Four Ways to Build a Free Society
This article is adapted from a talk delivered at this past weekend's Mises Circle event in Phoenix.
The topic of our symposium this morning is “What Must Be Done,” which originally was the title of a talk given by Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe at a Mises Institute conference in 1997. Hoppe posed his title as a declarative, but it's also the question we all wrestle with as libertarians in a world so dominated by the state and its apologists.
And it’s a question we hear time and time again at the Mises Institute: What can we do to fight back against government? We all understand the problem, but what is the solution? What can we do in the current environment to help build a more sane and libertarian world? And how can we find some measure of freedom in our lives today, to live more freely in our lifetimes?
Four Common Strategies
When libertarians talk about what must be done, the discussion tends to revolve around four common strategy options. None of them are mutually exclusive necessarily and there can be plenty of overlap between them.
1. The Political Option
The first, we’ll call the political option, or to borrow a tired phrase, “working within the system.”
The argument goes something like this: government, and the political process that surrounds it, are inevitable in the real world. Therefore libertarians must not stand idly on the sidelines while politicians inexorably steal our freedoms. Instead we must organize and become active politically, under the banner of a third party vehicle like the Libertarian Party or by working within the Republican Party, because whether we want to involve ourselves with politics, politics involves itself with us.
Political action can be viewed as a form of self-defense. This approach usually has a national focus — such as running a presidential candidate — though it contemplates political action at the state and local level as well. It appeals to libertarians in a hurry, so to speak. Ultimately, at least in theory, the political option attempts to mimic and reverse the incrementalism that has been so successful for the political Left over the past century.
Let me say that the political option, at least in terms of national politics, strikes me as the least attractive alternative among those available to us today.
The amount of time, energy, and human capital that have been invested trying to win political and legislative battles is staggering, but what do we have to show for it? The twentieth century represents the total triumph of Left progressivism in the political sphere: central banking, income taxes, the New Deal, and Great Society entitlement schemes were all enormous political victories that changed the landscape forever. Everything has become politicized: from what bathroom transgender people should use to whether online fantasy football should be allowed. Progressives frame every question as “What should government do?”
So we need to understand the political option within the context of the progressive triumph.
2. Strategic Withdrawal
A second approach libertarians often consider might be loosely termed strategic withdrawal. You may have heard of the “Benedict option” being discussed by Catholics unhappy with the direction of the Church and the broader culture. Ayn Rand fans talk about “going Galt,” in reference to the strike by the productive class that takes place in Atlas Shrugged.
This approach involves separating, withdrawing, or segregating in some way from the larger society and political landscape. It asserts that the current environment is largely hopeless for libertarians politically and culturally, and therefore attempting to play the game where the rules are so heavily slanted in favor of the state is foolish.
It’s better to retreat, at least for now, and build a life outside the state’s parameters to the extent possible. In this sense the withdrawal option is tactically appealing: like certain martial arts, it attempts to deflect and redirect a greater force, rather than face it head on.
A strategic withdrawal can take many forms across a range of alternatives, from absolute separation to quite subtle lifestyle changes. In some cases this strategy can mean actually physically uprooting where one lives and works. We have examples like the Free State Project in New Hampshire or Liberland in Europe, along with various seasteading proposals and attempts to create libertarian homesteads in Central and South America.
But withdrawal can take other forms. Some libertarians choose to live off the grid, both literally and metaphorically. The prepper movement represents a form of strategic self-sufficiency, as does simply choosing to move to a rural or remote area.
Withdrawing from the American way of endless consumption and debt — “living small” — offers another form of strategic retreat, and often allows libertarians not only to lead happier lives, but also minimize or avoid the state’s regulatory and tax clutches.
Of course, homeschooling represents one of the greatest examples of libertarian strategic withdrawal in the modern age, enabling millions of kids and parents to escape the state education complex. And withdrawal can be as simple as abandoning state media or unplugging from the digital white noise that surrounds us.
Finally, expatriation — voting with one’s feet — is a time-honored historical strategy for removing oneself from a tyrannical state. This happens domestically in the US, with people fleeing high tax states, as well as across borders. I’m sure many people in this room have at least considered leaving the US, and increasing numbers of Americans are not only doing just that, but renouncing their citizenship as well. Who could judge a young person today who looks around and decides to leave the US for greener, or freer, pastures?
3. Hearts and Minds
A third tactic that libertarians often advocate we might call “winning hearts and minds.” This approach is multi-pronged, involving education, academia, traditional and social media, religion, books and articles, literature, and even pop culture. Hearts and minds is why we hold conferences like this. The hearts and minds strategy is all about education, persuasion, and marketing, at every level. And it’s the approach through which I think the Mises Institute has made the most headway.
A hearts and minds strategy argues that no change can occur unless and until a significant portion of a given population shrugs off its bad ideas and embraces sensible ideas, particularly in the areas of politics, economics, and social theory. Politics is a lagging indicator, and it follows downstream from culture. We should focus on the underlying disease, not the symptoms. Just as Left progressives have captured the institutions of the West — academia, news media, government, churches, Hollywood, publishing, social media — libertarians ought to focus our efforts on reclaiming these institutions for liberty and a brighter future. So it makes sense to launch liberty-minded people into the streams of academia, business, media, and religion. This is how we strike the root, or at least chip away, at the mindset that supports the state.
Clearly a wholesale attack on these institutions is a daunting task. It’s a long game. But the argument goes like this: until we win hearts and minds, it scarcely matters whom we elect, what bill gets passed, or how we arrange our personal and professional lives. The same statist mentality will surface time and time again to work against us.
Surely the state’s education racket offers the ripest target for this approach. As public schools deteriorate into mindless PC zones, and as universities continue to produce heavily indebted graduates with uncertain job prospects, it becomes increasingly obvious to the public that the whole model is unsustainable.
That’s why we have an opportunity like never before to appeal directly to the intelligent lay audience, and bring Austrian economics and libertarian theory to the masses at very little cost. The digital revolution has been the great leveler, and we should use it to its full advantage in changing as many hearts and minds as possible.
But this strategy is not for the faint of heart, and it doesn’t promise a quick fix. It’s a strategy for sober people with long time horizons.
Of course another strategy often discussed among libertarians involves simple resistance to the state, whether open or covert. This tactic contemplates actions like civil disobedience, tax protests, evading or ignoring regulations, and engaging in agorism and black markets.
It also contemplates the use of technological advances to advance freedom. “Third way” libertarian technologists promote this approach, citing advances like encryption, cybercurrencies, and platforms like Uber — all of which when first developed existed in a sort of grey area as regards their legality.
Agorism was the preferred approach of the late libertarian theorist Sam Konkin, who encouraged people to bypass the state by devoting their economic lives to black-market or gray-market activities, thus avoiding taxation and regulation and helping to shrink the beast. Konkin called it “counter-economics.”
Agorism and its variants was critiqued by Murray Rothbard, who found Konkin’s antipathy to wage labor and “white markets” as anti-market: after all, what does agorism offer the vast majority of wage workers? And who will provide “legitimate” goods and services like automobiles and steel? Rothbard saw agorists as “neglecting the overwhelming bulk of economic life to concentrate on marginalia.”
And let’s be frank: the notion of living an agorist’s life in the shadows, without, for example, having a driver’s license or owning real estate, might not hold mass appeal.
As for applying new technology to bypass the state, I’m all for it. Any innovation that makes it harder for the state to govern us, as a practical matter, is something to be celebrated. But we should guard against false hope: the same technology which serves to facilitate privacy or title transfers or stealth movement of money or people can be exploited by the state’s spying apparatus. And no innovation can change the fundamental questions of whether and how human affairs should be organized by the state.
So these four basic approaches — politics, withdrawal, “hearts and minds,” and resistance — provide us with a framework to consider, in an unfree world, what must be done.
These questions bring us back to Professor Hoppe and his aforementioned speech. I encourage you to read it, it’s a fascinating topic and his treatment of it is razor-sharp.
Keep in mind that when Hoppe delivered his talk in 1997, the digital revolution was still in its infancy. Social media and mobile devices did not exist. Several precipitating events — the introduction of the euro, the September 11th attacks, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Crash of 2008, Greenspan and Bernanke’s monetary hyperdrive, the rise of Obama, and the full contagion of PC in the West — had not yet occurred.
Each of these events intensified the growth and scale of centralized government power. But even in what now seems like the carefree year of 1997, Hoppe’s explicit focus was the fundamental fight against any and all centralized political power.
The Problem of Centralization
And, in fact, decentralization is a linchpin that connects each of the four tactical approaches mentioned earlier. If there is one principle, and only one principle, that libertarians ought to apply when considering strategy, it is this: radical decentralization of state power must be our relentless goal.
The twentieth century, the Progressive century, witnessed the unprecedented centralization of political and economic power in the hands of the political class. We see this in Washington DC, in Brussels, at the UN, at the Fed, at the European Central Bank. Our overriding goal therefore must be the reversal of this terrible trend to create a critical mass of “implicitly seceded territories.”
Hoppe prescribes a bottom up strategy that identifies natural elites not found among the political class, its court intellectuals, or its state-connected allies. These elites are simply accomplished, upstanding local citizens. These natural elites form the counterbalance to the parasitic centralizers, and serve as the vanguard of the bottom up revolution.
Hoppe posits three strategic keys for this revolution:
- First, protection, defense, and justice must be de-monopolized. These are the very areas — policing, courts, armies — where libertarians often falter in their advocacy of a truly private society. But here we must be steadfast: if these functions remain under the sole power of a central state monopoly, no progress toward liberty is possible. We can’t trust the state with guns, lawyers, and jails.
- Second, political decentralization must be ruthlessly pursued, and here Hoppe makes the case that voting on local matters can be morally justified on grounds of self-defense.
- Third, democracy as a concept must be attacked and ridiculed whenever possible. Private property forms the basis for a free society, while majority rule — i.e., the system that permits the theft of private property — forms the antithesis of a free society.
Let me conclude with a quote from Rod Dreher, writing in The American Conservative about the Benedict option I mentioned earlier:
Rome’s collapse meant staggering loss. People forgot how to read, how to farm, how to govern themselves, how to build houses, how to trade, and even what it had once meant to be a human being.
Has the world fallen so far into reflexive statism that we have forgotten how to be free? Are we living, like Benedict says, on the edge of a new dark age? Or is a revolution, a radically decentralized Hoppean “bottom up” revolution brewing? Is the pushback we see all around the world — against central states and their cobbled together borders, against political elites, against the UN and the IMF, against the euro, against taxpayer bailouts, against cronyism, against PC, against manufactured migration, and against drug laws, a last gasp? Or the sign of worldwide movement toward political decentralization?
Finally, let us remember that every society worth having, every advanced liberal society, was built by people with long time horizons. Horizons beyond their own lives. And generally those societies were built under very difficult circumstances and conditions of material hardship far beyond what we’re likely to face. So let’s appeal to our better natures and turn “What Must be Done” from a question into a declaration.