A few weeks before he died, Bob LeFevre and I were having one of our regular monthly discussions, along with a small group of mutual friends. Bob was troubled by the fact that so many libertarian organizations seemed unable to sustain themselves, and either passed by the wayside altogether, or lost their commitments to individual liberty. A number of organizations and publications were brought up in the course of the conversation, but LeFevre was particularly concerned with two: the Freedom School/Rampart College effort he had undertaken — with a sufficient amount of money and energy driving it — and the Freedom Newspapers. "Why is it so difficult," Bob asked, "to keep such entities alive?" Rampart College was no longer functioning — due in large part to governmental regulations that made it difficult for anyone to operate a college unless it had a deep-pocket from which to draw funds to satisfy numerous state requirements. By the time of this discussion, Harry Hoiles was embroiled in a dispute with other members of his family over the philosophical direction the Freedom Newspaper chain was to take. As a minority stockholder in the family-owned enterprise, Harry was out-voted.
I had had an abiding interest in both Rampart College and the Hoiles’ papers. I taught with LeFevre at Rampart for two years — a very productive experience for my own thinking — and wrote weekly newspaper columns for the Freedom Newspapers from 1964 into the 1980s. One of my continuing feelings of accomplishment came from being told that its founder, R.C. Hoiles, greatly enjoyed my articles. I would occasionally receive fan-mail from this wonderful man. Coming from a man who had, during World War II, written front-page editorials condemning the incarceration of Japanese-Americans his words were most encouraging.
R.C.’s son, Harry Hoiles, was as devoted to the principles of individual liberty and private property as was his father. It was these two men who employed Bob LeFevre as the editorial page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, a position that allowed LeFevre to earn a living writing the kinds of articles that helped advance interest in liberty, and gave him time to organize what became known as the "Freedom School." It is difficult for many people, today to imagine how, over the years, literally hundreds upon hundreds of individuals could have been attracted to come from all parts of the country to attend a two-week intensive study of individualism, liberty, and private property. No one, in my opinion, did more to establish the essential connection between liberty and property than did Bob LeFevre.
As important as the Freedom School/Rampart College and the Freedom Newspapers were in helping to not simply communicate libertarian principles to others, but to help define such thinking, at the time of our discussion one of these entities had passed into history, and the other was having its philosophic direction altered. Bob could not understand why this was so; why libertarian organizations — with a consistent libertarian message — were so difficult to maintain.
I had already explored the underlying dynamics of institutionalism in my first book, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. The problem, I suggested to Bob, was to be found in the fundamental tension between individual liberty and institutional success. While, as social beings, each of us has a need for cooperation with others — which allows us to enjoy the benefits of social organization — there comes a point at which the success of such associations seduces us into wanting to establish them as a permanent presence in our lives. We soon find ourselves attracted to thinking of the organization not simply as a convenient tool for the accomplishment of our mutual interests, but as an end in itself, as its own reason for being. Once people begin thinking this way, it becomes easy to accept the idea of having the government confer trillions of dollars upon corporations that are no longer capable of functioning in the marketplace, or to rationalize the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in the name of glorifying the empire that inflicts such death and destruction.
The cause of liberty is an endless struggle between the forces of individualism and institutionalism. It is but another expression of the contest between stability and change. Is it possible to maintain an environment that not only allows for, but encourages, the changes required for life to continue to adapt to the inconstancies that define life and, at the same time, retaining a conscious awareness of the dangers in institutionalizing short-term organizational strategies for survival? George T.L. Land warned us of the adverse consequences of institutionalization: "what we really have to fear is not too much the perpetuation of our growth failures; much more dangerous is the deliberate attempt to repeat our successes."
Because "liberty" is so closely wrapped up in the processes of change; of maintaining the vibrancy and resiliency that is life, itself, it has a way of being messy, upsetting to established interests. Institutions are preoccupied with preserving the status quo because they are the status quo. A person or a civilization that is in "equilibrium" is, by its nature, dead. The only time you or I will enjoy the stability, uniformity, and predictability that underlies our quests for "security," is when we are in our graves. There, alone, will the voices of "liberty" be quieted by the forces of eternal constancy.
Efforts to institutionalize liberty are as absurd as those strange persons who take a dead pet to a taxidermist to have it stuffed. To organize on behalf of promoting liberty poses no problems, as long as the principle of liberty — and not the resulting body — remains foremost. The problem is that, the more successful an organization becomes, the greater is the tendency to want to protect its existence. Bankers, investors, and members who had been attracted to this body for reasons other than philosophic commitment, soon begin to look upon the uncertainties that accompany liberty and change as a form of entropy to be disposed of in the least-costly manner possible. The short-term materialistic benefits that derive from organizational activity begin to overwhelm the principled purposes from which the body began. When the Institute for Humane Studies and the Cato Institute moved their operations from the San Francisco to the Washington, D.C., area, there was an unconscious announcement by each of a shift in purpose.
The cause of liberty is threatened most not by politicians or power-hungry corporate interests, but by the willingness of ordinary people — i.e., you and me — to identify with and attach ourselves to the abstractions they purport to represent. I am not interested in impeaching presidents — or in electing new ones — for such efforts only result in the naming of a new warden to run the penitentiary. If you doubt this, please take a look at the past two years in American politics. In the name of "change" and "hope," the same game of establishment-controlled state violence, looting, and regulation continues to play itself out, albeit with larger stakes and marked cards.
We end up imprisoned and enslaved not with the bars and chains others fashion for us, but by our attachments to interests in our external world. Those who would control us for their ends threaten these attachments — be they to our money or other property interests, or to our liberty. Not desiring to lose that which we have learned to love more than our own inner sense of self, we succumb to the threats and obey. How easily might even the most libertarian-minded person be willing to surrender even more power to the state in exchange for the politicians’ promise to not interfere with the Internet?
Keeping alive this boundless energy for liberty becomes more problematic as we increase our attachments. This is what makes it difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to sustain entities devoted to the promotion of liberty. It requires a radical integrity, and most of us are distrustful of the "radical" because we do not know the meaning of the word. To be "radical" is to "go to the root," to a "fundamental principle," in directing one’s behavior.
In the words of John Curran, "liberty" is dependent upon the "eternal vigilance" of people, a condition best expressed by those wondrous and mysterious souls so well-known to my Irish ancestors, the leprechauns. The leprechauns placed great value upon their gold, and would do just about anything to protect it or, if stolen, obtain its return. One thing these people would never risk, however, was their liberty. Tales are told of these folk watching, sadly, as thieves hauled away their material wealth — all the while plotting how to get it back — but they would never become so attached to their gold as to jeopardize their liberty. When the state descends upon us to plunder both our wealth and our liberty, how many of us will share the leprechauns’ sentiments?
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.