One of the things that distinguish libertarians from non-libertarians is that we libertarians know that we are not free. Non-libertarians are still convinced that they are free. That’s one reason why non-libertarians are befuddled by libertarians. When they ask us what we are all about, we sometimes respond that we are about bringing liberty to America. That befuddles them because in their minds, America is already a free country.
Until I was in my late 20s, I was a non-libertarian. Having attended public schools, where I dutifully recited the Pledge of Allegiance, I had no doubts that I lived in a free society. When I was around 28 years old, a friend of mine from junior high school gave me a book entitled A Time for Truth by William Simon, who served as Treasury Secretary under President Reagan. The book emphasized the importance of restoring liberty to America. I told my friend that while I enjoyed reading the book, I couldn’t understand Simon’s point about restoring liberty to America. As Americans, we already were free, I said.
One day in the late 1970s, I walked into the public library in my hometown of Laredo, Texas, looking for something to read. I came across four little different-colored books entitled Essays on Liberty, volumes 1–4. I took volume 1 off the shelf and began perusing it.
It was a true Road to Damascus experience. As I began reading those essays, the layers of indoctrination that encased my mind began cracking apart. I recognized that something big was happening to me. I was discovering that I wasn’t free after all. I was realizing that I had been lied to from the first grade on up. I had discovered libertarianism.
I checked out all four books and took them home. I pored over them, reading and rereading them. I then began looking for other works written by the authors.
I later realized that I had not only discovered libertarianism but had also, at the same time, learned three important methodological principles for advancing liberty.
Over the years of advancing liberty, I have heard some libertarians saying that libertarians need to do a better job of convincing people to become libertarians. I have listened to many lectures in which libertarian speakers teach libertarian phraseology that is designed to convince people to become libertarians.
Long ago, I concluded that that methodology for advancing liberty is fundamentally flawed. I don’t think it’s possible to convince people to become libertarians.
The reason I came to this realization is because I found it impossible to convince family members and close friends to become libertarians. They were either conservatives or liberals (i.e., progressives
or leftists). No matter how much I tried to convince them of the morality and merits of libertarianism, they continued steadfastly hewing to their overall philosophy, even if they did agree with me on one or more specific libertarian positions.
I finally figured that if I was unable to convince people who were close to me to embrace libertarianism, the chances of convincing people who were not close to me were exceedingly small.
In 1952, the libertarian thinker Frank Chodorov stated in his book One Is a Crowd: “The purpose of teaching individualism, then, is not to make individualists but to find them. Rather, to help them find themselves.”
Chodorov, I firmly believe, hit it right. Our job as libertarians is not to make libertarians but rather to find them — or to help them find themselves.
There are certain people in life who are naturally inclined to libertarianism. I don’t know what it is that attracts some people and not others to libertarianism. Maybe it’s part of our DNA. Regardless, there is no doubt that when some people learn about libertarianism, they take to it like a duck to water. Others want no part of it.
Therefore, I believe that our job as libertarians is to find the people who are naturally inclined to libertarianism but haven’t yet realized it — in other words, people like us. We are looking for the type of person I was before I walked into that public library in Laredo. We are looking for the “natural” libertarian whose mind has been encased in a thick layer of false indoctrination and who is prepared to have that encasement of indoctrination shattered. We are looking for the person who becomes fascinated, even passionate, about libertarianism after he discovers it.
A critical mass
Why is it important to find such people and to help them discover their inner libertarianism?
I happen to be one of those libertarians who have not given up on achieving freedom. Yes, I am very mindful of the condition in which we find ourselves here in the United States. Ever since I founded The Future of Freedom Foundation in 1989, the situation regarding liberty has gotten worse and worse with each passing year.
And every libertarian knows that things are still getting worse today. Federal spending and debt are totally out of control. The Federal Reserve is printing money like there was no tomorrow, which is being reflected in soaring prices of food and automobiles, among other things. The welfare state way of life is more solidified than ever, with most Americans irrevocably committed to retaining and even expanding Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, and other welfare-state programs. The COVID-19 pandemic has solidified central planning in American life. The national-security establishment isn’t about to let go of its vast money and power within the federal governmental structure. The war on terrorism is now turning inward on the American people themselves, with more massive violations of civil liberties certain to come. While there have been some improvements in the drug war at the state level with respect to marijuana, the federal government continues to wage the war with extreme ferocity.
Moreover, everywhere we look, there is a crisis. Foreign policy. Fiscal policy. Monetary policy. The drug war. Immigration. They all have a common denominator — the welfare-warfare state way of life that modern-day Americans have embraced.
None of this can end well. On the horizon is a major domestic crack-up involving a voracious bankrupt federal government. If U.S. officials succeed in involving the United States in more foreign wars, the crack-up will be even more aggravated. And it is sure to come with a massive crackdown on the American people.
A paradigm shift
But nothing is inevitable. It is entirely possible for life to turn on a dime tomorrow.
What would it take to cause that to happen?
It would require a critical mass of people who know that they are not free, who understand what is required for freedom, and who want above all else to be free.
How many people are required to reach that critical mass? It is impossible to say, but my hunch is that the number is significantly less than a majority. Sometimes, when one or two people want to change the philosophy of a company, they begin by enlisting a few more people who become knowledgeable and passionate about the change. They continue adding to their numbers until they reach a critical mass, which is oftentimes less than a majority. Faced with the knowledge, passion, and commitment of that critical mass, the rest of the company simply shifts to the new paradigm.
I believe that the same thing can happen with a nation. Some unforeseen catalyst can occur, one that can bring that critical mass to the surface and enable the paradigm shift to liberty to occur.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that such a catalyst will never occur. But one thing is certain: If libertarians give up on trying to achieve that critical mass owing to the daunting odds facing them, they will be unable to seize on the opportunity should such a catalyst take place, Thus, libertarians must continue advancing libertarianism not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it’s the only chance for actually achieving liberty in the short term.
So, the question naturally arises: How do we achieve that critical mass of people who know they are not free, who understand what freedom is, and who are passionately committed to achieving it.
The first part of methodology is finding those people who are naturally inclined to libertarianism, as we discussed above.
The power of ideas
The second part of methodology is by introducing sound ideas on liberty into the marketplace of ideas.
I’m willing to bet that most libertarians discovered libertarianism indirectly, by hearing someone give a speech, by reading a book, by participating in a discussion, by watching a convention or debate on television, or by reading something on the Internet. In other words, they weren’t buttonholed by a libertarian who was trying to convert them to libertarianism.
Recall how I discovered libertarianism — by discovering a set of books in a public library. Those four books I discovered had been published by The Foundation for Economic Education in the 1950s. If someone had asked Leonard Read, the founder and president of FEE, the extent of FEE’s success with those books, he naturally could not have said, “They will be discovered 20 years from now in a public library by a young lawyer in Laredo, Texas, and will change the course of his life.” By simply introducing the ideas on liberty in those books into the marketplace without concern of how they were going to impact people, they ultimately found their way into my mind and changed the course of my life.
That’s the power of ideas. It is impossible to predict where they are going to end up and how they are going to impact people’s lives.
Adhering to libertarian principles
But there is one important condition to this process, which raises the third methodological principle for advancing liberty. That condition is that the ideas on liberty that we introduce into the marketplace must be sound ideas — that is, ideas that strictly adhere to libertarian principles.
That raises what I consider is one of the biggest obstacles to achieving liberty in the short term — an obstacle within the libertarian movement itself. That obstacle is that the libertarian movement is dominated by libertarians who advance reform of the welfare-warfare state rather than advance liberty.
In order to achieve freedom, it is necessary to identify what it is that is preventing people from being free. Once such infringements on liberty are identified, it is then necessary to remove them. If all that we accomplish as libertarians is a reform of infringements on liberty, we will have accomplished nothing insofar as freedom is concerned. At best, we will have improved our lot as serfs in the welfare-warfare society, but that’s not freedom.
Think back to 1850 Alabama. Suppose a group of reform-oriented libertarians said, “Slavery is here to stay. There is nothing we can do about it. It is a permanent feature of American life. It’s in the Constitution. We have to remain credible. Therefore, we are going to advance reform of slavery rather than freedom.” They then proceed to endorse laws that limit the number of lashings that can be administered to the slaves, shorten the work day, and provide for better food and healthcare.
The slaves would undoubtedly be appreciative to the reform-oriented libertarians for the improvement in their lives. But they would know that such reforms were not freedom. For freedom, the entire structure of slavery would have to be dismantled.
Would that be difficult? Undoubtedly. But not impossible. By reaching a critical mass of people opposing slavery, a paradigm shift toward freedom could take place.
But how would we arrive at that critical mass? By finding people who are naturally predisposed to liberty and who would passionately want to join us.
How would we find such people? Not by making the case for slavery reform, because all that would accomplish is finding people who are naturally inclined to reforming slavery but, at the same time, keeping it intact. Instead, we would need to make the principled case for liberty in order to find the people who, after hearing such a case, would then want to join us in our quest to end slavery.
Going back to my own personal experience in that public library, if those four books I discovered had advocated reform of the welfare-warfare state under which we live, there is no possibility that I would have become a libertarian. Breaking through the many years of indoctrination that encased my mind required the power of pure, unadulterated libertarianism.
In other words, suppose those four books had advocated things like Social Security “privatization,” health-savings accounts, school vouchers, tax reform, regulatory reform, welfare reform, monetary reform, CIA reform, military reform, surveillance reform, drug-war reform, healthcare reform, getting libertarian-leaning conservatives appointed to public office, and other reforms advocated by reform-oriented libertarians.
None of those reform measures would have had the power to break through the wall of indoctrination that encased my mind. The most they would have done was to convince me of how reform could improve life in America. But reform wouldn’t be freedom.
Making the case for reform necessarily entails assuming the continued existence of the programs, departments, and agencies that will be reformed. Obviously, that is a much easier sell than making the case for liberty because it doesn’t challenge people’s world view. It allows people to continue favoring their welfare-warfare paradigm, albeit in some reformed fashion.
What made those four little books so powerful was that they advocated liberty, not reform. They made the principled case for identifying and removing infringements on liberty, which necessarily meant dismantling, not reforming, the enormous panoply of welfare-warfare state programs that have come into existence and that prevent us from being free.
Making the case for liberty enables us to find more people who understand liberty and who passionately want it. Making the case for reform doesn’t do that. Making the case for reform finds people who want reform, not people who want to be free.
Suppose a reform-oriented libertarian appears before a Rotary group of 100 members and makes the case for reform. He might get, let us say, 20 people who are interested in his ideas on reform.
Suppose the following week, a liberty-oriented libertarian appears before a Rotary group and makes the case for liberty — that is, the dismantling of the entire welfare-warfare state part of the federal government, including Social Security, Medicare, the CIA, the NSA, and the vast military-industrial complex, and restoring a limited-government republic to our land.
Let’s assume that the liberty-oriented libertarian is able to find only two people who are intrigued and want to know more about libertarianism.
Which libertarian has done more to advance liberty? The liberty-oriented libertarian! By finding two more liberty-oriented libertarians, he has brought us closer to the critical mass of libertarians needed to achieve the genuinely free society. By finding 20 reform-oriented libertarians, the reform-oriented libertarian has simply added to the number of people who wish to reform the welfare-warfare state system while keeping it intact.
Summing up, liberty is attainable in the short term. In fact, we might be closer to the critical mass needed to achieve a genuinely free society than we can ever imagine. To reach that critical mass entails finding more libertarians who are as inclined toward liberty as we are. To find them, we must continue making the principled, uncompromising case for liberty.
This article was originally published in the August 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.