Hey, Libertarians--Cheer Up!


 Here’s a dirty little secret of mine, now a secret no longer:

Most libertarians depress the crap out of me.

Visit any online libertarian message board. Big pity party, right? “Woe is us! Liberty is doomed! The movement is dead!”

Most postings fall into two categories.

First, there’s the “Alamo crowd.” These folks are convinced the battle for freedom is unwinnable. Even so, they think we should hunker down like 21st century Davy Crocketts and blast away at the enemy until our ammo runs out. And when we’re all dead . . . well . . . at least we went down fighting.

The second group is the “Remnant bunch.” These guys subscribe to the sentiments of the great libertarian pessimist Albert Jay Nock. Nock believed dreams of freedom in our time were futile. So in his classic 1936 essay “Isaiah’s Job,” he said our mission was not to convert the masses but to “brace and reassure the Remnant.” In other words, we should be content to sit in a holding pattern and gently pass the flickering flame of liberty to each new generation, keeping the idea alive even if it’s never applied in practice. Years ago, Marshall Fritz amusingly called this tactic “Amway without growth.”

Now, I understand this negativity. I read the Los Angeles Times and watch “The O’Reilly Factor,” too. Right now, the outlook for freedom does appear bleak. But I have no doubt Murray Rothbard was on the mark when he wrote, “. . . while the short-run prospects for liberty may seem dim, the proper attitude for the libertarian to take is one of unquenchable long-term optimism.” 

Here’s the trick, though: You can’t sustain long-term optimism without possessing a vision for victory. And that’s the problem with most libertarians. They ain’t got one.

Now, by vision for victory, I don’t mean a blueprint for the ultimate, stateless, free-market world, even though there’s absolutely a place for that. My ancient copy of the Tannehills’ Market for Liberty is as well-thumbed as any right-thinking anarchist’s. But for more than 30 years, I’ve watched anal-retentive libertarians bury themselves in details. To them, liberty is an intellectual pastime. And only after they fully “iron out” all the potential problems of a government-free SimCity will they even begin to think about building a serious movement, let alone smashing the State. Friends, that’s not a vision for victory. That’s a vision for sitting around coffee houses and squabbling endlessly about exactly how private arbitration companies should best adjudge non-contractual disputes between quarreling claimants to a piece of property. 

real vision for victory isn’t the “nuts ’n bolts.” It’s “Give me liberty or give me death!” It’s “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” A vision for victory stirs the juices. It starts pulses pounding. It rouses the sleeping masses. It drives people to the barricades. It promotes a “will to win.” 

At the very least, it lifts Homer’s butt off his couch.

Here’s an example: America, 1776. For almost two decades, colonists had endured “a long train of abuses and usurpations” by England. Most were familiar with the radical writings of John Locke and Algernon Sidney, and many were even sold on their ideas. But independence was largely a fanciful parlor game. Colonists were still “more disposed to suffer, while evils [were] sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they [were] accustomed.”

Then, in January 1776, Thomas Paine published his exhilarating little pamphlet Common Sense.

Paine painted a picture of a world without brutal, illegitimate monarchs. He planted in American minds not only an image of breaking ties with England but of smashing the crown, its pieces “scattered among the people.” He was the great optimist. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” he wrote.

Americans were set aflame by Common Sense. Within seven months, independence from England was an idea whose time had come.

Tom Paine wasn’t great at details. His “how-to” was sketchy at best. But he was phenomenal at building a vision for victory. And during the Revolution, he underscored that vision again and again with his inspiring series The American Crisis. His was the kind of vision that fires up people with optimism. That gets their blood boiling. That makes them passionate. The kind so lacking today in this movement of ours. 

What’s my prescription for our current malaise? How do we libertarians shrug off our predominant despair and build instead a motivating, confident, driving vision of hope, of radicalism, of liberty, of progress, of humanity — of victory? 

For starters, as Murray Rothbard stressed years ago in his essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty,” we must stop misreading history. No matter our short-term losses, Rothbard said, the historical long-term trend is in our favor. Granted, the Old Order still amasses all the power it can, usually with success. But its job isn’t as easy as it once was. Now, the Power Elite has to wrap its programs in the garb of “progress” and “security” and “freedom” — the language of libertarianism — to get the ear of the people. They shudder when movie audiences spontaneously cheer the explosion of the White House in “Independence Day.” They fret about the destruction wreaked on the credibility of the electoral process and on government itself by Election 2000. They worry about the discrediting of state socialism, and about the proliferation of both secessionist and anti-tax movements here and abroad. So we should take a longer view of history and be encouraged at the incredible progress liberty has made in two millennia, despite the odds. 

Next, we libertarians must encourage one another. My mail is filled with discouragement every day. And most of it comes from libertarian comrades! I don’t suggest we ignore day-to-day reality and become Pollyannas. But I do suggest we spend less time brooding about the latest government crimes and more time lifting each other’s spirits. Swapping bad news and grousing about it is a hard habit to break. But we should try to minimize it. Take time to share your vision for victory with fellow libertarians. 

Armed with such a vision, we have reason and motivation to get busy with the work ahead. There’s a stronger and more viable freedom movement to be built. There are strategies to be plotted, tactics to be tested.

So listen up, you co-dependent naysayers! Rally against defeatism! Pull yourself out of the doldrums! As Murray Rothbard, the great “happy warrior,” wrote:

“For the Libertarian, the main task of the present epoch is to cast off his needless and debilitating pessimism, to set his sights on long-run victory and to set out on the road to its attainment . . . . [L]et him proceed in the spirit of radical long-run optimism.”


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Wally Conger's picture
Columns on STR: 8

Wally Conger is a marketing consultant and writer living on California ’s central coast. He has been a non-political, anti-party activist in the libertarian movement since 1970. His blog of unfinished essays and spontaneous eruptions can be found at wconger.blogspot.com.