TGIF: What Now, Libertarians?

by | Feb 12, 2021

TGIF: What Now, Libertarians?

by | Feb 12, 2021


The prospects for individual liberty and the required rollback of the government seem as bleak as ever, but we can’t let appearances, no matter how pervasive, be decisive. The spark within most people–the longing to chart one’s course in life–never really dies. We’ve got to remember this as we search for new and innovative ways to make our case to an apparently uninterested public.

But I admit that things don’t look good. We might have expected the four-year circus presided over by Donald Trump to sour people on the very idea of government. I always thought that was an unrealistic expectation. A yearning for a return to “normal” seemed more likely–and in this context “normal” means a conventional politician. Politically speaking, pre-Trump normal is bad, which is why we got the contemptible Trump in the first place. Yet normal is what we have now in the creature of Washington who is now the government’s chief executive. (By the way and strictly speaking, if you’re not in the military you have no commander-in-chief, and since the president presides as chief executive officer of the government, not the country, private citizens have no president either. A pet peeve of mine is people who call any president “my president” or “my commander-in-chief.”)

For the record, Trump certainly could have done far worse than he did as president (that should have been his campaign slogan), but that is faint praise indeed. He was hardly dedicated to pushing back the limits of the bloated central state–far from it. For each of the very few positive things he did (some deregulation happened), he did a dozen rotten things, not to mention the toxic atmosphere he helped generate. (As someone said, he also brings out the worst in his enemies, but that’s another story.)

We live in a time when most people believe that government spending and borrowing need have no limits. Of course they believe this: they are told this day after day by the pundits, politicians, and bureaucrats. Almost any excuse will do to increase borrowing and spending and to impose extraordinary restrictions and prohibitions on peaceful activities, but the COVID-19 pandemic was ready-made for this. If government officials, backed by some scientists, can scare enough people into believing they will die if they so much as step outside their homes, never mind go about their normal business, they’ll win support for a wholesale shutdown of society. Then the government will have an excuse to intervene on an enormous scale in order to provide “relief” for the very ills it caused. We are encouraged to pretend that sky’s-the-limit fiscal and monetary policies will have no consequences for our children and grandchildren.

Yes, a few people have objected to all this, but where are the mass (and peaceful) street demonstrations against what amounts to a society-wide quarantine? They don’t happen because government-anointed experts have spoken. It almost doesn’t matter that comparably credentialed experts dissent from the official line because they will be defamed and stigmatized as ideologues or industry lackeys who put almost anything ahead of the facts. Nevertheless, “believe the science” is worthless advice when competent scientists are on different sides of a question.

A pandemic of course is not the only way to have the population to capitulate to extraordinary interventions. A terrorist action or failure of financial institutions may also do the trick. Politicians are inventive that way.

So it’s easy to scare people into surrendering their liberty, and politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests will never tire of looking for things to scare us about. Remember Rahm Emanuel’s admonition to never let a good crisis go to waste. (This is a good time to tout Robert Higgs’s classic, Crisis and Leviathan.)

And yet … after all this, most people won’t be thrilled with the idea of spending their lives scared and being bossed around by a cold bureaucracy. People in the United States like the words of the Declaration of Independence that refer to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (I presume many people outside of the United States get a warm feeling about this philosophy too.) And that’s what we libertarians have going for us. Most people never really reject liberty deep down. They may not understand how liberty works in the social sense, which keeps them from embracing it completely. But that’s where we libertarians come in. Our job is to show them that liberty is not just the right thing but the practical thing. The moral is the practical. (See my book What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.)

We have something else going for us, which we shouldn’t forget: most people observe libertarian principles in their private spheres. They don’t kill, coerce, or steal. The problem is that they have a different standard when it comes to politicians and bureaucrats. So our task is to point out that government officials are just people, so no double standard is permissible. If we can’t do it, they can’t do it.

Think of it this way: libertarians must teach people that one moral code exists for all. Politicians and bureaucrats are not really a class apart from the rest of us with special rules governing their conduct. That’s not too tough a lesson to teach. It’s an appealing idea actually.

The double standard is sometimes justified by the democratic representation principle. It will be argued that government officials can do things we can’t because according to the principles of democracy, the people anointed their lawfully selected representatives with those powers.

Sorry, no cigar. No representatives can be democratically delegated powers or rights not possessed by the constituency that selected them by majority vote. You cannot delegate authority or rights you don’t have. Even if a people band together to pick a representative, that person can only do what the group had the right to do as individuals. Democratic theory is political alchemy.

The idea of representation is coherent in nonpolitical circumstances, of course. But it falls apart when it comes to government. A member of the House of Representatives theoretically speaks for nearly 800,000 diverse individuals who may agree over very little. How can that be accomplished? The theory of representation was just a device to stifle dissent against the government after the divine right of kings fell out of favor. After all, how can you criticize the government if in fact it is you and your fellow citizens are really the government? This is obvious nonsense, but it works to keep dissatisfaction in check. Libertarians need to teach this lesson over and over.

I have no glib answers for how to reach people. It’s a trial-and-error process all the way. Find ways to talk and write to people that will be fresh and attention-grabbing. Point to the real-world benefits of market activity in action. Remind people that trade occurs only when mutual benefit is anticipated by both parties to a transaction. Demonstrate how market incentives work to direct scarce resources toward making thing that consumers most want. Explain that privilege and shelter from creative competition are creatures of government policy, not of private consensual activity. Introduce people to the non-intuitive idea of spontaneous order–Adam Smith’s invisible hand–which is essential to understanding how societies work. And emphasize that libertarianism isn’t just about markets but covers all of free and peaceful cooperation.

Of course, always respect your audience. You’ll never succeed otherwise.

One final note: it’s not enough to sow distrust of government. If anything because that won’t necessarily lead to individual freedom and voluntary social cooperation through the market and other forums. We must first directly nurture a love of liberty, respect for others, and reason. The love of liberty flows from those things.

It’s easy to get discouraged, but remember what someone (apparently not Pericles) once said: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

TGIF–The Goal Is Freedom–appears occasionally on Fridays.

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Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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