Twenty years ago, I was rummaging through the public library in my hometown of Laredo, Texas, and I came across four books entitled Essays on Liberty that had been published many years before by The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. At the time, I was serving on the board of trustees for the local Legal Aid Society. I was also the local representative for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The books consisted of hard-core, purist, uncompromising libertarian essays by such people as Leonard E. Read, Ludwig von Mises, Frank Chodorov, F.A. Harper, Henry Hazlitt, Dean Russell, Albert J. Nock, Paul Poirot, Frederic Bastiat, W.M Curtiss, Edmund A. Opitz, William Henry Chamberlin, Murray Rothbard, Bettina Bien, and many, many more.
The essays absolutely bowled me over. I was thunderstruck by what I read. I felt as though someone had just turned on the lights in my understanding of economics and political theory. I had discovered the libertarian philosophy. And I knew that my life had just taken a dramatic turn. It wasn’t long after that I resigned my positions with Legal Aid and the ACLU.
One of the most gratifying aspects of being involved in the libertarian movement since then has been meeting people who have had a similar experience. I’m always fascinated to hear how others discovered the libertarian philosophy. Most libertarians clearly recall that defining moment in their lives.
What was it in those essays that had such an enormous impact on my thinking and on my life? The authors didn’t mince words. They weren’t worried about what people thought about them or their beliefs. All that mattered was the expression of truth and principle. Every one of the authors presented the libertarian philosophy in a clear, uncompromising moral and philosophical manner.
The libertarian movement has come a long way in the past 20 years. What has brought us this far and what will take us over the top are the two qualities that I found in those essays 20 years ago: truth and principle. If we maintain the purity of our principles and have the courage to express our convictions truthfully, openly, and honestly, victory and freedom are possible.
Unfortunately, however, there are an increasing number of libertarians advocating a different methodology for advancing liberty and libertarianism — one of compromise and concealment. They suggest that the purist approach is impractical because “it’s too radical. We have to be taken seriously. We must broaden our numbers and our base of support. The top priority is to get libertarians in public office. We must not openly advocate such things as legalizing drugs or open borders. We must call for reductions in government spending rather than the repeal of laws and abolition of departments and agencies. We cannot turn people into libertarians overnight. We need to soften our message and conceal our beliefs if libertarianism is to prevail.” The trend is apparent in the ideological arena. It is even more pronounced in the political arena.
What is libertarianism? The libertarian philosophy holds that people should be free to do whatever they want in life as long as their conduct is peaceful. That is, as long as persons do not engage in such things as murder, rape, assault, theft, robbery, and so forth, they should be free to do whatever they want, even if it is considered “irresponsible” by others.
Assuming that there will always be a small minority of antisocial individuals who initiate force against others (murderers, robbers, etc.), we call government into existence to arrest, accuse, prosecute, and punish. We also depend on government to protect us from invaders (antisocial foreigners). Moreover, recognizing that people do enter into disputes with one another over such things as contracts and torts, government serves as a monopoly arbiter through its judicial system.
Central to the entire libertarian philosophy is a very simple principle: it is wrong to initiate force against another human being except in a defensive way. If a person attempts to murder me, I have the right to defend myself by exercising the necessary force to deflect his attempt to kill me. And I have the right to delegate that task to government.
But if I want to help the poor, I have no right to take someone else’s money against his will in order to do good with it. If a person chooses to destroy himself with tobacco, alcohol, or other dangerous drugs, I have no right to initiate force against him in an attempt to change his course of action. I have no right to force someone else to conform to my belief as to how he should live his life.
Thus, once the core libertarian principle is understood — that a person cannot rightfully initiate force against another — the libertarian philosophy becomes, in most cases, easy to apply.
Licensing laws and other economic regulations? Repeal them, because individuals have the right to engage in any enterprise they want without asking anyone’s permission. Zoning laws? Repeal them, because people have the right to do what they want with their own property. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other welfare programs? Repeal them, because people have the right to do whatever they want with their own money.
Censorship laws? Repeal them, because people have the right to read whatever they want. Drug laws? Repeal them, because people have the right to do bad things to themselves. Taxation? Abolish it, because people have a right to keep what is theirs. Trade and immigration controls? Repeal them, because people have the right to enter into mutually beneficial exchanges with others. Travel restrictions? Repeal them, because people have the right to go wherever they want without political permission. Public schooling? Repeal it, because people have the right to decide the best educational vehicle for their children.
It is this purity of principle that has brought the libertarian movement the prestige it now enjoys. For it is the pure vision of liberty that has driven thousands of libertarians to devote their time and energies to building and developing the libertarian cause. Above all else, libertarians want to be free. And they recognize that the pure principles of libertarianism are the key to achieving liberty. Second, and equally important, libertarians believe that integrity demands that we remain true to ourselves, our convictions, and our beliefs. Third, libertarians realize that a free society nurtures the very values that welfare-statists attempt to achieve through coercion — compassion, responsibility, competence, and so forth.
What does this mean in the context of fighting for freedom in the United States today? It means an unswerving devotion to dismantling, not reducing or reforming, every single part of the socialistic welfare state. For unless government is restored to its proper, legitimate functions, we and the rest of the American people will continue to remain unfree.
But an increasing number of libertarians, especially in the political arena, are now setting as their goals something quite different from what libertarians have traditionally called for. Their aims are to “downsize government”; “reduce the size of government”; “cut government spending”; “reduce taxes”; “reform agencies”; and “balance the budget.” Moreover, they wish to conceal important libertarian positions that some people might find uncomfortable — e.g., ending the drug war, abolishing public schooling, and repealing immigration controls.
I confess that the reformist slogans do absolutely nothing for me. They don’t get my heart pounding. They don’t get my blood boiling. Quite honestly, I find them all quite boring. And given a choice between going cycling or devoting the years I have left on this good earth to their achievement, well, you’ll find me on my bike. If on my deathbed, someone says to me, “We reduced income taxes by 30%,” my response is going to be “Big deal. I wanted to be free.”
Now, does my personal lack of interest in these goals mean that they are unimportant? Of course not. They are important. And people who succeed in such things as preventing a tax increase or achieving a tax decrease deserve commendation.
But we must never lose sight of the real goal of libertarianism: the achievement of liberty. Reforms or reductions of the socialistic welfare state, even if beneficial to the serfs, are not liberty, and they are not libertarianism. They may very well make the socialistic welfare state a better place in which to live, but they are not freedom. Any reform or reduction of the socialistic welfare state, even one that improves the situation, always leaves intact the violation of the core principle of libertarianism: the initiation of force against another. How can the exercise of coercion against another, even less oppressive coercion, constitute liberty or libertarianism?
Libertarian reformers sometimes claim that all this is just semantics — that people are “freer” when tyranny becomes less oppressive. But surely there’s more than a slight difference between a pleasurable serfdom and the achievement of freedom. Doesn’t libertarianism mean freedom from coercion, not a better way of life under coercion?
Semantics are important for another reason. Recall that leftists corrupted the term that was once used to describe libertarian beliefs — “liberal” — which required advocates of liberty to come up with a new term — “libertarianism” — to describe their set of beliefs. We must fight to ensure that that doesn’t happen again. How constructive would it be if the average American were asked whether he supported libertarianism and he answered, “Absolutely. We need to reduce the budgets of the IRS, the DEA, and the BATF so that we can finally be free”?
Many decades ago, conservatives took principled stands against the socialistic welfare state. For example, in the 1930s, conservatives called for the repeal, not the reduction or reform, of such things as Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), and the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).
Gradually, however, conservatives threw in the towel and accepted the premises of the socialistic welfare state. Their short-term goals became reform and reduction rather than abolition. Their long-term goals became election and appointment to public office in order to better manage the socialistic welfare state.
This is the danger that confronts libertarians who focus their attention on the short-term battle to “reduce the size of government, reduce taxes, reduce spending, and balance the budget.” The sirens begin to beckon: “Make these your goals and then devote yourself to gaining control over the reins of power so that you can run the system better and more efficiently than leftists and conservatives.” There is one and only one possible result to this methodology: crushing defeat in the fight to be free.
The achievement of liberty has always entailed enormous struggle. There are no shortcuts. The path is difficult and arduous. But as long as the will to succeed predominates, success remains a possibility. After climbing so high up the mountain of freedom, it would be tragic if American libertarians now abandoned the methods that have brought them this far. Compromise and concealment are the signposts on the road to disaster and defeat. It is truth and principle that will continue to bring us the success and the freedom for which we yearn.