Libertarians, Power, and the Message of Freedom
William L. Anderson
William L. Anderson
Recently by William L. Anderson: WikiLeaks
and National Insecurity
believe in liberty are in a minority, and it is a minority that
few of us really can comprehend, as for the most part, libertarians
cannot grasp the real costs that they will be facing in the coming
years. Those of us who have spoken out against the abuses committed
by those in power no longer will be ignored by those who control
the police and "justice" apparatus, and we will be on
the radar screens of those who believe they have the power to silence
to the call for a boycott of Amazon because it gave in to pressure
from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I had this
post on Lew Rockwell’s blog. The post was a brief compilation
of some of my thoughts, but as I read it again, I realized that
we are dealing with a much, much bigger issue than the debate about
whether or not we should try to punish Amazon because of its actions.
department where I teach, Frostburg State University, shares office
space with the political science department, and like so many other
Poli Sci departments across the country, it is a repository for
Democratic Party activists. These are the Progressives who believe
that every regulatory agency and every government department is
forever protecting us from those evil corporations that seek to
impoverish all of us, make us eat poison, foul our waters and air,
and turn our temperate climate into something akin to what is experienced
in summer in the Mojave Desert.
are alone, and the political viewpoints, or should I say the political
viewpoint, of the rest of the faculty pretty much mirror what I
hear every day in conversation in our hallways. That is the reality
of teaching in a secular state university, although I doubt that
I would hear a much different set of values if I were on the faculty
of, say, Calvin College, a Christian institution, in Michigan, except
that the faculty at Calvin would "Christianize" the statism.
I were on the faculty at conservative Cedarville College, a Baptist
institution in Ohio, I would hear a different version of statism,
one that supported the police, prosecutors, and the U.S. wars overseas.
Most people there actually believe that we have freedom of worship
in this country because of those very soldiers fighting overseas.
There might be a paean to free markets, but overall, the American
state would be seen as fundamentally good and even exceptional.
perhaps the faculty at Grove City College, a person with views like
mine would be in a minority and a distinctive minority at that,
and if a libertarian cannot coexist in such an atmosphere, I would
recommend that person find another line of work. To be a libertarian
– and especially a Christian libertarian – in an atmosphere where
hardcore statism is the unofficial but dominant religion is to understand
a bit what it is like to be a Christian in a land governed by the
(This is something
that Laurence Vance understands intimately, as more than any other
Christian libertarian I have known, he has paid a real price for
his stands against the U.S. military machine. He has been thrown
out of a church, denied employment, and vilified by those who claim
the same Christian beliefs as does he.)
In a recent
article in Christianity Today (excerpted from his book,
Good is God?) Philip Yancey writes of an insightful interaction
that also has application to libertarians:
ago, a Muslim man said to me, "I have read the entire Qur'an and
can find no guidance in it on how Muslims should live as a minority
in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find
no guidance in it on how Christians should live as a majority."
He put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths.
Muslim societies tend to unify religion, culture, law, and politics.
Whereas U.S. courts debate the legality of nonsectarian prayers
at football games and public monuments to the Ten Commandments,
in the Middle East even the airlines broadcast the call to prayer
five times a day. And in countries with a variety of religions,
like Nigeria, as the Muslim population increases, they seek to
impose the religious Shari'ah law on all citizens. (Emphasis author’s)
of the Christian political activism that we have seen (and often
condemned) on behalf of both right and left falls into that attempt
to turn Christianity into a force that either has a majority in
government or has people governing as though Christians of the rulers’
own particular viewpoints were a majority in this country. We also
know – and
have documented – the damage that occurs when Christians take
institutions of power and conclude that they are acting in the name
of God even when following a "win at all costs" strategy
that is decidedly non-Christian.
libertarians don’t consider themselves to be Christians (and, indeed,
most libertarians I know are hostile to the Christian faith), one
might wonder where I am going with this piece. Indeed, to those
who might think I am comparing apples with oranges, I say that the
parallels between Christianity in hostile settings and libertarianism
are closer than most people might think.
believe that the state exercises power that violates the very ideal
of liberty. Obviously, I do not include the "regime libertarians"
in this mode, those who hold to a view that America is essentially
a libertarian political entity and that actions taken by the American
state abroad and even at home still fall into the libertarian sphere.
We now have
a state that can criminalize anything and everything, and police,
prosecutors, and the courts refuse to let truth intervene. We have
a state that can
seize anyone’s property, and even when the courts rule against it,
still are able to ignore the rulings and crush anyone in the
way. We have a state that can and will open fire upon women and
children and burn out members of a religious sect that posed no
threat to anyone, and then place the survivors on trial and imprison
We now have
a state that incarcerates more people than any other nation on the
face of the earth and also executes people who demonstrably are
innocent. We now have a state that claims its law covers the entire
globe, but agents
of that same state do not have to obey the law. We now have
a state whose agents can fashion a crime against anyone they choose
and almost always find a compliant jury that will convict, even
if the jurors don’t agree with the prosecution. We now have
a state that literally is at war with everyone else on the planet.
we have to understand that this is the state we have, and we cannot
reform it. Yes, some of its agents use the language of liberty,
Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, even though the Declaration
of Independence that we supposedly celebrate is seen not only as
irrelevant by the representatives of the state, but actually dangerous
and something that never can become part of public policy.
Our job as
libertarians is not unlike the same thing faced by those First Century
Christians, who operated in an atmosphere more hostile to their
beliefs than anything we have faced in this country – at least to
this point. We are interacting with people who believe that the
highest good in a society is to control the apparatus that tries
to control other people. We are interacting with people who either
are in power and don’t want to give up that power, or people who
want to be in a position of authority.
we are interacting with those who have no problem with the application
of raw force against others, and not only do we wish to convince
them that we can have a better society without the use of such force,
but that they should be willing to give up their very desire to
have such authority for themselves. I would like to say that this
is daunting, but it is much more than that.
Once upon a
time, ordinary Americans tended to prize their liberty, just as
the intellectuals tended to despise it. (Henry David Thoreau and
Lysander Spooner were exceptions, but most people of letters have
favored the application of state power, and lots of it.) The intellectuals
finally won their huge victories in 1913 and perhaps we should not
be surprised that the cataclysm of World War I followed. (Indeed,
the great Murray
Rothbard wrote that World War I was the very fulfillment of
American Progressive intellectuals.)
supposed guardians of liberty, American journalists, declare that
any opposition to government coercion – and especially the outright
sexual assault that is taking place in U.S. airports – not only
but actually is dangerous and should be squelched by any means
possible. We live in a time when the supposed guardians of our liberties
– the mainstream media, which claims to be a "watchdog"
of government – happily use mug shots and publicize the infamous
guilt-affirming "perp walks" in a tag-team effort with
prosecutors to destroy any vestiges of the protections given the
accused that we inherited in Anglo-American law.
the early Christians who were fed to lions, crucified, stoned to
death, and imprisoned, we also seek to give a message that is antithetical
to people in power today, or people who want to hold power. At the
present time, the price we have paid is minimal.
even though I hold libertarian (and Christian) worldviews, I still
have been permitted to serve as the chair of the university committee
that makes tenure and promotion recommendations. No one has tried
to keep me from using Austrian Economics in the classroom, and no
one has tried to stop my libertarian publishing.
have no guarantee that this is going to be the state of affairs
even a few years from now. The hostility toward any worldview of
liberty is growing, and one does not even have to watch Bill O’Reilly
or Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow or to read the New York
Times to understand which way the currents of statism are flowing.
So, we are
in a conundrum. We believe that governments should give up power,
and that freedom of speech, freedom of enterprise, of owning private
property, of entering into exchanges with others (including those
exchanges which involve what some call "vices") will result
in a better society.
simply cannot see it. My colleagues where I work simply could not
bear to live with a state of affairs in which government was not
coercing money from others, regulating businesses, and promoting
boondoggles like "green energy." To them, such things
involve the very purpose of government, and our message of
freedom of enterprise is as foreign to them as the message of worshiping
Christ was to someone falling down before a statue of a Roman god
in 100 A.D.
conservatives who believe that olive-clad soldiers or blue-clad
police officers are "heroes" who are "protecting
our freedoms" are not going to be convinced that policies of
non-intervention abroad, free trade and exchange at home, and freedom
to engage in activities that conservatives believe to be morally
wrong can equate into a society that is anything but a place where
only the most depraved would want to live. The task is even more
difficult for Christian libertarians like Laurence Vance and others
who interact with those people who have tied their very religious
beliefs to the fortunes of the American state.
In the end,
we often strike out at others and boycott this and that company
which does not act according to our own ideals. We find ourselves
helpless to influence those in power because at the heart of our
message is the call for them to relinquish at least some of that
power they believe they possess.
So, we wait.
We wait for the American state to become even more coercive, and
more bankrupt. We wait for the U.S. economy to buckle under to the
unbearable burdens that the American state has created. We wait
for the very expansion of the state that we despise.
As I noted
earlier, few of us really have felt the full wrath of the state,
but that is not because the state lacks power. I wrote in my earlier
now is governed by a regime that can fashion a "crime"
against any of you. Have you ever failed to do EXACTLY what a
TSA agent said to do, and to do it immediately? Have you ever
asked a question that one of them did not like? Congratulations.
You have "interfered with the duties of a federal officer,"
which is a felony punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison.
If you were not prosecuted, it is because the authorities at the
time did not see any benefit to making an example of you.
It is that
easy, my friends. Today, federal prosecutors target whom they
will, and then they decide later how to find a "crime"
that fits the political situation. On the sidelines, there are
plenty of cheerleaders, whether at Fox News of MSNBC or on the
Daily Kos or Michelle Malkin or wherever, depending on who is
targeted, indicted, and ultimately convicted.
a nutshell, we are trying to present a message that people who are
governing us really would be better off if they were to cease their
governing activities. That clearly does not wash.
Ours is not
a governing philosophy, just as the Muslim speaking to Philip Yancey
understood that Christianity is not a religion compatible with the
exercise of raw political force. Ours is a philosophy that says
lording it over others is not something we should want to do, and
it is a real threat to those whose highest ideal is to make others
bend to their will.
I have no doubt
that many of us who hold to such a set of beliefs will face real
difficulties in the future. People who might tolerate us now will
not do so as their own rule becomes increasingly insecure, and as
new measures of deadly coercion result in chaos and death. Nonetheless,
we have a way of thinking and living worth having and worth proclaiming,
even if others don’t wish to listen. That does not make us wrong;
it just makes us more vulnerable to those who believe we are wrong.
L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him
mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland,
and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig
von Mises Institute. He
also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit
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