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Beyond Individualism

Peace, Liberty, Opportunity, Democracy

by James Leroy Wilson
March 17, 2005

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Politics, for the most part, is reaction. Somebody in government does something, and others are shocked and outraged, and speak out against it. Some people, like gun rights activists, are almost always playing defense. Our Presidents are almost always up to something that upsets the isolationists and anti-war activists. Civil libertarians have no shortage of abuses such as the PATRIOT Act, zero-tolerance policies, and Drug War-related police thuggery to protest. Economic libertarians are continually appalled by budget deficits, a falling dollar, and Social Security “reform” proposals that actually places even more power in government.

The best defense, however, is a good offense. Goalies do not win games; the best they can do on their own is achieve a scoreless tie. Fighting for something is more invigorating, even when the odds seem to be against you. That’s the advantage of guerilla warfare. Guerillas fight for independence, while the occupiers can only defend themselves and their supply lines. To go on offense is to fight with purpose.

In the political arena, those who fight for “liberty” always end up on defense, always reacting to the socialists, imperialists, and puritans of both the left and right. Our protests are often dismissed out of hand. To be anti-war is to be an appeaser of “evil.” To favor an individual’s right to control his own body is to favor libertinism. Economic freedom = greed and selfishness. States’ rights = racism. The literal interpretation of the Constitution is “anachronistic.”

To go on offense is to advance an agenda of our own. And this means a conception of “liberty” that goes beyond philosophical defenses of individual freedom and economic defenses of the free market. The problem with such defenses is that people can take them or leave them; they can either agree with them on an intellectual level, or disagree. They do not appeal to what people actually want.

Libertarians may achieve greater power and influence in our culture and politics if a fuller view of liberty was presented to the world, something broader than - and perhaps distinct from - the same old diatribes against the State. I propose re-framing libertarianism to emphasize four positive values:

1. Peace. As opposed to “anti-war.” To be for peace is to have a different state of mind; it is more than hatred and disgust toward the horrors of war. It seeks reconciliation as a first resort; in fact, it seeks to prevent hostility from materializing in the first place.

2. Civil liberties. Re-affirm that it is our freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, self-defense, and the rights of the accused that, until very recently, made most of us feel lucky and proud to be Americans.

3. Economic Opportunity. Re-frame the battle for the free market as one for the freedom of the poor to make a living free from burdensome, unnecessary, and often absurd taxes and regulations.

4. Local Democracy. Re-affirm that parents, not federal bureaucrats, ought to control our local public schools. Apply the same logic to all community affairs and problems, from crime to sanitation to care for the helpless and destitute.

Yes, there will still be much “defense” to play, especially in the area of civil liberties, which are particularly under assault by the President and by the McCains and Feingolds of Congress. There will, of course, be disagreements in achieving these ends. But with these values, we can at promote a positive, fuller view of the free society. For too long we have attacked government as the means, but haven’t talked much about the ends. But it is the ends, it is our social vision, that we must communicate to the world. To reframe libertarianism in a way the people can understand and agree with, in a way that at least puts them on the same page with libertarians, is a form of setting the agenda. I’m tired of reacting, of playing defense. It is time to play on offense.

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terrymac from Charlotte, NC writes:
February 5, 2012
Your article is spot-on with most points, however, we should stress the role of parents, teachers, and students in making educational decisions, as opposed to government at all levels. There is nothing magical about education which requires government involvement; indeed, in many still-developing countries, more than half of students - many from the poorer half - attend parent-funded private-sector schools. Google James Tooley and A Beautiful Tree for further information.

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