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

Libertarianism Defined

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that holds that a person should be free to do whatever he wants in life, as long as his conduct is peaceful. Thus, as long a person doesn’t murder, rape, burglarize, defraud, trespass, steal, or inflict any other act of violence against another person’s life, liberty, or property, libertarians hold that the government should leave him alone. In fact, libertarians believe that a primary purpose of government is to prosecute and punish anti-social individuals who initiate force against others.

What are some policy ramifications of what has become known as the libertarian “non-aggression principle”?

People should be free to engage in any economic enterprise without permission or interference from the state. Thus libertarians oppose all occupational licensure laws and all economic regulations of business activity. Libertarians also believe that people have the right to keep whatever they earn and decide for themselves what to do with their own money–spend it, invest it, save it, hoard it, or donate it.

This then means, necessarily, that libertarians are ardent advocates of the free market, which is simply a process by which people are interacting peacefully with each other for mutual gain.

What are some specific applications of libertarian principles to real-world problems?

Education: libertarians call for the complete separation of school and state, which means the repeal of school compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes–that is, the complete end of all governmental involvement in education. This would mean a completely free market in education, in which consumers decide the best educational vehicles for their children and entrepreneurs (both for-profit and charitable) are meeting the demands of the consumers.

Social Security: an immediate repeal of Social Security, which is simply a coercive transfer program in which older people are able to steal from young people. Again, people have a right to their own earnings. If a person fails to provide for his retirement, he must rely on the charity and good will of his family, his friends, his church groups, or people in his community. Libertarians believe that it is morally wrong for a person to use the state to take what doesn’t belong to him.

Welfare: immediate repeal of all welfare primarily on moral grounds but also on the terribly destructive aspects of government welfare programs. People have a right to their own earnings and no one has the right to take someone else’s money against his will. Moreover, no one is made a better person because the state is taking money from one person in order to give it to another person. Finally, government welfare creates a sense of hopeless dependency on the welfare recipient.

Drug laws: the decades-long war on drugs is immoral and has proven to be highly destructive. People have a right to engage in peaceful, self-destructive behavior as long as their conduct is peaceful. Drug addiction should be treated as a social, medical, psychological problem, not a criminal one. Legalizing drugs would immediately put an end to drug lords and drug gangs and the violence associated with the drug war–that is, the burglaries, robberies, thefts, etc. associated with the exorbitant black-market prices that drug users must pay to finance their habits.

The IRS and income tax: repeal them and leave people free to keep the fruits of their earnings and decide for themselves how to dispose of their wealth.

Gun Control: People have a right to resist the tyranny of their own government and to protect themselves from the violent acts of private criminals.

Environment: Governments are the great destroyers of the environment. In fact, most environmental problems can be traced to public, not private, ownership of resources. The solution is to privatize public property to the maximum extent possible.

Health Care: the crisis in health care, especially with respect to ever-rising prices, is due to heavy government involvement in health care–Medicare, Medicaid, and licensure laws. These laws and programs should be repealed in favor of a totally free market in health care.

Immigration: Libertarians oppose any controls on the free movements of goods and people, both domestically and internationally. People have the right to move and to improve their lives.

Foreign Policy: Libertarians oppose involvement in foreign wars as well as all foreign aid. The U.S. government should be limited to protecting the nation from invasion but should stay out of the affairs of other nations.

Civil Liberties: Libertarians are firm advocates of the First Amendment and the procedural aspects of due process of law, such as the rights to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures, and in criminal cases the right to an attorney, notice and hearing, and trial by jury.

With the tragic exception of slavery and several minor exceptions, the philosophy on which the United States was founded was, by and large, founded on libertarianism, especially with the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the limitation on powers in the Constitution.

In 1890 America, for example, the following government programs were virtually nonexistent: income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, economic regulation, occupational licensure, a Federal Reserve System, conscription, immigration controls, and gun control.

In the 20th century, the American people abandoned libertarianism in favor of the socialistic welfare state and the controlled or regulated society.

Thus, the intellectual and moral battle for the third century of our nation’s existence is between those who favor liberty — libertarians — versus those who favor state control of peaceful activity — “statists.”

This post was written by:

The Future of Freedom Foundation was founded in 1989 by FFF president Jacob Hornberger with the aim of establishing an educational foundation that would advance an uncompromising case for libertarianism in the context of both foreign and domestic policy. The mission of The Future of Freedom Foundation is to advance freedom by providing an uncompromising moral and economic case for individual liberty, free markets, private property, and limited government.

A Higher Principle for Libertarianism

Libertarians tend to have two special character traits. 
First, we’re a bit contrarian. We stand alone, if we must. 
Second, we’re logically consistent. We cannot stand hypocrisy. 
In our quest for intellectual consistency, we seek principles. In human action, we seek moral consistency. In other words, we seek to live by those principles. 
Our principles guide us. They help us sort out tough situations before all the data arrives. Here are some of the more common principles libertarians live by… 

The Self-Ownership Principle: Each person owns themselves. If someone else owns you, you’re a slave. 

Zero Aggression Principle: It is always wrong to initiate force to achieve a social or political goal. 

Law of Equal Liberty: Each person is free to do what he or she wills, so long as they don’t infringe on the equal freedom of another.

Natural Law: The Creator endows each person with rights, at birth, so we must all respect those rights in others (see: The Declaration of Independence)  

Maybe your preferred principle is not listed here. But chances are, that principle, as well as the ones listed above, are… 
Personally chosen statements of behavior. 
In other words, these principles represent your values. You selected them as an expression of your ethics. Since you chose them, you also enforce them. But we all slip sometimes. Hopefully, you’re forgiving of yourself in those moments where you don’t live up to values.  
Likewise, when others around you do not embrace and abide by them, those principles are non-binding.
But there is a “higher principle” for society. It’s higher because it can be repeatedly observed in nature. It’s the Principle of Human Respect… 
Human happiness, harmony, and prosperity diminish when a person experiences violence, theft, or fraud.
This principle, unlike the others, has an “If X, then Y” relationship.
In other words, when violence is used to achieve a personal, social, or political goal, the socially desirable benefits of human happiness, social peace, and/or wealth decline. You can test that proposition. 
Let’s be clear, each of the principles listed above is wonderful. But the Principle of Human Respect identifies a “cause and effect” relationship that is as consistent and observable as gravity. 
Nearly all political philosophies resort to coercive force to achieve their Utopias. Libertarians uniquely recognize that it’s wrong, on both an individual and a political level, to use threats backed by violence to pursue your (conservative or progressive) goals. Only the Principle of Human Respect explains why we’d be happier and more at peace if everyone lived by any of the libertarian “principles.” 
Jim Babka is the Editor-at-Large for Advocates for Self-Government and the co-creator of the Zero Aggression Project