This presentation was given at the Agora Unconference, on March 27, 2011
Stefan Molyneux, a well-known anarchist, gave a great talk last year where he pointed out that, "The enforcement of the state does not come from the state. It comes horizontally, from the mass of the people who have been cultured to believe the storyline of vertical state control." He calls this "the genius of the state." He calls these enforcers slaves, enforcing their own slavery.
The genius of the state is that it gets us to voluntarily, without pay, to stand up for it, and to deter, damn, and defriend not just the people who challenge its presumed authority, but to heartily reject both ideas and factual information that challenge the state's façade of moral certitude, and its the mask of justness.
Etienne de la Botie (namesake for our conference this weekend) observed the same thing in the 1500s, and he wrote about it in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. He points out that the governing system rests and rises only on the consent of otherwise free people. The slave-citizens voluntarily serve the state, and willingly consent to the order, and the orders of, the state. Of course, part of the reason we give our consent is that we fear being jailed, hung, shot, beheaded, losing our property, our families, or our physical freedom at the hand of an angry or disappointed state. In some ways, this fear of rejection and isolation, is logical. We consciously or subconsciously decide to trade our consent for continued life as we know it.
It has pretty much always been this way. In fact, in ancient and not so ancient eras and civilizations, the structure and implementation of slavery has relied on cultural acceptance for its longevity. When, and only when, slavery became distasteful, culturally unpopular and economically expensive, the states altered their laws, following the evolving values of the people. The evolution and de-evolution of many social norms and values seems to follow the same path. Homeopathy was rejected by many in the late 1800s not only because of trends in medicine, but by an increasingly prosperous society who bought into the idea that health you purchase medically is automatically better than health as a result of personal action and natural remedies.
The state was a tool of the AMA and medical schools, and the consumption demands of the striving classes were also well suited to state tax-harvesting. That the state and pharmaceutical industry today cling tightly and fearfully to their state-based advantages in the face of increasing consumer dissatisfaction with their non-holistic health care is to be expected. Their fear is a sign that as it should be, the billions of health decisions made by millions of individual people will eventually lead the way. It brings to mind the adage of the statesman or politician who says "I must hurry, for there go my people and I am their leader!" Indeed, following, not leading, is how every vertical institution of power must operate.
There are many reasons to be concerned about the state of liberty in the early 21st century. In a global sense, information freedom and technology have unleashed new paradigms. The paradigms are very different for states than for individuals. States everywhere actively seek to control, to surveil and monitor, to manage their populations and the property and movement of people. On the other hand, individuals and their extended networks are strengthened, educated, motivated, and excited by the possibility of liberty. They are empowered as individuals in realizing liberty in their life and their work. And curiously, while states are expensive to maintain, fiat money is continually inflated, and food and fuel prices have risen, the technologies of communication for the mass of the people are affordable. Liberty is within reach for most people in the world today. This is what we are seeing in North Africa and the Middle East today, and within all of the statist regimes of China and India. Only in North Korea, where food and maintenance of the state are so dear, and communication technology so inaccessible, do we have perhaps a sense of near term hopelessness. But even in North Korea, we don't know for sure what sparks of liberty lay dormant or smoldering, and these sparks are hard to extinguish in real life. They are part of being human.
Americans tend to assume the United States is on top of the freedom pigpile. It sounds like a good place to be, but the facts are very different. The Heritage Foundation currently ranks the US as having the ninth freest economy, but it shares its 77% rating with Bahrain and Chile, so being 9th may not be all it's cracked up to be. Just this week, a Cato economist interviewed economist and author Dambisa Moyo, regarding her new book How the West Was Lost. They spent a lot of time discussing how the 35% corporate tax rate in the US is ten percentage points higher than socialistic Denmark (which, by the way, was determined to be more economically free than the US).
The US has the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Even if you are not a prisoner, it is difficult these days to travel within the United States, at least by air. To leave and return to the country requires a great deal of paperwork, planning, and wasted time all in the name of state security.
There is an old piece of paper (sometimes known as the law of the land, or the Constitution) that explicitly says the government will not constrain or limit our ability to assemble, to speak, to write, to publish, to own and bear arms, to receive fair trials, to not be tortured or to be insecure in our persons and property or papers. Yet, we live in a country with free speech zones, permits to march or demonstrate, state documentation and approval to own and bear arms, etcetera, etcetera.
90-95% of people charged with a crime never see the inside of a courtroom, much less a jury of their peers, as charges multiply based on tens of thousands of pages of laws to be broken, juries and judges lean predictably on the side of the state, not truth, and plea bargains become the popular solution, if unjust, expensive and immoral solution.
The more the state proclaims American freedom, the more it lies, or at least ignores the facts on the ground. Linguistics is key, perhaps. Noam Chomsky's background prepared him for understanding this misuse of language, just as Eric Blair's experience as a British apparatchik in Burma and elsewhere prepared him for creating and explaining Newspeak, as George Orwell the dystopian novelist. You and I are also here because what the state says doesn't match reality.
Google labs has a analytical app for published books, called the ngram viewer. You can use it to check a phrase or word for frequency of usage in published books all the way back to the early 1800s. The word "liberty" has drastically and steadily fallen out of favor, after a high point in 1800, while the word "freedom" has seen its popularity spike in the war years of 1940s and 1960s. Is there a difference between liberty and freedom? There might be. Liberty seems to stand on its own, a condition of being free to choose, to act, to move and to think. Freedom is also a condition, but it is more associated with what might be allowed or granted. One of the definitions of freedom is "a country's right to self rule" whereas liberty is more closely associated with the individual's right to choice and action. As the 20th century has been the century of nationalism, of the rise of the state, and not unrelated, record-setting democide, the murder of human beings by the state, it is logical that we would talk about freedom, but give short shrift to fundamental liberty.
So what we have today, in the US and around the world is technology and information availability that feeds and informs the ideas of liberty and human freedom, coexistent with a massive national and global state apparatus that uses the same technology to indoctrinate and to encourage large groups of people to consent and conform to that state. Love of liberty and trust in decentralization, in peace, in our fellow man is spreading, even as the state uses the same technological world to centralize operations, consolidate control, spread fear, promote statism and facilitate social atomization, such that community and family ties are weakened and less influential.
There is a contrarian view of the whole phenomenon of Wikileaks that speaks to this dual edged technology. Wikileaks' actions, using technology to make government more transparent has actually given the state strengthened enthusiasm for restricting information sharing between agencies of government, between countries, and between people.
All of this points circumstantially to the war waged by the state, day in and day out, on human liberty. It is a war that is waged politically, technologically, economically, and even linguistically.
How then can we live free in this environment? Do we push back directly, or use a ju jitsu feint? Do we try and change the politics, the technology, the economics, and the language of the state to produce a more decentralized and liberty-tolerating and even liberty-promoting system? Do we stand up parallel alternative systems, and participate only in those spheres? Do we ignore the problem and just live our lives?
The answer, I believe, is yes.
But before I discuss some specifics and answer some of your questions, I want to talk about how we each already live our lives contrary to social norms and political guidelines. When we look at ourselves, we can identify habits of thought and action that already exhibit the kind of independence and uniqueness that are the seeds of living free. To really think about this topic philosophically, one can read Harry Browne's book How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World.
And there are many other sources for how to liberate your thinking and your life, and many people here have already explored and enjoyed works by writers and philosophers like Ayn Rand, Richard Bach and Scott Peck. There is a lot out there on how to liberate ourselves mentally, physically, creatively, and emotionally.
But I am pretty lazy, and sometimes I don't really want to have to work that hard. Instead, if we consider the fundamental ways we already interact with the world, we might be able to simply emphasize the personal approaches to the world that we already embrace, and just tweak them, just a little, towards liberty and against the state.
A new book was published this spring, called Why Liberty edited by Marc Guttman up in Connecticut. It contains the stories of how 54 people from around the world and from all walks of life, discovered liberty and embraced peace and freedom in their lives. One review of the book, by one of the contributors, economist Arnold Kling, points out that a common trait in all of the contributors was a "a willingness to go one’s own way politically." He brought up the role of personality, and the so-called "Big Five" personality traits. These traits are defined as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Kling suggested that libertarians were as a group, low on agreeableness, especially when it comes to politics. Agreeableness is defined as "a tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic."
Kling could be correct in this, but I would suggest that libertarians are just as likely to be high in the trait of openness, and they are probably low in the trait of neuroticism. Openness to new ideas and interpretations (beyond standard state-published pablum) for how things work, and especially how state and society works, would be a trait that would lead one to question the state. And questioning the state is extremely powerful. It doesn't take a majority of people to ask the right questions for real change, and for societal paradigm shifts to occur.
When a person one is persistently or strongly demonstrating the trait of neuroticism, it is seen in fear-driven behavior. Wikipedia says those who score high in neuroticism are "likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult." On the other hand, those who are low in neuroticism are said to be "are less easily upset and are less emotionally reactive.
They tend to be calm, emotionally stable, and free from persistent negative feelings." One might translate this as optimistic and pessimistic outlooks. Rothbardians, anarcho-capitalists and anarcho-libertarians, anti-staters of all flavors, tend to be cheerful, enjoy humor, and they are optimists in the long run (even as we are usually sharply pessimistic over the short run). A more general indication of having that desirable low score in the trait of neuroticism is simply self-confidence.
To live free means that you have accepted the truth about human liberty, not just that it is something people of all ages want and enjoy, but that free societies are truly better than unfree societies. To the extent that liberty is present in society, we see self-organizing, self-moderating, highly productive and correspondingly, generous, compassionate and fundamentally peaceful people. Real freedom to think, live, move, produce and trade pushes human beings to be active rather than passive, because being active in mind and body is rewarded, and being passive in mind and body is less rewarded. Free societies tend to value all of its members, be they young or old, male or female. In a free society, personal biases and beliefs, subcultures, native languages or accents are not viewed as barriers to economic or societal acceptance — the members of a society are instead judged on how agreeably and satisfactorily they live their lives, honor their contracts both written and unwritten, and produce and trade their goods and services.
If you think about how the state, and not just the US state, but all modern states, have classified and divided people by age, it demonstrates the sheer hatefulness and dehumanization that statism is known for. Through the age of 18, children are dependents, and basically made to be slaves in preparation to pay taxes for a limited working life. After age 65, the state has termed human beings again as dependents, and as with the young people, not considered productive or particularly valuable. When I think of George Washington, the first of the post-Constitutional Convention presidents, I don't think of him chopping down a cherry tree. I think of him as the 16-year-old surveyor's apprentice traveling with his employer making maps and surveys of land Virginia and West Virginia, over the very land that I now call home. In an era where the life expectancy for free men was around 54 years, George Washington was fighting for secession from the British empire and eventually serving as President until he was 65 years old.
Today, the U.S. life expectancy is about 78 — by the standard set by our first president, we should expect productive and valuable goods and services from Americans through age 93.
On the other side, the state demands children and teenagers sit quietly in their seats, instead of sailing around the world, flying or driving or starting companies. Even as we marvel at what teenagers can accomplish, the state and its minions generally tut tut and frown when they act on their natural abilities to produce, to think, and to act.
As a state, we forbid and denigrate the idea that a productive life should begin in or before one's teens, and should end in our 90s. As a free society, we would celebrate this potential, and realize it as a matter of course.
The first step in living free is orienting our own thinking to liberty. This means we must begin with our own perception of the world, our own knowledge of how free markets, free choice, free movement, and free speech work. We ought to learn a bit about what great minds throughout history have had to say about freedom, about challenging the Goliaths of the world, about truth and honor in our personal lives. I mentioned these three things specifically because I do not believe that living free means rejecting our religious heritage, no matter what heritage that is. All great religions value honesty, courage, and personal responsibility. For many of us, this first step means we need to read a bit more, study a bit more, listen a bit more, and be open to learning something that will be very different than what we have been taught in government schools and by government institutions and often, our own families and cultures. I would specifically recommend the Mises Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Future of Freedom Foundation, but the whole world of thinking on liberty is available on the Internet, and you can read, watch, listen to and benefit from thinkers who have already paved the way for all of us.
I think the second thing we can do to begin to live free is also something that all people already exhibit — a certain degree of neuroticism, or as it is sometimes characterized, low emotional intelligence and less developed interpersonal skills. To live free in a free society requires us to have more emotional intelligence and better-developed interpersonal skills — i.e. to be less neurotic, less fearful, less pessimistic. These are the gifts of the trader, the talents of the deal-maker.
A neurotic personality complains that no one wants to buy my products; the less neurotic personality finds out why and figures out something new and better to do. If we are to support ourselves, and eliminate the nanny state that we all hate, we need to develop our emotional intelligence and our interpersonal skills — and in doing this we begin to recognize not only the inherent value of all the people we meet and work with and trade with, but our own inherent value. And that leads to self-confidence, and a self-confident person is well-suited to liberty.
Arnold Kling's suspicion that libertarians are a bit low on the agreeableness trait, at least in politics, may have merit. And if you already disagree with the state, and refuse to budge, knowing that the state is not only evil, but an aggressive evil, you are doing just fine. In a truly free society, we will all be at this point, and we will guard against statist thinking in our homes and public spaces, as much as we might guard ourselves and our loved ones from contagious diseases and drug-resistant bacteria. But to be disagreeable in politics, and really anywhere, requires that you understand and are able to both emotionally and intellectually explain why you are opposed.
This requires some work. Some education. Some practice. And it requires some basic principles that you live by which I think, for libertarians and many others, should be the Ron Paul campaign theme. Peace, prosperity and liberty.
I will diverge here a bit to criticize the Libertarian Party, self-proclaimed party of principle. A significant minority of libertarians, including some influential and popular politicians within the party, happen to be pro-war. They praise the state for martialing soldiers and building bombs to kill people in other states, for some state-defined rationale that is consistent only in its variability over time. Of course, supporting state wars — especially given what we now know about the ways states go to war and justify those wars throughout history — is inconsistent with freedom. The state's language gives us a clue, because it generally puts forth that the state is always fighting FOR freedom, rather than extinguishing it (which is what a war-time state does both at home and abroad). I believe the state abuses the language this way because human beings were designed to exercise and intuitively love real liberty.
A liberty-minded person should encourage his or her friends and neighbors, if those friends and neighbors were advocating that the state act on behalf of this or that just cause, at home or abroad, to review the Christian parable of Jesus and young wealthy man who sought to do right. We should advise our friends and neighbors, in their passion for justice, to take the whole of their property, and give it away for the cause. They don't even have to go that far, they could perhaps send money, weapons or aid. But certainly, if they advocate in an intervention by our state, they should not wait, but instead immediately travel to the distant land or domestic city, take up arms or aid, and fight the good fight.
A statist instead would say, well, let's tax and take a bit from everyone, and then send a few young men who can't otherwise get jobs, or have been infused with false patriotism and blind obedience by their families and state-funded education, to go fight for us. The individual cost will be low, and we can all feel like we are doing something. And a statist is illogical about destruction of property. He or she believes that rebuilding or fixing damaged structures and people (whether it is the foreigners we want to change or the injured or maimed and mentally fractured soldier we want to heal afterwards) is productive. They see no difference between that, and the alternative, where the same capital would have been channeled into creating and building more, new and better things. A statist doesn't think about the insanity of their reasoning. Like babies playing peek-a-boo, statists haven't yet learned that even when you can't see something right in front of you, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. As Bastiat explained, there are costs we can see, and those that are unseen — and both types of costs matter and must be considered in understanding our choices and actions.
If we have developed a certain preparedness of mind, a certain openness to liberty; if we have worked on our interpersonal skills, increased our fundamental sense of optimism about ourselves and others, gained self confidence; and if we understand logically and historically why we hate the state, we are living liberty in an unfree world. At this point, we haven't done a thing except open our minds, discipline our thinking towards logical and analytical thinking, and attempted to love people even as we hate vertical and force-based institutions. We have not yet changed or directed our attention to changing any other person, much less attempted to change or weaken the state.
Or have we?
We are social creatures, and society is made up of individuals, who flavor the soup whether they are trying to or not. I would submit to you that living free can be achieved by only these three basic mental steps. And while they seem like easy steps, they are not. Having an effective level of openness, a high degree of self-confidence, and a serious depth of understanding of why we love liberty and hate the state will allow us to act freely, and to teach others by our interactions, our work and our example. But it isn't easy, and it's a long road for most. But it is a most worthwhile goal.
Liberty-minded people are extremely hard for the state to control. They make terrible soldiers and impolitic generals. They ask a lot of questions, and they listen carefully to the answers, attuned to falsehood and fallacies. I spoke earlier about ageism and the state. Liberty minded people are a bit like teenagers, and like teenagers, they tend to feel things a bit more powerfully, and to imagine things a bit more colorfully, and love truth a bit more fearlessly than their parents. It is often said that teenagers don't really understand mortality, and they take risks that other sectors of society don't take — emotional and physical risks. They challenge authority.
If we are only slightly liberty-minded, we will do all these things, and we will refuse and resent vertical organization and control. The state — like an angry parent — will be upset, but we will cope with that anger, brush it off, and do it our way. Perhaps Kling was correct after all in his assessment that libertarians are "low on agreeableness." If we develop liberty-loving minds, we will certainly be seen by the state as disagreeable.
Is there a cost involved? We could be harassed, economically punished, and condemned. We will be asked hard questions, by both the apparatus of the state, and by our society and community. But for the liberty-loving mind, these are not roadblocks. The questions are opportunities to practice our tactics, improve our strategies and our effectiveness, and strengthen our resolve.
We wonder, "How can we live free when the state is a massive powerful enemy of freedom, and the only effective political mechanism is not rule of law, but an iron triangle between lawmakers, the bureaucracy of state, and favored industries or groups?" But, as with so many other questions we could ask, there is an answer we want to hear, and then there is the honest answer. We want to hear that we could live free if only we could eliminate the state, or make it more "libertarian." Eliminating the state when most of our neighbors believe in it and rely upon it would only lead to the rise of a subsequent state, possibly one that is even worse and less free. Making the state "libertarian" while most of our neighbors believe in and obey state power would corrupt both libertarians, and the very concept of liberty.
The honest answer is we have to start with ourselves, and we have to practice living liberty in such a way that it informs, inspires and ultimately induces and helps our neighbors to turn their own backs on the state. Etienne de la Boetie realized that all states, kings and dictators, democracies, and republics, rest on the consent of the ruled. In each moment, and in the myriad of ways that human beings reject the state, lose faith in the state, and withhold their consent, we achieve liberty and we proportionally destroy the power of the state. It happened to Rome, and to Moscow. It's happening today in Egypt and Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. It is happening in the United States too, not in an organized or vertical way, but by the cumulative daily acts of liberty in mind, body and economy of millions of real people. To live free, we need only to greet them, commend them, and join them.
LRC columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, blogs occasionally at Liberty and Power and The Beacon. To receive automatic announcements of new articles, click here or join her Facebook page.