We who value individual liberty – I will use the term “libertarians” here without implying any specific doctrinal affiliation – will hopefully not content ourselves with viewing liberty as a mere beautiful abstraction, without relevance to day-to-day life. But if we are to actually live in a free world, as opposed to simply thinking about it, what should we do, and how should we go about doing it? I do not aim here to provide any sort of blueprint for steps needed to achieve a free society. However, I hope to provide guidance to friends of liberty with regard to general habits, assumptions, and rules of conduct that will enable them to more effectively infuse the ideas of freedom into concrete reality. These prudent principles – or, alternatively, principles of prudent action and thought – are the result of my own ten years of experience in advancing the ideas of liberty, and many of them were learned in the course of extensive trial, error, reflection, and adaptation. I hope that they will inspire others to acquire an orientation toward action in promoting liberty and to develop additional insights and approaches as to how this can be done.
Principle 1. Ideas are great – but we need liberty in our lifetimes. Obviously, one cannot have a world of liberty, in any lasting sense, without a philosophy of liberty that explains it and convinces enough people that it is valuable. Theoretical appreciation of liberty is therefore necessary, but it is not sufficient, if we are to live in freedom, rather than just think, write, and debate about it. Taking action to bring about more freedom in human interactions is more important than having the exact right ideas, as defined by any given strain of liberty-oriented thought. Largely, the theory of freedom already exists, and, while it can be refined and improved, the more challenging task is to embody in reality the tremendous insights that have been known for centuries. This requires the development of habits besides sound reasoning. Some of these include work ethic, fluent communication, civility, perseverance, practical ingenuity (of the sort possessed by inventors and entrepreneurs), a focus on relating ideas to current events, and a knowledge of how change comes about in societies of all sizes. A good place to start might be to envision how one’s own life might be different if one had the benefit of more freedom. What opportunities, resources, and standard of living would one be able to enjoy – and how can one get closer to that condition in reality? What direct actions can be taken to get one closer to enjoying that kind of life – even in a world of imperfect liberty – and how can advancing liberty on a larger scale help in that pursuit? This thought exercise provides both motivation and a focus on the ongoing self-improvements that need to be made so that one can effectively improve the world.
Principle 2. Moving in the right direction is more important than having the perfect end goal. It is important for libertarians to avoid falling into the trap of making the perfect the enemy of the good. Certainly, violations of pure liberty can be found in every society that has ever existed – but there are tremendous differences, both of degree and kind, among extant societies. The United States, for all of its abuses and problems today, is much freer than, say, ancient Sparta or today’s Zimbabwe. And even among self-styled socialist regimes, the gulf between Sweden and North Korea cannot be eliminated by any degree of theoretical comparison. We should not, of course, settle for the status quo just because our condition could be much, much worse. Indeed, it is only when a sufficient extant amount of freedom already exists that people begin to seek more freedom to any significant extent. The most important objective for a friend of liberty should be directional improvement: less initiation of physical force, less intimidation and fraud, fewer economic restrictions, fewer restrictions on personal choice and peaceful expression, less taxation, reduction and elimination of deficits, fewer lives crippled or lost because of wars and inefficiencies at home and abroad. Whether or not we will ever be perfectly free (however one would define that) is an open question, but there is no doubt that we can become freer than we are now – much freer, and we should want to actually live that way, instead of simply criticizing what exists. Anyone who would assist us in becoming freer, whatever his or her particular motivations or persuasions might be, is a welcome ally in that quest.
Principle 3. Most disagreements on theory need not lead to disagreements on action. Indeed, most disagreements that libertarians have amongst themselves should have no bearing on the steps that ought to be taken – and the cooperation and mutual goodwill that ought to exist – in the effort to bring about a freer society. Whether one is a minarchist or anarchist (or someone who, like Friedrich Hayek, wants a significantly reduced central government that still provides some basic regulation and a social safety net) – whether one is a “thin” or a “thick” libertarian – whether one is an empiricist, rationalist, or Objectivist – and whatever one believes about the best way to structure a government, if any – all of these questions only need to lead to substantive differences in action once we are far, far closer to a truly free society than we are today. Today’s pressing questions are how to prevent thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians from dying abroad; how to stop the increasing censorship of the Internet by national governments in the name of “protecting intellectual property”; how to eliminate the heinous War on Drugs and War on Terror, that have taken so many innocent lives and inflicted immeasurable suffering; how to prevent the economic collapse of the West due to reckless fiscal and monetary policies by national governments and central banks; how to undo the morass of red tape in which even the most heroic and dedicated entrepreneurs struggle; how to lift the restrictions that prevent ordinary people from unleashing their latent creativity and inaugurating an era of unprecedented progress and prosperity. Freedom-seekers of different persuasions – say, a minarchist and an anarcho-capitalist, or an atheist libertarian and a Christian one – can agree fully on the desirability of all of these more pressing objectives. Indeed, it ought to be recognized that these are literally matters of life and death; lives depend on the proper, liberty-respecting approaches being adopted to solve these problems. People who, for some reason or another, would not consider themselves libertarians but who embrace liberty, even implicitly, in even one major area, can also provide critical assistance in rolling back the abuses we see around us today.
Civil discussion, disagreement, and intellectual examination always have a place in human association. Liberty-minded people can and should continue to explore the fine points of theory. But this should never result in personal attacks, ostracism, denunciation, or refusal to see the merits of another friend of liberty just because he or she disagrees slightly or even significantly about a given issue. The same kind of civility and default presumption of good will should be extended to most non-libertarians as well.
Principle 4. Many approaches can work simultaneously and symbiotically. There is no single set path to arrive at a free society – at least not one that anyone knows of. The practical success of an approach will depend on a myriad of factors, both environmental and internal to the people who attempt the approach. Just as competition in a free market is a discovery process of what products best meet consumer demand, and at what prices – so must there be an open, welcoming discovery process regarding the ideas that can achieve more freedom in the real world. Not everyone needs to pursue a given or single approach, and multiple different approaches can coexist and reinforce one another. Some – like Congressman Ron Paul and his Presidential campaign – might wish to try achieving greater liberty through the existing political system. Others – like Patri Friedman and the Seasteading Institute – might wish to work outside the political system to create an external impetus toward freedom. Both approaches have promising aspects to recommend themselves, and there is no reason to disparage either one in favor of the other. Friends of liberty are free, of course, to consider some approaches more effective than others – but they should be ready to accept that other approaches might just change the environment around them in such a way as to give their own effort additional momentum in the right direction.
Principle 5. Sometimes making a decision is more important than making the “optimal” decision. This is because time is the most limited resource of all, and it is better to have something of value to show for one’s time than nothing at all. The person who achieves nothing because he was not sure of the “best” option to pursue is like Buridan’s donkey, which starves to death because it could not select between equidistant hay and water. If you want to advance liberty, do not hesitate to try something new, creative, and ambitious – just because you think it might have flaws or another approach might possibly work better. Some errors are inevitable – but, as long as no permanent damage is done, it is better to make the error, learn from it, and move on – than to sit idly in fear of failure. Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek – and many economists after them – recognized that much human learning is iterative, based on trial and error, rather than a predetermined plan that works perfectly the first time. Those who seek to bring about liberty should focus not on getting the right answer or the best outcome right away – but on maximizing the number of iterations they have to approach their desired world. This requires perseverance, resilience, and a continual willingness to adapt, adjust, and refine one’s work – while still doing it at full speed. Effective advocates of liberty will need to know how to innovate as they work, not before.
Principle 6. To successfully persuade, one must first understand. It is difficult to convince others of the value of one’s ideas if they believe that one just has a prepackaged ideology to sell them. The first step in persuasion is identifying the values and perspective of the other person – so that common ground might be found to build upon. When a libertarian encounters an argument which he clearly knows to be incompatible with a philosophy of liberty, the default reaction should be not “You’re wrong!” but “Why do you think so?” It may be that the other person is not even that strongly wedded to the argument in the first place – but expressed it because others have or because it seemed like a reasonable-sounding, plausible contribution to the discussion. If the other person is more invested in the argument, it is important to listen to the concerns that motivate that position. Any person of an intellectual disposition – who has put years into arriving at a worldview and all of its particular implications – can hardly be expected to have a radical change of mind due to one conversation, no matter how effectively the advocate of liberty makes his or her points. While this kind of change can sometimes come as a pleasant surprise, the more usual consequence of such discussions is that a seed of thought is planted into the other person’s mind – a seed that will germinate and grow when that person encounters subsequent events and ideas that validate the message of liberty. This can be a seed of doubt about the efficacy of coercion and top-down control – or it can be a seed of hope about the vastly more fulfilling future that true liberty can bring about. Much of the time, it is helpful to use a discussion not as a way of reforming an entire worldview, but as a more modest means toward enabling a person to learn a particular new (to that person) fact, become aware of a new field of endeavor, or recognize the flaws of a particular argument that is not critical to that person’s position. This keeps the discussion within the other person’s intellectual comfort zone while encouraging intellectual growth and further reflection. But the advocate of liberty should remember this: for this approach to work, it must be reciprocal. Friends of liberty should be willing to learn from their non-libertarian discussion partners to the same extent as they hope to impart knowledge and insight.
Principle 7. Resist being pigeonholed and stereotyped. A stereotype or a label (with the implied intellectual baggage associated with that label) ends meaningful intellectual exploration and only results in jumping to conclusions. The moment a person says, “Oh, you’re a libertarian – one of those people; I know what you believe!” – this could either be a disappointing end to a productive exchange, or a way to really get that person thinking. The moment you can demonstrate that you are not what the stereotype suggests, you become an entirely new phenomenon of reality for the other person to comprehend. Stepping outside another person’s preconceived classification system of people can be a first step toward getting that person to reconsider his or her classification system of ideas as well. The discussion becomes a way to enable the person to find a new understanding of what kinds of people and ideas are out there, and which of them might be worth a deeper consideration. Once the rigidity of a stereotype is broken, vast intellectual progress becomes possible.
Principle 8. Never mistake pressure for passion. Being a passionate advocate for liberty is not the same as being vehement, fanatical, or verbally abusive. To have a positive effect on others’ thinking – as opposed to turning them off from liberty and libertarians altogether – one should never demonize one’s opponents using ad hominem attacks or suggestions that mistaken premises, false arguments, and misperceptions of the facts imply some great character vice in the other person. One should also never use pressure tactics that lead the other person to feel intimidated into accepting an argument, or inferior for disagreeing. This is not persuasion, and its effects do not last beyond the pressures of the immediate moment – unless they are effects counterproductive to the message of liberty. Remember always that we are trying to achieve a more peaceful, benevolent, harmonious world – not one filled with additional hostility and acrimony. Leave the denunciation and demonization to totalitarian regimes and the Spanish Inquisition.
Principle 9. People are ready for liberty today. They just need the right incentives. It is not productive to the cause of liberty to espouse that people living today are simply not prepared to accept or live in freedom – so we need a few generations to pass before enough education and cultural change can take place. If we need a few generations to pass, then what do we do with the people who are alive today? Do we let them languish in unfreedom? If liberty is indeed a universally desirable condition – and even, according to many libertarians, a natural right – the answer to this question should be a resounding “No!” A key idea of economics is that people – all people in all times and cultures and places – respond to incentives in general ways that can be formulated into universal laws. This does not mean that there is no variability in the nature and intensity of particular individuals’ responses. But it does mean that, by establishing incentives toward beneficial change, we can exert influence in the right direction – even if we can never predict the magnitude. Even most people who do not appreciate the philosophy of liberty will gravitate toward the consequences of liberty – technological progress, material comfort, and esthetic variety – when exposed to those consequences in largely unadulterated form. The only cases where people are turned off from liberty in mass occur when they come to associate elements of severe unfreedom with liberty, as part of one inextricable package. This happened, for instance, in many countries of the former Soviet Union, where, unfortunately, liberty has come to be identified with corruption and theft of vast amounts of property by politically connected, former communist elites. Again, it is important to break such stereotypes and show such individuals that advocates of freedom do not stand for such abuses – and, indeed, that freedom is the way to remedy them.
Principle 10. The future, not the past, is the world of liberty. Because central governments have recently and historically arrogated to themselves an ever-growing list of unjustified powers, libertarians often have the temptation to romanticize a past where some or many of these powers were not yet in place. While it is clear that some elements of some past eras were superior to what we observe politically, economically, and societally today – this is far from a universal or even predominant norm. Indeed, liberty should not be seen as a condition that once was and now is not. For the purist, there was never complete liberty in any society – and most societies in history perpetrated far worse and more frequent abuses of basic human dignity than what we observe on the part of Western welfare states today. While this is true, it is also important to see liberty as a strain or influence within a society, rather than as a binary presence or absence. The strain of liberty – in both its intellectual and consequential manifestations – is what enabled and continues to enable varying degrees of peace, progress, and prosperity throughout history. This strain is with us today, and we can contribute to it and make it stronger. It has brought us the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Revolution. It can bring us so much more. Ultimately, our focus should be on establishing more liberty so as to bring about a future that will be more glorious than any past. While we can certainly point out beneficial aspects and developments of prior eras, we must also be ready to respond to the simplistic accusation, “You just want to return to the 19th [or 18th or any other] century!” The response to this should be a firm “No. But we do want a better future, building on everything that we can find to be of value in all prior eras.” Ultimately, a future of significantly greater liberty will unleash so much human potential that we, from our present vantage points, could not fully envision or anticipate what it will be like. But our efforts should be aimed at enabling us to continually be pleasantly surprised.