Image by © Dreamstime

Image by © Dreamstime

by Jeffrey Tucker

What does it mean to be an effective advocate of liberty? It means to love what you do and adopt sustainable patterns of thinking and living that contribute to making the world a freer place.

Sustainability is key. Most of today’s attacks on freedom lovers include a dismissal that libertarianism is an ideology for idealistic (or maybe deluded) kids, not one for adults. Sure, you can feel enraptured by the writings of Bastiat or Rand or Rothbard when you are in high school or college. But once you get into the real world, they say, you mature and give up the illusions of a freer world.

I don’t believe this. Within the domain of liberty, we find the path to prosperity, social peace, and human flourishing. Every limitation on the freedom of thought, action, and ownership robs the world of creativity, wealth, and progress.

And yet, freedom is not baked into a world where various forms of despotism are always threatening. It must be won anew in every generation. Indeed, it’s the ones who fancy themselves as grown-ups — able to make big decisions for the rest of humanity — who become the next generation of despots. It is the very foundation of intellectual and moral maturity to resist this level of hubris and to acknowledge the truth of our limitations.

Surely maturity shows us the limits of power. Surely the cause of liberty is worth our lifelong efforts.

But there is a superficial plausibility to the critics’ claims because there is a tendency for libertarians to give up hope. I’ve known many who lost their enthusiasm for liberty for a number of reasons, none of them strictly intellectual. People can begin to feel demoralized on discovering how little they can do to change the world. The gap between dreams and reality grows too large. Idealism fades when you sense you are hitting your head against a brick wall.

What can be done to sustain the passion for liberty throughout a lifetime? Here are my suggestions for seven habits to foster a lifelong attachment to liberty and to live a life that makes the best possible contribution to human well-being.

1. Oppose oppression but love liberty even more.

The dawning of the libertarian consciousness often takes place in two steps.

First, you realize that there is such a thing as a state that is distinct from society at large, a fact that massive swaths of the social sciences (not to mention mainstream media) try to cover up. Second, there is the new awareness that the state is distinct from every other institution in society because it uses aggressive force to achieve its aims. Further, the state actually does not achieve the aims it promises. Rather, it violates rights, undermines economic achievement, fosters dependency, and serves a ruling class rather than the public at large.

At this point in your intellectual journey, you realize that the mainstream alternatives of left and right leave a lot to be desired; neither is a wholly consistent application of a principled opposition to power.

A new consciousness dawns. It can give rise to righteous anger. You see for the first time the difference between how the world is (which can often look dark and gloomy) and what could be. It can be tempting to focus on the negative: wars, police abuse, corruption, looting of the productive, graft in politics, and so on.

This anger is why so many liberty-minded news feeds consist of terrible news. But how much bad news can one person possibly handle? We have no means to directly right wrongs, to change the world for the better in one fell swoop. To see evil that we cannot change can only lead to despair: a trap that too many libertarians fall into.

It is crucial not only to think about the problem but also to see the solutions being lived out all around us. We need to learn to observe the marvelous businesses starting and succeeding every day, the beauty of spontaneous human interaction, the order and prosperity that emerge from the exercise of human choice. We should thrill in the many ways that people go about their lives in casual defiance of the central plan. We can glory in the creations all around us that were never mapped out or approved by politicians, or by the experts in their pay.

In other words, focusing on the solutions rather than solely on the problems can brighten your day and give rise to creativity in the service of the good. Liberty is not just the absence of oppression; it is the presence of well-lived lives and institutions that emerge despite every attempt to stop them. In this sense, freedom is blossoming all over the world. If we can focus on making that positive change, rather than dwelling on what’s wrong with the world, our task becomes more delightful and a dedication to liberty becomes more sustainable.

2. Read broadly and be confident in your ideas.

Political debates can be fun, but they can also be shrill and unproductive, with two sides battling it out and making no intellectual progress. They bring more heat than light. If you are going to change that pattern, you must have the confidence to listen carefully to other ideas and not be threatened by them. With intellectual confidence, you can respond in a way that is sure-footed rather than belligerent. You can be thoughtful rather than reactive.

Think of the difference between the way a street thug behaves and how a martial arts expert carries himself in combat. One is angry, threatening, and reckless. The other is calm, clever, and effective. In a hand-to-hand match between the two, the latter is going to win. Why? Because the martial arts expert has actual skill, whereas the bully only has attitude and emotion. Libertarians should be like skilled experts and exhibit the confidence that comes with that discipline. But becoming a black belt in liberty takes time and learning; it doesn’t happen overnight.

We should also know our opponents’ arguments better than they do and be prepared to respond to them fairly and without caricature, crafting our own arguments in ways that are actually persuasive rather than just forceful or loud. This requires that we spend some time reading and studying other traditions of thought. Our libraries ought to be broad and sample all disciplines and viewpoints.

We should never shy away from ideas that are different from our own. Sometimes our intellectual opponents — even when they are completely wrong — are our most valued benefactors. They help us think through issues, sharpen our skills, and inspire us to research and read more. This is the way we improve. Then we can approach debates with no fear.

This approach will make us far more effective over the long term. Bombast and bromides can shut down opponents, but do they win hearts and minds? Not likely. As Ludwig von Mises emphasized in his great 1927 book Liberalism, it is reason, good arguments, and thoughtfulness — combined with a genuine desire for a better world — that will carry the day.

We don’t want to shut down our opponents, causing them to retreat to their comfortable and familiar way of thinking. We want our opponents to keep asking questions of us, to keep challenging our ideas as we continue to engage them. We want them to keep talking with us and others. The ongoing discussion is a sign of curiosity and openness that we should welcome.

3. Look beyond politics.

For most libertarians, politics is the initial draw. There is nothing wrong with this. It is typical of American culture that it takes campaigns to get people interested in big questions like the role of human freedom, the place of the state, whether war is necessary, and so on.

But it only takes one or two campaigns before people realize that politics is a not a very effective way for changing the world for the better. Our votes matter very little, if at all. We are mostly only voting for people, not policies. And people in politics tend to betray principles. If we put too much stock in politicians — even the best of whom confront a system much larger than they can control — we will feel frustrated and powerless. Plus, there is no nastier business on the planet. Calumnies and deceptions define the political world.

Working in campaigns as a consumption good is fine, if that’s the sort of thing you like. Some people enjoy it. But let’s be realistic. As a production good — a means of producing good outcomes — it is mostly an illusion. Politics tends to be a lagging rather than leading indicator of social change. The first steps toward change are cultural and not political. Politics is reactive, not proactive. If we can make a contribution to changing minds and fostering a culture of liberty, the rest will take care of itself.

There are many other ways to make a difference outside of politics. Think of the way the economy of mobile apps is challenging the status quo in nearly every area of commerce. Municipal taxi monopolies are reeling from the competition from ride-sharing applications. Peer-to-peer housing solutions are making a mess of zoning laws. Cryptocurrency is challenging nationalized money and old-fashioned payment systems. Homeschooling and online education are busting up the state’s education system. These efforts have already accomplished more than any top-down reform.

Indeed, every start-up enterprise is a kind of revolutionary act against the status quo that the state’s regulations and plunderings have conspired to prevent. Their existence is proof that you can’t stop human creativity with any amount of control. At the end of day, we’ll look back to see that start-ups have made a mightier contribution to liberty than all the political campaigns combined. Libertarians have long understood that bottom-up solutions to social problems work better than top-down approaches. It