a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it
a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at
first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.
But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more
converts than reason.
It has been my experience that many libertarians abhor realism. They deride it as being pessimistic. They seem to think it is some sacred libertarian duty to “believe” that we “can” “win”—in our lifetimes, or in the next election cycle, I suppose. My sense is that much of this is driven by the more “activist”—in the sense of electoral politics—type of libertarian. It’s as if they believe that without a belief that possible victory is around the corner, too many people will give up in resignation. So we have to maintain the illusion that victory is around the corner to remain self-motivated.
I have always disliked this kind of—what seems to me to be—self-deception. I fight for liberty because it is right, not because I think we are about to “win.” I fight for liberty whether we can win or not. So I have never been afraid of pessimism or realism since in my case, I am not afraid it will lead me to give up or change my mind. This is the advantage of having a principled case for liberty. If you get involved in the movement in the naive hopes that we can change the system with a few pamphlets or blogs or campaigns, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. But if you have a more long-term view, you fight for liberty for love, and because it is beautiful and right.1
And when you look around things are pretty bleak. Most people have no interest in sound economics or intellectual consistency. So is there any hope? Well, what is needed to achieve a free society? It is 100% conversion to libertarianism? No, I don’t think so. In fact such a society is hard to imagine. Suppose we had an anarcho-libertarian utopian paradise where literally everyone was peaceful and libertarian. In such a society people would not lock their doors, they would be less careful in protecting their property, and so on. In such a society, the incentive for the marginally worst person to “defect” and start stealing would be great, since there is so much low-hanging fruit. The point is that even in a largely libertarian utopia we can expect some degree of private crime. And this can be dealt with by insurance, private security agencies or measures like locks on doors or passwords on accounts, ostracism, and so on. To achieve a private law society we need not totally eliminate aggression, but keep it to small, marginal levels. There would be no public or institutionalized aggression, as there would be no state, but there would be some marginal background amount of private crime. The key thing is that the overwhelming societal consensus be compatible with libertarian property rights. Is this achievable?
Well we already have a certain degree of civilization and society. To the extent we do, it is because most people are already more or less libertarian, at least in their private lives. Most people would not steal from their neighbors, rape, pillage or loot, even if they could get away with it. They are simply not consistent or economically literate enough to realize that their basically civilized stance implies the state is illegitimate. My view has long been that most people are decent and have civilized grundnorms or basic values; if they were only more consistent and principled and economically literate, they would realize why a full-fledged free market is necessary, and why the host of modern state policies and institutions are incompatible with their more basic values.2
This is why one principal libertarian goal has been one of education: to educate people in basic economics and basic political philosophy. Thus we recommend Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson or Bastiat’s The Law to people. We corner them at cocktail parties. We offer to send them PDF pamphlets or links or blog posts. But as we have all seen in such cases, they are not really interested. Most of these people have rarely read a non-fiction book or article. Certainly not the type we think they need, like Bastiat, Rothbard, Mises. In the far flung future perhaps we will all be hyper-wealthy men of leisure with 50 more IQ points and this will change. But I doubt it.
Perhaps recognizing the futility of educating or converting the masses in any reasonable time frame, a divide and conquer approach is employed: libertarian think tanks and scholars attempt to influence those at the top of the intellectual pyramid, such as academics, in the hopes of some kind of trickle-down effect: the professors write the texts and set the tone, the students and future politicians pick it up, and so on. Yet this has been tried for decades and the results are obviously discouraging: taxes and spending keep going up. I suppose some could argue that without the subtle behind the scenes push on the top of the pyramid current spending and taxes would be even worse. But this is hard to imagine and harder still to prove, and, in any case, even if true, it’s thin gruel.
I do agree that if there is any long run hope for a liberated mankind it has to be accompanied by a significant overall enlightenment, specifically more economic literacy. Given the failures we have seen to date in our efforts to spread the good news of free markets, is there any realistic hope that we can achieve a freer society by raising the level of economic literacy, despite the general anti-intellectualism of the world or nation’s populace?
I think there is. The opening quote above by Paine is a hint as to my view on this. Consider the fall of Soviet communism circa 1990. Before then you had many leftists in the West who were commie/socialist apologists. Most people were dimly aware of the debate and paid little heed. As far as they were concerned capitalism (in the libertarian sense) and socialism were just alternative ways of arranging an economy, each with its own advantages and drawbacks. Misesians and libertarians had various principled and economic reasons for opposing socialism. Everyone else was ignorant, apathetic, inconsistent, or pragmatic. Thus they were prone to treat the two as competing systems.
But my impression is that the general attitude towards central economic planning, communism, and outright socialism has changed. Most people now recognize that we have to have at least some free market core to produce wealth. They realize that communism is bankrupt and leads to poverty. Why do they know this? Have they read Mises or Hazlitt? No. They simply saw the West get richer, and communism collapse. Experience was a teaching moment in history, for all of humanity. This is a sign of hope. Even people that are un- or anti-intellectual, who are uneducated in economics (or, worse, educated in mainstream economics), have learned something basic about economic freedom. They know that it works, and that state planning does not. They are not consistent, of course, but their awareness of the failings of central planning is levels above that of people in the 1970s, say.
To me, this is a sign of hope. It implies that we do not have to hope that 78% of adults become libertarian intellectuals, reading Rand and Rothbard and Bastiat, to rally to the side of freedom. We can presuppose that they are decent already at core—if not, humanity and civilization have little hope. But we can hope for a gradual improvement in overall economic literacy because experience and the unfolding of history will continue to teach it. (With some of the intellectuals and scholars in the background offering an undergirding support for those few seeking more depth and consistency.)
I picture the underlying free market economy as a strong stallion, with a bunch of gnashing state parasite beasts latching onto it with sharp claws and blood suckers, continually sapping its strength, living off of it, and dragging it down. If the state grows faster than the market and technology, maybe it will finally drag the stallion down, killing it, and dragging society into a new dark age. But I think it is more likely that the free market stallion will continue to outpace the ability of the state to sap its strength. The Internet will continue to develop into a market force and an informational/communicative force to fight to the state. As technology and the division of labor expand and improve, as the world population increases and more developing nations lurch towards industrialization and some semblance of libertarian capitalism, as the Internet and communication and networking, learning, and sharing combine, it is possible that we will continue to see radical increases in wealth and prosperity—despite the state’s frictional drags and setbacks. As I noted in “Stephan Kinsella on the Logic of Libertarianism and Why Intellectual Property Doesn’t Exist,”
The Internet is one of the most significant developments in our lifetime, perhaps in the history of humanity. The state is trying to control the Internet but I believe and hope that by the time the state is fully roused to the danger the Internet poses to it, it will be too late for it to stop it. As a Salon writer said about former congressman/now copyright lobbyist Chris Dodd after the Internet uprising that helped defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA): “No wonder Chris Dodd is so angry. The Internet is treating him like damage, and routing around it.” My hope is that the Internet will find ways to treat the state like the cancerous damage that it is, and route around it and leave it in the dust.
I do expect technological advances to continue, despite state interference, and to continually enrich mankind. As this happens, over time, I expect that a growing number of average people will learn by experience and osmosis of the power of freedom, technology, and market, and become more and more cynical about the efficacy and justice of state interventions—just as people have learned to be cynical about central planning after seeing the economic collapse of the USSR and its satellite states.
I am actually fairly confident this will happen, since life is a force that is hard to snuff out. There may be setbacks, and it’s hard to predict how long this will take, but I do believe that in the end, freedom will win because it is just, it is right, it is compatible with the nature of reality and with the nature of decent humans. At some point the disparity between the statist way and the individualistic, free way will become too apparent for most people to ignore.
This is my hope.
Update: Louigi Verona has an interesting response to my post at Bad lessons of history: Do we really learn?, where he argues that I am a bit too optimistic. Could be.