A lot of ink has been spilled by writers of the libertarian and market anarchist persuasion about how exactly to get from here to there. That is, how do we move from our present, state-infested situation to one of freedom? Do we pursue political action and if so, through the Libertarian Party or one of the majors? If we favor a non-political solution (either for moral or practical reasons), what form should it take? Passive resistance, civil disobedience, tax-dodging, even violence? Rather than addressing this question directly, I’d like to focus on a tangentially related topic and see if it might shed some light on the strategic issues.
One popular strategy for achieving a free society is through a process of rational persuasion. Convince enough people of the correctness of libertarian doctrine and they will rise up and throw off the shackles of the state.
Obviously, most people are not convinced libertarians, much less anarchists. You might be able to convince a handful of people, through argumentation alone, that a free society is the way to go. That is, to convince them of the correctness of the libertarian creed, viz. that most, if not all, of what government currently does either violates someone’s rights and/or does more harm than good.
The problem with this approach is at least twofold. First, and I hate to break this to anyone of the Randian persuasion, but man does not live by rationality alone. Most people are motivated by a lot more than a pure, disinterested desire to pursue the Truth. People are notoriously good at self-deception, rationalization (in the bad sense), and plain old denial. Even if people can see, intellectually, what is right, many lack the will to pursue it (Socrates was wrong, in other words).
Secondly, it just seems to me that rational, well-informed people can disagree about the nature of morality, the good society, and other big-ticket philosophical issues upon which any political position rests. I have friends who are familiar with the arguments on all sides, the relevant information, and the historical record and have the intellectual and logical acumen to put it all together, who nevertheless persist in disagreeing with me politically (Shocking, I know!). Note that I’m not saying that there’s no correct answer to these questions, just that they’re very complex, require a lot of hard thinking, and rational people of good will can and will disagree about them.
For these reasons it seems to me unlikely that we will convert a significant portion of our fellow citizens (much less a majority) to our position solely by means of rational persuasion.
In his article "In Search of the Antimarx", Bob Murphy holds out hope that a libertarian prophet of sorts will arise who can take the message straight to the masses and inspire them with a vision of freedom. Just as Marx inspired countless numbers of intellectuals, union leaders, workers and activists with his vision of equality, the Antimarx will be the leader of an ideological revolution that shows people the state for what it is: a glorified den of thieves and killers. Only then, after the majority is committed, in Murphy’s words, to "true voluntarism, that is, to absolute and total freedom" will the state wither away.
The advantage of this approach is that it will not just persuade, but inspire. Instead of Marx’s vision of the classless society, the libertarian vision of a society of total freedom will shake people out of their state-induced stupor and complacency. The Antimarx will combine reason, rhetoric, passion and charisma (I’m embellishing a bit on Murphy here, but in the same spirit, I think) to lead people to an utter rejection of the state and all of its works and empty promises. I’m imagining a combination of Murray Rothbard, George Washington and Bob Marley.
Libertarianism’s Competitive Disadvantage
As attractive as Murphy’s idea is, I think there are some serious drawbacks that need to be considered. The problem, I believe, is that libertarians just can’t compete with Marxists (or other statists, socialists, etc.) in the way Murphy intends. The reason is that what Marx promised was nothing less than utopia. In the Marxist ideal of the classless society, not only total equality, but total liberty will reign. Human beings will be freed not only from political and economic domination, but from all limitations whatsoever. In his book Liberalism, Ludwig Von Mises explores what he calls "the psychological roots of antiliberalism [i.e. statism]"
Socialist authors promise not only wealth for all, but also happiness in love for everybody, the full physical and spiritual development of each individual, the unfolding of great artistic and scientific talents in all men, etc. Only recently Trotsky stated in one of his writings that in the socialist society "the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise." The socialist paradise will be the kingdom of perfection, populated by completely happy supermen. All socialist literature is full of such nonsense. But it is just this nonsense that wins it the most supporters.
This kind of Marxist fantasy was able to inspire in a way that libertarianism never will. This is because libertarianism is, at heart, an anti-utopian philosophy. Libertarians do not promise that a free society will be a society free of vice, crime, sin, and all the other ills that have been part of the human condition since people started keeping track. One of the most persuasive libertarian arguments is that human nature is too frail to be entrusted with a concentration of power like we see in the modern state. However, it doesn’t follow from this that without the state human nature will be radically different, much less that we’ll see a society of supermen.
Think of it this way. If the state was abolished tomorrow, there are lots and lots of things that wouldn’t change. You’d still have to get up and go to work in the morning. You’d still have to pay your bills. You wouldn’t be any better looking or any luckier in love. Sure, you’d be richer, not forking over half your income to some band of brigands in the capital. And you wouldn’t have to worry about which unfortunate country was next in line to be on the receiving end of your government’s bombs. But you’d still have all your mundane problems and worries to contend with. Not to mention finding solutions to the problems that the state (however imperfectly) dealt with before, such as personal defense. Not exactly a recipe for utopia. So, does this mean that libertarians have no way of inspiring people, and in the process creating a successful anti-state movement?
The Amish: A Case Study in Resistance
Before trying to answer that, let’s look at an example of successful resistance to State power. Which people in America today don’t serve in the military, pay no social security taxes, homeschool their children, and generally have convinced the federal government to leave them the hell alone? The Amish, in communities scattered throughout the U.S. and Canada, live in a state as close to property-based anarchy as you’re likely to find in the Western world.
As the federal government ballooned during the 20th-century, the Amish immediately recognized it as a threat to their unique way of life. In his A History of the Amish, Steven Nolt recounts their growing opposition to the expanding welfare state.
For the Amish, the reality of the welfare state caused serious conflict. The "better life" toward which the system strove was not at all like the Amish ideal. Government-directed programs seemed to destroy community-based mutual aid. Church-centered care and extended family responsibility tended to become irrelevant in the face of public intervention and activity. Moreover, the welfare state’s promises of upward social and economic mobility were not important goals for the Amish. Since the mid-1950s, confrontation between the Amish and the government’s many public service programs have occurred often. Ultimately, the Amish have been rather successful in limiting the state’s encroaching tentacles of power and influence. But the Amish right to care for themselves has not been an easy privilege to gain. The Amish story proved to be one small chapter in the larger U. S. civil rights movement of the time. (Nolt, 270)
Through a combination of social pressure and non-violent civil disobedience the Amish have successfully maintained a distance between themselves and the seemingly omnipresent State.
What’s Liberty for, Anyway?
So, what do the Amish have that enables them to successfully resist the encroachment of state power into their lives? I would suggest that they’ve been successful precisely because they didn’t set out to oppose the state. The Amish have what some philosophers call a "thick" conception of the good life. That is, they have a very definite and detailed vision of the kind of community they want to live in and raise their children in. Because they have this vision, it was very clear to them when the government began to threaten their way of life. A definite way of life, embedded in concrete practice, history, and community, and not devotion to abstract libertarian theory, gives the Amish the inspiration they need to resist the seduction of the state’s false promises of security and welfare.
The experience of the Amish should remind us that liberty is not an end in itself. Liberty is a means to achieve something we want. In contrast to groups like the Amish, I would speculate that most libertarians have a "thin" concept of the good society. That is, most of us don’t have a definite vision of what kind of society we want to live in. Part of the reason for this is that a libertarian’s ideal society is largely one where everyone is free to do whatever he wants (without aggressing against others, that is). However, if we’re going to win people over to our cause, we need to realize that most people already have a thicker concept of the good life. It might revolve around family, friends, community, work, religion or some combination of these. And, apart from hardcore ideologues, most people only get really interested in politics when it somehow impinges on them directly. It seems to me that what libertarians can do is show people how the state, in its myriad interventions, actually creates obstacles to their pursuit of the good life. This conversation doesn’t have to take place on some ethereal plane of abstraction, either. For example, maybe some hardworking parents see their tax dollars going to fund a new pro football stadium in the city, when they would’ve preferred to spend that money on a new little league field in their community.* Here’s where enterprising libertarians can point out the mechanism of state redistribution at work. These parents need never pick up a volume of Rand or Rothbard to understand the wisdom in self-determination for smaller communities, and how it can tear down barriers to their pursuit of happiness.
Insofar as this implies any kind of strategy, it seems to be a curiously indirect one. Only when people have something worth fighting for will they resist the state’s intrusions. One of the great insights of libertarians is that "society" and "the state" are two different things. Society is the sphere of voluntary relationships and exchange in commerce, recreation, sport, church, the arts and whatever else people come together to do peacefully and cooperatively. The state, on the other hand, is the parasitic apparatus of coercion. The lesson of the Amish may be that society has to be strong and flourishing in order to resist the state. Pulverized, atomistic individuals are just what the state wants because they are malleable subjects of control. If this is true, libertarians should spend at least as much of their time trying to create strong communities as they spend trying to convince others of the truth of libertarian theory.
Libertarians can never promise the chimerical utopia of the Marxists. Nevertheless, we need to present a vision of free people and free communities that is distinct and concrete enough to be attractive to the majority who aren’t going to be convinced by high libertarian theory. More importantly, we need to build flourishing communities that will be able to resist the threats and false promises of the state. Why should people care about liberty if there’s no compelling vision of the good life that it serves?
*Thanks to my wife for this example.
August 29, 2002
Lee McCracken lives with his wife in the San Francisco Bay area and toils as a cog in the publishing-higher ed complex.