Monday, February 7, 2011

10 Commandments for Libertarians

ten commandments

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 himself, and not the means to the ends of others.

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

The libertarian movement worldwide has some really decent, hardworking, caring individuals at its helm. It also has some kooks, nuts, weirdoes, cultists and certifiable lunatics out there. 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 rely on people for their existence. Ideas only reside in the mind. They may correspond with things we see in reality but they are a mental construct. For that reason it can be difficult to separate the message from the messenger.

This movement we have chosen is filled with unique individuals. All of whom pretty much assert that 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 some deadly 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 probably make additional mistakes along the way. So it's a regular learning process. But that is life. Here are my 10 commandments for libertarians.

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 a lot of them assume they aren't making any now. Just ask them.

No one I know of consciously holds views they believe to wrong or false. But then the wrong views they held in the past they didn’t consider wrong at the time. 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 easily see current mistakes. It can't. Once you identify a mistake in the present you changes your mind and it becomes a past mistake.

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

Commandment #2
Never assume that others are wrong.

If past experience shows that the views you once held so strongly turned out to be erroneous that also means that the people who disagreed with you back then turned out to be right. Now that is an idea that a lot of libertarians don't like to consider.

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

There are issues where I think some views simply cannot be right. If someone tells me that existence doesn't exist I laugh. After all why should I bother listening to someone who doesn't exist? Such debates may be intellectual amusing but they are hardly valuable.

Commandment #3
Never assume the immorality of others.

Notice that 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. But, if they are right, they may not be a sinner for disagreeing with you.
One common assumption that 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 go through life as prosecutor, judge and chief executioner.

Personally I think they are just looking for a secular form of fundamentalism that 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 that a belief that people must live for the sake of others can well lead to a belief that others must be made to die for others.

But for me to assume the altruist is immoral I have to assume that he understands that connection as well. In reality he usually disputes that link 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 that 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, in your ideas or in whatever interests you. Libertarians are far too willing to preach to reluctant congregations, especially those who are trapped. God forbid someone get stuck in an elevator with a libertarian. They'd have an ear full before that elevator starts moving. And the chances are good that they'll conclude that 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 that they ignore the fact that the person they are overwhelming is looking at their watch impatiently, yawning consistently and has a glazed-over look on his 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, that 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 them selves. Well, let's admit something. Often we say that but often we don't mean it. Lots of libertarians are in fact 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 that they pursue. In other words they want everyone else to emulate him or her, and not to live their own life.
The fact is that 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 that a fluke is a pattern.

Earlier I said that trying to get people to be just like you will leave you frustrated. It will. 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 he decided he is a libertarian. That doesn't mean abuse is a good method of persuasion.

What could be happening is the following: out of 100 random people a certain percentage may be naturally inclined to think like libertarians. Another percentage might be persuadable. It doesn't matter what the percentages are 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.

Assume you hurl abuse and epithets at all 100 people. The 30 who are open to the idea are repulsed by your behavior and 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 that signed up, and not the 48 you turned off. You crow about your success when what you did was lose support for liberty.

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 that this causes people to falsely assume that government interventionism causes job creation. Libertarians 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.

Commandment #6
Never assume that 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 Commandment 5 where the activist 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 person gets the more damage he can do. Libertarians understand that labor itself has no value. Labor is valuable only because it creates something that people want. Create something that no one wants and you have no value. One can even labor quite strenuously and destroy value in the process.

The fact is that there are some libertarians who set the movement backwards. And the more they work they farther we go back. 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 counterproductive 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 him self. 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. So the damage these people do is real, regular and often permanent.

Commandment #8
Never forget the people who aren't interested.

Again this one should confuse people. If I said you shouldn't preach to people who aren't interested in being your private congregation then how does that 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. But those 80 people are important in that they help forge the cultural attitudes of a nation. What they think about libertarians affects the outcome.

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 changing minds, not scoring 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 being 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 sort of fear of his or her 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 that others are "immoral" and thus not worthy of them. That illusion allows them to ignore their own role in their 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 of individuals are the ones who are then obnoxious on principle. Their self-identity as morally superior requires that the vast majority of people they encounter must reject them. Widespread acceptance of their ideas strips them of their moral exclusivity. They need rejection.

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

The fact is that they don't want to promote liberty. They want to feel superior. And the way of feeling superior for them is to convince them selves that everyone else is really inferior. The world they live in is peopled with maggots and such. Only if they convince themselves that 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 that 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 that 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, 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 down things and people.

Here is what I learned about the libertarian who is obsessed with smashing the state, destroying immoral ideas, and the so forth. He has very little affect in reality. The world moves on without him, as we should move on without him as well, I might add. He feels impotent and powerless because destruction is inherently impotent. It is uncreative. He may say he wants to smash the state but he doesn't. He may say he wants to overturn the culture, but he can't.

So how do such people satisfy themselves? In the end they turn on that which can be destroyed; that which can be smashed. They have no influence on the world but they live in the little pond they call libertarianism. And 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 will argue that in a garden before you plant flowers 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. And those we don't convince we should at least leave alone and happy. If we respect them they'll respect us. Human decency is at the core of our philosophy. It ought to be at the core of how we present our ideas as well.


  1. Thank you for writing this.

    This is a message that needs to reach all libertarian partisans. Most of this is about being nice and respectful to people, and being positive about things ... but all of it needed to be said.

    May I reproduce this with attribution?

    - Chip

  2. Chip: You may do so with a link back to the site. If you don't mind giving our income-producing site a plug that would be appreciated. It is We try to earn as much of our own way even if we are a non-profit organizaiton. You will find good libertarian books and at better prices than Amazon or any other book vendor trying for the libertarian markets.

  3. What an excellent essay! Thank you for posting it. I may republish it, with the appropriate links and credit as outlined above.

    By coincidence, I have just returned from the Patrick Henry Supper Club (monthly event in Richmond VA), where we heard Dr. Jim Lark speak on a most similar theme.

    Again, thanks for spreading the word.