Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Great Experiment Revisited:

Can the Libertarian Party create a visual demonstration of how liberty will work for Americans?

Is it possible for the Libertarian Party to make straight the road to freedom? Can we demonstrate to middle America how they can achieve their own, individual dreams using a Free Market in cooperation with others?

Can we become a political movement that creates tangible examples that show freedom to be the only choice which makes peace and justice possible?

Can the Libertarian Party become the instrument for political transformation which will eliminate government as we know it today, allowing us to consider just how much government is necessary? Yes. But first the LP must transform itself.

In this article we will examine the cultural dynamics of freedom movements; the cognitive faculties used by individuals to make choices, the meaning of freedom and equality, and suggest an agenda of changes for the Libertarian Party to adopt that would create a coalition, drawing from both right and left, to carry out the Freedom Agenda.

Every large endeavor necessitates a vision statement. We already have ours. It is over two hundred years old and inscribed on hemp paper. How it came into existence is part of the story.

The Origin of America’s Vision Statement

America is the great experiment. The purpose of the Libertarian Party has always been to continue the work begun by our Founders. Our Founders knew that they did not have all of the answers. We might view them as heroic figures grounded in certainties, but they were not. They were real people, heir to human weaknesses. They worried. They doubted. They struggled with each point in a cultural atmosphere fraught with problems of monumental proportions. Slavery divided them along with culturally based values that made even their understanding of what freedom is a complex of questions and misunderstandings.

The representative Republic they adopted as their model was the most radical form of government then imagined by the mind of Man. They accepted the imperfections of which they were aware and moved on to address other issues, leaving for future generations further consideration of what the best institutional forms might be to accomplish individual liberty.

It was an astonishing accomplishment, unprecedented in world history. Instead of continuing the use of already existing practices and forms they adopted new ways of handling human institutions for the governance of human action.

This accomplishment is even more astonishing when we remember that they did so without the tools of understanding created by humankind in the past 200 years.

They did not understand economics as a discipline with mathematically based principles. Adam Smith first published Wealth of Nations in 1776. They did not understand that human action itself laid on a base of biological reality. Science had not revealed to them the enormity of what they did not know about the origins of their species, their religious institutions, the nature of the world around them and the dynamics of human value exchange. Their view of biology had been originated in the misty past and still accepted the view that babies were the product of men; tiny hommoculi that embedded themselves in the womb of woman. This was the justification for denying women any rights over their own children. Ours is not the first generation to be confronted by the distortative effects of fraudulent science.

Fish do not question water. They did not question the culture that both drew them together and divided them.

Slavery was an issue that they would leave on the table. Women’s rights remained a cultural deviation, invisible to their political dialogue.

Their lack of understanding was enormous. Their accomplishment was therefore the greater.

These variations in understanding essential aspects of individual rights resulted in the Civil War and linger with us today. Now we have created other tools for understanding the content of the world; its laws of genetics, physics and mathematics. The nature of reality daily grows more visible through disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and interdisciplinary studies such as that which has grown out of the interface of law and economics, law and biology.

The Founders were people uneasy with the force and threat represented by centralized government. They had only a limited number of examples of institutions for governance. These were drawn from the past. They did not choose a representative republic and the democratic process without strong reservations. They did not anoint it as a form of government. They decided to try it out. Human forms and institutions serve us. We do not serve them.

Their successors made the mistake of accepting the Constitution and its forms as the final word, to be modified but not substantially changed. It became instead of a working document for the accomplishment of individual freedom holy writ handed down from minds wiser and more informed. This was a mistake founded in the respect accorded our Founders, but it was a mistake, nonetheless.

Time has also revealed to us the problems inherent in the institutions of governance that they could never imagine. The power and intrusiveness of government as it is today would have been stranger to them than our nation’s space program.

The shape of our institutions today and the habits of mind those institutions express, are becoming the shape of the future. What those institutions say right now is not good for freedom. We therefore need to change our institutions so that they are freedom based and assume the efficacy of individualist answers. When that happens we will be on the road to demonstrating to Americans, and therefore the world, that freedom is the best, the only choice for creating a compassionate, and inclusive future.

We need to understand where we came from, how the vision of individualism got off track so that we can formulate a strategy that will put us where we need to be.

Where we have been means we have to examine the philosophical background against which the Revolution was fought.

Is there a single vision for the meaning of the words liberty and equality now, 200 years after that war ended? What did liberty and equality mean to colonial Americans?

The original American colonists were, Puritan, Quaker, Chesapeake (the second and third sons of English aristocracy) and Scots-Irish. Others were present, including Huguenots, Catholics, Irish, German and some of everything imaginable, but these are the four major groupings at the time the war began. It was their distinct understandings of liberty that forged our original vision for freedom and equality.

Both Puritans and Quakers approached the question of liberty from a spiritual viewpoint. The individual, man and woman, was spiritually distinct, acting through freewill. This understanding acted to modify their cultural practices. Quaker women were free to preach and occupy leadership roles in the Quaker world. Puritan women owned and controlled property. Voting in many parts of New England was property based and not limited by gender.

Their migration to the New World was motivated by spiritual needs.

Their model for liberty resided inside the individual person. The Revolution was the political expression for their spiritual beliefs.

The Chesapeakes and Scots-Irish had different models derived from their very different cultural histories. These immigrants wanted to establish for themselves a life style that would shortly come under fire in England.

The second and third sons of English aristocracy transplanted the estate system from England. It was familiar, desirable, and comfortable. It was highly hierarchial in practice requiring the labor of many subordinate individuals to make it profitable. In England, these workers had been serfs. In the Old Dominion and later throughout the Old South, these laborers would be black slaves.

For these barons of the New World, liberty was a franchise limited to a few land owners who were born to their positions. The idea of freedom trickled in with a diverse population of emigrants who forged the cooperative practices that allowed them to coexist while remaining distinct and separate. The colonies were a mixing place for people and ideas that allowed them to experiment with variations on already existing institutional models for governance and so changed their perceptions of individual autonomy. Thus the need to accommodate the continuing influx of emigrants provided the motivation to innovate. Ideas regarding the nature of human liberty and equality provided cognitive models for change.

The Scots-Irish themselves were an intensely tribal people who had withstood generations of border warfare against the English. The rights of the individual were subsumed and subordinated to the need of the clan. Their folk ways and their practices reflected this. The generations after their settlement transmuted their understanding of liberty and equality.

The concepts freedom and equality were changing. The Old Dominion was to give birth to a variety of understandings on this question. These transmuted ideals shared a new vision of freedom.

All of these traditions for freedom and equality came together in the Declaration of Independence, providing the vision statement that remains alive with us today. The underlying differences remain with us, unseen, but active. These differences are one of the causes for the freedom movement’s failure to arrive at a consensus on means and direction.

America’s Vision Statement

We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”

This is the vision statement for the American Revolution that was already in process when it was inscribed on paper. The body meeting held very different understandings for equality and liberty. The writer of those words, Thomas Jefferson, had derived his vision of liberty from his own broad reading and from introspection and dialogue among his peers.

This vision is the common understanding among Americans, including Libertarians, today. It is an idea that bridges the past, present and future. It remains the article of faith and point of direction for an ever growing humanity. When projected into the future the differences of source and weight blend and merge. Concepts such as freedom and equality then take on a clarity that is impossible when we look at them through the everyday political dialogue.

The Declaration of Independence assumed that governments are human inventions. It asserted the absolute right to alter them, acknowledging that they are malleable, and making it clear they are the tools for creating outcomes that enforce a vision of human equality and freedom. They placed no limit on this right to edit the cultural institutions they put in place or those that preceded them.

Governments possessed no rights. They were institutional tools for the protection of human values.

If all of human kind are actually created equal it has to mean that equality is not connected to the individual’s intelligence, attractiveness, abilities, age, race or gender. This is not a statement of biological reality. It is not a statement of present day institutional practice. It is a principle of cultural intention; a defining, but intuitive, assertion. It spoke to the nature of each individual before the existence of human institutions, something about which the Founders knew very little. Their basis for understanding the forces of creation and human evolution came from religiously founded mythologies. These are also the foundations of philosophy, science and all human institutions today.

This vision statement is still both valid and unattaineable. That is what the Libertarian Movement needs to change.

Immediately following the Revolution an interesting cultural sorting took place. Individuals and families pulled up stakes and moved. Some slaver-holders in the North moved to the South. But the far greatest movement was from the Southern states to those whose cultural practices expressed the more individualist values of the Puritan/Quaker spiritual model. People voted with their feet to abandon the culture that supported the practice of slavery.

The consequences for this would not become evident for decades. The logical consequences of the very different meanings held in the words, ‘liberty and equality,’ would make the conflict we know as the Civil War inevitable. That the Civil War also became the instrument of Federalism means that the content of the dialogue had shifted from an understanding of liberty to a debate over which form of state oppression best protected the privileges of the few.

Three cultural strategies fatal to freedom joined forces. The first of these was the shift in American thought that made the experiment with a form of government more central to their national identity than the ideals that it was supposed to protect. The second was the alliance of government with special interests that gained weight and force beginning with the Civil War. These haunt us today. But it is the third factor that provides the justification for the present form of government and arms them with the moral high ground.

The Failure of Liberty

The Temperance Movement, which was originally intended to limit itself to voluntary abstinence, moved to a legislatively oriented goal though the action of a majority of women. This first War on Drugs failed, of course. Most women are not ideological and simply look for answers that might work. When those answers are founded on collectivist principles the impact on the culture, and liberty, can be very, very bad.

Women dominated political groups have a strong history of accomplishing their political goals despite the irrationality of those goals. Therefore, it is unsafe to not address their concerns. Far from being unimportant they touch on the most visceral questions of liberty and equality and should always have been addressed first. Here, opportunity meets discretion and good sense.

Women dedicated to establishing rights for women in marriage, the right to vote, the right to own property and raise the children born of their own bodies were confounded in their attempts for decades. The Declaration of Sentiments, written at the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 mirroring the Declaration of Independence, was firmly founded on individualist principles. By the time their struggle reached its fifth decade the original proponents were dying and being replaced by women who accepted help from the only people willing to work with them. Most of these people were collectivists of one kind or another.

If women had been conceded the right to vote, own property, marry by contract without having their rights limited, monitored and controlled by government; been able to sue for abuse and other violations of their autonomy there would have been no Temperance Movement. There would have been no drug war today, most likely.

When the institutions and culture of a society disallows force, coercion and fraud there are no victims to use as a justification for legislative depredations on the rights of individuals. The continuing plight of women and children was and remains the moral high ground on which the State founds its invasions of individual rights.

Fix that and we create at one time a coalition between right and left and a demonstration of how individualist principles work. Further failures to act will leave us trying to hold back a wall of water with a copy of your favorite libertarian book.


Welfare, entitlements, and other regulatory interventions distort free markets. They exist today because of the failure to apply individualist principles to the problems that confront individuals.

The authors of these policies were wrong about how to create social justice. They were right about the need. Collectivism does not work. But those who applied the answers were doing their best. It is not their fault they failed. It is ours.

When we ignored the proper concerns for social justice expressed by compassionate and informed activists we allowed the foundations to be laid for the State as it is today. Any answer that works must answer all of the previous questions.

Liberty has a logic and a lineage. Liberty itself is a cultural strategy that has changed the world. If it is not achieved using one set of practices it will move over to another. Individualism, expressed by our Founders had the first shot. Now the collectivists have failed and we are again up to bat. What can freedom accomplish now while the bases are filled?

The Lineage of Liberty

Let us consider for a moment some other movements that were successful in changing the world for freedom.

It will probably surprise you to know that early Christianity was, in fact, a freedom movement for the most disadvantaged. Women. In the classical pagan world women were considered chattel. Owned, sold into early marriage, forced to abort unwanted pregnancies, kill their infants, resold if their husbands died, not allowed to speak in their own defense or raise a hand to keep their children from a similar fate. They owned nothing, being property themselves. No manumission was possible short of the grave.

In early Christian communities it was different. A woman chose her husband and when she would marry. She was free to keep her children; she was a respected member of the church community, contributing time and money in her own name.

How did this change that world? Look around you. In the 300 years that this was true of Christianity the sect grew from an original estimate of 3,000 to a majority of the population. Other factors contributed. Such as nursing the sick, family and pagan neighbors, through the frequent plagues that afflicted cities, but the increase is steady, lead by the majority of women in the Christian sects. A steady 40% a decade until Christianity was the dominant religion of the Western World.

You can view Christianity as a religion and disregard its effects. Or you can view it as a philosophical and cultural pattern of behaviors that worked. Benevolence worked. Freedom worked. The world changed.

When I began studying the cultural content of freedom movements I did not expect to find Christianity among them. But it was. So was Islam, it its early years. Again, lead by increased freedom for women, it became a major cultural force along with becoming a major religion.

But we do not need to end our inquiry with religions. We can look as the origins of America itself.

Early Puritans and Quakers, despite reports to the contrary, were bastions of comparative female freedom. That is not to say that they were what we would view today as egalitarian in a gender sense, only that they gave women a greater share of freedom than the cultural and religious offerings otherwise available to them. Women, the least free, chose, and the world changed. The American Revolution, Transcendentalist Movement, the Abolitionist Movement, the Suffragist Movement. Each of these reflect the same underlying dynamics. Women worked, most often without credit, and the world changed.

The reason that New England, the source and strength of the American Revolution, was able to field the incredible 10,000 men marching towards Concord on April 19th lay in the fact that wives, mother, sisters and daughters both urged them to act and continued to provide the capital to make it possible.

Making Freedom Visible

Freedom is a cherished human value. Individuals move towards conditions of freedom whenever and wherever they can. We know that people die every day trying to enjoy the freedom offered by America. They weight the dangers of sneaking across borders and they put their lives at risk. They would not send in a donation to the LP, even if they knew it existed. The political dialogue that takes place so visibly to us, isn’t even background noise to most people around the world.

People listen attentively to what you do. Speak loudly and clearly with your actions.

Libertarians need to ask themselves, who is our constituency? Who most needs the benefits of freedom?

Women are the best constituency. They most need freedom. But that is only one reason that Libertarians should take up their issues of freedom.

Libertarianism needs women more that women need us.

Women bring to their political and social activism values and abilities that enable and ensure their success – even when they are dead wrong.

When those who understood failed to protect and defend the rights of those most at risk the battle for liberty was lost to all of us. Libertarians want to believe that we are the defenders of individual freedom. That is a claim ignored and disparaged by the left, who have held the moral high ground in this country for three generations. The civil rights movement, the anti-war movement of the Vietnam Era, challenging the state for the handicapped and for women; the left has engaged the establishment and changed law and custom.

What are the cultural practices and institutions that would allow for an optimal expression of human equality and freedom? Before we take up the question of what to do we need to consider where we want to go.. We must also consider the nature of political dialogue and the process by which the majority of Americans adopt new practices and customs.

How can we effectively communicate to our fellow Americans the forms of governance that will best perform the functions now carried out by government on all levels?

We must fight the perceptions that the Federal government is a sacrosanct entity that properly exists for its own purposes. This is the heritage of the failure of the Civil War along with the long-term working alliances forged between government on all levels and business. The common perception today is that government is the only institutional means for governance,.

We have all of the means we can imagine at our disposal. There are a lot of things that we have irrefutably established do not work. The past thirty years have both educated us and enlarged the tools at our disposal There have also been success stories. Privatization is one of these. Both of the original libertarian think tanks, Cato and Reason, used models for privatization to produce policy that is now being adopted into mainstream usage. Privatization has worked because it provides a means to demonstrate that it works. The consumer, in this case the governmental entity, can see that their costs drop or the service provided is more satisfactory by other criteria.

Markets work. Where market mechanisms can be introduced the unwieldy governmental management models can be changed. The first successes were small and regional. Now there is an entire industry that is founded on making money to provide privatization studies and services. A simple perusal of the internet reveals many sources and applications for this growing industry.

But privatizing services, thus reintroducing elementary economic principles back into the institutional fabric of government, fails to go to the main issue.

The issue is still freedom and equality. The question libertarians must answer is this. Is the Libertarian Party presenting a viable vision with a better alternative to the American people? If we are marketing a political product, who is our market?

The median Libertarian is a computer engineer, in his late 30’s or 40’s. He is unmarried, doing well in his professional life, and reads science fiction. He is an ideologue, making him one of a very small minority of the general population. His issues are getting government out of his life, making drugs, especially marijuana, legal, and lowering or eliminating taxes and regulations.

This is reflected by the content of the National Libertarian Party web site. If this is the audience the Libertarian Party will never win elections. But that is the least of the problems.

Calling the Question

We now approach the crux of the question. In the market of political action the Libertarian Party uses the forms and structure of a political party in attempting to change policy through persuasion. It is trying to reach a limited population of people who are very familiar with an ongoing political dialogue. But Libertarians have, presumably, very different goals than do any other political party. Libertarians are committed to an agenda that ends the role of government in almost all parts of our lives. There is no reason to limit ourselves to the present forms for introducing political and cultural changes for freedom. In fact, doing so limits both the scope and impact of what we are saying.

If we want to dispense with the State we must convince our fellow Americans that the State is unnecessary for their welfare and safety. As long as people of good character and intelligence believe that only government can ensure their safety and protect them they will continue to support the continuation of government and all of its agencies.

This is an unpalatable truth for ideologues, which includes most Libertarians. As such, we integrate ideas, translating those into what the future could be if the State ceased to exist. We are willing to work to make that happen because we see, vaguely in many cases, how the functions presently in the hands of government would be carried out.

Our fellow Americans do not share this viewpoint. They are not ideologues. They accept change cautiously. They are culturally conservative because that approach has a proven track record over time. It is not perfect but they believe it to be perfectible and better than their other options. They are unwilling to accept the risks inherent in adopting unproven Libertarian policies. Many years of political activity have demonstrated that the objections to our ideas most often take this form.

All people understand visual, real life demonstrations of better approaches to any problem. Better computer strategies run through the Internet like wildfire. The changes wrought by the automobile and telephone remain historic evidence that emulation of successful and useful technologies can take place rapidly, replacing whole industries and remaking the economy. But this only happens when the advantages are clear. Individuals see better choices and change follows.

Politics is only one of the venues through which Libertarians can work. Even though the Libertarian Party is the instrument that does not mean that we must conform to the expectations for political parties. We can adopt what ever forms best suit our purposes.

The point is creating demonstrations that our philosophy provides policies that work. Shifting the ground gives us the advantage of also being able to function outside the expectations for political activism. Political action exists within the larger market formed by the intersection of choice and all human action. There are markets with potential audiences that are much larger than any we can contact though political action and dialogue.

We are not just selling political solutions. We are selling freedom. That means we are selling cognitive tools that help people make better choices. We are used to the function of such philosophical tool sets as Objectivism and the works of Rose Wilder Lane. But these do not work in the general market, no matter how we might wish that they did. They are too involved and too intellectually oriented. But there is a market for helping people make better choices. Such shows as Oprah Winfrey demonstrate that every day. The power of this kind of television is in the fact that the audience can see and judge right from wrong. Right choices are validated to the whoops and applause of the audience. Wrong choices are booed. Most people want the approval of their peers.

Television is a very human institution.

All human institutions are subject to the same market forces. The means for demonstrating better choices vary with circumstance; the principles remain the same. That is what we need to keep in mind. Inherent in Libertarianism is a tool set for making a better world by enforcing appropriate choices in our personal lives.

Television is one venue. Rethinking the limitations we have imposed on ourselves reveals a diversity of markets that enable outreach to a far larger audience of listeners looking for answers.