Mises Daily Articles
Is There Hope for Liberty in Our Lifetime?
[Speech given at the Mises Circle in Chicago on April 9, 2011. The video and audio recordings are available through Mises.tv.]
Is there hope for liberty in our lifetime? It's tempting to think so.
As I discuss in the first part of my book, Libertarianism Today, libertarianism used to be of interest only to a tiny handful of people scattered across the country. As I've heard Walter Block and others say, if you were in the libertarian movement a few decades ago, it was easy to feel like you knew almost everyone else in the movement.
This was even true to a considerable extent when I first became involved in libertarianism about 15 years ago. I only discovered libertarianism because I happened to know someone who saw that I was interested in political ideas (conservative ones at the time) and suggested that I subscribe to The Freeman magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education. But of course most people didn't know anyone who could recommend The Freeman to them, and they almost certainly didn't hear about libertarianism on television, in their schools, or in any major periodicals, apart from Henry Hazlitt's Newsweek column.
Now, of course, everything has changed. You meet people who call themselves libertarians everywhere. And, sure, some of them don't necessarily understand what that means, but it's remarkable that they even know the word "libertarianism." And what's really remarkable is how many of them do know what it means. I've done some speaking at law schools across the country over the past year, and I've been surprised by students who come up to me and start telling me that they read LewRockwell.com every day, that they're reading books about Austrian economics by Murray Rothbard from the Mises Institute. Even when I was in law school less than a decade ago, this was unheard of.
There are two big factors that have contributed to this, and each has built on the other: one is the Internet, and the other is Ron Paul.
When Ron Paul ran for president in 2008, the mainstream media almost entirely ignored him, but a hard core of supporters got his name out on the Internet, and people learned about him that way. Eventually his growing group of supporters raised enough money for him on the Internet to bring him to the mainstream media's attention, and now it seems like we see Ron Paul on national television almost every day. So people started listening to Ron Paul, and Ron Paul sent them back to the Internet to learn more about the ideas he was espousing related to Austrian economics and liberty. Specifically, he directed people to the Mises Institute, which had been promoting these ideas consistently — particularly those related to war and the Federal Reserve — in a way that no other institution has, and which was ready with a massive library of educational material online.
Again, to anyone who's been around the libertarian movement for more than a few years, this is all amazing — something that, even five years ago, I couldn't have imagined.
So when you look at this explosion of growth that we've had as a movement, and when you look at the growing antigovernment sentiment that many people seem to have, it's tempting to think that we really have a shot at seeing a more libertarian society here in the United States in our lifetimes.
But there's a quote from Ayn Rand that is relevant here: "It's earlier than you think." In other words, even though it seems like we've come a long way in the struggle for liberty, and even though it seems like it should be obvious to the world that they should cast off the state that's oppressing them, in fact there's a whole lot more to be done, and it may be a very long time before we see success — if we ever do.
How will we get from here to there? What can we do to get there as fast as possible? Let's consider a couple of things that some people think we should do that I believe won't work, and then we'll look at what does work.
Americans Aren't Libertarians
Some people think electoral politics is the way to go.
And there's one way in which electoral politics certainly can be helpful to the cause: as an educational platform. Murray Rothbard favored the creation of the Libertarian Party because he thought, quite reasonably, that it would be a good way to spread the libertarian message to people who only pay attention to political ideas every four years when there's a presidential election. And the Libertarian Party has done that with varying degrees of success over its history. And of course Ron Paul did that with great success in 2008. That's fine.
What's not fine for advancing liberty is trying to run candidates for major offices with the idea of actually winning the Presidency or seats in Congress — because you're not going to win any elections with a libertarian message. You can point to Ron Paul winning a seat in Congress, but Ron Paul is the exception to a great many rules. As Lew Rockwell says, "There is only one Ron Paul."
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of people in America, and in every state and every city, are not libertarians and aren't even close to being libertarians.
David Kirby and David Boaz of the Cato Institute have published research in which they use polling data to estimate that 14 percent of voters are libertarians. Unfortunately, that number is far too high. If you look at the questions they asked in their polling to determine whether someone is a libertarian, they're just a few very broad questions about people's attitudes toward government and the market.
There's nothing in the questions that would give you any idea of where those people stand on some of the most important issues of our time, such as war, the police state, and the Federal Reserve, to name just a few things that aren't covered. If the poll had asked about those things and defined "libertarian" more like members of the libertarian movement define it, we'd see that the percentage of the population we could reasonably count as libertarian is much lower.
The Tea Party Isn't Libertarian
But what about the tea party? One might think there's cause for hope there because, even though most tea partiers might not be pure libertarians, they seem to be talking about some of the right things, and they sometimes seem to have a healthy us-versus-them attitude toward Washington. In fact, some big names in the libertarian movement have seen the tea party movement gaining momentum and have tried to latch onto it and fund it, thinking that this might finally be a chance to get smaller government.
Without question, there are some true libertarians in the tea party movement, and I'm sure that some of them are able to use the tea party to introduce others to libertarian ideas. I started out as a conservative who liked Reagan's limited-government rhetoric, and if I could come around, I'm sure some of the younger, more open-minded people in the tea party can come around.
But if you look at the tea party by the numbers, you realize that if liberty's going to be achieved in the United States, it's not going to be brought about by these people.
Consider some figures from an April 2010 CBS/New York Times poll of tea party supporters. It asked tea partiers to identify the political figures they admire most. Who was number one? If you guessed Ron Paul, I appreciate your optimism, but you're way off. It's Newt Gingrich — who's known for, among many other things, advocating the death penalty for drug dealers, pushing for war with Iran, and praising the New Deal.
Number two? Sarah Palin. Make of this what you will. Number three is a tie between Mitt Romney — the progenitor of ObamaCare — and that noted enthusiast for smaller government and a "humble foreign policy," George W. Bush. Then at number four we have another tie, this one between George H.W. Bush (who gave us the mandatory low-flush toilets we enjoy today), Mike Huckabee (who, as far as I've noticed, doesn't even pretend to favor liberty), John McCain, and, finally, yes, Ron Paul.
So add up all those people who admire ("Admire"! Think of it! George Bush? Sarah Palin?) someone other than Ron Paul, then compare that to the number of people who admire Ron Paul — which was 3 percent of all tea-party supporters — and you have a pretty clear idea of how likely the tea party is to advance liberty.
Those figures I just gave are a little old; they were from a year ago. You might be tempted to think that the tea party has become more radical since then. After all, government's only gotten bigger — more spending, more war — so maybe they're more radically opposed to the government now?
I'm afraid not.
Back in September, a Pew poll found that 47 percent of tea partiers said they were angry with the federal government. That seems kind of low, considering that the media is constantly telling us how angry tea partiers are, and if you're really antigovernment, you do have a lot to be angry about.
But if they weren't that angry before, maybe they're really angry now. After all, they put in all that work to elect a new Congress, and that Congress hasn't done anything at all to reduce government — and almost all of the tea-party Republican freshmen in Congress voted to renew the PATRIOT Act without any changes and with almost no debate. They must be really mad about that — being betrayed by the people they elected!
But no — in fact, the opposite is true. The Pew poll found that now only 28 percent of tea partiers say they're angry with the federal government. And that's after a couple months of a Republican-dominated House of Representatives. Imagine how not-angry they would be if the Republicans captured the Senate and the White House, too. If that happens, these people — led by the same talk radio hosts who led many of them to the tea party — will be right back where they were during the Bush years.
And all of this is to say nothing of the troubling anti-immigrant, virulently anti-Islam, and pro-war views that many tea partiers have been espousing right alongside their "limited government" talk.
Incidentally, here are the top three 2012 presidential picks of tea partiers from a Pew poll taken in March: #1, Mitt Romney; #2, Mike Huckabee, #3, Newt Gingrich. In fairness, however, that was back in March. Now, the results might be different. Now, they might replace one of these names with Donald Trump.
So I don't think it's an especially encouraging sign that the tea party came along and adopted some of the rhetoric and strategies of the Ron Paul movement. And I think the people who are trying to fund that movement and its candidates are wasting their money — if their goal is to advance liberty.
History Isn't Encouraging
There are still more reasons to think Americans aren't about to embrace liberty and put libertarians into office. Think about the infringements on liberty that Americans tolerated and enthusiastically supported over the course of the 20th century — especially the early 20th century. During World War I, Americans supported entering a pointless war, tolerated conscription of their sons to fight in that war, and tolerated many other infringements on their liberties, especially their right to free speech. Then they tolerated prohibition of alcohol — alcohol, which had played a vital, central role in Western civilization! — for years. Then they tolerated and repeatedly voted for the New Deal. Then during World War II, they tolerated the government rounding up Japanese-American citizens and putting them in concentration camps and all kind of wartime economic controls.
Now think about how much closer the country was back then to whatever libertarian roots it had. Those people went along with all of that tyranny — even though, unlike today's Americans, they didn't grow up going to federally controlled government schools. Those people in the early 20th century were much more loyal to institutions other than the state — their churches, their fraternal organizations, and other institutions of civil society. If those Americans back then could be so easily manipulated into embracing unprecedented fascist schemes, do you really think that Americans today are going to vote for less government?
Consider, too, that over the decades ahead, more and more people will be receiving checks from the government through social security and federal-government jobs. Are those people going to suddenly stop liking the federal government? Are they going to be receptive to calls to roll it back? Of course not.
I don't say all of this to be negative or to depress you. The point simply is that trying to win elections isn't going to work now or anytime soon because most people aren't libertarians and aren't about to be. As Ayn Rand said, "It's earlier than you think."
The Courts Won't Save Us
Some people argue that since libertarianism can't win through the electoral process, we should go to the federal courts and use them to pursue liberty. After all, that's what the leftists do when voters won't go for what they want. With these libertarians, the idea is that we need to get courts to start reading the government's powers in the Constitution more narrowly and to start reading its protections for liberty more broadly.
This camp has had big wins recently, particularly in the District of Columbia v. Heller and MacDonald v. Chicago gun rights cases, where the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms and that this right applies against state governments via the Fourteenth Amendment. And these legal activists think with some justification that this demonstrates that their strategy is a good one.
Of course, it is a great and heroic thing that they did this and that they won. There can't be any doubt that many people — in DC, in Chicago, and in other cities with stringent gun-control laws — can now enjoy a right they couldn't before.
But their big victory for liberty is likely to be not-so-big in the long run. The Supreme Court said in those decisions that while an absolute ban on guns is unacceptable, reasonable restrictions would be okay. And when the court someday tells us what it meant by "reasonable restrictions," we'll almost certainly find that the right they're willing to recognize is actually very narrow.
Winning court battles on issues like this helps people in the short term, and that's great. It's heroic — it's saving people from being harmed by their criminal government. But this does nothing to address the underlying problem of a federal government that's taking more and more power for itself.
The federal courts will not help us win that battle. The federal judges who sit on those courts are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and we all know that the President and the Senate will never choose or select anyone who won't say that the federal government can do whatever it wants.
A strategy that relies on the courts relies on the assumption that the rulers Washington chooses for us might someday just decide to be benevolent and give us liberty. That idea should just seem patently absurd to any libertarian. That idea accepts the myth that judges are really just unbiased, neutral arbiters when of course they're not; they're political rulers who control us. Judges haven't harmed liberty because lawyers haven't made good enough constitutional arguments in support of liberty; they've harmed liberty because that's what they were put on the bench to do.
So the courts won't save us.
What Will Work
What will work?
People who want instant gratification will be disappointed, but my answer is the same answer that Albert Jay Nock gave in his classic essay "Isaiah's Job" and the same answer that Leonard Read gave in his classic essay "How to Advance Liberty" (also a video lecture).
What we can do to advance liberty is to work first and foremost on the one unit of society we're actually capable of improving: ourselves. Each of us can learn more about liberty, learn more about history, learn more about Austrian economics. We can learn to improve ourselves in every respect, especially in our speaking and writing skills so we can then pass the things that we learn on to others.
But our purpose shouldn't be to go out and foist our ideas on others who haven't asked for them. People don't appreciate that; it will make them close their minds to you. Also, that kind of approach gets too close to the mentality that statists have, that they need to go out and reform other people to make them more like they want them to be. That's not a healthy attitude.
Instead, because we'll make ourselves the best we can be, other people will be drawn to us. Because of the character and intellect that we will cultivate, they'll want to hear what we have to say. Other people, following our example, will then spread the ideas to others, and slowly we'll see the ideas seep more and more into the culture. Eventually, we'll see them pop up in unexpected places; we'll hear them coming back to us out of the mouths of people from whom we wouldn't have expected to hear them.
This isn't far-fetched. We have a perfect example of this phenomenon in the real world today. In fact, this method I advocate explains in large part why libertarianism suddenly seems to be everywhere. Our perfect example is Ron Paul. Did Ron Paul ever really seek mass appeal? Did he attract his massive following through pandering to the masses? No. All he did was communicate his ideas clearly and consistently for decades, through whatever forums have been available to him, while maintaining an exceptionally high level of personal integrity.
Then — almost as if by magic — hundreds of thousands of people were drawn to him, wanting to hear his ideas, wanting to learn from him. And now, look at all the people who he's inspired, who have gone out and begun to learn more and begun to spread the word themselves. Look at how we see the names of Mises and Hayek turning up in newspapers and magazines and on television, coming now from people who aren't necessarily libertarians, but who are aware of these things because the ideas have gotten out there. This is how our ideas advance.
The Mises Institute also provides an example of this phenomenon. Did the Mises Institute attract its huge following through advertising in popular media? Did it have a plan — or ever try — to go out and convert the masses to liberty? Not that I know of. All the Mises Institute did was build a great institution and a great website and put the ideas out there, making them as freely available as possible to anyone who wanted to come find them. And then, because the Mises Institute is a light in the middle of a world of darkness, people were drawn to it.
Now some might say, "That's great, but how do we actually get liberty?"
One way we can get liberty that's perfectly consistent with the strategy I've just described is to create institutions that serve as alternatives to government institutions. People who homeschool their children are doing this — they're freeing their children from the coercion and indoctrination of the government schools. And notice that this came about because a bunch of people just started doing it — they didn't wait for liberty-friendly politicians to be elected, they didn't wait for liberty-friendly judges to be on the courts, and they didn't ask anybody's permission.
But I know some people will still say, "Okay, that's fine, but how do we get a libertarian society? How can we get rid of the state?"
The answer is that we have to keep doing our never-ending job of self-improvement, and we have to be patient.
Someday — we don't know when — the existing Leviathan will collapse, just as the Soviet Union collapsed. Nothing lasts forever — especially not a socialist or fascist government. When that day comes, however it comes, if we've done well in spreading our ideas, there will be a natural aristocracy of libertarian leaders ready to help rebuild society on a better foundation.
This could be many years from now, and my guess is that it will be well after our lifetimes. Or it might not happen at all. That's just reality.
And it's nothing to be upset about. There are many good things that might happen in the future that we're going to miss out on because we happen to have been born in this particular time period. Think of all the advances in technology that will probably happen someday that none of us will get to see: interplanetary travel, human lifespans extended to hundreds of years, the holodeck from Star Trek, and, of course, at long last, flying cars. Do you sit around all day being bummed out about that? No! You enjoy the stuff you do have, and you're glad you don't live in some previous century when you would have had it a lot worse.
It should be no different for liberty. There's no reason why we should expect progress in this area to be faster or easier than progress in other areas. Getting a whole society to change its mind about some of its most fundamental beliefs is really difficult — especially when all the world's governments, which have all the guns and all the money, are working hard against you.
There's no quick fix. Libertarianism isn't a political philosophy for people with high time preferences. It's high time preference — the need to see results in Washington now — that leads libertarians astray. It's what has made people latch on to politicians who don't really share our values. It's what has made people pursue political projects that would actually move us in the wrong direction, such as school vouchers and so-called social-security privatization. High time preference is what makes people think we should focus our efforts on the federal courts; just convince one judge and you get instant liberty — convince five Supreme Court justices and you get liberty for the whole country.
But it doesn't work that way. It can't work that way. Even if judges would do this, there would be no underlying foundation in society. People wouldn't be ready for it, and there's no reason to think it would last.
This isn't to say we should never be involved with short-term practical political projects. If there's a good chance of protecting someone's liberty by going to court, do it. If there's an antiwar movement that wants to stand in the way of a president's evil deeds, join it.
But as we do these things, we must never forget the long term — and we must never compromise our principles, or everything we've built in this libertarian movement could be lost.
And, if you have an urgent personal need for more liberty in your life, there are lots of ways you can go out and get it. You can find ways to minimize your taxes. You can find ways to get around regulations (for example, you could be like Jeffrey Tucker and hack your shower). You can hold onto gold instead of Federal Reserve notes. You could also do what more and more people are doing and move to a part of the world that will give you more of the type of freedom matters most to you — if it's that important to you. The Free State Project suggests the possibility of doing this within the United States. And, by the way, as more people vote with their feet like this, governments will have to compete for citizens — which is another way that liberty can increase without us having to dirty our hands in politics.
Regardless of what happens with the rest of society, we should all be glad that we're living in a time and place that has allowed us to discover libertarianism and Austrian economics. This lets us see the world clearly in a way that few other people who have ever lived have been able to. Unlike most people, we can see the state for what it is. Unlike most people, we can understand what's going on in the economy. Unlike most people, we have the truth, and in many important respects, the truth has already set us free.
So let's keep learning, let's keep improving ourselves, let's keep communicating our ideas to others, let's create more liberty for ourselves without the politicians' help, and let's take joy in all of that. And even if we don't get as much liberty as we'd like in our lifetimes, we'll have enjoyed ourselves along the way, and we'll take satisfaction in knowing that we've given our time and energy to a worthy endeavor.