a bit of pessimism that has infected some parts of our libertarian
community. The present essay is an attempt to refute this doctrine,
or at least any pernicious elements of it that threaten what progress
we have already made, and, hopefully, the more that is to come
in the future.
Why the sudden
onset of pessimism about the prospects for liberty. I am not sure.
Perhaps it is due to the fact that Ron Paul is no longer in the
Congress of the U.S. At one fell swoop it is thought we have lost
our most effective beacon for liberty, one to whom attention is
paid by the mainstream media, in spite of the slights and slurs
they visited upon him. But do not count Ron out, not quite yet.
His new efforts, Young Americans for Liberty,
The Liberty Crier have
barely gotten off the ground yet. He is soon to launch his speaker’s
in association with the prestigious Greater
Talent Network, the leading celebrity speakers bureau in the
Nor is Congressman
Paul the only thing that libertarianism has going for it. The
Mises Institute just celebrated its 30 year anniversary, every
year of which, no, every month of which, no, every week of which
(work with me on this; soon, I’ll get to the end of the sentence),
no, every day of which, no, every hour of which, no, every second
of which (I told you) has been spent in the avid pursuit of liberty,
and sound (Austrian) economics. Why, just the other day the Simpsons
cartoon television series mentioned the school of economics made
famous by Mises and Rothbard. If that is not making progress into
the very bowels of the culture, then nothing is.
is the tip of the iceberg. There are free market think tanks in
virtually all 50 of the states in the U.S. There are even think
tanks that do good work inside the beltway (ok, ok, just a few
of them; everyone’s a critic, nowadays). There is the Free
State Project in New Hampshire. Yes, it is now being attacked
by a Democratic State Senator, but all such publicity is good
publicity; and, this imbroglio has drawn a ringing defense by
Woods. There are numerous universities which feature several
Austro-libertarian professors. Each of them has acquainted numerous
students with the freedom philosophy, and many of them subsequently
take courses at Mises
University, which has been an astounding success.
be denied that Obama is now president. However, things could have
been worse: Romney
could have won, and then, probably, the U.S. would be involved
in several more unnecessary imperialistic wars. After the Republicans
unceremoniously and unfairly rejected Ron Paul, the Libertarian
Party nominated Gary Johnson, who in my opinion did a workmanlike
job of keeping the concept of liberty in the public eye.
there are the books. They keep rolling off the presses at a furious
clip. They promote, expand on and expound libertarianism and Austrian
economics. These are the foot soldiers of our intellectual movement.
I won’t mention any, lest I leave out some worthy candidates.
But, go to the Mises
Store, and see quite an array of them there. Nor can we afford
to ignore in this assessment the scholarly periodicals. Here I
will name a few names; these are among my favorites: Economics,
Management, and Financial Markets, The Independent Review,
The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Libertarian
Papers, the Mises Review, the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics,
Procesos De Mercado, Reason Papers, and The Romanian Economic
and Business Review. I cannot end this listing of beneficial organizations
and institutions without mentioning Hans Hoppe’s Property
and Freedom Society and Justin Raimondo’s AntiWar.com.
Both do sterling work for the cause of liberty.
is quite a listing. It gives me hope that our freedom and liberty
movement will at least hold its own against the always encroaching
forces of darkness, evil and statism.
I gave a series of lectures in Sydney, Australia (the fact that
so many of the Senior
Fellows of the Mises Institute including
me are now called upon to give public speeches here, there and
everywhere is another bit of evidence for optimism). I received
a few days later a very pessimistic letter from one of the some
150 attendees (Australia is a country with a population of only
some 23 million; that was an excellent turn out). I shall now
quote it in full, and then in the third and last section of this
essay, respond to it. Its author shall remain anonymous, apart
from me saying that he is a young man.
like to begin by thanking you for coming to Australia to speak
at the 2012 Mises Seminar, where I had the immense pleasure of
making your acquaintance and listening to you lecture on several
fascinating topics. My encounter with your work, Defending
the Undefendable, was a truly transformative experience
and to have been able to meet you in person, as opposed to through
your words on the page or through your YouTube lectures on the
computer screen, was an honour and privilege. For what it is worth,
I would like to thank you for what all that you have done, and
continue to do, for the cause of liberty both in the United States
and around the world.
I found the Mises Seminar highly informative, I left Sydney significantly
more pessimistic about the prospects of libertarianism than when
I had arrived. Walter, you mentioned that you enjoyed challenges
and critiques – if you don’t mind, I would like to visit some
questions about libertarianism that have really challenged me
and hear your thoughts on them.
understand the logic and morality underpinning an anarcho-capitalist,
libertarian society. I believe that people, acting self-interestedly
in a free-market society, must necessarily help each other. I
believe in freedom and in the incredible material benefits that
free, voluntary interaction have and continue to generate for
all humanity. I believe also that everyone should be free to choose,
even if many end up making ‘bad’ choices. Against this belief,
against the powerful logic of your contention, against the arguments
of your contemporaries Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul and Peter Schiff
in favour of a libertarian society, against of all this there
is the fact that there is no libertarian society in existence
today. Nor has any society founded upon the principles of liberty
lasted. Your own nation, the United States, is perhaps the best
example of this. The United States, as envisaged by its founding
fathers, was undoubtedly the most libertarian society in modern
history. And yet, how far she has fallen! Thomas Jefferson would
be turning in his grave if he could see how totalitarian and egregiously
incompatible with individual liberty present day America has become.
even the United States, a state conceived in liberty, buttressed
by a strong written constitution that fiercely upholds personal
liberty and property rights, can be led so far down the path of
socialism, what hope is there for the rest of the world? What
hope is there for libertarianism? Walter, you mentioned two of
Rothbard’s ‘lieutenants in liberty’ (my apologies, I’ve forgotten
their names), who turned neo-con and statist, and you asked why.
I do not presume to speak for them, but perhaps they saw what
America had already become and where it was tending, and simply
leads me to my second concern. Both yourself and Neville Kennard,
in his video memorial, spoke of the importance of little rebellions
against the State, wherever possible. Other libertarians, I cannot
remember precisely whom, have written on the importance of tempering
resistance to the State with recognition of the fact that you
have but one life to live. I put it to you that this is the reason
why libertarianism will not succeed: in my limited experience,
radical change of the nature and scope that libertarians seek
is not achieved by piecemeal resistance to State depredations
and compromise. It is achieved only by complete and utter rejection
of State oppression. It is achieved by an adherence to principle
irrespective of the
Luther King did not help secure rights for blacks by doing what
was ‘legal’; Nelson Mandela did not overthrow apartheid through
compromise; nor did the American colonists shake of the British
yoke by sitting down for a cup of tea. (Incidentally, neither
Hitler, Lenin, Mao, nor other infamous dictators achieve fruition
of their ideas by going along with the status quo.)
change of this nature is achieved by only radical action. As libertarians,
we take pride in our dogmatic application of libertarian principles
no matter the situation. How then, can we sit around and laugh
while the State steals and misuses our hard-earned money? We argue
that we have a right to defend ourselves from theft, from slavery which
is what taxation is yet how many libertarians do you know have
actually taken action to defend these rights? (The only person
I have heard about who has acted to defend his rights to keep
what he earns is Irwin Schiff.) How can we preach about the legitimate
use of force in response to aggression, and yet remain a movement
so obedient and compromising? Even if the majority care nothing
for our beliefs, how are we libertarians not outraged? Why are
we not driven to action, in the way the followers of King, Ghandi
or Mandela were? Are we not entitled to use force to defend the
theft of our property?
I certainly do not mean to impugn the great work that Dr Ron Paul
and yourself have done for the liberty movement, I do question
its efficacy. Yes, you, Dr Paul and others have spread the message
of freedom far, far beyond what anyone four years ago could possibly
have imagined. And yet, as you yourself said in Sydney, we are
not an inch closer to our goals. Indeed, it appears to me that
each day brings us further and further from them. Each day, the
bastion of freedom that was the United States moves closer to
dictatorship and tyranny. Each day, as the inevitable failure
of the European Union draws closer, it is the socialists, fascists
and nazis that grow in popular esteem. Each day brings new statist
measures to restrict personal liberty, and empower and enrich
the State at the expense of its citizens.
recognise the importance of education and discourse, of convincing
the world of the truth of our ideas. I recognise also the importance
of action and as a movement, that action has been sorely missing.
Perhaps we are still too small a movement, perhaps it is still
too soon for action of that kind. But I do not believe that we
can wait for economic collapse, or for the burden of the state
to grow so large that the majority begin to question it. In my
limited experience, the majority will always be apathetic. If
is anything to go by, you will have to see so much more than TSA
gropings, drones in the skies and paramilitary APCs on suburban
roads before the majority even begin to think of the mere possibility
in my opinion, is never effected by the majority. It is required,
demanded or even imposed by the minority, and only then accepted
by the majority. As a minority, we should not shy away from action
and yet, even the most strident libertarian rebels against authority
only in his or her little, usually perfectly legal, way. What
is it that separates us from the blacks under King and Mandela,
the Indians under Ghandi or the Israelis under Moses? The citizens
of Western nations today are no more oppressed, in principle,
than they were. Indeed, we are separated only by a few percentage
points, for if a slave is someone who has one hundred percent
of the fruits of his labour taken from him, at what percentage
is he not a slave? Why then, have we not seen the kind of protest
effected by the perpetrators of those movements?
personal theory is that we, as individuals, have too much to lose.
I would hazard a guess that 90% of the attendees at the Mises
Seminar were well educated, (most likely autodidacts in both Austrian
economics and libertarianism), intelligent enough to question
the status quo, middle to upper-middle class with good future
prospects. We passionately reject the State from our armchairs
but most of us, myself included I am ashamed to admit, are too
comfortable in them to do more than that. Sure one or two of us
may write an article here or even go so far as to relocate our
families to a sovereign that is not so oppressive as the last.
But can you envisage even a minority of libertarians taking what
a libertarian would argue is a lawful and moral defense of their
rights against the State?
apologise for being so pessimistic in my assessment of the future.
I wholeheartedly believe in what you and others like you, are
doing, just as I believe in the truth of the message that we are
spreading. I do as much as I can, without alienating family and
losing friends. I am frustrated because I do not believe it is
enough and yet, I do not know what I can do. It appears to me
that we are involved in a great game of chess, but one where the
State has at its disposal all the rooks, knights, bishops and
queens, whereas the forces of liberty only pawns.
Optimism, once again
your very thoughtful letter. You have put quite a bit of effort
and intelligence into it, so I feel I must respond.
I think there
is a disanalogy between libertarianism, particularly, anarcho-capitalism,
and these other movements you discuss: Ghandi, Mandela, King,
the American Revolutionaries. Our philosophy is MUCH more radical
than theirs. I did mention my views on socio biology in my lectures:
human nature, I think, is incompatible with libertarianism (our
species is not hard wired to appreciate markets), but not with
these other movements. These others were very traditional. None
of the four you mention (Ghandi, Mandela, King, the American Revolutionaries
– by the way, this latter group were not libertarian enough to
end slavery) really wanted to change much of anything. They all
just wanted a different group to be in charge; themselves. In
very sharp contrast, we libertarians do not want anyone to be
order people around against their will, and this is very unsettling
to most voters; hence our failures to win much of anything through
the ballot box.
don’t want to go to jail (like the heroic Irwin Schiff) or die
at the hands of the state. That is why I limit myself to legal
acts: writing, publishing, public speaking, teaching etc. I suggest
you confine yourself to staying within the law, too. The only
other alternatives are to give up on liberty, or engage in illegal
acts against statism. I see no fourth option. I can’t conceive
of giving up on liberty. It is just about my entire professional
life. Illegal acts are foolish, I maintain. This is the cross
we libertarians are called upon to bear. We know that liberty
is the last best hope for mankind, yet we are powerless to implement
it. All we can do, like Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul, Ludwig von
Mises, etc., is engage in legal acts in favor of liberty to the
best of our ability. They don’t seem to be working too well, you
say. I respond: too well compared to what?
When I first
got into the libertarian movement, in the mid 1960s (I met Ayn
Rand in 1962, but she was not really a libertarian. I count my
entry into the libertarian movement as of 1966, when I first met
Murray Rothbard, my friend, teacher, mentor), I estimate there
were, oh, 100 libertarians on the entire planet. That at least
was Murray’s best estimate, and he had his ear to the ground on
such things. Now, including your own Australian Mises Institute,
there are way more than 100 organizations that espouse our philosophy.
As the gays say, "We are everywhere." This is progress.
If in the next 50 years we can double this rate of increase, we
might even reach, oh, 3-5% of humanity. It is up to young people
such as you to carry this torch forward. To not be discouraged
even though it is indeed frustrating to know we are right, yet
are able to do so little to promote liberty. But, at least, the
mainstream culture now recognizes us. Libertarianism, and Austrian
economics, are recognized far more than they were in the mid 1960s.
Ron Paul is now a household name, not only in the U.S., but throughout
The two ex
libertarians I mentioned are Williamson Evers and Randy Barnett.
I have written about them here,
here and here.
is a third example of this phenomenon.
a libertarian, in spite of your pessimism. I know of nothing,
apart from the promotion of liberty that is just so much FUN.
In my most pessimistic moments, I think that if our species doesn’t
blow itself up first, it will take perhaps 100,000 years for sociobiological
considerations to alter in the direction of liberty. In the "meantime"
we’ve got to keep the light of liberty going. We have to preserve
the "remnant": a small group of people who can do just
that. However, despite the foregoing, I am not that much interested
in the debate between libertarian optimists and pessimists. Why?
Because if ever either side is declared the winner, it will not
change my behavior by one iota. Whether we are moving toward or
away from liberty, I will continue to do what I do every day:
work to the best of my ability to promote freedom, and economic
rationality. I ask that everyone reading this essay try to do
the same, to the best of their ability.