We Live Free in an Unfree World
by Karen Kwiatkowski: Thoughts
on the Insanity
presentation was given at the Agora Unconference, on March 27, 2011
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.
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.
la Boétie (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.
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
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,
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
as George Orwell the dystopian novelist. You and I are also here
because what the state says doesn’t match reality.
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
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
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?
I believe, is yes.
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,
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,
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
rather than suspicious
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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,
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2011 Karen Kwiatkowski
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