The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Ten Commandments for Libertarians

It was once said: “I have met the enemy and he is us.”

Truer words were never said.

I think the libertarian vision is a noble one. It respects people. It sees each individual as an end in themselves and not the means to the ends of others.

With any such set of ideas there is the message and there is the messenger. Rationally it behooves us to keep the two separate. In reality though people often judge the message by the messenger.

The libertarian movement has some really decent, hardworking, caring individuals at its helm. It also has some kooks, nuts, weirdoes, cultists and certifiable lunatics out there as well. In other words it’s pretty much like the rest of the world.

Libertarianism is a set of ideas for sure. It is also a collection of people. Ideas don’t exist outside of people. Ideas require people for their existence. Ideas only reside in the mind. They may correspond with things we see in reality but they themselves are a mental construct. To separate the message from the messenger becomes very difficult.

This movement we have chosen is filled with unique individuals — all of whom pretty much assert they want to see libertarian ideas spread around the world and adopted. They mostly claim to be inspired by high ideals. Yet often they commit some deadly sins when it comes to promoting the fundamentals of liberty.

Over the last quarter of a century I’ve witnessed people commit these sins. I’ve committed a few whoppers myself. I hope I’ve learned my lesson well, but if past experience is any guide I probably haven’t. I learned some lessons no doubt but will probably make additional mistakes along the way. It’s a regular learning process; but that’s life.

Commandment #1 Never assume perfection.

I doubt that there is a libertarian on the planet who doesn’t admit making mistakes in the past; but a hell of lot of them assume they aren’t making any now. Just ask them.

No one I know consciously holds views they believe to be wrong or false. But, then the wrong views they held in the past weren’t considered wrong at the time either. Obviously if you think something is wrong you change your mind. So learning is always a process of looking back on past mistakes. It doesn’t see the current mistakes. It can’t. Once one identifies a mistake in the present you change your mind and it becomes a past mistake.

So the point here is we all have a track record that indicates we shouldn’t be so sure of ourselves right now.

Commandment #2 Never assume others are wrong.

If past experience shows some views you once held turned out to be erroneous it also means the people who disagreed with you back then were right. That is an idea a lot of libertarians don’t like to consider.

If you could be wrong on something maybe the other person could be right about it.

Sure there are issues where I think some positions simply cannot be right. If someone tells me existence doesn’t exist I laugh. After all, why should I bother listening to someone who doesn’t exist? Such debates may be intellectually amusing, but they are hardly valuable. This is not where libertarian messengers screw up the message. It’s usually on smaller, less fundamental issues.

Commandment #3 Never assume the immorality of others.

Notice the second commandment followed from the first. If you’ve made mistakes in the past you could be making them again. If you are making them again then the person who holds views contrary to your own may just be right. If they are right they may not be a sinner for disagreeing with you.

One common assumption many libertarians make, especially those from an Objectivist background, is to assume that anyone who disagrees with them is not just wrong, but immoral too. They particularly love the part where Rand said to judge and be prepared to judge. They love going through life as prosecutor, judge and chief executioner.

Personally I think they are just looking for a secular form of fundamentalism they can adopt for themselves.

It is possible for another person to be immoral for promoting an idea. Somebody who promotes genocide openly and flagrantly is immoral. But, it’s a long leap from believing in altruism to being a genocidal monster. I understand the logic that says a belief that people must live for the sake of others can well lead to the belief some must be made to die for others.

But, for me to assume the altruist is immoral I have to assume he understands that connection as well. In fact he usually disputes it most vociferously. It is most likely the point on which we are disagreeing.

Commandment #4 Never assume others care.

One of the basic tenets of libertarianism is often expressed as “live and let live.” Lots of libertarians understand the first part of it but not the second part. That “let live” part seems to go right past them.

People have a right not to be interested in you, your ideas or whatever interests you. Libertarians are far too willing to preach to reluctant congregations, especially individuals who are trapped. God forbid someone get stuck in an elevator with a libertarian. They’d have an ear full before the elevator starts moving. Chances are good the victims will conclude all libertarians are pushy and obnoxious.

It’s fine to make a comment. If a conversation starts pursue it. If someone is interested then by all means be willing to discuss the issues. That’s how minds are changed. But pay attention. I’ve seen libertarians so enamored with their own words they ignore that the person they are overwhelming is looking at their watch impatiently, yawning consistently and has a glazed-over expression on their face.

People have a right to live their life. Emphasis please on THEIR life. That means a right to be interested in what they find interesting, not what you find interesting. That means a right to disagree, a right to avoid debate with you, a right to refuse to listen to you.

I’ve often said, like many other libertarians, we want a society where politics is so inconsequential that people spend their time getting on with the really important things in life, things that are important to themselves. Well, let’s admit something. Often we say that but don’t mean it. Lots of libertarians are political junkies. They love politics. So they push and prod and push some more. They want others to find interesting what they find interesting. They want others to pursue the ideas they pursue. In other words then want everyone else to emulate themselves and not to live their own life.

People are going to live their lives anyway. Your irrational pursuit of forcing people to adopt your interests will leave you frustrated much of the time.

Commandment #5 Never assume a fluke is a pattern.

Above I said trying to get people to be just like you is going to leave you frustrated. It does. You will fail more often than not. In fact, you will fail almost all the time. But the irrational person looks at the flukes and perceives patterns. So you abused somebody on Tuesday and a couple of months later they decide they are libertarian. That doesn’t mean abuse if a good recruiting tool.

What could be happening is the following. Out of 100 random people a certain percentage may be naturally inclined to think as libertarians. Another percentage might be persuadable. It doesn’t matter what are the percentages just that such things happen. For the sake of the illustration assume that 20 people are basically libertarian and another 30 are persuadable. You don’t know who is who before the fact and you can’t.

Then you hurl abuse and epithets at all 100 people. The 30 who are open to the idea are repulsed by your behavior. They walk away uninterested. Even a goodly number of the 20 who are inclined to agree with you are repulsed. But maybe one of two of them sign up. You see the one or two signing up and not the 48 you turned off. You crow about your success when what you did was lose libertarianism support.

Maybe another approach where you treated others with some respect would have brought in 20. Your insistence on using the abusive approach cost the movement 18 people.

Frederick Bastiat wrote a famous essay about that which is seen and that which is not seen. People look at the jobs a government plan creates and not the jobs it destroys. Libertarians understand this causes people to falsely assume government interventionism causes job creation. They laugh at that idea and then commit the same fallacy in recruitment.

They look at the two recruits they find and ignore the 18 they repulsed. They only concentrate on that which is seen, the two new people, and don’t pay any attention to the people they repulsed, that which is not seen.

Commandment #6 Never assume activism is valuable!

Surely this one has some people perplexed. Maybe another way of stating it is that not all activism is equal. Not all labor is valuable. Marx made a fundamental mistake in economics. He thought all value in the market was created by labor. He was wrong. Most of his other errors came out of this error.

Now go back to the illustration I used in #5: the activist who turns off 18 people for every two he recruits. Every time he meets 20 people inclined toward libertarianism he chases 18 away for each two he attracts. He sees that as a net gain and pats himself on the back. I see it as a net loss of 18 and wish he’d go away.

The more active this individual gets the more damage they do. Libertarians understand labor itself has no value. Labor is valuable only because it creates something people want. If you create something no one wants and it has no value. You can even labor quite strenuously and destroy value in the process.

The fact is there are some libertarians who set the movement backwards. The more they work the worse things get. They are not an asset; they are a liability. The last thing we need is for them to double their effort.

Commandment #7 Never assume a new recruit is a good thing.

Remember our counter-productive libertarian who chases away 18 people for every two he attracts. Have you ever asked yourself what kind of people are attracted to a movement that abuses, ridicules and mistreats them?

The Libertarian who attempts to abuse others into “consistency” sometimes succeeds as already noted. But often the people he attracts are other versions of himself. The new recruits appear to be carbon copies of the original activist who recruited them. They abuse others as well. Only now the problem is tripled. The three of them together do three times the damage. Instead of one obnoxious individual speaking to 20 libertarian-leaning individuals you have him and two clones speaking to 60 people and chasing away 54 of them.

Abusive people attract abusive people. Now, if everyone were abusive we’d be sitting pretty. Most aren’t. Most people are turned off by such actions. The damage these people do is real, regular and often permanent.

Commandment #8 Never forget people who aren’t interested.

This may confuse you. If I said you shouldn’t preach to people who aren’t interested in being part of you private congregation then how does it apply when I say we shouldn’t forget the uninterested?

What I mean is that in the process of finding those 20 libertarian-leaning individuals we end up talking to 80 people who are not interested. Those people are important in that they help forge the cultural attitudes of a nation. What they think about libertarians affects outcomes.

If their experience is that libertarians are decent people who respect others they will have a fairly high view of libertarianism. They may not be interested in it. They won’t debate it. But they do help establish how libertarianism is viewed by the society as a whole. Similarly if they think libertarians are rude, arrogant, vicious and obnoxious then they will help establish that as the dominant viewpoint regarding libertarians.

Cruelty to others is cruelty period! It is not passion. It is vicious and those who practice it are seen as vicious, cruel people. When a libertarian, in the name of freedom, is vicious and cruel they set liberty back a couple of steps. They do far more harm to liberty than the most active Marxist.

Commandment #9 Never forget it is about minds not points.

Libertarians often try to score points. They want to have “a go” at those who disagree with them. They are seeking some psychological satisfaction in conquest and not actually trying to promote liberty. They are looking to soothe their own emotional problems more than they are interested in seeing a free society become a reality.

The purpose of 99% of all discussions with people about libertarianism is to change their minds. It is not to make the libertarian feel superior intellectually or morally. If you need to score points then get a therapist, but get out of the movement, please!

The “morally superior” are usually fighting some a fear of their own inferiority. Sometimes it’s intellectual but usually not. My experience is that it is usually social inferiority they are fighting. They are lousy with people. They often feel lonely and unhappy. They convince themselves others are “immoral” and thus not worthy of them. That illusion allows them to ignore their own role in the social alienation. They replace the social acceptance they crave with a sense of being morally superior. They turn the rejection that scared them into a badge of honor — they are rejected because they are one of the chosen few.

This leads to a real problem. These types are the ones who are then obnoxious on principle. Their self-identity as morally superior requires the vast majority of people they encounter to reject them. Widespread acceptance of their ideas strips them of that exclusivity when it comes to morality. They need rejection.

So they make sure they act in ways repulsive to most people. They turn their personality flaws into virtues. Why are they loud, abrasive and obnoxious? Because it means people walk out on them. It means they remain the tiny virtuous minority in a sea of sinners.

The fact is they don’t want to promote liberty. They want to feel superior; and the way of feeling superior for them is to convince themselves everyone else is really inferior. The world they live in is peopled with maggots and such. That is so because only by convincing themselves they are surrounded by maggots can they feel superior.

Commandment #10 Never forget why libertarianism exists.

My finally commandment — it is traditional to stop at 10 — is to urge people to never forget why we promote liberty. Libertarianism does not extol some system it wants to impose on others. We don’t want to tell people what to do. Our goal is a free society.

What this means is we are building something. We are in the process of creation. When you see the libertarian obsessed with “smashing” or destroying; someone who feels at war with the world around him, who hates society, people, and the culture in which he lives, then you are usually dealing with someone who only wants to smash and destroy. Liberty is a positive goal. Destroyers can’t build a free society. They can only tear things and people down.

Here is what I learned about the libertarian who is obsessed with smashing the state, destroying immoral ideas, and the like. They have very little affect in reality. The world moves on without them, and rightfully so. They feel impotent and powerless because destruction is inherently impotent. It is uncreative. They may say they want to smash the state, but they don’t. They may say they want to overturn the culture, but they don’t.

So how do they satisfy themselves? In the end they turn on that which can be destroyed and that which can be smashed. They have no influence on the world but they live in the little pond they call libertarianism. They can turn on their fellow fish. If you can’t smash the state you sure as hell can smash another libertarian. If you are driven by the desire to destroy you will eventually and inevitably turn on people who should be your allies. They—not authoritarians—become your target.

We are not out to destroy or rip down. We want a free society. We want to see a peaceful world where people are respected. We are building more than we are destroying. We realize that a libertarian society can come about when we respect others, not when we treat them like dirt.

The destructive argue that before you plant flowers in a garden you must pull weeds. But people are not plants. A weed is always a weed; but people change. Minds change. We are building a free society one mind at a time. Those we don’t convince we should at least leave alone and happy.

If we respect them they’re likely to respect us. Human decency is at the core of our philosophy. It ought to be at the core of how we present it as well.

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