Reform vs. Freedom

When new libertarians join the libertarian movement, they are inevitably hit with a fork in the road, one that all of us libertarians have confronted after discovering libertarianism. That fork is this: Should I become a libertarian reformer or should I become an advocate of liberty? 

No matter how much the reform crowd might protest, reform is not freedom. That’s because reform leave infringements on liberty intact and simply tries to modify them. 

Freedom, on the other hand, necessarily involves the dismantling of infringements on liberty, not their reform. As each infringement is dismantled, the individual experiences the exhilaration of being a bit more free and ardently desires to dismantle the next one. The process continues until all infringements on liberty have been dismantled, in which case people experience what it’s like to live the lives of free men and women.

If all that we libertarians accomplish is reform of the welfare-warfare state way of life under which we live, at best we will have improved our lives as serfs but we will not have achieved our freedom.

The analogy I like to use is slavery. Suppose we were able to use a time machine to transport today’s reform-oriented libertarians back to Alabama in 1855. They would be calling for reforming slavery by enacting laws banning lashings, requiring shorter work hours, and providing for better food, housing, and healthcare.

Those would be improvements in the plight of the slaves, and they undoubtedly would be appreciative. But it would’t be freedom. Freedom would require the dismantling, not the reform, of the structure of slavery.

The reform-oriented libertarian would respond: “We have to be practical and pragmatic. We are not going to end slavery overnight. People would never accept that. If we call for the end of slavery, people will just tune us out. Newspaper editors won’t publish our perspectives. People won’t vote for us. We will end up with few supporters and be ineffective.”

All that might be true, but the fact remains that reform of slavery would not be freedom. To attract more people to the cause of freedom, it it necessary to continue making the case for freedom, even if it appears that no one is interested.

Moreover, there is no way to know how close we might be to arriving at a critical mass of people who could bring about a paradigm shift toward liberty in America. We might be a lot closer than we think. The only way to enlarge the number of people who want freedom is by making the case for freedom.

Suppose, for example, a libertarian is addressing an audience of 100 people who have never heard of libertarianism. The reform-oriented libertarian would say, “We need to go slow here. We need to stick with reform so that we don’t scare anyone off. Let’s just make the case for school vouchers and health-savings accounts rather than the case for separating school and state and healthcare and state.” 

Let’s assume that 25 people in the audience respond enthusiastically to the talk and become reform proponents. What difference does it make with respect to freedom? None! Because the public-schooling system and the public-healthcare system, which are both severe infringements on liberty, would still be left intact. Achieving freedom requires a separation of school and state and a separation of healthcare and state, the same way our ancestors separated church and state. That necessarily means making the case for ending all governmental involvement in education and healthcare, just as our ancestors did with religion.

Let’s assume that only 2 people in that audience are intrigued by the idea, decide to explore it, and become libertarians.That means we are that much closer to arriving at the critical mass of people needed to bring a societal paradigm shift to freedom.

In fact, imagine if our ancestors had not separated church and state. Today, we would be living in a religious mess that would be comparable to the mess we have in education and healthcare. And there would be libertarian reformers advocating reform of the public-church system. But those reforms would not be freedom. Freedom would entail ending all governmental involvement in religion.

Obviously, making the case for liberty is much more difficult than making the case for reform. Reform makes a person feel okay because his basic paradigm is not being shaken. Making the case for liberty makes a person think at a higher, more profound level, one that entails a dismantling of what he is accustomed to.

But there is no other way. To achieve freedom, we need to attract more people to our cause who understand freedom and who want it. To accomplish that entails exposing people to the case for freedom. If all that we do is make the case for reform, all we will do is attract reformers to our cause. That might make our serfdom more palatable. But it’s not freedom.

Jacob G. Hornberger, FFF

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