Category Archives:Path to Libertarianism – Libertarian Basics
In this age of frantic communication about hundreds of issues from thousands of voices, it is easy to lose sight of the basic principles of libertarianism. The Path to Libertarianism exists to keep us grounded in a philosophy that remains a constant in this world of evolving opinion.
Libertarians aren’t hard to understand. David Boaz in his book Libertarianism: A Primer outlines the key concepts of the philosophy: Individualism, Individual Rights, Spontaneous Order, The Rule of Law, Limited Government, Free Markets, the Virtue of Production, the Natural harmony of interests, and Peace. (Read his description here.)
These are the foundational principles outlined in our site. These are the ideas that a libertarian begins with when examining politics, government, and society at large. Advocates for Self-Government board member Dr. Ken Bisson sums it up best, “Libertarianism is what your mom taught you: behave yourself and don’t hit your sister.” (You can get more definitions of libertarianism here.)
Libertarianism.org – The Cato Institute is a prominent libertarian think tank. They have assembled many wonderful resources to explore the basics of liberty. View speeches, read columns, and find several helpful guides to libertarianism at Libertarianism.org.
LearnLiberty.org – The Institute for Humane Studies have built a resource for learning about the ideas of a free society. They provide a starting point for conversations on important questions like “What is the nature of man and society?” and “What is the proper role of government?”
Mises.org – Many libertarians consider Austrian economics to be central to the libertarian framework. What is it? Learn more at the site of the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s website. They offer many free audiobooks and ebooks.
The Online Library of Liberty – The Liberty Fund has an excellent resource that encourages the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals by providing many great historical texts for free.
Liberty.me – This is a global community of libertarians is hard to explain. Think of it as your online dashboard to libertarian thought, art, podcasts and new friends. It is founded by Jeffrey Tucker, our favorite libertarian.
Tom Woods – Tom Woods is a great writer, and his daily podcast is a must listen.
Here are some frequently asked questions about political issues. Each question is followed by a short, typical response from a liberal, a conservative, and a libertarian.
Because all liberals and conservatives do not think alike, the responses listed for them are naturally subject to challenge. However, I’ve tried to be fair — and to accurately represent what most liberals or conservatives might say. These responses are based on conversations I’ve had with hundreds of people who described themselves as liberals or conservatives, and on the published writings of self-described liberals and conservatives. The libertarian responses are based upon my views and the writings of libertarian scholars.
Obviously, these quick answers offer just an overview of libertarian thinking. Some of these issues are discussed at greater length in various chapters of Libertarianism in One Lesson. Other issues have been extensively addressed by libertarian scholars and think tanks. I encourage you to do additional reading if the libertarian position seems surprising, or if you don’t think it would work in the “real world.” In every case, you’ll find that libertarian policies are practical, realistic, and already in effect in some part of the United States or the world.
Should there be a draft for military purposes? Liberal: Yes, but not during peacetime. Conservative: Yes. America must always be strong to deter potential enemies. And young people need military service to learn patriotism and discipline. Libertarian: Absolutely not, under any circumstances. The draft is slavery. Slaves make poor defenders of freedom.
Should government own or control newspapers, radio, or television? Liberal: Yes. We need the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) to guarantee high-quality programming. In addition, the government should restrict advertising aimed at children. We also need laws to ensure balanced coverage by the conservative-dominated talk radio networks. Conservative: Government should not own radio or TV networks but should make it a crime for them to broadcast offensive material. We also need laws to ensure balanced coverage by the liberal-dominated television networks. Libertarian: No. Government ownership or control of press or electronic media has no place in a free society. Owners of newspapers and broadcasters should be responsible for what they publish. Let parents and consumers decide what may come into their homes.
Should government regulate sexual activity among consenting adults, including prostitution? Liberal: Generally not. But, if prostitution were legal, it should be regulated to protect public health and to make sure that women are not exploited. Conservative: Yes. Prostitution, homosexuality, adultery, and fornication should all be illegal because they are antithetical to family and religious values. Libertarian: No. Sexual activity involving consenting adults violates the rights of no other person. The right of adults to make their own decisions in this most private area must be respected.
Should drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin be legalized? Liberal: Perhaps. Marijuana could be legalized, but the production and sale should be regulated and taxed. Tax money should be used for drug-treatment programs. Conservative: Are you nuts? Drugs cause crime, harm families, encourage criminal gangs, and promote other social ills. We need stricter anti-drug laws, longer sentences, and more prisons. Libertarian: Yes. Peaceful drug use violates no other person’s rights. People have the right to control their own bodies. Drug laws subsidize criminals, cause more crime, corrupt law enforcement, destroy civil rights, and do not work.
Should it be legal for people to travel or move into and out of the U.S. without limitation? Liberal: We should allow people trying to escape political oppression to come to America, and give them government aid to help them get settled. But we should strictly limit their number because they take American jobs. Conservative: No. We have too many immigrants already. They go on welfare, take our jobs, increase crime and disease, and refuse to learn English. Libertarian: Yes. All individuals have the same rights, regardless of where they were born. Anyone willing to take responsibility for himself or herself has the right to travel and seek opportunity. America has always benefitted from immigrants. They tend to work hard, start businesses, become educated, improve our economy, and make America a more culturally dynamic place.
Should government subsidize farmers and regulate what they grow? Liberal: Yes. Farmers need protection from low prices for their crops and against bad weather. Also, these farm programs help supply food to the needy. Conservative: Some support is needed so that family farms are not lost, and to protect American farmers against unfair foreign competition. Many farm programs are expensive and wasteful, but they can’t be completely eliminated. Libertarian: No. Business are not entitled to have the government force taxpayers to support them. Farmers should operate in a free, competitive market, just as all others in business should.
Should government impose tariffs, quotas, embargoes, or other restrictions on international trade? Liberal: Tariffs and quotas are needed to save American jobs. Trade embargoes can also be used to punish right-wing dictators who oppress their people. Conservative: Trade barriers are necessary to protect industries vital to national defense and to keep American businesses competitive. Trade embargoes can also be used to punish left-wing dictators who oppress their people. Libertarian: Trade barriers violate the rights of Americans and foreign people who desire to trade. Trade barriers cut everyone’s productivity and cost more jobs than they save.
Should the government mandate a minimum wage? Liberal: Yes. Otherwise, employers will exploit workers by paying only subsistence wages. Everyone is entitled to a living wage. Conservative: No. Employers should be able to hire the best employees they can get at the lowest price set by market competition. Libertarian: No. Such laws violate the right of employees and employers to strike their own deals. Economics and history show that minimum wage laws cause unemployment.
Isn’t taxation the only way to pay for necessary government services? Liberal: Without taxes, not enough people would be willing to pay for welfare for the poor, or education, or environmental protection, or so many other important things which only government can provide. In fact, the government should probably raise taxes so it can do more good. Conservative: Without taxes, not enough people would be willing to pay for a national defense, or subsidies to vital industries, or to fight the War on Drugs, or so many other important things only government can provide. However, taxes are somewhat high, so it may be possible to reduce them slightly. Libertarian: Taxation is immoral and indistinguishable from theft. We should replace taxation with voluntary methods of funding legitimate govenment functions. Besides, most “government services” can be provided by private sector business, charities, and other organizations.
Should the U.S. government send troops to intervene in the affairs of other countries? Liberal: Yes, if it will advance the cause of human rights, topple oppressive right-wing dictators, or help poor and starving people in third-world countries. Conservative: Yes, if it will help fight terrorism, topple oppressive left-wing dictators, or protect vital U.S. interests such as oil. Libertarian: No. The U.S. government has no authority to intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries except in response to a military attack on the American homeland.
Should the United States government continue to participate in and support the United Nations? Liberal: Yes, because the U.N. is the last best hope for world peace and because it performs valuable humanitarian missions. Conservative: Yes, but we should pressure the U.N. to take more pro-American stances. Libertarian: Not as presently constituted and financed by tax dollars. A voluntarily financed forum for international cooperation would not be objectionable.
Should young Americans be compelled to serve in some capacity in the name of “national service”? Liberal: Yes, everyone has the obligation to “give back” for what society has done for them, and to learn the importance of helping others. Conservative: Yes, when it can be justified for national defense purposes. Libertarian: No. Mandatory labor is slavery regardless of whether it is masked by the euphemisms “draft” or “national service.”
Should the U.S. government help American businesses during hard economic times with low-interest loans or subsidies? Liberal: Yes. This will save jobs, and American workers need all the help they can get during a recession. However, corporations shouldn’t be allowed to use such support to make excessive profits. Conservative: Yes. Government should help business stay in business. Such a policy promotes free enterprise. Libertarian: No. Government can only help some businesses by stealing from other businesses and taxpayers. No one has the right to be subsidized at the expense of others.
What is the best way to deal with the current massive budget deficits? Liberal: Raise taxes on the rich. Don’t cut federal spending on social programs. Conservative: In the short term, borrow more money to keep the federal government operating. Don’t raise taxes, and don’t cut federal spending on defense. In the long run, economic growth will help pay down the national debt. Libertarian: Dramatically reduce federal spending and taxes to encourage greater economic growth. Confine the federal government to national defense and protecting our constitutional rights. With those savings, pay down the national debt as quickly as possible.
Is there a solution to the long-term financial problems of the Social Security system? Liberal: Significantly increase payroll taxes. Older people are entitled to live in dignity, and they need the security of a government-financed retirement program. Conservative: Reduce benefits, make the system more efficient, and raise the retirement age. Also, consider implementing voluntary, government-controlled private retirement accounts with a portion of people’s Social Security taxes. If necessary, borrow more money to keep the system afloat. Libertarian: The impending Social Security bankruptcy requires that we end the system by granting older workers and retirees the choice of a lump-sum payment or private insurance annuity to replace future Social Security benefits. Ending the bankrupt system will relieve younger workers of the tax and avoid the economic meltdown which will surely result from a massive increase in Social Security taxes.
Should the U.S. government send foreign aid to other countries? Liberal: Yes. We need to help the poor in third-world and developing countries which have good human-rights records. Conservative: Yes. We need to help those governments trying to resist terrorism or trying to convert from socialism to democracy. Libertarian: No. American taxpayers should not be forced to pay to support other governments. However, individuals should always be allowed to give voluntary aid.
Should children be required by law to attend schools? Liberal: Yes. Parents cannot be trusted to provide for their children’s education. Conservative: Yes. Education is too important to the economic health of the nation to be left up to parents. Libertarian: No. Compulsory attendance laws violate the rights of parents to decide what kind of education is best for their children.
Should parents be allowed to teach their children at home? Liberal: Maybe. However, it should be strictly regulated to make sure that parents don’t teach their children bigotry or bizarre religious doctrines. Conservative: Yes. Although some parents may fail to give their children a proper education, public schools aren’t doing a very good job. However, increased federal oversight of schools and standardized testing may solve that problem, which will encourage homeschoolers to return to the public-education system. Libertarian: Yes. The government has no proper role in education. There should be a separation of school and state for the same reasons that we have a separation of church and state. There should be no government penalties or regulation of parents who prefer to teach their children at home.
Should the ownership of firearms be restricted by law? Liberal: Yes. Guns kill people. Ownership of firearms should be very strictly regulated, with waiting periods, mandatory gun locks, background checks, and government-issued licenses. If those steps don’t solve the problem, then only law enforcement and the military should be allowed to own any type of gun. Conservative: Generally, no. However, some limitations on hand guns and military assault rifles may be appropriate. Libertarian: Ownership of firearms violates no other person’s rights, and therefore should not be subject to any penalty or government restriction. Aggressive (criminal) use of firearms should be punished, but not responsible ownership.
What should the government do about the rising cost of health care? Liberal: Every American has a right to health care. The federal government should guarantee free health care, or at least insurance, for everyone. Government must control fees charged by greedy doctors, hospitals, HMOs, and pharmaceutical companies. Conservative: Medicare entitlements must be controlled and limits should be put on medical malpractice lawsuits. Business and individuals should get more tax breaks for medical expenses. Libertarian: Eliminate the socialist policies that drive up costs. End the government-enforced doctor’s monopoly. Let midwives, nurses, and other professionals provide medical service. Give patients the power to make more medical decisions. Deregulate hospitals and insurance. Replace Medicare with voluntary private funding for the needy. As a transition step, offer dollar-for-dollar tax breaks for all medical costs.
What should government policy be toward abortion? Liberal: A woman has the right to an abortion. If she can’t afford it, taxpayers should pay for her abortion. Conservative: Abortion is murder and should be subject to appropriate criminal penalties (except, perhaps, in the case of rape or incest). Libertarian: This is a rare issue where libertarians can disagree. Most libertarians hold that a woman has the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, and that government should play no role in that decision. Other libertarians hold that abortion involves a violation of the rights of an unborn child, and should be illegal. All libertarians agree that under no circumstances should government force anyone to subsidize another’s abortion.
What should government policy be toward nuclear power? Liberal: Because of high risk and the problem of nuclear waste disposal, no more nuclear power plants should be built and existing plants should be shut down. Conservative: Nuclear power is cheap, safe, and less polluting than other power sources. Government should do more to encourage its development. Libertarian: The nuclear power industry is subsidized by federally legislated limits on liability. Government should get out of the nuclear power business and let private power companies compete in the energy marketplace — while bearing full responsibility for actual or potential liability.
Do we need the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that medicines are safe and effective? Liberal: Yes. Only government can protect us against events like the Thalidomide tragedy (when a drug turned out to have unanticipated side effects). But we do need to speed up the FDA approval process for diseases like AIDS. Conservative: Yes. But the FDA needs to be reformed. Currently, the approval process is so slow and expensive that it discourages pharmaceutical companies from developing new drugs. Libertarian: No. There is a market demand for information about the safety and effectiveness of medicine. That demand can be met by private testing labs, the same way Underwriters Laboratories tests and reports on electrical appliances. The FDA causes delays in the approval of medicines that lead to unnecessary deaths and suffering by people denied medicine for extended periods.
Do we need zoning laws to protect our communities? Liberal: Yes. Zoning is necessary to control sprawl, to protect open spaces, and to guarantee sufficient low-income housing. It’s also needed to make sure that profit-hungry businesses like WalMart can’t build “big-box” stores wherever they want. Conservative: Yes. Zoning is necessary to ensure stable property values, to protect historic neighborhoods, and to maintain the quality of life we want in our communities. Libertarian: No. Zoning denies the right of individuals to make the best use of their property. Experience in unzoned cities like Houston proves that cities can thrive without zoning. Rents are lower, property values are protected, and compatible uses tend to cluster together. Other free-market alternatives are things like private deed restrictions or covenants.
Do we need the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide loans to entrepreneurs and small business? Liberal: Yes. Otherwise many minority-run or female-owned businesses would not be able to get start-up funds and create jobs in their communities. Conservative: Yes. Anything that helps free enterprise is a good thing. Libertarian: No. The SBA is just another example of welfare for business. The agency hands out money that was seized from working taxpayers and successful businesses. It gives that money to people who failed to persuade lenders to loan them funds voluntarily. Free-market venture capitalists are perfectly capable of deciding which new businesses have a realistic chance of succeeding, and lending money accordingly.
About the author: David Bergland was the Libertarian Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1984. He is the author of Libertarianism in One Lesson. The above essay is Chapter 18 of The Ninth Edition of his book, which was published by the Advocates for Self-Government.
It can be instructive to look at the breakthrough products of the past two centuries – items that have transformed the daily life of human beings from bare subsistence into comfort and even luxury.
Just think how much harder life would be without the telephone, automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, copy machines, computers, refrigeration, frozen food, central heating, air-conditioning, life-saving drugs, or any of dozens of other things we take for granted. Without them we might lead lives of quiet desperation, just barely surviving for short life-spans.
Do we have these products because politicians stuck a gun to the heads of scientists, inventors, and capitalists and ordered to them create these innovations – under threat of fines and imprisonment?
Or because reformers shouted in the press that we were all entitled to these things?
Or because consumer advocates demanded them?
Of course not.
These things happened because their creators were seeking better lives for themselves – through the making of money, or by satisfying their creative urges, or because they possessed the simple desire to do something good for humanity. Whatever the reason, no one had to force them to develop these products that have so benefited us. In fact, if the innovators had been forced to work on a project of bureaucratic design, it’s highly doubtful they’d ever have done anything worthwhile for the rest of us.
Those revolutionary, dramatic breakthroughs are easy to recognize. And it isn’t hard to realize that we’re better off because their creators were left alone to follow their own stars – rather than being ordered to conform to a plan put in place by political action.
Little things mean a lot
But those aren’t the only benefits that flow from leaving people alone to act on their own self-interest in their own way.
Every day the revolutionary breakthroughs are duplicated in millions of smaller ways that aren’t so easy to see: When a businessman discovers how to get a product to his customer more quickly, when he finds a way to cut costs somewhere so he can reduce his prices, when he develops a new system that allows people to obtain what they want more easily.
Do businesspeople do these things because a politician or bureaucrat sticks a gun to their heads and says: Do it or risk fines and imprisonment? Of course not.
Do they do it because some consumer advocate has demanded it? Of course not.
Do they do it to avoid having demagogues accuse them of turning away good employees or good customers by being racist, sexist, homophobic, or just plain stupid? Of course not.
They do it because this is what they do for a living – making money by helping people get what they want. They know far more about what their customers and employees need and want than any politician or reformer could ever know. And they care far more about their customers and employees than any politician or reformer. They have to care – or they go out of business.
Are businesspeople always right? Of course not. But when they’re wrong, they pay for it – through the nose, out of their own pockets – in smaller profits, in outright losses, in diminished goodwill, in employee discontent, in long-time customers’ looking for new alternatives.
When a politician or bureaucrat is wrong, the mistakes don’t hurt him personally. In fact, the failure of a political program is used to justify increasing the budget, expanding the program, giving the politicians more political power.
All that we value has come from the work of people freely doing what they thought best. Most of society’s problems – falling health-care standards, poor schools, high crime rates, illegitimacy – have come from turning to politicians for help.
So, now, what of future innovations?
Will progress stop now – now that the politicians, not the doctors and scientists, are in charge of the nation’s health care?
Will innovations come to a halt now – now that innovators can’t develop and market a better computer product unless they can prove to the politicians that what they’re doing isn’t unfair to their competitors?
Will the breathtaking developments come to an end now – now that innovators must prove to some federal agency that they haven’t discriminated or made any employee unhappy or done anything that isn’t the way a politician or bureaucrat thinks he would have done it (but, of course, never has)?
Progress comes from people working voluntarily to better their lives. Inefficiency, retrogression, chaos, resentment, and unintended consequences come from ordering people to do what other people think is best.
Which do you want for the future?
Harry Browne was an American writer, politician, and investment analyst. He was the Libertarian Party’s Presidential nominee in the U.S. elections of 1996 and 2000. He is the author of 12 books that in total have sold more than 2 million copies.
(By Marshall Fritz, Founder of the Advocates for Self-Government Originally published in The Fresno Bee, Sunday, September 4, 1988.)
David Nolan felt politically homeless. His friend Jill had a nice home on the political left, where she favored free speech and other personal freedoms. And his friend Harry had a comfortable home on the right-wing, where he strongly favored free enterprise.
But David agreed with both. Whenever a “lefty” was advocating more personal liberty in expression or lifestyle, David cheered. Whenever a “right-winger” proposed more economic freedom, he applauded.
David knew he wasn’t a middle-of-the-roader with no strong beliefs, and he was definitely not a communist or fascist, because they were against both free speech and free enterprise.
He realized, instead, that the map of politics denied him a home. So David “pulled a Copernicus.” He redrew the map itself.
Just as Copernicus changed the way we view the solar system, David Nolan’s Diamond Chart is changing the way we view the political system. Someday it will be known as “the chart heard around the world.”
The left-right political metaphor originated in the 1790s, when the French Assembly rearranged its seating to quell disturbances. They placed Republicans on the left and monarchists on the right, with soldiers in between to prevent debates from leading to bloodshed.
Today, in the United States and Great Britain, “left” refers to liberals and “right” to conservatives. But many observers see inherent weaknesses in the left-right approach.
Political science professors Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey Beny and Jerry Goldman, in their textbook “The Challenge of Democracy,” point out that most Americans “do not fit a one-dimensional liberal-conservative continuum. If that continuum is expanded along another dimension, respondents can be analyzed more meaningfully.”
Howard Fineman (in Newsweek, Oct. 15, 1985) condemns “brand-name confusion” and says the “liberal-conservative labels are meaningless.”
Jon Carriel, amateur political scientist, asks the question, “If Stalin is on the left, and Mussolini on the right, whom do you feel closer to?” The overwhelming response, he reports, is “neither one.”
Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, calls the liberal-conservative dichotomy obsolete because it fails to describe the nuances and divisions of U.S. politics. In a Nov. 27, 1984, Wall Street Journal article, he calls for an overhaul of our political nomenclature, and recommends a book by two professors at the University of Central Florida, William Maddox and Stuart Lilie, “Beyond Liberal and Conservative” (Cato Institute, 1986).
On the other hand, publisher David Bender defends the usefulness of the traditional left-right in his book, “The Political Spectrum. Opposing Viewpoints” (Greenhaven Press, 1986).
A breakthrough came when David Nolan, a graduate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published “Classifying and Analyzing Politico-Economic Systems” in the January 1971 Individualist. The Nolan Chart shows the highlights of the chart he introduced in that article.
Nolan divided human action into two categories, economic and social, so his chart has two axes, one to measure the degree of freedom in economic affairs, the other to measure the degree of freedom in social affairs. Then he plotted the positions of various political groups to see how they related.
Maddox and Lilie suggest a matrix approach with four quadrants: liberal, conservative, populist and libertarian. Their research indicates 17 percent of Americans fit in the libertarian quadrant, with baby boomers more heavily libertarian (22 percent), as are college graduates (32 percent).
In an article in Fortune magazine (Aug. 5, 1985), Thomas Moore quotes Harvard Business School Professor D. Quinn Mills, who estimates in his book, “The New Competitors”, that 60 percent of the young managerial group can be considered libertarian.
Even so, most of these people don’t know where they fit on the political map because the overly simplistic left-right scale does not allow them a home.
In my work exposing people to libertarian ideas, I often use the Nolan Chart, but I’ve made several modifications as shown in the Diamond Chart. First, I’ve rotated Nolan’s chart 45 degrees so the traditional left-right is horizontal rather than diagonal. Second, I’ve renamed the quadrant where Stalin, Hitler and Lyndon LaRouche would lie as “authoritarian.” The word “populist” doesn’t do justice to their policies.
The best way to find out where you fit on the Diamond Chart is to take the “World’s Smallest Political Quiz.” You decide your reaction to 10 statements of political action: five on personal liberties and five on economic liberties. Then use your score to plot your position on the Diamond Chart.
If you scored “libertarian,” and were surprised, you may wonder if the quiz is biased. A quick way to demonstrate that it is not biased is to answer the questions for your congressman, senator or presidential candidate. They will not come out libertarian.
In his 1971 article, David Nolan used his chart to predict a major shift in the dominant axis of American politics. He says that “the primary political development of the next few decades is going to be a shift in the position of the mainstream line itself.”
He sees the baby boomers causing a shift in the mainStream polarization from a left vs. right orientation to high self-government vs. low self-government.
Howard Fineman seems to agree with Nolan. He writes that political issues are better understood by dividing the political world into two camps: those who “look to action by a central authority” and those who “believe government cures are worse than the disease.”
The Diamond Chart gives any observer of politics an improved measuring stick for evaluating local and national politicians. It is better than the old left-right approach for several reasons:
It places authoritarians such as Marxists and fascists next to each other, rather than at opposite poles.
It allows us to better understand attitude shifts, as with the baby boomers.
And, most important, it gives a home to 30 million Americans who have been politically homeless — the latent libertarians.
What’s the definition of ‘libertarianism’?
According to family physician Kenneth Bisson of Angola, Ind., “Libertarianism is what your mom taught you: ‘Behave yourself and don’t hit your sister.”‘
According to the Internal Revenue Service: “Libertarianism is a political philosophy. The basic premise of libertarianism is that each individual should be free to do as he or she pleases so long as he or she does not harm others.
“In the libertarian view, societies and governments infringe on individual liberties whenever they tax wealth, create penalties for victimless crimes, or otherwise attempt to control or regulate individual conduct which harms or benefits no one except the individual who engaged in it.”
According to libertarian spokesman Marshall Fritz: “Libertarianism is self-government. It combines the best of both worlds: The left leg of self-government is tolerance of others; the right leg is responsible economic behavior.
“The combination of both legs leads to social harmony and material abundance.”
What does your score mean?
The personal self-governor score measures your tolerance for people who have differing ideas of health, love, recreation, prayer and other activities that are not measured in dollars.
A high score shows you have tolerance for different people as long as they are peaceful and don’t force their ideas on others.
A low score shows you want your standards of morality, safety and health to be enforced by political government.
The economic self-governor score measures your personal responsibility as a producer and consumer, how you support your family and how you use your money.
A high score shows that you value responsibility and believe that free-market competition is better for people than central planning by government. You tolerate variation in economic success, as long as people who acquire wealth do so by honest production and trade, not by theft, cheating or political pull.
A low score shows that you believe a good society can happen only when your standards of wealth distribution are enforced by political government.
Marshall Fritz founded the Advocates for Self-Government, a non-profit, non-partisan libertarian advocacy and education center. He was also chairman, founder, and former president of the Alliance for the Separation of School and State.
What are your personal principles? What is your fundamental mission in life? These questions are not something we can answer for you. But let us pose a central question: Would you agree that the basic mission of most people is the desire to be happy? So what makes humans happy?
The first key to happiness is security. People want to know that their body and property are secure. Can you name a time where you have been physically harmed or had an item stolen, and you have been happier?
The initiation of force, physical harm or theft, is wrong. Most people practice the “golden rule”; To treat others as they would like to be treated. If one family member stole or physically harmed another, how would their relationship fair afterwards? Friendship, healthy families, harmony, peace, abundance, and all other positive values are built on the foundation of not initiating force.
So if the non-initiation of force is the fundamental principle of positive interaction between individuals, can it apply to society at large?
Sometimes a single book or even a short cogent essay can change an individual’s entire outlook on life. For Christians, it is the New Testament. For radical socialists, Karl Marx’ and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto is revolutionary. For libertarians, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is pivotal. For economists, Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action can be mind-changing.
Recently I came across a little essay in a book called Adventures of Ideas, by Alfred North Whitehead, the British philosopher and Harvard professor. The essay, “From Force to Persuasion,” had a profound effect upon me. Actually what caught my attention was a single passage on page 83. This one small excerpt in a 300-page book changed my entire political philosophy.
Here’s what it says:
“The creation of the world — said Plato — is the victory of persuasion over force… Civilization is the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness as embodying the nobler alternative. The recourse to force, however unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals…
“Now the intercourse between individuals and between social groups takes one of these two forms: force or persuasion. Commerce is the great example of intercourse by way of persuasion. War, slavery, and governmental compulsion exemplify the reign of force.”
Professor Whitehead’s vision of civilized society as the triumph of persuasion over force should become paramount in the mind of all civic-minded individuals and government leaders. It should serve as the guideline for the political ideal.
Let me suggest, therefore, a new political creed: The triumph of persuasion over force is the sign of a civilized society.
Surely this is a fundamental principle to which most citizens, no matter where they fit on the political spectrum, can agree.
Too Many Laws
Too often lawmakers resort to the force of law rather than the power of persuasion to solve a problem in society. They are too quick to pass another statute or regulation in an effort to suppress the effects of a deeprooted problem in society rather than seeking to recognize and deal with the real cause of the problem, which may require parents, teachers, pastors, and community leaders to convince people to change their ways.
Too often politicians think that new programs requiring new taxes are the only way to pay for citizens’ retirement, health care, education or other social needs. “People just aren’t willing to pay for these services themselves,” they say, so they force others to pay for them instead.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Taxation is the price we pay for civilization.” But isn’t the opposite really the case? Taxation is the price we pay for failing to build a civilized society. The higher the tax level, the greater the failure. A centrally planned totalitarian state represents a complete defeat for the civilized world, while a totally voluntary society represents its ultimate success.
Thus, legislators, ostensibly concerned about poverty and low wages, pass a minimum wage law and establish a welfare state as their way to abolish poverty. Yet poverty persists, not for want of money, but for want of skills, capital, education, and the desire to succeed.
The community demands a complete education for all children, so the state mandates that all children attend school for at least ten years. Winter Park High School, which two of our children attend, is completely fenced in. Students need a written excuse to leave school grounds and an official explanation for absences. All the gates except one are closed during school hours, and there is a permanent guard placed at the only open gate to monitor students coming and going. Florida recently passed a law that takes away the driver’s license of any student who drops out of high school. Surely, they say, that will eliminate the high dropout rate for students.
But suppressing one problem only creates another. Now students who don’t want to be in school are disrupting the students who want to learn. The lawmakers forget one thing. Schooling is not the same as education.
Many high-minded citizens don’t like to see racial, religious or sexual discrimination in employment, housing, department stores, restaurants, and clubs. Yet instead of persuading people in the schools, the churches and the media that discrimination is inappropriate behavior and morally repugnant, law-makers simply pass civil rights legislation outlawing discrimination, as though making hatred illegal can instantly make it go away. Instead, forced integration often intensifies the already-existing hostilities. Does anyone wonder why discrimination is still a serious problem in our society?
Is competition from the Japanese, the Germans and the Brazilians too stiff for American industry? We can solve that right away, says Congress. No use trying to convince industry to invest in more productive labor and capital, or voting to reduce the tax burden on business. No, they’ll just impose import quotas or heavy duties on foreign products and force them to “play fair.” Surely that will make us more competitive, and keep American companies in business.
Drugs, Guns, and Abortion
Is the use of mind-altering drugs a problem in America? Then let’s pass legislation prohibiting the use of certain high-powered drugs. People still want to use them? Then let’s hire more police to crack down on the drug users and drug dealers. Surely that will solve the problem. Yet such laws never address the fundamental issue, which would require analyzing why people misuse drugs and discovering ways they can satisfy their needs in a nondestructive manner. By out-lawing illicit drugs, we fail to consider the underlying cause of increased drug or alcohol misuse among teenagers and adults, and we fail to accept the beneficial uses of such drugs in medicine and healthcare. I salute voluntary efforts in communities to deal with these serious problems, such as “no alcohol” high school graduation parties and drug-awareness classes. Tobacco is on the decline as a result of education, and drug use could abate as well if it were treated as a medical problem rather than a criminal one.
Abortion is a troublesome issue, we all agree on that. Whose rights take precedence, the baby’s or the mother’s? When does life begin, at conception or at birth?
Political conservatives are shocked by the millions of legal killings that take place every year in America and around the world. How can we sing “God Bless America” with this epidemic plaguing our nation? So, for many conservatives the answer is simple: Ban abortions! Force women to give birth to their unexpected and unwanted babies. That will solve the problem. This quick fix will undoubtedly give the appearance that we have instantly solved our national penchant for genocide.
Wouldn’t it be better if we first tried to answer the all important questions, “Why is abortion so prevalent today, and how can we prevent unwanted pregnancies?” Or, once an unwanted pregnancy occurs, how can we persuade people to examine alternatives, including adoption?
Crime is another issue plaguing this country. There are those in society who want to ban handguns, rifles and other firearms, or at least have them tightly controlled and registered, in an attempt to reduce crime. We can solve the murder and crime problem in this country, they reason, simply by passing a law taking away the weapons of murder. No guns, no killings. Simple, right? Yet they only change the outward symptoms, while showing little interest in finding ways to discourage a person from becoming criminal or violent in the first place.
Legislators should be slow to pass laws to protect people against themselves. While insisting on a woman’s “right to choose” in one area, they deny men and women the right to choose in every other area. Unfortunately, they are all too quick to act. Drivers aren’t wearing their seatbelts? Let’s pass a mandatory seatbelt law. Motorcyclists aren’t wearing helmets? Let’s mandate helmets. We’ll force people to be responsible!
More Than Just Freedom
How did we get into this situation, where lawmakers feel compelled to legislate personal behavior “for our own good”? Often we only have ourselves to blame.
The lesson is clear: If we are going to preserve what personal and economic freedom we have left in this country, we had better act responsibly, or our freedom is going to be taken away. Too many detractors think that freedom is nothing more than the right to act irresponsibly. They equate liberty with libertine behavior: that the freedom to choose whether to have an abortion means that they should have an abortion, that the freedom to take drugs means that they should take drugs, that the legalization of gambling means that they should play the roulette wheel.
It is significant that Professor Whitehead chose the word “persuasion,” not simply “freedom,” as the ideal characteristic of the civilized world. The word “persuasion” embodies both freedom of choice and responsibility for choice. In order to persuade, you must have a moral philosophy, a system of right and wrong, which you govern yourself. You want to persuade people to do the right thing not because they have to, but because they want to.
There is little satisfaction from doing good if individuals are mandated to do the right thing. Character and responsibility are built when people voluntarily choose right over wrong, not when they are forced to do so. A soldier will feel a greater sense of victory if he enlists in the armed forces instead of being drafted. And high school students will not comprehend the joy of service if it is mandated by a community-service requirement for graduation.
Admittedly, there will be individuals in a free society who will make the wrong choices, who will become drug addicts and alcoholics, who will refuse to wear a safety helmet, who will hurt themselves playing with firecrackers, and who will drop out of high school. But that is the price we must pay for having a free society, where individuals learn from their mistakes and try to build a better world.
In this context, let us answer the all- important question, “Liberty and morality: can we have both?” The answer is, absolutely yes! Not only can we have both, but we must have both, or eventually we will have neither. As Sir James Russell Lowell said, “The ultimate result of protecting fools from their folly is to fill the planet full of fools.”
Our motto should be, “We teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Freedom without responsibility only leads to the destruction of civilization, as evidenced by Rome and other great civilizations of the past. As Alexis de Tocqueville said, “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.” In a similar vein, Henry Ward Beecher added, “There is no liberty to men who know not how to govern themselves.” And Edmund Burke wrote, “What is liberty without wisdom and without virtue?”
Today’s political leaders demonstrate their low opinion of the public with every social law they pass. They believe that, if given the right to choose, the citizenry will probably make the wrong choice. Legislators do not think any more in terms of persuading people; they feel the need to force their agenda on the public at the point of a bayonet and the barrel of a gun, in the name of the IRS, the SEC, the FDA, the DEA, the EPA, or a multitude of other ABCs of government authority.
A Challenge to All Lovers of Liberty
My challenge to all lovers of liberty today is to take the moral high ground. Our cause is much more compelling when we can say that we support drug legalization, but do not use mind altering drugs. That we tolerate legal abortion, but choose not to abort our own future generations. That we support the right to bear arms, but do not misuse handguns. That we favor the right of individuals to meet privately as they please, but do not ourselves discriminate.
In the true spirit of liberty, Voltaire once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If we are to be effective in convincing others of the benefits of a tolerant world, we must take the moral high ground by saying, “We may disapprove of what you do, but we will defend to the death your right to do it.”
In short, my vision of a responsible free society is one in which we discourage evil, but do not prohibit it. We make our children and students aware of the consequences of drug abuse and other forms of irresponsible behavior. But after all our persuading, if they still want to use harmful drugs, that is their privilege. In a free society, individuals must have the right to do right or wrong, as long as they don’t threaten or infringe upon the rights or property of others. They must also suffer the consequences of their actions, as it is from consequences that they learn to choose properly.
We may discourage prostitution or pornography by restricting it to certain areas and to certain ages, but we will not jail or fine those who choose to participate in it privately. If an adult bookstore opens in our neighborhood, we don’t run to the law and pass an ordinance, we picket the store and discourage customers. If our religion asks us not to shop on Sunday, we don’t pass Sunday “blue” laws forcing stores to close, we simply don’t patronize them on Sunday. If we don’t like excessive violence and gratuitous sex on TV, we don’t write the Federal Communications Commission, we join boycotts of the advertiser’s products. Several years ago the owners of Seven Eleven stores removed pornographic magazines from their stores, not because the law required it, but because a group of concerned citizens persuaded them. These actions reflect the true spirit of liberty.
Lovers of liberty should also be strong supporters of the institutions of persuasion, such as churches, charities, foundations, private schools and colleges, and private enterprise. They should engage in many causes of their own free will and choice. They should not rely on the institutions of force, such as government agencies, to carry out the cause of education and the works of charity and welfare. It is not enough simply to pay your taxes and cast your vote and think you’ve done your part.
It is the duty of every advocate of human liberty to convince the world that we must solve our problems through persuasion and not coercion. Whether the issue is domestic policy or foreign policy, we must recognize that passing another regulation or going to war is not necessarily the only solution to our problems. Simply to pass laws prohibiting the outward symptoms of problems is to sweep the real problems under the rug. It may hide the dirt for a while, but it doesn’t dispose of the dirt properly or permanently.
Liberty Under Law
This approach does not mean that laws would not exist. People should have the freedom to act according to their desires, but only to the extent that they do not trample on the rights of others. Rules and regulations, such as traffic laws, need to be established and enforced by private and public institutions in order for a free society to exist. There should be stringent laws against fraud, theft, murder, pollution, and the breaking of contracts, and those laws should be effectively enforced according to the classic principle that the punishment should fit the crime. The full weight of the law should be used to fine and imprison the perpetrators, to compensate the victims, and to safe-guard the rights of the innocent. Yet within this legal framework, we should permit the maximum degree of freedom in allowing people to choose what they think, act and do to themselves without harming others.
Convincing the public of our message, that “persuasion instead of force is the sign of a civilized society,” will require a lot of hard work, but it can be rewarding. The key is to make a convincing case for freedom, to present the facts to the public so that they can see the logic of our arguments, and to develop a dialogue with those who may be opposed to our position. Our emphasis must be on educating and persuading, not on arguing and name-calling. For we shall never change our political leaders until we change the people who elect them.
A Vision of an Ideal Society
Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a famous sermon at the Lincoln Memorial in the mid-1960s. In it, King said that he had a dream about the promised land. Well, I too have a vision of an ideal society.
I have a vision of world peace, not because the military have been called in to maintain order, but because we have peace from within and friendship with every nation.
I have a vision of universal prosperity and an end to poverty, not because of foreign aid or government-subsidized welfare, but because each of us has productive, useful employment where every trade is honest and beneficial to both buyer and seller, and where we eagerly help the less fortunate of our own free will.
I have a vision of an inflation-free nation, not because of wage and price controls, but because our nation has an honest money system.
I have a vision of a crime-free society, not because there’s a policeman on every corner, but because we respect the rights and property of others.
I have a vision of a drug-free America, not because harmful drugs are illegal, but because we desire to live long, healthy, self-sustaining lives.
I have a vision of an abortion-free society, not because abortion is illegal, but because we firmly believe in the sanctity of life, sexual responsibility, and family values.
I have a vision of a pollution-free and environmentally sound world, not because of costly controls and arbitrary regulations, but because private enterprise honors its stewardship and commitment to developing rather than exploiting the earth’s resources.
I have a vision of a free society, not because of a benevolent dictator commands it, but because we love freedom and the responsibility that goes with it.
The following words, taken from an old Protestant hymn whose author is fittingly anonymous, express the aspiration of every man and every woman in a free society.
Know this, that every soul is free To choose his life and what he’ll be; For this eternal truth is given That God will force no man to heaven.
He’ll call, persuade, direct aright, And bless with wisdom, love, and light, In nameless ways be good and kind, But never force the human mind.
About the Author: Mark Skousen is Adjunct Professor of Economics and Finance at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and editor of Forecasts & Strategies, one of the largest financial newsletters in the United States. He is the author of over a dozen books, including High Finance on a Low Budget (co-authored with his wife, Jo Ann), The Complete Guide to Financial Privacy, Scrooge Investing, The Structure of Production, Economics on Trial, The Investor’s Bible: Mark Skousen’s Principles of Investment, and The Making of Modern Economics: The Lives and Ideas of the Great Thinkers. He has a Ph.D. in economics from George Washington University, is a former economist with the Central Intelligence Agency, and is a former President of the Foundation for Economic Education.