Libertarian Pessimism Confronted

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Right To Work Laws: ALibertarianAnalysis

I. Optimism

There is a bit of pessimism that has infected some parts of our libertarian community. The present essay is an attempt to refute this doctrine, or at least any pernicious elements of it that threaten what progress we have already made, and, hopefully, the more that is to come in the future.

Why the sudden onset of pessimism about the prospects for liberty. I am not sure. Perhaps it is due to the fact that Ron Paul is no longer in the Congress of the U.S. At one fell swoop it is thought we have lost our most effective beacon for liberty, one to whom attention is paid by the mainstream media, in spite of the slights and slurs they visited upon him. But do not count Ron out, not quite yet. His new efforts, Young Americans for Liberty, The Liberty Crier have barely gotten off the ground yet. He is soon to launch his speaker's tour, in association with the prestigious Greater Talent Network, the leading celebrity speakers bureau in the country.

Nor is Congressman Paul the only thing that libertarianism has going for it. The Mises Institute just celebrated its 30 year anniversary, every year of which, no, every month of which, no, every week of which (work with me on this; soon, I'll get to the end of the sentence), no, every day of which, no, every hour of which, no, every second of which (I told you) has been spent in the avid pursuit of liberty, and sound (Austrian) economics. Why, just the other day the Simpsons cartoon television series mentioned the school of economics made famous by Mises and Rothbard. If that is not making progress into the very bowels of the culture, then nothing is.

And this is the tip of the iceberg. There are free market think tanks in virtually all 50 of the states in the U.S. There are even think tanks that do good work inside the beltway (ok, ok, just a few of them; everyone's a critic, nowadays). There is the Free State Project in New Hampshire. Yes, it is now being attacked by a Democratic State Senator, but all such publicity is good publicity; and, this imbroglio has drawn a ringing defense by Tom Woods. There are numerous universities which feature several Austro-libertarian professors. Each of them has acquainted numerous students with the freedom philosophy, and many of them subsequently take courses at Mises University, which has been an astounding success.

It cannot be denied that Obama is now president. However, things could have been worse: Romney could have won, and then, probably, the U.S. would be involved in several more unnecessary imperialistic wars. After the Republicans unceremoniously and unfairly rejected Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party nominated Gary Johnson, who in my opinion did a workmanlike job of keeping the concept of liberty in the public eye.

And then there are the books. They keep rolling off the presses at a furious clip. They promote, expand on and expound libertarianism and Austrian economics. These are the foot soldiers of our intellectual movement. I won't mention any, lest I leave out some worthy candidates. But, go to the Mises Store, and see quite an array of them there. Nor can we afford to ignore in this assessment the scholarly periodicals. Here I will name a few names; these are among my favorites: Economics, Management, and Financial Markets, The Independent Review, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Libertarian Papers, the Mises Review, the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, Procesos De Mercado, Reason Papers, and The Romanian Economic and Business Review. I cannot end this listing of beneficial organizations and institutions without mentioning Hans Hoppe's Property and Freedom Society and Justin Raimondo's Both do sterling work for the cause of liberty.


This is quite a listing. It gives me hope that our freedom and liberty movement will at least hold its own against the always encroaching forces of darkness, evil and statism.

II. Pessimism

Recently, I gave a series of lectures in Sydney, Australia (the fact that so many of the Senior Fellows of the Mises Institute including me are now called upon to give public speeches here, there and everywhere is another bit of evidence for optimism). I received a few days later a very pessimistic letter from one of the some 150 attendees (Australia is a country with a population of only some 23 million; that was an excellent turn out). I shall now quote it in full, and then in the third and last section of this essay, respond to it. Its author shall remain anonymous, apart from me saying that he is a young man.

I'd like to begin by thanking you for coming to Australia to speak at the 2012 Mises Seminar, where I had the immense pleasure of making your acquaintance and listening to you lecture on several fascinating topics. My encounter with your work, Defending the Undefendable, was a truly transformative experience and to have been able to meet you in person, as opposed to through your words on the page or through your YouTube lectures on the computer screen, was an honour and privilege. For what it is worth, I would like to thank you for what all that you have done, and continue to do, for the cause of liberty both in the United States and around the world.

Although I found the Mises Seminar highly informative, I left Sydney significantly more pessimistic about the prospects of libertarianism than when I had arrived. Walter, you mentioned that you enjoyed challenges and critiques – if you don't mind, I would like to visit some questions about libertarianism that have really challenged me and hear your thoughts on them.

I understand the logic and morality underpinning an anarcho-capitalist, libertarian society. I believe that people, acting self-interestedly in a free-market society, must necessarily help each other. I believe in freedom and in the incredible material benefits that free, voluntary interaction have and continue to generate for all humanity. I believe also that everyone should be free to choose, even if many end up making u2018bad' choices. Against this belief, against the powerful logic of your contention, against the arguments of your contemporaries Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul and Peter Schiff in favour of a libertarian society, against of all this there is the fact that there is no libertarian society in existence today. Nor has any society founded upon the principles of liberty lasted. Your own nation, the United States, is perhaps the best example of this. The United States, as envisaged by its founding fathers, was undoubtedly the most libertarian society in modern history. And yet, how far she has fallen! Thomas Jefferson would be turning in his grave if he could see how totalitarian and egregiously incompatible with individual liberty present day America has become.

If even the United States, a state conceived in liberty, buttressed by a strong written constitution that fiercely upholds personal liberty and property rights, can be led so far down the path of socialism, what hope is there for the rest of the world? What hope is there for libertarianism? Walter, you mentioned two of Rothbard's u2018lieutenants in liberty' (my apologies, I've forgotten their names), who turned neo-con and statist, and you asked why. I do not presume to speak for them, but perhaps they saw what America had already become and where it was tending, and simply lost faith?

This leads me to my second concern. Both yourself and Neville Kennard, in his video memorial, spoke of the importance of little rebellions against the State, wherever possible. Other libertarians, I cannot remember precisely whom, have written on the importance of tempering resistance to the State with recognition of the fact that you have but one life to live. I put it to you that this is the reason why libertarianism will not succeed: in my limited experience, radical change of the nature and scope that libertarians seek is not achieved by piecemeal resistance to State depredations and compromise. It is achieved only by complete and utter rejection of State oppression. It is achieved by an adherence to principle irrespective of the

Martin Luther King did not help secure rights for blacks by doing what was u2018legal'; Nelson Mandela did not overthrow apartheid through compromise; nor did the American colonists shake of the British yoke by sitting down for a cup of tea. (Incidentally, neither Hitler, Lenin, Mao, nor other infamous dictators achieve fruition of their ideas by going along with the status quo.)

Radical change of this nature is achieved by only radical action. As libertarians, we take pride in our dogmatic application of libertarian principles no matter the situation. How then, can we sit around and laugh while the State steals and misuses our hard-earned money? We argue that we have a right to defend ourselves from theft, from slavery – which is what taxation is – yet how many libertarians do you know have actually taken action to defend these rights? (The only person I have heard about who has acted to defend his rights to keep what he earns is Irwin Schiff.) How can we preach about the legitimate use of force in response to aggression, and yet remain a movement so obedient and compromising? Even if the majority care nothing for our beliefs, how are we libertarians not outraged? Why are we not driven to action, in the way the followers of King, Ghandi or Mandela were? Are we not entitled to use force to defend the theft of our property?

Although I certainly do not mean to impugn the great work that Dr Ron Paul and yourself have done for the liberty movement, I do question its efficacy. Yes, you, Dr Paul and others have spread the message of freedom far, far beyond what anyone four years ago could possibly have imagined. And yet, as you yourself said in Sydney, we are not an inch closer to our goals. Indeed, it appears to me that each day brings us further and further from them. Each day, the bastion of freedom that was the United States moves closer to dictatorship and tyranny. Each day, as the inevitable failure of the European Union draws closer, it is the socialists, fascists and nazis that grow in popular esteem. Each day brings new statist measures to restrict personal liberty, and empower and enrich the State at the expense of its citizens.

I recognise the importance of education and discourse, of convincing the world of the truth of our ideas. I recognise also the importance of action and as a movement, that action has been sorely missing. Perhaps we are still too small a movement, perhaps it is still too soon for action of that kind. But I do not believe that we can wait for economic collapse, or for the burden of the state to grow so large that the majority begin to question it. In my limited experience, the majority will always be apathetic. If 1984 is anything to go by, you will have to see so much more than TSA gropings, drones in the skies and paramilitary APCs on suburban roads before the majority even begin to think of the mere possibility of action.

Change, in my opinion, is never effected by the majority. It is required, demanded or even imposed by the minority, and only then accepted by the majority. As a minority, we should not shy away from action and yet, even the most strident libertarian rebels against authority only in his or her little, usually perfectly legal, way. What is it that separates us from the blacks under King and Mandela, the Indians under Ghandi or the Israelis under Moses? The citizens of Western nations today are no more oppressed, in principle, than they were. Indeed, we are separated only by a few percentage points, for if a slave is someone who has one hundred percent of the fruits of his labour taken from him, at what percentage is he not a slave? Why then, have we not seen the kind of protest effected by the perpetrators of those movements?

My personal theory is that we, as individuals, have too much to lose. I would hazard a guess that 90% of the attendees at the Mises Seminar were well educated, (most likely autodidacts in both Austrian economics and libertarianism), intelligent enough to question the status quo, middle to upper-middle class with good future prospects. We passionately reject the State from our armchairs but most of us, myself included I am ashamed to admit, are too comfortable in them to do more than that. Sure one or two of us may write an article here or even go so far as to relocate our families to a sovereign that is not so oppressive as the last. But can you envisage even a minority of libertarians taking what a libertarian would argue is a lawful and moral defense of their rights against the State?

I apologise for being so pessimistic in my assessment of the future. I wholeheartedly believe in what you and others like you, are doing, just as I believe in the truth of the message that we are spreading. I do as much as I can, without alienating family and losing friends. I am frustrated because I do not believe it is enough and yet, I do not know what I can do. It appears to me that we are involved in a great game of chess, but one where the State has at its disposal all the rooks, knights, bishops and queens, whereas the forces of liberty only pawns.

III. Optimism, once again

Thanks for your very thoughtful letter. You have put quite a bit of effort and intelligence into it, so I feel I must respond.

I think there is a disanalogy between libertarianism, particularly, anarcho-capitalism, and these other movements you discuss: Ghandi, Mandela, King, the American Revolutionaries. Our philosophy is MUCH more radical than theirs. I did mention my views on socio biology in my lectures: human nature, I think, is incompatible with libertarianism (our species is not hard wired to appreciate markets), but not with these other movements. These others were very traditional. None of the four you mention (Ghandi, Mandela, King, the American Revolutionaries – by the way, this latter group were not libertarian enough to end slavery) really wanted to change much of anything. They all just wanted a different group to be in charge; themselves. In very sharp contrast, we libertarians do not want anyone to be order people around against their will, and this is very unsettling to most voters; hence our failures to win much of anything through the ballot box.

I really don't want to go to jail (like the heroic Irwin Schiff) or die at the hands of the state. That is why I limit myself to legal acts: writing, publishing, public speaking, teaching etc. I suggest you confine yourself to staying within the law, too. The only other alternatives are to give up on liberty, or engage in illegal acts against statism. I see no fourth option. I can't conceive of giving up on liberty. It is just about my entire professional life. Illegal acts are foolish, I maintain. This is the cross we libertarians are called upon to bear. We know that liberty is the last best hope for mankind, yet we are powerless to implement it. All we can do, like Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul, Ludwig von Mises, etc., is engage in legal acts in favor of liberty to the best of our ability. They don't seem to be working too well, you say. I respond: too well compared to what?

When I first got into the libertarian movement, in the mid 1960s (I met Ayn Rand in 1962, but she was not really a libertarian. I count my entry into the libertarian movement as of 1966, when I first met Murray Rothbard, my friend, teacher, mentor), I estimate there were, oh, 100 libertarians on the entire planet. That at least was Murray's best estimate, and he had his ear to the ground on such things. Now, including your own Australian Mises Institute, there are way more than 100 organizations that espouse our philosophy. As the gays say, "We are everywhere." This is progress. If in the next 50 years we can double this rate of increase, we might even reach, oh, 3-5% of humanity. It is up to young people such as you to carry this torch forward. To not be discouraged even though it is indeed frustrating to know we are right, yet are able to do so little to promote liberty. But, at least, the mainstream culture now recognizes us. Libertarianism, and Austrian economics, are recognized far more than they were in the mid 1960s. Ron Paul is now a household name, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.

The two ex libertarians I mentioned are Williamson Evers and Randy Barnett. I have written about them here, here, here, here and here. Here is a third example of this phenomenon.

Please remain a libertarian, in spite of your pessimism. I know of nothing, apart from the promotion of liberty that is just so much FUN. In my most pessimistic moments, I think that if our species doesn't blow itself up first, it will take perhaps 100,000 years for sociobiological considerations to alter in the direction of liberty. In the "meantime" we've got to keep the light of liberty going. We have to preserve the "remnant": a small group of people who can do just that. However, despite the foregoing, I am not that much interested in the debate between libertarian optimists and pessimists. Why? Because if ever either side is declared the winner, it will not change my behavior by one iota. Whether we are moving toward or away from liberty, I will continue to do what I do every day: work to the best of my ability to promote freedom, and economic rationality. I ask that everyone reading this essay try to do the same, to the best of their ability.