A week in D.C. and thoughts on Libertarianism

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Political Commentary / Uncategorized Ramblings

It’s been several days, and I am only now recovering from what turned out to be quite an exhausting week in Washington, DC. I travelled there on invitation from the Institute for Humane Studies to participate in one of their week-long summer seminars—this one focused on public policy from a libertarian perspective. We spent about 10 hours each day in lectures, Q & A session and discussion groups. Of the 60 or so students who had come to the Trinity University campus, at least a third of them had come from overseas, and never more than a few from any given country. It was common to find oneself at a table with people of 5 different nationalities.

The seminars themselves were mostly various forms of critique of government policies, none of which were entirely new to me, and therefore didn’t result in any profound realizations on my part. However, there was much to be gleaned from the after-hours discussions with other liberty-minded individuals from around the world. I always hear about the socialists in places like France, Canada or Norway, so speaking to people from these countries who value the ideals of the American founders was educational and inspiring. The week was less about what I learned from lectures, and more about how I changed through the experience as a whole.

The IHS folks were great, and made themselves very available to us. Part of their mission is to get people connected, and to provide guidance for people who want to pursue careers in advancing libertarian principles in academia and think tanks. We spent a few hours at the Cato Institute, hearing from several of their staff about the organization and the work they do, which really provided some clarity in the ambiguous world of political think tanks.

We were released on Friday morning, but seeing as how I’d never been to my nation’s capitol, I had plans to stay an extra few days to see the town. I was able to visit all of the major memorials and monuments, Ford’s Theatre and the house in which Lincoln died, several of the Smithsonian museums, the outside of the White House, the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, National Archives and, of course, the Capitol. We had to personally stop by our Senator’s office (John Cornyn) to get passes into to the House and Senate chambers.

The most amazing moment of the entire trip was standing before the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. Second to that would be a portion of the Library of Congress where many documents and letters from the founding era are on display, along with Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. I have spent a significant amount of time studying our founding era, its important documents and the people involved. It was incredible to finally meet all of them face to face.

I am a solid believer in limited government. When government claims authority over a given matter, the sovereignty of individuals to make decisions for themselves in that matter is eliminated. As the power to regulate expands, more cash and lobbyists must be tossed into the game by companies and groups who want to ensure preferable regulation.

Furthermore, the call for government action in the first place is rarely necessary. The market is far more capable of assessing and meeting needs than a handful of suits around a table, and when people are free to invest and invent, wealth is increased and the entire community enjoys a better standard of living. I haven’t even mentioned the moral problem with the arbitrary taxation and distribution of resources. The 18 powers enumerated in the constitution, accurately interpreted, were designed to keep us a free and secure people. It is diversion from those limits that has caused many of the problems we face in America.

Having laid bare my libertarian credentials, I now turn to the reasons I disagreed with many of my hard-libertarian friends. A number of people I spoke with, including a couple of the speakers, were self-described “anarcho-capitalists.” They essentially believe we should work toward a stateless society—the logic for which rests on the principle that voluntary human action increases cooperation, while coercion causes disruption and corruption. While I generally agree with this premise, to extrapolate from this that the world can be at peace by extirpating every form of government is just as far from reality as the socialist utopia that conservatives and libertarians mock.

My critique of the anarcho-capitalist theory is that it fails to account for the reason political associations are created in the first place, and imagines that people who are aggressively competitive in the market will not be aggressively competitive when faced with extinction or survival.

Societies form naturally, and in due time they will inevitably be faced with a serious threat, either internally or externally. They find themselves at risk of losing their liberty, their loved ones, or their life. In order to defeat this threat, and because we understand there is power in numbers, they forge associations and agree upon certain terms. This, I might add, is voluntary action. The concern, then, for the defender of liberty, is not to eliminate these commitments, but to a) ensure that as the “contract” is drafted essential liberties are not forfeited over for arbitrary rule, and b) ensure that those who are given power remain crippled in their ability to circumvent the agreement. This is what the Constitutional Convention attempted to do, and while it was not perfect, it has been left to subsequent generations to protect their liberties by preserving the agreement or, when necessary, altering and strengthening it.

Anarcho-capitalists tend to focus more on the consistently disastrous economic outcomes of government intervention, and not on ugly political realities. They prefer to simply say it shouldn’t exist, than to admit that it must exist, and try to find a position of compromise. And this is where this ideology becomes very dangerous.

Failure to recognize the necessity of the political process results in a rejectionist attitude. I am not exaggerating when I say that half, half of the libertarians I spoke with during my week in DC said they did not vote in the last election, and most say they simply don’t vote, period. Let me make this clear: no vote is a vote for the guy you least want to win. The game is being played, and you are in it,… you do not get to choose whether to participate, other than moving out of the country. Imagine the damage done to our society by millions of liberty-oriented people who have chosen to stay home on election day, year after year. The key is to be active in the primaries, when the candidates are unknown and vulnerable, the voters are few, and anyone’s got a decent shot. And be involved at the local and state levels—the breeding grounds for future federal officeholders.

Imagine that society is a play. The script, lights, costumes and choreography are all determined by many different people using their own expertise. A great performance is the culmination of thousands of decisions and months of planning, which cannot be done by a single person. This is the way the market works, free from government interference. But the government does have an important role in building a safe and stable platform on which the play can be performed. It needs few tools, and little creativity, and once the platform is built there is little more to do but maintain it. But by doing this the play can go on safely, and adapt as needed without restructuring the platform.

Friends of liberty, the best strategy we have in this war against statism is to change the minds of the people; show them why liberty is important, and how it is being slowly eradicated. And while you would be correct to point out that this happens outside of the voting booth, we must realize that at some point ideas have to become action in order to make a difference. The voting booth is the only measure; the only instrument through which the public indirectly charts the course of collective progress. If those who believe in liberty refrain from it, then who are we leaving to pull the lever in our stead?

The Author

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  1. I was surprised by the number of anarcho-capitalists at the seminar too. I enjoyed listening to their perspective, but I don’t identify with their brand of libertarianism either. Moreover many didn’t appear to be very realistic. That fact was apparent when you compared the number of A-C academics versus policy analysts.

  2. wesley says

    Hey Allen. Welcome to my blog, and thanks for posting. Hope things are well at Ball State.

  3. lisa a says

    That is amazing to me that people claim to be intelligent enough to speak at a conference on liberatarianism but yet they don’t vote. How can they even feel comfortable sharing their opinions when they do not practice one of the greatest privileges our founding fathers and many others afterward fought for?

  4. wesley says

    One mindset is the “my vote isn’t worth much” approach, which I think is selfish. I say that if you understand what you’re voting on and have an opinion then you have a responsibility to your fellow citizens to vote. The other mindset is the belief that it doesn’t matter, because there is no “good” choice in politics. Frankly, this is naive and childish. Just because you can’t get what you want doesn’t mean you fold your arms and go sulk in the corner. People need to understand that a just political process requires not only informed citizens, but engaged ones as well.

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