Thursday, January 12, 2012

Value for Value: A Short Story on Why Libertarians Fail to Communicate

Joe Libertarian was having dinner with some friends and, as usual, turned the conversation into a lecture on the morality of free markets. Politely the friends listened as he argued that markets are the only fair means of distribution of goods because each individual trades value for value. Exchanges mean that each participant benefits, he told them, otherwise they wouldn’t make the exchange. “Remember,” he said, “value for value. No free lunches, each side brings value to the table otherwise the exchange doesn’t happen and probably shouldn’t happen,” he said as he sipped his beer, feeling superior to these less-enlightened individuals.

His friends nodded while waiting for him to finish. That sip of beer gave Marie a chance to speak up. Marie worked with Joe for years and had grown tolerant of his continual sermons.

“Well, some of us mothers are raising funds for the kids in Little League to cover the cost of uniforms. We’re doing a yard sale so anyone who things to contribute please let me know and I’ll arrange to pick them up.” Several of the others around the table gave Marie their phone number and encouraged her to call them to arrange a pick up. Fred, a neighbor of Joe’s mentioned it would give him a chance to clear out things from storage that he simply doesn’t use anymore. And then everyone turned to look at Joe, who seemed to be paying no attention whatsoever.

“Joe,” asked Marie, “are you able to help with anything for the fundraiser for the kids?”

“Well,” he said, pausing longer than usual, “the problem is that the Little League uses public parks. You know I don’t think its right to tax people to provide parks. Not everyone uses the parks. It’s value for value, you know. Why just the other day I was reading Mises and he said….” Marie looked out of the corner of her eye and saw a few exasperated looks on the faces of the others. But she waited until Joe had finished his latest sermon.
“That’s all good and fine,” she said when he finally finished. “But this isn’t about the park. It’s about uniforms for the kids who are playing.”

Joe then explained that he couldn’t sanction Little League because all these kids were using tax-funded parks. “It’s bad enough I have to pay for their education,” he said.
Fred tried to divert the conversation, “My brother and his partner got married last year. Now the legislature wants to repeal same-sex marriages. Some of us are circulating a petition calling on the legislature not to impose those old regulations again. Anyone willing to help out and sign? I’d appreciate it. He is my baby brother and we’re close.”

Marie grabbed the petition and signed with a smile. She agreed with Fred but she also remembered how quick he was to offer help for the fundraiser. She almost laughed out loud when she thought, “value for value.” She passed the petition to Joe who pushed it aside. She looked at him and he was just ignoring it and then she looked at Fred who looked hurt. “Joe,” she said, “how about you signing? After all this is about the freedom to marry.”

“If they want to ‘marry,’” said Joe, “it’s no skin off my nose. They can just go to any church that will allow it and marry. What they want is state permission to marry and I don’t think the state should be in the marriage business.”

Fred was getting restless. “You don’t think the state should be in the road business but you still use the damn roads?”

“I don’t have a choice, do I?” said Joe. “It’s a monopoly.”

“So is legal marriage. It’s a contract and governments regulate and enforce contracts,” said an angry Fred. “Anyway, you’re married. I know I was there, remember. And you got a marriage license.”

“Oh, that’s different.”
“How is it different?”

“I didn’t get married just because I want the benefits. These gays just want the goodies that government hands out to married people.”

“So,” a red faced Fred yelled, “You think gay couples are so different from everyone else that your motives for marrying are good, but their motives are all bad! That’s just bigoted thinking.”

Joe laughed, “Don’t pull that PC bullshit with me. I’m immune. I’m an individualist, I don’t believe in group rights and that means I can’t be bigoted.”

“Really?” said Fred, “You sure do a damn good imitation of a bigot when you put your mind to it. Anyway, my brother is an individual. He married his partner, who is also an individual. They did it because they love each other, just like you and your wife. He wouldn’t even know what ‘goodies’ you are talking about. All he wanted to do was marry the person he loved. Now some people want to take away his right to marry, not because he’s an individual, but because he’s a member of a group that we label gay.”
John saw this wasn’t going well and decided to come up with something he thought everyone could agree upon. “Hey, you know we are doing raffle tickets to raise funds for the service animal training project. Even Joe should like this as the program is entirely private and no taxes are used. So what does everyone say?”
Marie and Fred were nodding but Joe sat there silently. After a few long seconds he could feel the others looking at him, waiting.

“Oh, gee. John, I’d really like to help,” he said. “Really I would. But what with the taxes I pay I can’t afford to be charitable. You know if we just abolished taxes then there would be a lot more charity.” Joe didn’t hear Fred whisper under his breath, “Not from you, not from you.”

Marie interrupted Joe, “You know, we work together. We do practically the same job and I’m pretty sure we get the same salaries. I have two kids and you don’t have any. I know we can afford to help things like this. I can’t see why you can’t.”

Joe was feeling uncomfortable. He didn’t like discussing things that didn’t interest him and wanted to turn the conversation to something important.  “Did you guys read about the new parking regulations for downtown. Now if you park illegally, “ his fingers made air quote marks when he said illegally, “they fine is going to double to $50, even if you do it just for a minute. Me and some of the other libertarians are going to protest at city hall and we’re going to park illegally just to prove a point that people ought to be free. You guys in?”
The three friends looked at one another, Fred’s mouth was hanging open. He just shook his head negatively. John said, “No, I don’t think so.”

Joe looked at Marie for a sign of support. She picked at her salad instead avoiding his stare. “Marie?” he said.
She put her fork down and looked at him, “I don’t think so, Joe. I don’t think so.”

“Why not!” he exclaimed, demanding an answer.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “but how about value for value.”


  1. This parable fails to communicate anything other than the fact that depending on who you're talking to, libertarians sound awful. If the subjects of sympathy (kids in little league and gays who want to marry, respectively) were replaced with the inhabitants of some Temporary Autonomous Zone or home schoolers Joe wouldn't come off looking so bad. And there's even fewer of them so they're REALLY minorities.

    Of course routinely couching things in terms of how much it will cost to one's self is a guaranteed way of not gaining many fans. That much is true.

    1. It's not WHO you're talking to, but rather HOW you talk to them.

  2. You have missed the point entirely. The point is that if you want people to be interested in what is important to you then you have to show interest in what is important to them. And given that not a single of the others was requesting ones concern in an unlibertarian way then their is no excuse to "sound badly." It isn't sympathy it is exchanging value for value -- in this case if you want them to value your issues maybe you should take a minute to values theirs.

  3. This is also why burnout is so common even within libertarian groups -- new people show up, willing to work for the libertarian perspective on issues that may not affect them directly, with the hope that the favor will be returned for their own pet issue. But the reciprocity never happens.

    I've done April 15 Tax Day protests when I was fresh out of school and in debt up to my eyeballs. I've done drug war protests on the anniversary of the death of Peter McWilliams, despite having never even tried illegal drugs personally. I've contributed to fundraisers at gun clubs, when I've not been hunting since my teen years in Tennessee. But when it came time to oppose Prop 8 in California, the anti-tax, anti-drug-war, and anti-gun-grabbing people I supported were, with just a few exceptions, absent.

    Even a well-known anti-drug-war Libertarian candidate for office in California refused to lift a finger to oppose Proposition 8. So when he later was pushing his own initiative and asked me to contribute, I pledged that I would personally match, dollar-for-dollar, whatever the entire board of his organization had collectively contributed to the anti-Prop-8 campaign. The number was zero.

    Until we libertarians learn to support each other on liberty issues, even when they don't affect us personally, winning the support of non-libertarians has no hope of working.

  4. You got it. That is precisely it. I've petitioned for candidates, joined anti-war protests, worked to abolish conscription registration, defended the right keep and bear arms, etc. I too have never used drugs, don't own firearms, wasn't worried about conscription, and was hardly affected by taxes. I asked one libertarian group to help set up a table at the gay pride fest. They said they couldn't afford it. Yet the cost was less than one of the gun shows they regularly attended. I said I'd pay half. They were not interested. I said I'd help them raise the other half. Still got a no answer. At an LP convention I regularly had people tell me they didn't care about the marriage issue because they weren't gay.

    That was the sort of mentality that caused us to found the Storey Institute. Storey was man who fought for the rights of all people. He was white, wealthy and highly educated. But he fought for immigrants, campaigned against lynching, fought segregation in the Supreme Court and won, defended black men who were wrongly convicted of murder, fought for the rights of people in the Philippines when the US invaded and as president of the American Bar Association fought his own group when they tried to bar three black men for joining.

    Storey understood that the way to expand liberty isn't to just fight for your own interests but to fight for the rights of all people. That is precisely why we exist and also the reason I am not active in any political party anymore.

  5. Thanks for the article. Storey was also involved with the predecessor of the LIO.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues, please see http://​www.Libertarian-Internation​ , the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization...

  6. I would have to ask you to provide evidence of your claim. I have read much of what Moorfield Storey wrote, and am very familiar with his biography, as well as with the libertarian movement. Mr. Storey was NOT, as far as I know, involved with any predecessor of LIO and, in fact, I know of no predecessor to LIO at all, let alone one that would go back 90 years or more. Storey died in 1929 and his affiliations were widely known. So precisely what group do you claim was the predecessor of LIO and what evidence do you have for his membership. I certainly would like to know as I have been working on a biographical essay on Storey and have never found anything similar to what you are claiming. What is your source for the claim as well?

    1. Ralph: We are still awaiting a reply from you regarding this unusual claim that Storey was involved with an alleged predecessor of LIO. We would be curious as to what source you are using to make this claim. It would be helpful to us in our research for an essay on Storey, especially since no other source we have used has ever indicated such a thing.