Our continued fight for liberty requires “Human Action”

Freedom from Bondage

In his epic work, Human Action, Ludwig von Mises outlines three conditions necessary before a person will act. All three conditions must be met:

  1. The person must feel an uneasiness with the current situation.
  2. The person must have a vision of something better.
  3. The person must have a belief that a particular action will make that better vision become reality.

If we hope to ever get large numbers of people interested in our ideas and willing to act to advance those ideas, we must devise a way to satisfy all three conditions in their minds.

The first condition presents no challenge. Most people already feel uneasiness with the current political setup. Nearly everyone wants a “change.”

But change, to what?

This is a tough question, and one that most people cannot answer. Most lack a clear and preferable alternate vision. They don’t meet Mises’ second criteria. This is what differentiates those of us who understand the philosophy of liberty. We possess the vision. We know what a truly free world would look like. And if we want people to go along with us, we must communicate and spread that vision.

But why don’t more of us do so? What prevents most of us who “get it” from dedicating ourselves to the cause of converting people? Why is there no domino effect, wherein our vision spreads from person to person, with each new convert taking purposeful action to spread the vision? Why do so many people become impassioned with liberty for a time, only to subsequently turn away from what seems to be an intellectual dead end? What prevents their flash of vision from turning into action? The answer is that many never fulfill Mises’ third condition. They lack hope for victory.

Even Murray Rothbard, famously ended his essay “Anatomy of the State” with this depressing thought: “The problem of the state is evidently as far from solution as ever…”

Anyone who has thought at length about the problem of state, understands this sentiment. We all have experienced this hopeless desperation. We agonize and struggle to keep up our spirits and continue the fight against what seems to be impossible odds. At times we feel that nothing will ever change, that the politicians are so powerful and insulated, so captured by vested interests, so concerned only with retaining power, or so narrowly focused on, so called, “pragmatism”, that they will never change how they act, and we will never be able to reclaim our liberties.

It is this desperation that gives libertarians such a bad name. We get angry at the people who don’t “get it” or who don’t seem to care, and we sometimes lash out. In moments of weakness, we think that the people around us are just as bad as the politicians, and we wonder if it’s true what they say about themselves: that humans are just dumb animals, unable to respond to reason, and unwilling to act on principle. We find ourselves thinking, “People are so brainwashed. How could we ever build a movement to roll back the state? How could such people ever rule themselves?”

This is sloppy thinking. To solve the problem we must reason through it. Mises’ three conditions remain true. They are laws of action, and central to our philosophy. People will not act unless all three conditions are met. The general public will continue to “go along with it,” until those of us who want a freer world can figure out a way to meet that last condition, to convince people not only of our vision, but of our strategy. Take a moment and ask yourself: What, specifically, is our strategy? We don’t have one, at least not one that convinces. And we will not start winning, and fostering hope until we develop one.

Maybe history can help us. We know from history that somehow the west achieved more freedom than all other civilizations. We may not be free enough, but we are relatively well off in comparison. What led to this disparity? Maybe there is a clue there. What made the West different? What made Europe different from Asia, Africa, India, or pre-Columbian America? If we can answer that question, maybe it will help us develop a strategy going forward.

I believe the answer can be found in Europe’s strong, centralized, and independent church. The Catholic church was a temporal power in the middle ages. It was wealthy. It has been estimated that the church owned 25% of the land in Western Europe. It was independent. The hard fought papal reforms of the 11th century centralized the church’s vast power in the person of the pope in Rome.  And it was feared. The pope had the power, in many cases, to depose sovereigns who displeased him. So, to a certain extent, the sovereigns of Europe also had a master. They were not absolute rulers.

For a thousand years Europe was a duopoly. Two rulers: the state, and the church.  Both were powerful. Both were jealous of their power. And both tried to expand their power. That tension made both scramble for support. Both felt the need to “hustle.” Both felt the need to appeal to abstract principle. They felt the need to justify their rule. There was competition in power. This is the anarchist philosophy manifest, and there is nothing similar in other civilizations. Where there is no final, absolute ruler, where power is fractured, the individual is free. And this is what made Europe unique. Many of our liberties were forged in conflicts between the church and the state.

If you accept this explanation, then our strategy should change. For hundreds of years, classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives have “made their peace” with the state. They may have wished for its eventual elimination, they might have recognized that it’s a “dirty game,” but nevertheless they spent their energy attempting to win office. They placed their hopes on democracy. They spent more energy on  practical politics, and less on advancing their ideas and popularizing them. “Be practical! Change the system from within!” was their mantra. But every compromise to the coercive state is a compromise of our principles. Every compromise of principles is a opening for our enemies.

We must stop believing that the politicians can save us. They can’t. The political class is full of order takers. They follow. They do not lead. We need to stop thinking of them as our leaders. We need to stop identifying with them. We need to stop paying attention to them. In the end, like all followers, they will do what they are told. The only lasting success we can hope for will come from changing people’s minds. We need a vessel, or mechanism by which to accomplish conversions on a large scale. We need to systematize our proselytizing. If we can accomplish this, the politicians will follow.

I propose we abandon the effort to reform the state, and instead redirect our energy into building communities of people who love liberty. I propose we establish “liberty churches” — like Christian churches, these organizations should host “services,” where the “clergy” will present ideas and values to the “laity” on a regular basis, reinforcing and strengthening their commitment to our cause. Like churches, these organizations should have certain ethical expectations of their congregants - ethics derived from our core principles: self-ownership and non-aggression. Like churches these organizations should have hierarchy, and recognized authorities. Like churches they should act in the broader community doing community outreach consistent with our values. Like churches they should seek converts, and like the medieval church, wherever possible these “liberty churches” should attempt to compete with the state. Over time, perhaps this “church of liberty” will grow to be a real power, one that the politicians, like medieval princes will not be able to ignore.

Most importantly, the establishment of a “church of liberty” will end our discouragement. No longer will we be discouraged when a politician betrays us. No longer will we care who wins an election. No longer will we make terms or compromise with the state. Instead, we will plant a seed and tend to our communities, watching them and our movement grow. No matter how slow that growth, our hopes will grow along with it. People will begin to see the “church of liberty” as a path to “salvation.” And we will observe a few, and then some, and then many people meeting all three of Mises’ conditions, ready and willing to act.

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