Why Do People Fall Away from Liberty?
In the last chapter of For A New Liberty, Rothbard speaks with super enthusiasm for the young people who have recently come to love liberty as an idea, and predicts great things for the near future. I’ve often wondered what happened to that generation. Many went on to do great things but many too were lost and sort of just moved on with their lives. This could happen again in the aftermath of the great boon for the world of liberty over the last few years. How to prevent this fate?
My strong impression is that there is a high attrition rate in the ranks of liberty lovers. Why is this?
I would speculate the following three factors. 1) People become overly invested in the possibility of political change and then give up when they realize that the system is more entrenched than they ever imagined. 2) People come to be bored or even disgusted by the wickedness of movement politics and infighting and decide that there are just much better ways to use one’s time. 3) People grow intellectually and their love of liberty does not grow with them, and they end up writing off their early attachment to radical ideas as a kind of immaturity born of personal selfishness.
The cure for 1 and 2 seems pretty apparent to me. We need stuff to do that is not politics, which often feels like banging one’s head against a wall. This is the driving ethos of Liberty.me: let’s begin in our own lives. Let’s change the world around us. Let’s find the flaws in the system and exploit them, eschew the plan our masters have mapped out for us, discover how liberty can make a difference in the practical aspects of our daily lives and encourage others to do the same. This type of “Do It Yourself” liberty has the advantage of showing ourselves how real progress is possible even in the face of massive barriers all around us. (I’ve put together all my essays on this topic in Liberty.me: Freedom Is a Do It Yourself Project.)
That doesn’t have to mean completely dropping politics; if there is any opportunity in that realm, fine, go for it. But it does mean being realistic about the difference between what we can and cannot control. In the end, the political system is owned by the state, not the people. We, on the other hand, are self owners. They can rob us and beat us but they can’t control our minds and hearts that give birth to higher aspirations and therefore the dawning of a new and alternative way of living.
It’s a critical step in thinking for several reasons. We need liberty. Liberty works, and taking steps toward acting on this truth in ways that are personally advantageous reinforces the point. We can’t control the nation state and its bureaucracies but we can control our own bodies, associations, property, and life decisions — and the choices we make are massively influenced by the values we hold. Liberty is a value that can change a life from dreary to adventurous, from despairing to beautiful and exciting.
But this step is not only about our lives and ourselves. Making radical choices in our own lives also helps build out the institutions that serve as a counterweight to leviathan. We become part of the intermediating institutions that grow organically from human volition rather than force. This means founding and encouraging the growth of private schools, charities, businesses, families, dynasties, and technologies. The larger and more robust these institutions become, the weaker the power of our overlords to control our lives.
This is essentially the story of the last 15 years of progress. No politician invented the app economy, P2P technologies that are enhancing our lives, the homeschooling revolution, the growth of free cities, the emergence of digital worlds like Liberty.me, the rise of the alternative media, the globalization and individuation of economic exchange, the invention of new lending and borrowing institutions, the gigantic online marketplace, and so much more. These were not part of the plan. Innovators who refused to defer to the plan created them to make a new world.
Why is this essential? Alexis de Tocqueville explains that liberty never arrives as if dropped by a stork from the sky. It does not come from a document. Neither do wars bring liberty. Liberty is built from the ground up, one courageous decision at a time, in a way that creates and grows robust institutions, practices, associations, relationships, and ways of living that are outside the old structures of command and control. This is where American liberty came from, he writes. There would have been no American independence movement without the long history of the Colonial period.
The times in which we live right now are the new American colonial period, roughly like the 17th and 18th centuries in which new institutions are being built to replace old ones and to stand guard against coming encroachments. The frontier in our case is mainly digital but there is a feedback relationship that takes place with the physical world too. The communications technologies we can use every day all contribute to the construction of an alternative sphere of social engagement and economic growth.
This is not so much about politics but about seeing beyond and through the fog of politics, and believing in our capacity to change the world from the inside out.
Now, let’s address the third reason people leave liberty activism. I’ve speculated that it has something to do with a perception that one has grown out of it. They say things like: “I used to live by the slogan ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ but now I realize that this is myopic, perhaps suitable for an impressionable college kid, but I’m more recently convicted of larger and more humane world views.” The next step of this type of thinking is indifference or the social democratic miasma.
We’ve all heard people say this. They’ve grown up. They’ve moved on. They’ve accepted their bigger responsibilities to the world. Why should believing that one has “grown up” have anything at all to do with the acceptance of the libertarian creed? It should not have anything to do with it. “Don’t Tread on Me” is not an endorsement of being selfish; it is a smite against tyranny. In order to understand this, however, we need to have confidence that what we believe about human liberty is indeed what is right not only for ourselves but for everyone.
Since I wrote in favor of “humanitarian libertarianism,” I’ve spent much time in the long literature of liberty. The love of life and the aspiration for the well being of the whole of humanity is integral to our tradition. It appears absolutely everywhere — from Paine to Tocqueville to Bastiat to Mises and Hayek and Rand and Rothbard. I’m ever more convinced that the truncated and deliberately unbeautiful visions of liberty — the ones animated by a studied attempt to never reflect on the larger implications of liberty for the social order — are the very rare exceptions in our tradition.
You only need to read the first and last chapters of For a New Liberty to see how the Grand Vision of a humane social order, the whole of humanity liberated from oppression, is at the core of who we are and what we believe. Ours is not an eccentric and rarified doctrine that pertains exclusively to people who have signed up for a neologistic ethical system; it actually embodies the longest conceivable idea of what it means to live a full, peaceful, and prosperous life, to own, trade, associate, innovate, improve, create, flourish, and, as such, is an idea that could and should have a universal appeal.
Eventually, liberty minded people must discover this and thereby fall more deeply in love with the idea of liberty; if people don’t discover this, the tendency is to fall away in a sense of regret about the “youthful pride” that led to the advocacy of an oddball political system that could never be accepted by a large swath of the human race.
The cure, then, for the “maturity” excuse for leaving liberty activism is to see that liberty itself is the most mature, humane, broad, compassionate, and wonderful thing that can ever happen to any people anywhere. Don’t tread on anyone.
As Rothbard wrote, the “potential appeal of libertarianism is a multi-class appeal; it is an appeal that cuts across race, occupation, economic class, and the generations; any and all people not directly in the ruling elite are potentially receptive to our message. Every person or group that values its liberty or prosperity is a potential adherent to the libertarian creed.” It’s not just about you or just about me: “libertarians now propose to fulfill the American dream and the world dream of liberty and prosperity for all mankind.”
The Economics of Life Itself : Beautiful Anarchy is the writing platform of Jeffrey Tucker, in which he covers economics, art, popular culture, and politics from a pro-liberty, anti-state point of view.