in a statist society, consisting primarily of the following major infringements on liberty, all of which are interrelated: (1) the welfare state, which includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, subsidies, education grants, and all other coercive transfer programs; (2) the warfare state or national-security state, which consists of the vastly enormous and permanent military establishment, the CIA, and the CIA, along with their philosophy of foreign interventionism, foreign empire, and regime change; (3) the drug war, which continues to decimate people and destroy freedom all over the world; (4) the managed and regulated economy, by which government officials interfere with the natural workings of the market process; (5) the income and the IRS, which continue to destroy savings and capital; and (6) the Federal Reserve, which debases the nation’s money and produces an endless cycle of booms and busts.
All of those infringements were grafted onto our federal governmental structure in the 20th century. Many Americans have become dependent on them. Worst of all, many Americans believe that these infringements on freedom aren’t infringements at all but instead are what freedom is all about.
And things continue to move in a very bad direction with respect to freedom, peace, security, and economic prosperity.
But the fact is that no situation in life is necessarily permanent or inevitable. Things can shift, sometimes suddenly and unexpectedly.
That means that a society can go from being statist to one that is free, peaceful, prosperous, and harmonious.
How does that happen? Through the power of ideas on liberty!
So, that’s the first thing a person must ask himself: Do I believe in the power of ideas on liberty? Do I believe that they can bring a shift in society toward freedom?
In arriving at an answer to that question, keep in mind that totalitarian regimes — including regimes that have all the guns against a disarmed citizenry — do everything they can to shut down the dissemination of ideas on liberty. Think North Korea, China, and Cuba.
Why do they do that, especially when they have omnipotent power? Because they understand the power of ideas on liberty. They know that ideas on liberty have the potential of spreading across a nation like wildfire, gripping the hearts and minds of multitudes of people. They know that when large numbers of people in society “wake up” and decide that freedom is their top priority, there is no way that even the most omnipotent government can stand against such an overwhelming force.
So, once one arrives at that conclusion — that ideas on liberty have the potential of changing people’s minds and ultimately moving society to freedom, then what?
Then comes the dissemination of ideas on liberty. There is obviously an infinite array of ways to do that, all of which can be effective.
Back in the 1970s, I was looking for something to read in my local public library in Laredo, Texas, when I noticed four little books of different color entitled Essays on Liberty. I was intrigued and checked them out. They changed the course of my life. Through them, I discovered libertarianism.
Now, if someone had asked Leonard Read, the founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, back in the 1950s to provide a measure of success for FEE’s publication of Essays on Liberty, he obviously couldn’t have responded, “They are successful because they are going to end up in a public library in Laredo, Texas, where a young man is going to find them 20 years from now and later found a libertarian educational foundation called The Future of Freedom Foundation.”
Thus, people who believe in the power of ideas on liberty must have faith in the power of ideas on liberty to shift the course of people’s thinking, sometimes in quite indirect ways.
There are two critically important aspects to this. First, to continue injecting ideas on liberty into the marketplace, either directly by talking or writing about them, especially to people who are interested, or indirectly by leaving in places where others can discover them.
The second aspect is much more important. The message of liberty has to be the right message. If you’re truly interested in achieving a genuinely free society, the dissemination of a bad message is not going to get you want.
This is one of my big beefs with some libertarians. They devote their efforts to spreading ideas that involve reform measures — that is, measures that are designed to improve or modify infringements on liberty and that leave infringements on liberty intact. Examples include school vouchers, Social Security “privatization,” medical IRAs, a flat income tax, less regulations, reduced military budgets, fewer invasions and regime change operations, reining in the CIA and the NSA, and many others.
Reform measures make people feel good. They’re not threatening. They leave the status quo in place, albeit in a reformed way. If they’re couched in terms of being “free market reforms,” they inevitably garner the enthusiastic support of conservatives.
But what good are they when it comes to freedom? That’s what we libertarians want. We want freedom, not some warmed-over version of statism. And to get freedom, we have to dismantle infringements on freedom, not leave them intact and reformed.
That necessarily means the repeal, not reform, of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, the drug war, and economic regulations, and the dismantling of the entire Cold War-era national-security establishment.
Thus, reform measures are not just another way to advance freedom, as some libertarians have maintained. They are unsound ideas on liberty because they don’t call for the free society. Instead, they call for simply reforming the tyranny of the status quo.
Is our goal of a genuinely free society easy to attain? Of course not. Like I pointed out above, people have been born and raised under this system and taught that it’s freedom. They stand committed to the welfare-warfare state way of life.
But people can change their minds, just like many of us libertarians have. They can achieve the same “breakthrough” that we have achieved. But that necessarily depends on hearing the case for a genuinely free society, not the case for a reformed welfare-warfare state.
That’s why here at FFF we have always emphasized the importance of principles in advancing libertarianism. When libertarians abandon their principles for the sake of expediency, acceptance, or credibility, that is not going to gain us the free society. After all, if libertarians are reluctant or scared to call for the genuinely free society owing to the fear of an adverse reaction from society, how can we ever expect non-libertarians to call for the genuinely free society? For a more detailed explanation on this point, see my 6-part essay “Why We Don’t Compromise.”
Does the dissemination of sound ideas on liberty necessarily mean that enough people in society are going to accept them and bring about the shift toward freedom that we libertarians want? Of course not. As the old saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. But it’s the only chance we have and, therefore, it’s worth taking.
When I founded FFF 26 years ago, the libertarian movement was tiny. Today, it is a vibrant, exciting movement of hundreds of thousands of people who are calling themselves libertarians. We might be much closer to reaching the critical mass necessary for a sudden, unexpected shift than we can ever imagine. Thus, it’s more important than ever, no matter how bad things look on the surface, to keep on keeping on. And anyway, even if we fail, we have the solace of knowing we did the right thing, had a good time doing it, and hopefully inspired future generations in the process.