"The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do." ~ Eric Hoffer
Words and Actions
To me, there is little more satisfying than a long and in-depth discussion with a peer. The vigorous thrust and counterthrust of competing ideas, the dance from a premise and factual information through examples and hypothetical situations to a final conclusion, the treasure hunt to find your companion's underlying assumptions ' their particular balance of wants with needs, idealism with practicality, principle with pragmatism, and the subtle twists and maneuvers of thought and language that open new roads to be traveled ' I live for these. This is where ideas are validated, or tossed aside, compromises can be reached, or one side can decisively conquer the bloodless battlefield of conversation. There is little more satisfying than opening the eyes of another to a new way of seeing something (except, of course, having my own eyes opened). But recently, my faith in the efficacy of my favorite pastime has wavered.
Whereas I do not try to force my opinions on politics, government or the like on anyone, they invariably come up in day-to-day small talk. An acquaintance asks me whom I plan to vote for in a particular election. I inform him that I do not vote nor have I ever registered. A friend who knows that I follow investments asks how much of my portfolio is in Treasury bonds. I inform him that the amount is zero, and always will be. Someone will mention a law, a department, a regulation, a requirement, a policy, and I will always respond as I feel. This sort of openness has mixed results. I find that often people are intrigued by my responses, but very rarely are they truly interested. Which is why I knew that Phil was a godsend.
Phil was from Germany . He had lived in the United States for about a year before I met him, but had developed no real feelings for it (whether of attachment or distaste). Due to this detachment, or perhaps to a singularly open mind, Phil did not dismiss anything I said in the usual manner of 'interesting but impractical,' but he listened and actively probed further into my principles: their origins, Austrian theory, and practical applications.
In the beginning, my way of thinking was obviously foreign to him (as were U.S. history and government). But he read everything in front of him. He started with Rockwell and Rothbard and Mises; he devoured articles and books. What began as a series of one-sided explanations of principles and ideas rapidly evolved into some of the most interesting discussions that I have ever had. I was like an amused and proud parent when I heard him explain for 45 minutes to a caller from a Policeman's Benevolent Association that this type of extortion (typically in exchange for a 'get-out-of-ticket-free' sticker) and the abuse of authority that typifies law enforcement behavior are untenable in a society that truly promotes justice. I was thrilled when our discussions widened in scope ' when we moved from local matters to state and federal, through NATO, the UN and the like. I was happy when he started applying things that we discussed in the context of the United States back to the analogous situations in Germany .
It was through these discussions with Phil that I noticed an interesting trend in my own train of thought. Oftentimes when I am asked 'How would you do X without the government?' the response I end up giving is, 'How do my parents do X?' Why does this surprise me? It surprised me because my parents (particularly my father) often willingly parrot socialist and statist dribble. I remember at one point feeling as though my head was about to explode when my father told me in the same conversation that schools should provide standard meals to every child and that the government should provide and pay for odd-jobs for all unemployed people who might want them. I don't know how many times I've heard the sentence 'There oughtta be a law.'
But despite my parents professed desire for tyranny, they are the source of a host of examples that I often use to illustrate how people can do things for themselves. When my parents decided to move to a quiet piece of land outside even the edges of the suburbs of the city, they didn't petition a town council to supply water and sewage services. They drilled a well and installed a septic system. They didn't ask that garbage services be supplied to them; instead, they just became accustomed to disposing of their own trash. When my parents decided to have children, they didn't demand that someone provide them with cheap daycare services; instead both of my parents rearranged their lives (and my mother gave up a large potential for career advancement) to take care of us. When my parents thought that my brothers' school wrestling teams needed more funding, they didn't go to the athletics director and ask for a bigger budget or to the school board and town council looking for a tax increase; they organized sales of popcorn and raffle tickets at matches to raise money. Though my parents are of extremely limited means, they never accepted welfare. Though they have both at one time or another been jobless, neither has (to my knowledge) accepted unemployment benefits. Perhaps these are just small things, but they were that way in everything they did. Granted, they could never be held up as fighters for liberty, but in their daily lives, they acted as though it had already been achieved.
Despite what they may profess to believe in conversation, my parents consistently act in either staunchly anti-government ways, or as though it doesn't exist at all. Despite the fact that I know I will end up absolutely fuming over some 'There oughtta be a law' speech the next time I go home for a long visit, I have developed a deeper respect for my parents on a 'political' level. Does it matter to me that their words are not consistent with their actions? Maybe. Should it? I don't suppose that it would change much if they were 'enlightened' to the principles that they already seem to live by. And I have a deep respect for, and pride in, the responsible and independent people that their actions clearly show them to be.
But what does all this have to do with Phil? Phil and I continued to have some excellent conversations for several months. We talked about liberty, government, market economies, central planners, and all aspects in between. Phil began to bring these ideas up in conversations with others he worked or associated with. He showed an incredible zeal in attacking all that is wrong with politics, regulations, and various government programs. A few weeks ago, Phil left the United States to go back to Germany . Though he already has an advanced degree in engineering from an American University , he is going back to finish a free undergraduate education in the state run German system. After that, he plans to continue his free schooling for several more years while he earns his PhD. During this period he will actually draw a salary from the German government. And to the last minute as I left him at the airport he was talking about the ideals of liberty and self-governance.
Perhaps this is a lesson learned, a concrete example of the tired adage that 'actions speak louder than words.' Maybe I should look at this as yet another motivator to always live by my principles, rather than sacrifice them (and my worth in the eyes of others) to expedience or desire or sloth. Despite the pleasure that I took in my conversations with Phil, the disappointment at finding them to be hollow ensures that they will not be missed. On the positive side, there are likely many more examples of people that 'live free' than I had ever imagined before. I wouldn't trade one 'socialist' like my parents for a thousand 'liberty lovers' like Phil. And though I will still speak my opinions, I will redouble my efforts to ensure that my actions speak for me. In the end, that is what really matters; these are the criteria that you will be judged by.