The following is based on an audio interview I did with Mark Potok and Amanda Phillips on libertarianism that became Chapter 9 of the book Values & Ethics: From Living Room to Boardroom (itself based on an Internet-based talk radio show of the same name I did in times past). Their words are indicated by the initials MP, and AP, respectively, and mine are JM. For paragraphs with no initials, assume they are a continuation of the speaker who was speaking in the previous paragraph. I highlight words having to do with values and virtues by placing them in boldface type. Enjoy this look at libertarianism, freedom, and rights!
“The winning of freedom is not to be compared to the winning of a game, with the victory recorded forever in history. Freedom has its life in the hearts and actions and spirits of men, and so it must be daily earned and refreshed, or else, like a flower cut from its life-giving roots, it will wither and die.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
JM: Eisenhower’s quotation is a potent one. It illustrates that the threats to liberty – from within and without – are ever-present. All that is required is for one simple piece of legislation to be passed and signed, and for the Supreme Court to agree, and our country is changed (or even, debased). Based on the way the politics of the United States has been so grossly influenced by wealth, it is not paranoid thinking to worry about what may be coming down the pike. America has been fundamentally altered by the events of 9/11. Moreover, with a huge number of disenfranchised and ignorant human beings on the planet, ambitious countries always jockeying for position, and a huge nuclear arsenal in dubious hands, threats to liberty and rights could be considered grave. Perhaps it was never “safe”; I doubt that Samuel and John Adams (or Abigail, for that matter), felt comfortable in the post-Revolutionary War era that peace and prosperity were assured.
Bertrand Barere said: “The tree of liberty only grows when watered by the blood of tyrants.” America has “a history of violence,” and frankly, we are armed to the teeth. We shouldn’t need any more reasons to get creative and serious solving our nettlesome social problems expeditiously than those which continue piling up….
“At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.” ~ William H. Rehnquist
Today’s topic is fundamental – liberty. Not only was it one of the main animating forces behind the American and French Revolutions, it has been an interminable goal for humankind since the very beginning. What are some of the aspects of this phenomenon, and the context?
In a word, liberty is being left alone and unhindered in pursuing your preferred ends (by your neighbors, by the government, and by religious authorities). Ideally, it also means freedom from unwarranted interference and manipulation by the wealthy who intend to speak for the entirety – and by their weapons of choice: corporations and lackey politicians.
 I mean to say that some wealthy individuals have such designs, and other wealthy individuals do not. It is true that the rich, like the majority, are both good and bad, and generalizations are therefore tenuous. However, the middle and lower classes don’t have the power necessary to alter the course of society and cause as much harm to others as the moneyed class does.
There is also an aspect that is non-political and even non-social: the philosophical aspect of freedom. This is also typically known as the free will/determinism debate. Finally, there is also a psychological/individual angle to the concept of freedom: Is one’s mind relatively unburdened and undistracted by myriad unwelcome interferences? Depression, anxiety, and psychotic mental disorders certainly can drive one to distraction – or even suicide as a means of finding relief.
Alcoholism and other such coping mechanisms could conceivably be considered to indicate: “I cannot seem to get free of my problems, and alcohol functions as an escape mechanism. I feel some measure of control and relief when I ‘drown my sorrows.’”
“I believe that liberty is the only genuinely valuable thing that men have invented, at least in the field of government, in a thousand years. I believe that it is better to be free than to not be free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe. I believe that the finest qualities of man can flourish only in free air – that progress made under the shadow of the policeman’s club is false progress, and of no permanent value. I believe that any man who takes the liberty of another into his keeping is bound to become a tyrant, and that any man who yields up his liberty, in however slight the measure, is bound to become a slave.” ~ H. L. Mencken
Unfortunately, as luminary Baruch Spinoza perceived it, we have little liberty in this sense:
“There is no such thing as free will. The mind is induced to wish this or that by some cause, and that cause is determined by another cause, and so on back to infinity.”
“Men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.”
I am afraid his influence on Einstein was significant, and I don’t believe Einstein believes humans can escape being causally determined. However, the inimitable German philosopher Immanuel Kant believes we are free in one sense – if we make autonomous moral decisions and live according to a moral law we have given ourselves as rational animals. Doing our moral duty sets us free. Reacting to utilitarianism, which justifies the pursuit of the pleasure and happiness of the majority above individual rights (at least until reworked by J. S. Mill), Kant wrote: “No-one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end….”
Philosopher Michael J. Sandel answers the question, “What if scientists discover (through brain-imaging, for example, or cognitive neuroscience) that we have no free will after all: Would that disprove Kant’s moral philosophy?” with the following quotation. It heartens one who wishes to believe that in the free will/determinism debate, humans are not reduced to products of biological imperatives or social prescriptions (or, that the “causal chain” theorized by the influential philosopher David Hume and others, often touted by modern cognitive scientists and physicists, cannot be broken). Here is Sandel’s answer, which harkens back to Kant:
“Freedom of the will is not the kind of thing that science can prove or disprove. Neither is morality. …As a rational being, I inhabit an intelligible world . Here, being independent of the laws of nature, I am capable of autonomy, capable of acting according to a law I give myself.”
 The sentences prior to this paragraph are the following: “As a natural being, I belong to the sensible world. My actions are determined by the laws of nature and the regularities of cause and effect. This is the aspect of human action that physics, biology, and neuroscience can describe.”
Freedom can be viewed as individualistic (and its most extreme exemplars can seem quite solipsistic), and it has a significant intellectual history. No one can overlook the contribution of many fine minds to this topic, including luminaries such as John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson. Books have been written, revolutions have been undertaken, and social movements have gained traction based on the “natural rights” of man (meaning, humans). One of the most strident proclamations of freedom belongs to American patriot Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death.” Happily, the plucky English colonists gained more liberty than death in that remarkable and tumultuous century that saw the triumph of Voltaire, the 18th.
Modern famous libertarians include Kurt Russell, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, entertainers Penn and Teller, Tom Selleck, and Bruce Willis, who, sensibly, notes: “I want a smaller government. I want less government intrusion. …I want them to be fiscally responsible, and I want these goddamn lobbyists out of Washington.” Obviously many contemporary politicians and capitalists consider themselves libertarians and free-market proponents. Here is the noted actor, Vince Vaughn:
“I like the way it was until 1913 [when the 16th Amendment was ratified, legalizing a federal income tax], when locally you had sales taxes and property taxes. That seems ethical to me, because I can move to a different neighborhood or area if I like the services they provide. …Trusting the federal government to know what we need and to run things well feels like a bad idea. You see that in the foreign policy of force, where the United States decides to go into another country to make things turn out a certain way. It doesn’t work. It causes more problems.”
…Well that is some background on liberty from the point of view of the right side of the political spectrum, which, truthfully, is shared by libertarians, conservatives (both fiscal and social), Tea Party activists, reactionaries, tycoons, Moral Majority types, right-wing extremists, and, I’m afraid to say: usurpers of the authoritarian bent.
I’ve been interested in the Southern Poverty Law Center for a while now. I must admit, I’m not quite sure what the word poverty in that context refers to. I do know that it has a long, noble, and storied history. Morris Dees founded it, whom you often see interviewed or read opinion from in major newspapers and magazines. He has a reputation for engaging in legal action on behalf of values and goals such as fighting hate and discrimination and seeking justice for disenfranchised American citizens.
Based in Alabama, where many civil rights battles took place, the Center is also notable for its efforts toward teaching tolerance, seeking fair treatment and process for immigrants, and supporting children’s as well as LGBT rights. It’s solidly in the same vaunted category as that of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, I believe. All three, though not above criticism for the kinds of cases they take on, in my opinion, lobby, fight, and work toward liberty and justice for all. Truly a laudable goal in these times when liberty is threatened anew, and those possessing the least power the most threatened.
“The women of this nation, in 1876, have greater cause for discontent, rebellion, and revolution than the men of 1776.” ~ Susan B. Anthony
…As www.splcenter.org indicates, Mark Potok is a Senior Fellow, and one of the country’s leading experts on the world of extremism. He serves as the editor-in-chief of the SPLC’s award-winning, quarterly journal, The Intelligence Report, and the Center’s investigative reports. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Mark has appeared on numerous television news programs and is quoted regularly by journalists and scholars in both the United States and abroad. In addition, he has testified before the U.S. Senate, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights and in other venues. Before joining the SPLC staff in 1997, Mark spent 20 years as an award-winning journalist at major newspapers, including USA Today, the Dallas Times Herald and The Miami Herald. While at USA Today, he covered the 1993 Waco siege, the rise of militias, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the trial of Timothy McVeigh. https://www.splcenter.org/intelligence-report is the direct address for the anti-right-wing extremism efforts Mark heads up.
I am looking forward to hearing what Mark thinks about liberty, and its threats. I will get more into the philosophy of libertarianism with my next guest, Amanda. Hello, Mark?
“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasion of it in the case of others.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
MP: Yes, hi there.
JM: Tell us something about The Intelligence Project.
MP: Well, The Intelligence Project is a department of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It was called KlanWatch for many years. Essentially, it began as just the investigative arm of the legal department; it was comprised of a couple people. The SPLC began as a very small, non-profit legal center back in 1971, so we had a couple of investigators who would work on the cases.
What happened is that beginning in the early 1980s, we began to make a real concerted effort to monitor and research these extreme right-wing groups (and the individuals associated with them). Essentially, we would collect data, create publications, and so on. We publish The Intelligence Report as you mentioned, which is quite a large magazine (it goes out to nearly a half-million people, and that is where our high-end investigative reports get published). A lot of my staff is involved in simply collecting data that are fed into a very large, sophisticated database, and many are involved by giving talks and so on. We also work a fair amount with law enforcement – meaning we do terrorism trainings and the like.
JM: So, “KlanWatch”…?
MP: We changed that back when I first arrived in 1997. We thought long and hard about the name and really, what the problem was, from our point of view, we were by then talking about a great deal more than just the KKK. There was something of a resurgence of the Klan in the early 1980s, led essentially by David Duke and his friends, and that was really what it was all about back then. Today, we do a very broad range of work having to do with extreme right-wing groups: we cover the anti-immigration movement (at least, the hard edge), the anti-abortion extremists; anti-gay zealots, and we looked into the militias back in the ‘90s with a great deal of effort.
“Whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called.” ~ John Stuart Mill
JM: Can you define the word “Right” and the phrase, “extreme Right.”
MP: I think it’s quite obvious that over the last 20 years or so, “the center” in the United States has moved increasingly to “the right.” What do I mean by the right, exactly? I think it goes all the way back to the French Revolution: who sat on which side of the aisle in the Revolutionary Parliament. The radical Right is associated, historically, with attacks on whole groups of people—in other words, “All blacks are thus and such,” “All Jews are this or that,” or whatever it may be. The SPLC in many ways is all about defending the Fourteenth Amendment – equal justice under the Constitution for all people. Therefore, of course, race and ethnicity have been very important in our work.
“The truly great man is he who would master no one, and would be mastered by none.” ~ Kahlil Gibran
JM: Okay, backing up a bit, the Right refers to that which is, in the classical sense, termed libertarian liberalism (conservative in modern verbiage). In contrast, “small-r” republican ideals and political philosophy is nowadays known as progressivism or liberalism and, in Europe, often democratic socialism (or social democracy), and would be on the “left” side of the political spectrum (i.e., “the Left”). In contrast to libertarianism, leftist ideas comprise what is classically known as egalitarian liberalism.
The right of the political spectrum is characterized by support for the market economy, private property rights, and libertarian views on social and fiscal issues. Some want to speed up the clock to a time when government has been drowned in the bathtub, as Grover Norquist notoriously put it, and some want to turn back the clock to the partly-fictional time of the 1950s, before all the ruckus started. Reagan is their guru, though some find folks like Goldwater or Buchanan or Ron Paul to be true believers.
The Right is differentiated from “the radical Right.” When does conservative politics become radical? When does a spirited defense of 2nd Amendment rights become a militant stance? When does a desire to prevent government interference in citizens’ lives become anarchy?
MP: There is a whole range, obviously. For the purposes of my work, or even, our discussion, we focus on what we judge to be “the radical Right.” What that means is, for instance, in the ongoing immigration fight (which is growing like a prairie fire, these days), we don’t stand around and criticize people who say, “There should be less immigration.” That’s not our concern; that seems very much like a debate for a democratic society to have within its democratic forums. What happens is, when people start to talk about immigration in terms of “those terrible, brown-skinned invaders from the South, who come bearing disease and destroying American culture,” you’ve now entered our realm. The world of “real-life racism,” and so-on.
JM: Got it. Liberty has to do with the freedom of people to do what they believe is in their own best interests. Some curtailments of liberty I imagine you would think to be legitimate – not being able to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for example. As Richard Posner, the influential legal theorist put it: “Libertarianism – or, as it is sometimes called, classical liberalism – the philosophy of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – can be summed up in seven words: ‘Your rights end where his nose begins.’ Government interference with adult consensual activities is unjustified unless it can be shown to be necessary for the protection of the liberty or property of other persons.”
“Not everyone is ready to accept the personal responsibility that liberty confers, and the accountability that liberty demands.” ~ Lou Marinoff
Liberty is threatened by various interests, institutions, individuals, movements, and phenomena – and has been since time immemorial. Not the least of which is government: “Individuals have rights, and there are things that no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do” (Robert Nozick). I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that liberty threatened for one group is a threat to us all. The people of this country have some legitimate grievances toward the government and toward corporations, both of whom are probably the greatest threats to our freedoms (though not excluding ourselves and the power of determinism).
However, since the very beginning, when the founders sought to break free from the ties that bound us to England and the monarch, King George III, there have been grave disagreements about the nature of liberty. The Bill of Rights wasn’t even included in the first version of the Constitution! I don’t think Jefferson was in favor of that omission, but certainly other framers were – perhaps Adams and Hamilton, and many Southern aristocrats. African men present in colonial America (I hesitate to call them “African Americans,” I’m afraid) were treated as “three-fifths of a man” as a way to compromise with the Southern participants and the vicious economic system their constituents were yoked to (and I don’t think female slaves even counted!).
What I am saying is that we may face renewed threats to liberty nowadays, but has there ever been a time in this country (or anywhere?) when the people did not have to fight for their civil and human rights? The Patriot Act might have been misguided, inappropriate, and usurpative, but it was only one in a long string of violations of the people’s rights. Consider the Alien and Sedition Acts of Congress, signed by a “founding father,” a then-President John Adams. Ethnic minorities, women, gays, atheists, and the economically disenfranchised have taken the brunt of usurpations and infringements.
“These Patriot Act powers are being used on ordinary petty crimes – on drug enforcement, on crimes that have had nothing to do with terrorism or the terrorist attacks of September 11th. What much of the American public doesn’t understand is that the Patriot Act creates permanent changes to federal law.” ~ Anthony Romero
…I am discussing libertarianism and liberty with Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Thank you for giving me a bit more of your time.
JM: Do you think that every citizen should have the right to do what they want, within reasonable bounds, and to “follow their own North Star,” as it were? To be free from restraint, interference, and any kind of violence from government or radical citizens and the like?
MP: Sure, I absolutely agree with that, and I thought what you said about yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is the obvious analogy to describe what the limits of that are. Often, we’ve said about groups we deal with, and this is true under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that they have a right to hate, but not to hurt. In other words, as a nation we protect these ideas very energetically – that one can sit around and say things like, “We ought to kill all the Jews,” “We ought to murder every police officer,” whatever it may be. And that is fine in the sense that these are general political statements, and I agree that people ought to be allowed to say those things, vile as they are…
“The people being able to question our government and hold it accountable is the principle the United States of America was founded on. So, if we want to protect national security, we should be protecting that principle.” ~ Edward Snowden
…When one undertakes an action to sort of “make the revolution,” whatever it may be – you know, start killing Jews or black people or gay people, or the like – well obviously that’s more than a little intrusion on people’s liberty. One cannot be absolutely cruel to others in order to satisfy oneself.
I think that this country is fairly unique in the sense that rights ought to be protected. I think it bears mentioning that I know a lot about European laws about speech because it has much to do with the world I cover. You know, the reality is that most European countries and Canada do not allow “free speech”; you cannot say things like, “We ought to kill such-and-such group members,” or you might go to prison. I know that Europeans would dispute me mightily on this point, but I think, even as a matter of preserving public order, it has not done the Europeans much good.
JM: That’s a really interesting perspective. I probably sugar-coat the idea of Canada a bit (George W. Bush is president, again, so I think a number of Americans of good conscience have been thinking a lot about what Canada’s like) (sigh), and I would have figured that they were at least as libertarian as we are. Well, gun rights aside. Perhaps it is the relative functionality and welfare and good disposition of the people that caused me to think that they were liberal/libertarian in that regard. I guess we have a unique history.
MP: It is unique. They just deported a guy from Canada, a German-born individual named Ernst Zundel who spent something like 60 years in Canada. He was booted out after an extremely long court process based on his advocacy of neo-Nazi or National Socialist positions. They ended up declaring this man a national security threat. So, the result was, he was deported back to Germany from whence he came, where he is going to be tried for “speech crimes,” essentially. These have to do with smuggling propaganda into Germany and so on. Zundel could not have been deported from this country for that reason, it is worth noting.
“You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;/ I will choose a path that’s clear: I will choose freewill.” ~ Neil Peart
JM: “Speech crimes”? That charge reminds me of the phrase that George Orwell used in 1984 – “thought crime.” An affront to libertarianism and rights.
MP: I think to have a reasonable discussion about things like this, one has to say that Germany, in its constitution, forbids things like denying the Holocaust, or attacking entire groups of people (literally you go to prison for “sieg heiling” or using Nazi symbols like the swastika). That all looks rather extreme from our perspective as Americans because we’re used to the liberties we hold, but to be reasonably sensitive about it, one has to recognize that German history is wildly different from our own.
JM: Or, perhaps they have had more truth and reconciliation than we have. We certainly have not made amends for slavery, and even now we continue to disenfranchise and denigrate American Indians – they are the worst-functioning and least-progressive of all American minorities, which is saying a lot.
Well, Mark, I’m afraid we are out of time. Thanks so much for joining me today. I appreciated learning what you and the SPLC are up to. Go catch some bad guys!
MP: Thank you, Jason.
“If a man knowingly prefers to live for today, to use his resources for current enjoyment, deliberately choosing a penurious old age, by what right do we prevent him from doing so?” ~ Milton Friedman
JM: I would like to introduce my next partner in dialogue on libertarianism. Amanda Phillips is the national media representative and the president of The Free State Project. She is interested in many things – economics, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, organizational management, and school choice. She notes on the website that she has some anarchical views, but has decided that working toward creating a libertarian New Hampshire is really a better idea. Let me welcome her now.
“Social policies that focus on discrete and recognizable public needs, that efficiently marshal limited public resources for the betterment of clear social problems, and that never tip over into the imposition of abstractions like ‘social justice,’ equality of outcomes, ‘diversity,’ or other such dubious enterprises are defensible – even admirable – from a conservative perspective.” ~ Andrew Sullivan
AP: Hi Jason. Thank you for having me on the show.
JM: My pleasure. How are you today?
AP: Great! Thank you.
JM: Well, let’s talk about libertarianism; is that a word that can be used to describe the focus of The Free State Project?
AP: Sure, as long as we note that it’s “small-l” libertarianism (the philosophy), and not necessarily the Libertarian [political] Party. Yes, that’s definitely something that describes The Free State Project. We generally believe that the maximum role of civil government should be the protection of life, liberty, and property and that the government should not do any more than that.
Libertarians here generally talk about freedom on two general axes: social (or personal) freedoms and economic freedoms. So, generally, we would agree with the Left on social freedoms and with the Right on economic freedoms.
JM: So, you’re saying that the political Left – those who are usually called liberals or progressives – tend to believe that folks who are gay should be left alone to live that lifestyle without hindrance (to join the military if they wish, to have sex, to marry, to have a full legal relationship, etc.); that abortion should be unrestricted in most ways and that women should have the option if they choose; medicinal or even recreational marijuana usage is permissible – things like this. Are these social liberties?
AP: Yes, and when we talk about personal or social freedom, we’re generally talking about “getting the government out” of those personal freedoms – they really should be personal as long as you’re not hurting anyone else…
“Ask the first man you meet what he means by ‘defending freedom,’ and he’ll tell you privately he means ‘defending the standard of living.’” ~ Martin Niemoller
…One personal freedom that the Left doesn’t really uphold, but I think I would include, is the right to self-defense. Gun rights. It is a personal freedom which I think belongs with all the rest, but the Left tends not to support it.
JM: Yes, I do see an argument for gun rights, and I also see great harm resulting from these very sophisticated weapons. Perhaps not unlike drug legalization. In fact, I tend to think that both issues share the facts that if a responsible and pretty well-developed person is the user/owner, then little societal harm would result from use. Little personal harm should result as well.
However, since we have a number of complex social problems in this country, guns and drugs are often abused rather than merely possessed or used. We don’t want society dictating or proscribing too much of a person’s behavior and rights, but until we are doing better these tools in the wrong hands can cause pain and devastation.
Philosophically, libertarianism is what you and your group heralds. We talked about the “left side” of the political spectrum, which tends to favor granting people the freedom to do what they want within their own home (personally/socially). You’re also talking about the “right side” of the political spectrum, which typically has to do with taxation. What else would be included?
AP: Where we would agree with the Right is basically on economic issues like lower taxes and fewer regulations of business, and hoping for an end to corporate welfare. Primarily, getting the government out of the economic sphere and letting the free market do its job. But, certainly, we depart from the Right on issues of social policy – “the religious Right.” It’s sort of a contradiction that because the Right wants government out of the economy, out of our wallets, and out of our businesses, they sanction the government to tell you what to do in the bedroom. When we’re not hurting anybody, there’s no reason for the government to get involved.
“I graduated from Yale in the 1950s, and the word public was still a good word. Public meant public health, public service, public school, commonwealth. And private suggested greed, selfishness, and so on. Those words have been turned around. That was the great triumph of the Reagan Revolution.” ~ Lewis Lapham
JM: Okay, well that’s clarifying. I, too, have wondered about the contradiction. I see it a bit more clearly than I see the so-called Left contradiction in regard to the 2nd Amendment. Maybe because I have a bias, I don’t know. I definitely think that the hedge fund CEOs and televangelists make strange bedfellows; capitalists breaking bread with religious fundamentalists.
Perhaps “oil and water” is a useful food metaphor, as well. Anytime I hear the following charlatan say something such as this, I picture members of the ruling class slapping their foreheads: “Feminism encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians” (Pat Robertson). A man who believes such things might support fiscal conservatism, but loathes social progress. At any rate, each side of the political spectrum has some libertarian aspects to their philosophy, as you say.
AP: Yeah, and it’s very interesting because both the Left and the Right believe in freedom – in certain contexts. It’s like, “We support and believe in the freedoms that we happen to like.” I would say the libertarians and the communists are really the only ones who are truly consistent in their ideology. In other words, the authoritarians and the libertarians are generally consistent.
“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override…. The rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of political interests.” ~ John Rawls
JM: I am speaking with Amanda Phillips about libertarianism, government, rights, etc.; you’re listening to Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom.
Thanks for being here. So, tell me about the movement.
AP: The Free State Project is a group of libertarians – again, “small-l” libertarians – who decided that we are spread out all over the country, and libertarians are pretty much a minority wherever we go (in our highest-populated areas, we are 3-4% of the population). So, we had the idea that instead of fighting “big government” all over the country wherever we lived, what would happen if we got a group of us together in one small state where we could make a big difference? So, some of us developed a plan where 20,000 libertarians are going to move to New Hampshire. There, we can work within the political system to create a more libertarian society. Hopefully with New Hampshire as “the free state,” it will then be an example of what libertarianism looks like in practice.
We all have ideas on what would happen if, for example, we repealed laws regarding sex between consenting adults; if we repealed laws regarding what substances you are allowed to ingest; if we repealed laws regarding restrictions on personal freedoms and laws regarding restrictions on economic freedoms. This is what a libertarian state would look like. We currently have 6,700 people committed to move, and many are already present. They’re starting to get busy looking at private solutions to some of these social problems as we speak. It’s been an interesting project these last five years!
JM: I find that to be a fascinating idea. A great example of libertarianism and activism. As I told you by email, it’s really cold there, so I’m not sure if I could stomach the winters. But it’s just such a vivid example of understanding what your values are, and then doing what it takes to implement them in your life. I mean, moving to New Hampshire from California and running for the school board? Very bracing! It’s the opposite of laziness and complacency.
“Our founding fathers faced perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man – a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.” ~ Barack Obama
AP: No, no, not us. We’re not the first ones to do that; the colonial settlers in America – many of them were moving to escape religious persecution and to create a better life; the Mormons moved into Utah for many of the same reasons; the socialists moved into Vermont in the ‘60s and they were able to create a very socialist state there. And I understand that the gay movement in San Francisco was very similar in the sense that they wanted to move to a place where they could influence the culture and have a place that would be more tolerant and accepting of the gay lifestyle.
JM: That’s a good point; I stand corrected. I do know that there are a lot of gays in San Francisco, and that it is no coincidence. And I did know, of course, that the Pilgrims emigrated because they feared for their lives back in England (and wanted freedom to practice something besides Anglicanism). So, now that you put it like that, you are right. It’s just surprising to see this nascent movement at your website, www.TheFreeStateProject.org. Your main goal is shared culture, and creating a voting bloc, right?
AP: Yeah, you know, one of the things that are really interesting is that New Hampshire is very much freedom-oriented already; the state motto is “Live Free or Die.” I mean, we couldn’t think of a more perfect state motto for those of us who believe in freedom. And New Hampshire has a long history and tradition of libertarian ideals. We did a lot of research on states we could go to, and New Hampshire came out the clear winner.
So, we are living what we believe and voting with our feet— if you believe in something, go out and do something about it! That’s how I got involved. I’m not one to sit around and complain about what I see the government doing when I could actually make a difference. And as Gandhi [was reported to have] said: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
“When liberty is taken away by force, it can be restored by force. When it is relinquished voluntarily by default, it can never be recovered.” ~ Dorothy Thompson
JM: You’re definitely a good example to your “rockin’ 8-year-old daughter,” as you call her, to say: “Mommy is doing with her life what I think is the right thing to do as far as being the change I wish to see in the world, and working for self-betterment.” I think your daughter will grow up to be about as activist and energetic as you are.
AP: (laughs) I hope so! And I hope she’s on the same side I am.
JM: She might rebel and become a socialist!
AP: Right! (laughs)
JM: She could move to Vermont, and you two could meet at some old bridge on your birthdays – neutral ground.
AP: (laughs) Absolutely. As long as people are keeping an open mind, and really thinking about the issues, and not merely accepting what the two major parties are selling and what the media are telling us. You know, really thinking about the contradictions on the Left and the Right. Thinking about what liberty really means. So, if she does think about these issues seriously and feels that socialism is the way to go, well, she’s my daughter and I’ll still love her (but of course try to convince her that I’m right!).
“You have the remarkable ability to think about your own thinking, to expose and refute and find antidotes to your irrational premises, and to overcome and redirect your self-defeating emotions and behavior. Whether or not this process is entirely biochemical does not change the fact that you have this capacity and are, therefore, capable of self-regulation. To the extent that you use this capacity, you are free.” ~ Elliot D. Cohen
JM: Yes, every year at Thanksgiving in homes all across this land, that’s what relatives do! Well, let me ask you a question that I’m sure you sometimes get, but I’ve never really taken the opportunity to ask a libertarian. Namely, libertarianism contrasted with liberalism. Though they share the same root word, libertas, they have significant differences.
I am of the belief that political liberalism is rooted in the Enlightenment and the rejection of orthodoxy and central authority. Nowadays it is more about the creation of a social welfare state-engineered to produce the best citizenry possible via social justice. Essentially, if well-intentioned citizens are injured or otherwise unlucky, the taxpayers can lend a hand through the mediator and manager of the government. Taxpayer-funded education, universal healthcare, a few more wise gun restrictions, requirements of corporations that they behave in a prosocial way, etc. Why do you dislike liberalism?
AP: That’s a great point. Liberalism today usually means socialism or “the social safety net.” I would call myself a classical liberal, because classical liberals are not of that belief. Libertarians believe that there are some people who have a drug problem, sure, but it’s their body and their choice and their responsibility to help themselves. It’s not the government’s proper role, to step in and protect them from themselves – that sort of thing.
There are some people who have serious issues with poverty, and I think on the one hand, I would love to see folks taking more responsibility for their lives and doing what they can to get out of that situation.
“Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.” ~ Bertrand Russell
…On the other hand, I think that there is a role for private charity to play. I’m also not sure that the government is very effective in what they’re doing – a lot of the money gets funneled away to politicians and bureaucrats without it ever helping the people it’s supposed to help. With a private charity, one can choose to donate money to help the poor to a charity that doesn’t waste it. That is a much better solution.
JM: Well, I hear you. I’m looking forward to seeing if, over time, New Hampshire turns out to be more like a utopia, where you can live happily in freedom, or more like Charles Dickens’ London, where life was relatively “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” as philosopher Thomas Hobbes characterized the state of pre-society humanity.
I thank you for your time, and for explaining to the listener and me what The Free State Project and libertarianism are all about.
AP: Thank you very much, it’s been great talking with you.
JM: You too; bye Amanda. I’ll end this show on libertarianism with a couple quotes from folks on the Right. This one’s by Dick Armey: “The Justice Department…right now is the biggest threat to personal liberty in the country.” And here’s one by another total Dick – last name, Cheney: “It’s easy to take liberty for granted when you’ve never had it taken from you.” There you go – don’t ever say I never give the Right an opportunity to share their perspectives; I just quoted two of their most outspoken. Talk to you next week here on Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Board Room.
I welcome you to look up quotes about libertarianism and related subjects in the unparalleled Wisdom Archive, only on ValuesoftheWise.com
On this page can be found the original interview I conducted with Mark and Amanda on libertarianism.
Here is a link to the ACLU’s free speech page.
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