Mises Wire

An Optimistic Strategy for Liberty

A strategy for liberty must be both optimistic and realistic.

Perennial optimists are sometimes tempted to ignore or minimize hazards, their answer to every challenge being somewhat lackadaisical: “Don’t worry, it will be fine.” They make the mistake of supposing all that is needed to surmount any challenge is a good bout of optimism. They can be heard, for example, assuring us that simply pronouncing the slogan “go woke, go broke” will scatter the enemies of liberty. They believe the Civil Rights Act would work very well if we would only clarify the difference between “equal opportunities” and “equal outcomes.” As Lew Rockwell has observed:

It’s conservatives, not liberals, who are naive about the real meaning of anti-discrimination law. They say they love the Civil Rights Act, “Dr.” King, and the “ideal” of the color-blind society. They want to protect “individuals” from discrimination, but not “groups.” They like “equality of opportunity” but don’t like “equality of result.”

The perennial optimists assure us that we can shut down diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices, require communist teachers to stick to teaching facts instead of indoctrinating students with propaganda, and simply fire any ideologues who fail to fall in line. Problem solved.

It is a grave error to underestimate the determination and tenacity of those who seek to destroy liberty. Institutions across the West are woke-captured by people who have no intention of abandoning their ideology and, crucially, do not care if they collapse the economy in the process. On the contrary, they regard the dismantling of capitalism as good riddance and an opportunity to construct a new socialist utopia: build back better.

The danger is real, but swinging the pendulum to despair and despondence would also be a grave mistake. There is always hope for better days ahead as people become increasingly alert to the threat posed by the woke takeover. The groundswell of opposition to critical race theory and DEI shows how many people are determined to fight back. Awareness is growing that fine words from governments or legislators can no longer be trusted, that the meaning of words has changed so much that political promises no longer mean what the terminology suggests.

To the reasons for optimism eloquently explained by Murray Rothbard in “Toward a Theory of Strategy for Liberty,” we may add the growth of homeschooling as more families realize that schools have become a platform for indoctrination, as well as growing realization that human societies do not need the state to survive. People are concluding that far from being the source of all sustenance, the state is often the greatest threat to human flourishing.

A good example is Argentina, where the chainsaw-wielding libertarian president has closed many government departments. In South Africa, with the state on the brink of bankruptcy, community-based movements are taking charge of their own destiny by building their own infrastructure and organizing their own security. These functions were historically assumed to be only capable of being provided by the state, but people are increasingly coming to the view that their destiny lies in their own hands.

In defending liberty from “progressive” attacks, how do we identify the sweet spot between delusional optimism and despair?

Rothbard cautions against both compromising or cooperating with statists on the one hand and disengaging entirely by yielding the field to statists on the other. He argues that instead, a strategy for liberty must keep the goal always in mind and strive continually to advance that goal:

We conclude this part of the strategy questions, then, by affirming that the victory of total liberty is the highest political end; that the proper groundwork for this goal is a moral passion for justice; that the end should be pursued by the speediest and most efficacious possible means; that the end must always be kept in sight and sought as rapidly as possible; and that the means taken must never contradict the goal.

Within that strategic framework, setting priorities must take due account of the specific challenges we face in our own time. In Rothbard’s words, “No one can devote equal time to every particular aspect of the comprehensive libertarian creed. A speaker or writer on political issues must necessarily set priorities of importance, priorities which at least partially depend on the concrete issues and circumstances of the day.”

Without suggesting that these should be everyone’s priorities, we can identify three great priorities of our time that merit attention.

1. Defending Western Civilization

The recent government lockdowns and Net Zero initiatives have obscured the importance of economic prosperity and civilized life. The grievance industry, with its depiction of the entire West as a civilization constructed on oppression and exploitation, has further contributed to a widespread denigration of capitalism, free markets, and property rights.

Nor can liberal market economies be seen in isolation from the cultural attacks on the people and nations among whom liberty has historically thrived, the so-called culture wars. Even as iconoclasts destroy statues and monuments, interest in history is growing alongside awareness that much is at stake in the destruction of cultural symbols. As many historians have observed, the aim of such destruction is to cast doubt on whether a civilization is worth defending.

One of the greatest contributions of classical liberalism to Western civilization was to show the importance of the institutional preconditions for economic prosperity. As Bettina Bien Greaves explains in her preface to Mises’s Liberalism, liberalism in the classical tradition was “the great political and intellectual movement that ushered in modern civilization by fostering the free market economy, limited government and individual freedom.” Here lies the ground on which to defend the right to private property, for there can be no civilization without property rights.

2. Remembering What We Know

We do not have to reinvent the wheel in the face of new challenges. We can and should learn from those who went before, keeping much that is of value from being lost. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe observes, “The danger is not that a new generation of intellectuals cannot add anything new or better to the stock of knowledge inherited from the past, but rather that it will not, or only incompletely, relearn whatever knowledge already exists, and will fall into old errors instead.”

Hoppe depicts the contributions of Rothbard and Mises in the same light, that of defending “old, inherited truths”:

Rothbard saw himself in the role of a political philosopher as well as an economist essentially as a preserver and defender of old, inherited truths, and his claim to originality, like that of Mises, was one of utmost modesty. Like Mises, his achievement was to hold onto and restate long-ago established insights and repair a few errors within a fundamentally complete intellectual edifice.

This does not mean libertarianism is a conservative ideology, which simply “conserves” established insights without regard to the implications for liberty or justice. On the contrary, libertarianism is a radical ideology that recognizes that the greatest threat to liberty often comes from established institutions, including the state. As Rothbard explains: “Natural law, properly interpreted, is ‘radical’ rather than conservative, an implicit questing after the reign of ideal principle . . . liberty is a moral principle, grounded in the nature of man. In particular, it is a principle of justice, of the abolition of aggressive violence in the affairs of men.”

3. The Moral Passion for Justice

We live in a time of moral relativism, where those cognizant of the dangers of autocracy and dictatorship caution that nobody should force others to abide by his own view of good. This moral relativism is often extended to the notion of truth itself, with the presumption that there is no objective truth. A good example is the ongoing debate on whether there is any such thing as a woman, or whether being a woman is simply a matter of how anyone chooses to identify himself or herself. Truth is said to be subjective and personal: “my truth” may vary from “your truth” so neither of us should compel the other to adopt our view of right and wrong, and thus there can be no agreement on what is meant by justice.

This does not prevent relativists from trying to impose “their truth” on those of us who reject it. The same people who insist that nobody should force their view of the truth on others themselves resort to force in compelling people to live by their “progressive” values. This is what Jacques Maritain has called “the fanaticism of doubt,” where those who doubt that the truth can be objectively ascertained—for example, that in truth we all do in fact know what a woman is—report people who “misgender” others to the police for the alleged commission of hate crimes, demanding that they should be jailed.

Natural-rights libertarians defend the ideal of justice based on what is true, but they do not regard defending the truth as a matter of drawing swords to launch a medieval crusade with the aim of forcing others to conform to their own moral or cultural values or preferences. As David Gordon has argued, “From the fact that one should not force people to accept the truth, as one conceives it, it does not follow that there is no universally valid truth.”

The libertarian view of truth and justice can of course be questioned or criticized, but this does not mean, as relativists argue, that these values have no objective meaning. By the exercise of human reason, we can ascertain what is true and just and work toward a society that abides by those principles. On that basis, we defend justice based on self-ownership, property rights, and the nonaggression principle, and we defend our right to live by these values. In Rothbard’s words:

Hence, to be grounded and pursued adequately, the libertarian goal [of liberty] must be sought in the spirit of an overriding devotion to justice. But to possess such devotion on what may well be a long and rocky road, the libertarian must be possessed of a passion for justice, an emotion derived from and channeled by his rational insight into what natural justice requires. Justice, not the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating force if liberty is to be attained.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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