Discovering libertarianism was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. It actually changed the course of my life.
Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer. Whenever my elementary schoolteachers would ask us to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up, I would write that I wanted to become a lawyer. I ended up getting a law degree and practicing law in partnership with my father in my hometown of Laredo, Texas.
I liked the practice of law but once I discovered libertarianism, it became my passion and I sensed that life might have something different in store for me. I immediately put aside my books on direct examination, cross examination, and jury argumentation and felt driven to read books by Leonard Read, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Frederic Bastiat, and other libertarians.
In 1987, after 12 years as a lawyer, I made the biggest decision in my life when I left the practice of law to accept a position as program director with The Foundation for Economic Education. Two years later, I made another momentous decision when I left FEE to establish The Future of Freedom Foundation, where I have served as president ever since FFF’s founding in 1989.
Not everyone gets to do his passion or his hobby for a living. I’m one of those people who has been able to do that. I absolutely love what I do in life. I get to work at 6 a.m. and look forward to it every day. Advancing the philosophy I love as an occupation is near the top of my blessings in life. I am extremely fortunate. I hope I never have to retire.
As most everyone who has been with FFF since the beginning has known, FFF has always taken an uncompromising approach to the principles of liberty. Not once over the course of 28 years have we ever compromised any aspect of the libertarian philosophy. In fact, people who were with us in the first few years of our existence will recall that our informal motto was: “We don’t compromise.”
We still don’t. In fact, that’s been our mission from the beginning: to present the uncompromising case for individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.
Why? Why have we taken this uncompromising approach? Why haven’t we moderated or watered down our message? Why haven’t we called for reform (rather than repeal) of such popular programs as Social Security and Medicare? Why haven’t we called for school vouchers instead of a total separation of school and state? Why haven’t we settled for income tax reduction or simplification rather than repeal? Why haven’t we called for increases in trade and immigrants rather than free trade and open immigration? Why haven’t we called for reform of the military-industrial complex, the CIA, and the NSA rather than their abolition? Why haven’t we called for selective foreign interventionism rather than the end of all foreign aid, foreign wars, and foreign military bases? Why not settle for repealing mandatory minimum sentences or even the decriminalization of marijuana instead of calling for total drug legalization?
It certainly would have been easier because we wouldn’t have alienated so many people with our uncompromising approach. During our very first year of publication — 1990 — we were upsetting and losing so many people with our uncompromising positions that FFF’s vice president of academic affairs at that time, Richard Ebeling, jokingly said to me, “By the end of our first year, we will have alienated everyone and then I’ll do my best to get rid of you.”
As longtime FFF supporters know, Richard, at that time, was serving as the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College, went on to become president of FEE, and today is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at the CItadel. He also serves with me as co-host of FFF’s weekly Internet show, the Libertarian Angle.
Ever since I met him in the mid 1980s, Richard had — and still has — the same uncompromising perspective toward liberty that I do. Referring to the critical importance of ideals and principles in advancing liberty, he once said to me, “No one has ever gone to the barricades for the sake of a cost-benefit analysis.”
What Richard and I discovered, however, in those early days of FFF was that while we were in fact losing subscribers and supporters with our uncompromising perspectives, we were also attracting people who shared our principled approach to advancing liberty. They became our donors. They are the ones who have kept us going for 28 years, for which I shall always be extremely grateful.
But, again, why? Why the uncompromising approach?
One big reason is because that is how I became a libertarian. The reason that libertarianism had such a powerful impact on me when I discovered this philosophy was because I was lucky to encounter from the beginning the small number of libertarians who presented an uncompromising moral and philosophical case for liberty. From the beginning, I was reading articles and books by the likes of Leonard Read, Ludwig von Mises, Frederic Bastiat, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Frank Chodorov, F.A. Harper, Ben Moreell, Bill Law, Edmund Opitz, Bettina Bien Greaves, and other hard-core libertarian thinkers who did not compromise libertarian principles.
What would have happened if I had instead discovered articles calling for school vouchers, Social Security reform, increases in immigrants, more selective foreign interventionism, reform of the CIA, and drug-war reform?
Answer: I doubt if I would have become a libertarian. I think I would still be practicing law today. For me, the principled, uncompromising case for liberty was everything.
Needless to say, there have been those who have criticized our approach over the years.
We get attacked by progressives because we advocate the repeal and dismantling of all welfare-state programs and regulatory programs. Still deeply enamored with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal welfare-state revolution and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, notwithstanding the terrible damage they have done to our society, progressives attack us because we aim to rid our nation of the scourge of socialism and to restore economic liberty to our land.
We also get attacked by conservatives for calling for the legalization of drugs, the end of foreign interventionism, the dismantling of the national-security establishment, and unilateral total free trade and open immigration.
I have become accustomed to such attacks. They have been par for the course since our inception. No big deal. I actually kind of enjoy them because they give me the opportunity to show people the faults, fallacies, and failures of the welfare-warfare state paradigm to which both conservatives and liberals subscribe.
A growing movement
When I discovered libertarianism in the late 1970s, the libertarian movement was extremely small. For example, many years after I discovered libertarianism, I was sitting next to a woman from Texas named Honey Lanham at a Libertarian Party convention. I asked her, “Honey, many years ago, I telephoned the Texas LP headquarters from Laredo and asked for materials to be sent to me. You were the person I spoke to. Do you remember that?” She responded, “How could I forget? You were the only libertarian in a city of 100,000 people.”
Since then, the libertarian movement has grown by leaps and bounds. It is now an established philosophy, one whose growing popularity is now a serious threat to both conservatism and progressivism, which is why conservatives and progressives are increasingly on the attack against libertarians and libertarianism. They recognize that libertarianism is especially popular among many young people, many of whom realize that this is a philosophy that is exciting and challenging and provides a solution to the many woes that are rooted in America’s turn toward socialism, interventionism, and imperialism.
Needless to say, watching the libertarian movement grow in prominence, prestige, and numbers has been extremely exciting, especially since it brings us ever close to the day of reckoning — when the country reaches the critical mass of people that brings about one of those giant shifts in society that we read about in history — a shift that rejects fully and completely socialism, interventionism, militarism and imperialism and wholeheartedly embraces individual freedom, free markets, and limited government.
At the same time, there are dangers when a movement is expanding exponentially. Those dangers come from the new people who are coming into the movement and who come with intellectual baggage from their previous ideological or political home. This is particularly true of conservatives, many of whom have abandoned the conservative movement in droves in the past several decades, mostly out of disgruntlement over the out-of-control federal spending and debt that conservatives have long supported.
Rather than focus their attention on trying to understand and appreciate why libertarians believe certain things or take certain positions, some of these conservative converts choose instead to devote their efforts to convincing libertarians to abandon one or more of their libertarian positions and adopt conservative positions instead. Such conservative-oriented libertarians do this because they still ardently believe in some aspects of conservatism and are just unable to let go of them.
Other conservative-oriented libertarians want libertarians to adopt conservative principles in order to be “practical.” They say that libertarians will never “win” if they adhere strictly to their principles.
Of course, what these conservative-oriented libertarians are advocating is for libertarians to become like conservatives. Long ago, conservatives threw in the towel and embraced the premises of the welfare state, even though they were philosophically opposed to it. The reason they did that was because being accepted and being considered respectable and credible by mainstream society was more important to them than sticking to their principles. That’s why today conservatives are as committed to preserving Social Security and Medicare, America’s two biggest socialist programs, as progressives are.
That’s what some conservative libertarians want libertarians to do — throw in the towel with the aim of becoming respectable, credible, and popular and “winning.” They want libertarians to be more “practical.” They want them to abandon libertarian principles so that we can “win.” They want libertarians to become like conservatives.
If the day comes when libertarians do that, that will be the end of the libertarian movement. What distinguishes our movement from the conservative movement is our adherence to principle. We don’t sell our principles for the sake of votes, popularity, acceptance, or credibility. We stick to our principles and to the truth. If that means we don’t “win,” then so be it. At least we have our integrity intact.
When I was first starting FFF, I received a telephone call from a guy named Bill Evers, who was serving on the Platform Committee of the national Libertarian Party. He was calling to see if I would be willing to serve on the Platform Committee. I said no. He asked why. I said that since the LP was a political party, I was certain that the platform was nothing more than a watered-down, compromised political version of the libertarian philosophy, something that didn’t interest me. He asked if I had ever read the platform. I said no. He asked if I’d be willing to. I said sure, skeptically.
The LP platform arrived in the mail a few days later, and I was stunned. Here was a pure, no-compromise libertarian manifesto, one that, I later learned, had been crafted by libertarian giant Murray Rothbard: abolition, not reform or reduction, of the income tax ; repeal, not reform, of Social Security, Medicare, and all other welfare-state programs; the end to all foreign interventionism; full drug legalization; open borders — i.e., free trade and open immigration; and much, much more, in a very detailed format.
I called Evers back and told him that it would be an honor to serve on the Platform Committee. I ended up serving three terms.
During that time, there were many conservatives who were leaving the Republican Party and joining the Libertarian Party. Unfortunately, they were unable to leave some of their conservative baggage when they came over. They began lobbying to abolish the platform because, they said, it hindered the vote-getting ability of LP candidates who wished to get votes by compromising or hiding libertarian positions from the voters.
For the three terms I served on the Platform Committee, we fought against these conservative-oriented libertarians. My argument was simple: The LP platform protected the party from LP candidates who would try to convince voters that libertarianism consisted of some sort of modified conservatism. Whenever a LP candidate tried to convince voters, for example, that libertarians favored foreign interventionism, or Social Security reform, government-controlled borders, or some other non-libertarian position with the aim of getting more votes, we would be able to point to the Libertarian Party platform as our foundation and as our anchor to show that such positions were not the positions of the Libertarian Party or the libertarian philosophy.
It is common knowledge that there are libertarians who devote their efforts to reform, not repeal, of the welfare-warfare state way of life. There is no problem with that so long as everyone knows that we are simply talking about making life better for the serfs on the plantation and that we are not talking about freedom.
Consider slavery in the Old South. Suppose a group of libertarians organized a foundation that called for better working conditions for slaves on the plantations. If you were a slave, you would consider that a good thing. You’d be happy that these libertarians were working to get you reduced working hours, better healthcare, and fewer lashings.
But — and here’s the important kicker — no matter how successful those libertarians were, it would still not be freedom. Instead, it would simply be a better way of life under slavery.
That’s where we are today with libertarians who work to reform or improve conditions for American serfs, who live under the welfare-warfare state way of life. Improving life for serfs on the welfare-warfare plantation is a good thing.
But — and here’s the important kicker: It’s not freedom! Freedom necessarily entails the removal, not the reform or improvement, of infringements on freedom. And the welfare-warfare state paradigm under which Americans lives constitutes one massive infringement on liberty, which means that genuine liberty necessarily entails a repeal or dismantling of every welfare-warfare state program, department, law, rule, and regulation.
Milton Friedman was sometimes good at drawing this important distinction. For example, while he called for a limit on Federal Reserve’s power to inflate the currency, he also, at the same time, pointed out that his ideal was to abolish the Fed entirely.
Another example involving Friedman was more problematic: His support of school vouchers, which became one of the principal programs endorsed by conservatives. Friedman made it clear that for him, vouchers were simply a way to get from point A to Point B — from a system of public schooling, which was nothing more than a giant socialist educational system, to a total separation of school and state.
Friedman was wrong. School vouchers do not lead to education liberty. Instead, they get the state more deeply embedded in education and they get more people dependent on state largess. This is reflected today by virtue of the fact that conservatives who support vouchers rarely say what Friedman’s position was — that is, they rarely tell people that Friedman intended vouchers to serve simply as a transition device leading to the end of all governmental involvement in education. Over the years and with the aim of garnering support for their school voucher program, conservatives tossed aside Friedman’s rationale for vouchers. They now tell people that vouchers are a way to improve the state’s educational system, which undoubtedly causes Friedman to roll over in his grave.
Interestingly enough, it was my criticism of Friedman’s voucher program, as just another socialist program, in a FFF article I wrote in 1990 — our very first year of publication — that caused him to level a fascinating critique against those of us who refuse to compromise libertarian principles. He specifically mentioned Mises, Rand, and me (which was about the biggest compliment I had ever received!) in a speech entitled “Say No to Intolerance.” You can read my article here and you can read Friedman’s critique here.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the conservative-oriented libertarian phenomenon involves the libertarian position favoring total free trade and open immigration — i.e., open borders. That is one position that some conservatives who have joined the libertarian movement have never been able to embrace. They remain in the movement because they like the overall libertarian philosophy and its position on other issues, but they simply have never been able to let go of conservatism when it comes to immigration.
Some entrants into the libertarian movement remain relatively quiet about the libertarian position on immigration, just as some of them remain relatively quiet about other libertarian positions that they still are unable to accept, such as total drug legalization, the total separation of school and state, and the repeal of all occupational licensure laws, including for doctors. That’s fine. It takes time to explore, understand, and appreciate why libertarians believe as they do. I certainly had that experience when I initially discovered libertarianism.
Others, however, come into the movement with fierce determination to persuade libertarians to abandon their libertarian positions and adopt conservative positions instead. A good example of this phenomenon is immigration. Such conservative-oriented libertarians are committed to persuading libertarians to abandon their open-border position and adopt instead the conservative-progressive position in favor of government immigration controls.
Still other conservative-oriented libertarians go through all sort of intellectual contortions — akin to pounding a square peg into a round hole — to convince themselves and others that the true libertarian position on immigration is the same as the conservative-progressive position on immigration — i.e., government-imposed and government-enforced immigration controls. This reasoning leads to the rather bizarre position that conservatives, progressives, and libertarians are all on the same page on immigration, notwithstanding the fundamental philosophical differences between conservatives and progressives, on the one hand, and libertarians on the other.
Still other conservative-oriented libertarians make the strange claim that there are actually two contradictory positions on immigration within the libertarian philosophy. Their position reflects a woeful lack of understanding of libertarianism, which is an internally consistent philosophy. It is impossible for libertarianism to hold contradictory positions on anything. It’s either one or the other. It can’t be both. Thus, libertarianism does not have two opposing positions on immigration, anymore than it has two opposing positions on drug laws, taxation, welfare, foreign intervention, income taxation, central banking, public schooling, or any other political or economic issue.
Given that there is one and only one libertarian position on immigration, the question is: How do we determine that position? Which is the libertarian position: governmentally imposed immigration controls or open borders?
One clue might be that immigration controls, which both conservatives and liberals favor, involve socialist central planning. That is, a government board decides how many immigrants are going to be permitted to enter the United States from each country around the world. It also decides the qualifications of immigrants. That process is classic socialist central planning, a process that inevitably causes economic crises, the same type of continuous, ongoing crisis we have seen in immigration for decades.
That’s a clue that the conservative-progressive position on immigration is not the libertarian position. While both conservatives and progressives endorse socialism (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, and public schooling), libertarians oppose socialism in all its variations, including central planning.
The libertarian non-aggression principle
An even more important reason is what is called the libertarian non-aggression principle, which is the core guiding principle of libertarianism. It holds that it is morally wrong for anyone, including private persons and government officials, to initiate force against another person. In other words, no murder, rape, stealing, burglary, trespass, fraud, or other direct infringement on the rights of life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness of other people. The only legitimate use of force under libertarianism is defensive force.
Another way of putting the libertarian non-aggression principle is this: People should be free to live their lives any way they want, so long as their conduct is peaceful. That is, so long as people are not murdering, raping, stealing, or initiating any other act of violence or fraud, they should be free to live their lives any way they want, no matter how irresponsible, uncaring, or dangerous their choices might be. It is the responsibility of government, libertarians hold, to protect, not destroy, people’s right to make these choices.
Over the years, both conservatives and progressives and some conservative-minded libertarians have scoffed at and ridiculed the libertarian non-aggression principle, especially since it flies in the face of the things they support, such as drug laws, mandatory charity, and government-controlled borders. When I see people deriding the libertarian non-aggression principle and endorsing the state’s initiation of force against people, I sometimes wonder whether they realize that they are opening the door to all sorts of governmental transgressions against people, including assassination, surveillance, torture, and kidnapping.
Obviously, the free movements of people across borders is an entirely peaceful act. Every day, millions of people, both citizens and foreigners, legal and illegal, cross state borders here within the United States. In doing so, they are not violating anyone’s rights when they travel across state borders using state highways or the Interstate Highway System. They are simply using the government’s highway system to get from Point A to Point B, from one private property to another private property.
It didn’t have to be that way. The Constitution could have given each state the authority to control its borders. If that had been the case, California today would undoubtedly be restricting the number of people who could move into the state to get on the state’s generous welfare system. New York would be restricting the number of people who could move into New York City, owing to overcrowding problems. Texas would be regulating the number of New Yorkers who could move into the state to ensure that its culture remained pure. Virginia would be protecting its citizens from Marylanders who would be coming into the state to steal jobs. New Hampshire would be regulating who came in from Massachusettes to protect against terrorists. Alabama would be enacting trade restrictions on Floridians to lower the trade deficit between the two states.
If domestic border controls were the status quo, there would be an enormous, ongoing domestic immigration crisis between the states, one that would resemble the ongoing immigration crisis on America’s international borders. One can imagine the uproar that would come from both conservatives and progressives if libertarians were to come along and propose open borders between the states.
The biggest reason that immigration controls cannot be the libertarian position is that they violate the libertarian non-aggression principle, the core guiding principle of libertarianism. That’s because immigration controls necessarily entail enforcement measures, which necessarily involve the initiation of force against peaceful people.
Imagine, for example, a person traveling from Maryland to Virginia. When he crosses the border, he encounters a team of Virginia cops, who proceed to stop him, order him to show his papers, and then forcibly return him to Maryland because he hasn’t secured official permission to come into Virginia.
A conservative might say, “That would violate his rights as an American citizen.” A libertarian would think at a higher level. He would say, “That would violate his rights as a human being — his fundamental, God-given rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.” Again, libertarians hold that people have the right to live their lives any way they choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful. Since the Marylander is simply crossing a border to come into the state to work, or buy, or invest, or tour, no one and no government has the legitimate authority to initiate force against him, even if they feel that he is stealing a job, increasing the trade deficit, getting on welfare, or ruining the “culture” of Virginia.
It’s no different with an international border. If a foreign citizen is simply crossing an international bridge and heading north on the Interstate Highway System to get a job, tour, open a business, or engage in any other peaceful activity, no one and no government wields the legitimate authority to initiate force against him to prevent him from crossing the border or forcing him back across it. That’s because rights come from nature and God, not from government, as Thomas Jefferson enunciated so well in the Declaration of Independence.
Thus, none of the government’s immigration enforcement measures — including the intrusive searches of person and vehicle at official border entry points; domestic highway checkpoints that search people and vehicles that have never left the United State; warrantless trespasses, searches, and seizures of farms and ranches near the border; roving Border Patrol checkpoints on the highways; and violent raids on private businesses — can be reconciled with the libertarian non-aggression principle. All immigration enforcement measures involve the initiation of force against people who are engaged in purely peaceful activities.
While conservative-minded libertarians are obviously chagrined about the libertarian position on immigration, the fact is that open borders is one of the libertarian movement’s most glorious, honorable, and moral positions and one that libertarians can be justly proud of. Not only are open borders consistent with individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government (i.e., the things that conservatives say they favor), it also is consistent with Biblical, moral, and ethical principles regarding man’s relationship to man.
In fact, open borders is one of the things that most deeply attracted me to libertarianism when I first discovered this great philosophy some 40 years ago. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, I was a young lawyer in Laredo, Texas, one with progressive leanings. I was the local ACLU representative and I was serving on the board of trustees for the Laredo Legal Aid Society, which provided free legal assistance to the poor. Since I had grown up on a farm on the Rio Grande, I had first-hand experience with illegal immigrants, especially since we hired many of them to work on our farm. They were the hardest-working people I have ever met. I couldn’t understand why the Border Patrol could trespass onto our farm without a warrant and arrest and take away our workers. I couldn’t understand why our workers were any of their business.
When I returned to Laredo to practice law in 1975, I asked the local federal judge to appoint me to represent illegal immigrants as their court-appointed attorney. One day I was at the local immigration detention center, which reminded me of a German concentration camp, to talk to some of my clients. As I saw hundreds of illegal immigrants milling about, suddenly it hit me: If progressives love the poor, needy, and disadvantaged as much as they said they do, then how could they treat these people like this — arresting, incarcerating, and deporting them just because they want to improve their lives through labor at American businesses that were willing and eager to hire them. You’d have a hard time finding poorer people than illegal immigrants. It suddenly dawned on me that progressives suffered from a severe case of hypocrisy.
Soon after that, I discovered libertarianism and its support for open borders. I realized immediately that it is only libertarians, not conservatives and progressives, who genuinely embrace a philosophy of individual freedom, free markets, private property, and a genuine concern for the poor, needy, and disadvantaged.
Libertarianism is one of mankind’s greatest and grandest philosophies. Its aim of economic liberty ranks right up there with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, due process of law, and trial by jury. I count myself extremely fortunate to be part of such a glorious movement.
The libertarian philosophy rests on a solid foundation of moral and ethical libertarian principles. We must never do what conservatives did and what many conservatives and conservative-oriented libertarians would love us to do today — abandon our principles for the sake of expediency, popularity, acceptance, or votes.
No one can guarantee that adherence to principle will ensure success in achieving our goal of freedom, but it’s the only chance there is. Throughout history, people have responded positively to ideals and principles. One thing is for sure: If we abandon our principles, we lose everything. And we become like them, like progressives and conservatives. We go from one of the most noble and glorious movements in history to one that is morally and intellectually bankrupt.