The other day I was faced with a unique opportunity at the conclusion of a political get together and speaking event. I was approached by a gentleman and he asked me to explain to him what Libertarianism was and given that it was getting late in the evening, to do so in as few words and as quickly as possible as he was walking out the door. It was a unique question in the sense that when I am usually asked to explain something about libertarian politics or philosophy it is generally expected that the answer given will be as full and as enlightening as possible, a difficult balance between enough to satisfy the person seeking the information but making sure not to give too much as to overload the listener so that he tunes out. It was a challenging question in the sense that I needed to make a strong enough intellectual impact for this guy to not forget what I said as soon as he gets in the car and turns on FoxNews radio or NPR.
I had a wonderful opportunity to engage a politically active individual who was genuinely interested in what it meant to be a libertarian and I didn’t want it to go to waste. Maybe the only thing preventing this gentleman from donating to the Libertarian Party, getting involved in libertarianism, or volunteering for a Libertarian’s campaign team was the need for quick reassurance, the need to make a connection with a real person (rather than through a computer screen). I remember what it felt like as I was intellectually working my way into a better and more complete understanding of libertarian thought. Having been a member of a major political party my entire life up to that point while having virtually no knowledge of the vast amount of libertarian literature that was out there, making the switch was not something to be taken lightly. I would imagine that for some there was no such thing as “becoming a libertarian,” perhaps to them libertarian-leanings were as simple and inconsequential as flicking on a light switch. For others though, the switch can represent a sea-change in thinking, analyzing, and viewing the world around them. It extends beyond politics into their daily lives. Libertarianism can be an awakening. Just think of that for a moment. Imagine you’re that person where your whole life you were a Republican or a Democrat, your family was Republican or Democrat, your friends were Republicans or Democrats and now you have just been awakened. You read the Mises blog and subscribe to the Lew Rockwell daily email so you figure there must be others like you out there but for the time being you may be the only one in your day to day life. Perhaps you were lucky enough to stumble across Isaiah’s Job by Albert Jay Nock and you get to Part IV and Nock writes:
What chiefly makes it so, I think, is that in any given society the Remnant are always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them. You can be sure of those – dead sure, as our phrase is – but you will never be able to make even a respectable guess at anything else. You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness…“
Right. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Nock’s writings but if this is your first foray in libertarianism you might be worried that the reason libertarians so strongly support individual freedom and sovereignty is because they think they are the only ones out there anyway. Further on in Part IV you get to this passage:
One of the most suggestive episodes recounted in the Bible is that of a prophet’s attempt – the only attempt of the kind on the record, I believe – to count up the Remnant. Elijah had fled from persecution into the desert, where the Lord presently overhauled him and asked what he was doing so far away from his job. He said that he was running away, not because he was a coward, but because all the Remnant had been killed off except himself. He had got away only by the skin of his teeth, and, he being now all the Remnant there was, if he were killed the True Faith would go flat.“
Now you may begin to wonder like Elijah if you are the only member of the Remnant remaining on Earth. How lonely that can feel! Luckily for Elijiah, he didn’t have to continue wondering as he had a pretty good source tell him that he was not alone (“and as for your figures on the Remnant,” He (God) said, “I don’t mind telling you that there are seven thousand of them back there in Israel whom it seems you have not heard of, but you may take My word for it that there they are.”) For the rest of us, we have to continue searching on our own and we learn later on that we are not alone and that there are many of us out there (and that our numbers are growing every day) going about our business and being active in our own ways.
Given the above, as he asked me the question you can imagine my mind starting to race. Do I tell him about our non-interventionist foreign policy? What about our support of free markets? How can I leave out our support for as limited a government as possible or lower taxes and less government spending? Maybe I should tell him about our position on sound money and why I support ending the Federal Reserve? I wonder if this guy is a Republican and I can make the connection easier for him by discussing Ron Paul?
All of those are wonderful ideas and positions to discuss with someone who wants to learn more about libertarianism but how could I possibly explain Austrian economics, the history of the Federal Reserve, or the merits of a non-interventionist foreign policy in such a short period of time as he was readying to walk out the door? I supposed I could have given him one of any number of libertarian leaning websites out there that he would have been able to go home and spend as much time as he needed reading up on it all but making an effective face-to-face case on the benefits of liberty will surely make far more of an impact. Just as we got to the doorway to say our goodbyes it hit me. The four words I was about to give him as an answer to his question encompassed everything we believe as libertarians. These four words explain the reasoning behind free market principles, behind non-interventionism, behind sound money, behind respect for individual freedom and sovereignty…
So, what is libertarianism all about in five seconds or less?
Live and let live.