At various times since the 9/11 attacks, libertarians may have suffered the temptation to succumb to despondency and despair over the prospects of the restoration of libertarian principles. After all, despite more than 50 years of efforts advancing libertarianism — think tanks, educational foundations, books, monographs, pamphlets, conferences, seminars, periodicals, speeches, and lectures — the federal government has grown bigger and more powerful as each decade has passed.
Moreover, it’s not as if a majority of Americans haven’t favored the government’s growth. Domestically, the American people have embraced socialism just as the rest of the world has. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, public (i.e., government) schooling, public housing, grants to corporations, farm subsidies, and SBA loans. The list goes on and on. Americans love their socialism and have become quite dependent on it.
They also continue to embrace the interventionism that has come to characterize American society. No matter how much damage such interventions as the drug war and the minimum wage, for example, have wreaked on American society, the American people continue looking for reform, rather than repeal, to solve the resulting problems.
In foreign affairs, the love of omnipotent government continues to grip the hearts and minds of the American people. No matter how much damage U.S. foreign policy has caused our nation — in retaliatory “blowback,” out-of-control federal spending, and massive infringements on the Bill of Rights — Americans just keep looking the other way.
So, one might ask, what’s the point? If efforts to advance libertarianism for more than half a century have come to naught, then why should libertarians continue spending their time, energy, and money on such efforts? Why not simply throw in the towel and walk away? Or why not acknowledge that we’ll never see a libertarian society and simply devote ourselves to reforming and improving the status quo?
The reason? Because we can never know how close we are to achieving our goal of restoring a free society to our country, despite political trends in the opposite direction. In fact, I suspect that, despite the fact that things have been moving progressively in the wrong direction for more than 50 years, the past half-century of advancing libertarianism has brought us closer to the restoration of libertarianism than we can ever imagine.
This article will explain why that may well be true, and why “the choir” — that is, those of us who already ardently and passionately believe in libertarianism — is the key to making it happen.
Bringing down the Berlin Wall
Let’s consider advocates of freedom who lived in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Some of them devoted their efforts to making life better under socialism, just as some libertarians do here in the United States. Obviously, their work was important, because their efforts helped to relieve the suffering and misery that comes with socialism.
But there was a group of freedom advocates behind the Iron Curtain who devoted their efforts not to making life more palatable behind the Berlin Wall but rather to pounding away at that Wall in the hope of knocking it down. Their weapons, of course, were not jackhammers, mallets, or even hammers. Their weapons were simply ideas — ideas on freedom.
Year after year, those who were working toward improving life behind the Iron Curtain could easily point to successes they had achieved, such as getting one of their own on some neighborhood housing board, getting some bureaucrat fired for corruption, or maybe even some tax or regulatory relief.
Those who were, year after year, pounding away at the Wall, on other hand, encountered nothing but failure. While they continued sharing ideas on freedom with friends and neighbors, the fact is that they were tilting at windmills. There was no way that the Berlin Wall was ever going to come down, at least not in their lifetimes. After all, don’t forget that the Soviet government was omnipotent and that it had all the guns.
And then, one day in the year 1989 something big happened. The Berlin Wall did come down, suddenly and unexpectedly. And all of sudden, everyone realized that those who had been pounding against the Wall with ideas on freedom, year after year, had been achieving success the entire time they were working. Slowly but surely their ideas on liberty had been reaching into the minds of men and women, who would share them with others, until finally a critical mass of people who cherished freedom was reached, and down came the Wall.
Thus, while it appeared that those who had been pounding against the Wall had met with nothing but failure, year after year, by the only measure that really counted — whether the Wall was still standing or not — the fact is that they were meeting with success without actually being able to measure it. And the proof came in 1989 when the Wall came crashing down.
It’s not any different for libertarians who have been pounding away at the socialist and interventionist edifice that has been built up in our nation for so long. While the libertarian reformers have oftentimes made life better for us through reforms and improvements, those who have long been devoting their efforts to a paradigm shift have “failed” — until, that is, the paradigm shift favoring libertarianism eventually takes place, at which point our success in pounding against the statist wall, year after year, will become apparent.
The role of the choir
And that’s where the choir comes in. The choir is the key to achieving that paradigm shift.
How is that so?
In his book Elements of Libertarian Leadership, which was published in 1962, Leonard E. Read, who founded The Foundation for Economic Education in 1946, explained the process.
Imagine a bell curve. On the lower left edge of the curve are the ardent advocates of statism. They are a small minority in the society. On the lower right side of the bell curve are the ardent advocates of liberty. They too form a small minority in America and are what libertarians would commonly refer to as the “choir.” In the middle of the bell curve everyone else is found — hundreds of millions of Americans, almost all of whom are relatively indifferent to ideologies and political and economic philosophies.
“Those are the people — the ones in the middle of the bell curve — whom we need to convert,” some libertarians may suggest. But deep down, on the basis of their own experiences with friends, family, and neighbors, they have to suspect that such an effort would be likely to be unsuccessful.
Imagine, for example, walking into a shopping mall and offering 100 people $500 each to sit in a room for a two-day seminar on libertarianism. For those two days, eight hours a day, the best speakers in the libertarian movement deliver brilliant and exciting introductory lectures on libertarianism.
What would be the result? My prediction would be that probably all of them would be grateful for the $500 and more grateful to finally be out of there. Libertarianism would not be their passion. Their passion would be their work, their family, their church, gardening, travel, sports, exercising, knitting, studying, or whatever they’re already interested in.
Leonard Read explained that those who fall within the middle of the bell curve are
as uninterested in understanding the nature of society and its political institutions as are most people in understanding the composition of a symphony; who, at best, can only become “listeners” or followers of one camp or the other. A disproportionately large number of these are following the leftist camp today because those in the rightist camp are failing to do their homework. The ones symbolized by the band at the right are not manifesting the qualities of attraction and leadership of which they are capable. Thus, we conclude that the solution of problems relating to a free society depends upon the emergence of an informed leadership devoted to freedom.
In short, this is a leadership problem, not a mass reformation problem. If we had no way of remedying our situation except as the millions come to master the complexities of economic, social, political, and moral philosophy, we would not be warranted in spending a moment of our lives in this undertaking — it would be like expecting a majority of adult Americans to compose symphonies.
If the problem is as we visualize it, then it is important to search for potential leaders with a devotion to those moral principles upon which the philosophy of freedom and, therefore, a free economy must rest.
Thus, the libertarians in the choir — the passionate devotees of libertarianism — are the key to ultimately achieving a libertarian society. That is why it is so vitally important that we spend our time and efforts energizing the choir and providing it with the intellectual ammunition that it needs to influence others into joining our cause.
So who are those others? They are the potential libertarians in the middle of that bell curve — that is, those people who have libertarian instincts but who have no idea that there is an enormous libertarian movement and a deep philosophy and heritage of libertarianism. Sometimes such a person, upon discovering the libertarian movement, will exclaim, “I’ve thought this way for years. Where have you people been?”
There is a world of difference between trying to convert people to libertarianism and simply sharing libertarian ideas with them. The first method connotes a cramming process — one in which a libertarian attempts to buttonhole people into learning about libertarianism. The second method is more of a discovery process — one in which we are trying to discover people who are as interested and passionate as we are — in order to swell the ranks of the choir.
The great libertarian Frank Chodorov summed up the process when he said, “The purpose of teaching individualism is not to make individualists but to find them. Rather, to help them find themselves.”
Reaching a critical mass
Then, as the choir becomes increasingly large and its members become increasingly eloquent in presenting libertarian ideas, those in the middle of the bell curve will become more persuaded by the arguments made by those in the choir and thus begin considering a paradigm shift rather than simply improving the status quo. They won’t understand all the intricacies of libertarianism, nor will they want to, but they will have a sufficiently good grasp of the general principles to be convinced that the libertarian paradigm is worth adopting.
How many passionate and eloquent defenders of liberty are needed in the choir before a major paradigm shift can take place? It’s impossible to know but almost certainly it is significantly less than a majority. Consider, for example, a private company in which a few employees are trying to shift the company from one management philosophy to another. At first, the group advocating the shift is small but as its members become more eloquent exponents of the new paradigm, they begin to attract more employees to the group. In some instances the group reaches a critical mass that is significantly less than a majority but nevertheless causes the rest of the company to shift toward the new paradigm.
What better time to strive for a paradigm shift in the United States than now? Sixty years ago, when Read founded FEE, the advocates of socialism and interventionism could argue that their philosophy would bring prosperity and harmony to society. Sixty years later, the proof is in the pudding. The socialist-interventionist experiment has been a disaster, both in domestic and foreign affairs.
No matter what federal program one selects — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the drug war, the income tax and the IRS, education, foreign interventions and wars — they are all a giant mess. If there was ever a time that those millions of Americans within the middle of the bell curve should be thinking and reflecting, this is it. And since nearly everything federal officials have done in the past 60 years is a mess — and since the federal government is using these messes as an excuse to dominate and control our lives and fortunes even more — it would be hard to imagine a more opportune time for people to be thinking about a major paradigm shift — one that rejects the statism under which our nation has suffered since the early 20th century and embraces the libertarian paradigm that guided the founding of our nation.
The key to this paradigm shift is the libertarian choir. The members of the choir are the only ones who can make it happen. That’s why we must continue “preaching to the choir.” That’s why we must continue energizing the members of the choir and providing the intellectual resources they need to eloquently make the case for libertarianism to others. That’s the way we will ultimately bring our wall crashing down.
December 12, 2006
Jacob Hornberger [send him mail] is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He will be among the 22 speakers at FFF’s upcoming conference on June 1—4 in Reston, Virginia: u201CRestoring the Constitution: Foreign Policy and Civil Liberties.u201D