It does not seem very long ago that many libertarians were rationalizing their escape from social concerns and activity by claiming that economic crisis in America, while perhaps inevitable, was many decades in the future. If that was so, why not forget the impossible dream and take refuge in narrow hedonistic pursuits? Now that economic crisis, accelerating inflation, recession, and an approaching leap into further collectivism are upon us, these same libertarians are taking the opposite tack: what was before too early is now too late. It is too late, they cry, to save the country or the economic system; the only thing left is to hide—to store up canned goods in a cave, to hoard money in Swiss bank accounts, to buy gold coins, to run off to some new island, to ride out the holocaust. Superficially, the extreme optimist and the current extreme pessimist views seem like polar opposites; in fact, they stem from the self-same impulse: to avoid the responsibility and the burden of steady, persistent, long-term social and political activity toward libertarian goals. Both views are merely two species of the same solipsistic cop-out.
In the first place, it's not going to work. You can be darned sure that, if and when the U.S.A. goes collectivist, nothing you do is going to help. Your carefully accumulated Swiss bank accounts are going to be confiscated (the Swiss, doubtless responding to U.S. pressure, have already begun the process, in what is euphemistically called a "negative interest" policy). Your gold is going to be expropriated once again. You won't be able to defend your cave no matter how stout the rifle you use; the State has more and better guns. Your lovingly developed new island will be taken away from you by the might of one or more governments. The fact that such seizure will be a violation of international law may feed your indignation, but it won't help a bit in stopping them from taking over the island. He who refuses to lift a finger to defend liberty and property by rolling back the State will reap the fruits of that inaction and unconcern.
And there is another and deeper reason why dropping out or stashing away is not going to work. When John Donne wrote that "No man is an island, entire of itself" he was not being a super-altruistic villain in an Ayn Rand novel. He was stating a simple truth. With our current population of 200 million, we are inescapably dependent on one another, and specifically on the national and international division of labor, and the capital investment brought forth by that specialization and that market. Ninety-nine percent of us won't be able to survive in the caves or on an island; we simply cannot survive—let alone prosper and flourish—without a large-scale market, mass production, and the division of labor. When the American population was only a few hundred thousand, they could at least survive on local, small-scale, virtually self-sufficient production. We can do so no longer. For better or for worse, we are stuck with industrial production and the division of labor; we will all sink or swim with the modern economic machine. Even if by some great stroke of luck the State won't find you in the cave, your canned goods will disappear, the woods will be filled with thousands of competitors for scarce natural resources, and the pile of gold will do you no good if you can't find any goods to spend it on. You can't eat gold. Money is only useful for the goods it will buy, and if the goods don't exist…
And so I would plead with libertarians to worry a little less on what to invest your capital in, and to spend a little more time and energy to try and save our economy and our civilization. Otherwise, to use an excellent metaphor that has come into currency lately, you will only be shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
But isn't the economic holocaust imminent, and isn't any social libertarian action therefore just a waste of time? No, I don't believe so at all. First, I don't believe the holocaust is that near nor is it inevitable, and second—and even more heretically—even the holocaust, horrible as the prospect is, isn't that bad. To be more specific, we'd still be better off than running to the hills or hiding in the cave. No matter now bad, the remnants of the market and the division of labor will still be better for us than giving up altogether.
First, then, disaster is not that imminent. We are, to be sure, following down the calamitous path of Italy and Britain, but we are still some years behind them—and they're still not dead. We have time, and, what is more, there are strong countervailing currents that should give us great hope for the future. One of these is the enormous growth and spread of libertarian ideas throughout the country, even in influential parts of the media that most of us had long ago written off as hopeless. Precisely because things are clearly getting worse, precisely because New Deal liberalism and statism are manifestly failing, a libertarian reaction is setting in. More and more people in all walks of life are beginning to realize the folly of putting their trust in government to solve any social problems: from the economy to postal service to education. The numbers and strength of libertarians have multiplied enormously in just a few short years. We are learning through hard experience. There is still time to save ourselves and the country.
Secondly, even the holocaust won't be that bad. The Germans suffered the horrors of runaway inflation in the 1920's, as did the Hungarians and other countries during World War II, but they lived through it—lived to recover, and grow prosperous again. As horrendous as collectivism in the Communist countries has been, the bulk of the population has lived through it, and has even begun to increase production and the standard of living. The point is that, with an industrial machine and the division of labor still intact, the economy and population could still survive through the interstices of the system. Let us never forget that collectivism, after all, is inefficient; no collectivist horror is a well-oiled monolith. And so through the interstices, through the inevitable leaks and graft and black markets, the economy is at least able to survive. The average Russian, for example, leads a grey and dismal life indeed, but it is still a better life than dying isolated in a cave.
A particularly hopeful sign is the cracking of collectivism through its very failure to deliver on its Utopian promises. One of the most exciting developments of modern times has been the steady and often spectacular erosion of collectivism and state planning in Eastern Europe. Yugoslavia blazed the path when, in 1952, it became the first Communist country in the history of that youthful movement to abandon central planning and return to a roughly market economy, with an attendant increase in personal freedom. Yugoslavia has gone further and faster in the retreat from collectivism than any other Communist country, but it has also been followed by Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. Contrary to Communist hopes as well as conservative fears, collectivism is not irreversible.
Another hopeful sign is that, during the 20th century, we have tried every possible form of statist economy: from outright socialism or Communism to various forms of fascism, state corporatism, and Keynesian mixed economy. And what has become evident to all sides and in all countries is that all of these statist forms have failed! The establishments of all countries, West and East, are now floundering hopelessly in a quagmire. It cannot take very long to dawn on these countries that there is only one viable and workable system for a modern, industrial economy: freedom and the free market. The growth of libertarian ideas and influence in the last few years is therefore not simply a happy accident, bound to disappear with the next turn of intellectual fashion. It is solidly rooted in the manifest and growing breakdown of all forms of statism in the industrial world. We know that freedom is the only moral system; but they're beginning to find out that it is also the only workable system for the modern world. And when morality and pragmatism begin to fuse together, liberty must inevitably triumph.
But the breakdown of statism is not the only condition for the triumph of liberty, even though it is a very powerful one. There is something else needed: the public and opinion leaders must learn of the existence of a libertarian alternative. And that is where we come in. The conditions for the spread of libertarian ideology have not been as ripe for over a century, and the need has never been greater. Libertarians have a splendid opportunity to benefit themselves and all of us, and, what is more, to advance the noble cause of morality, justice, and truth, as well as economic survival. But we must avail ourselves of this opportunity. And to do so we must act, act in the world; we must set aside our lotus eating and our solipsistic concerns. We must get off our duffs and make a steady, hard-working, long-range commitment to the advance of our libertarian goals and ideals. Let us be full-time libertarian activists if we can, part-time activists if we must; but let us devote all we can of our hearts and minds to the great and noble cause of advancing liberty in the real world around us. We have an excellent chance to succeed; but even if we fail, we will be able to tell ourselves and our children that we did our best, that we left no stone unturned in our devotion to liberty. Even if the worst happens, we will have the great satisfaction of knowing that we didn't lose because of our own inaction or sloth, that we didn't fail because we betrayed ourselves and our highest principles and ideals.
Action then; but what kind of action should we pursue? Here, again, the great principle of the division of labor is at work. There are many kinds of things that we can do, and each should pursue the form of activity in accord with his or her own abilities or interests. Obviously, no one can do everything; each person should follow whatever form of activity he is most inclined or able to do. The important thing is to follow the principle of libertarian activism.
There is another vital point about libertarian activity; within the principle, the particular strategic or tactical form to pursue is a strictly pragmatic problem. There is no a priori rule that can tell us, by philosophical deduction, whether we will be more successful by pushing the gold standard, or repeal of the income tax, or civil liberties, or any other part of the libertarian creed. That depends on the concrete conditions of time and place, and can even change swiftly as those conditions change. We must learn to be strict and firm on principles, but flexible and pragmatic on strategy and tactics.
This brings us to a question that has vexed and tormented libertarians—at least activist libertarians—for the last few years: on the merits of working in the newly formed Libertarian Party. Before 1972 there was no such party, and there was no conclusive way of deciding a priori whether such a party would be a feasible strategy or channel in which to pursue libertarian goals. The handful of pioneers that formed the LP three years ago have turned out to be strategically correct; for that party has grown rapidly, and has had an impact on this country enormously greater than its meager resources in personnel or finances. In retrospect, it seems clear that the LP has worked so successfully for several important reasons, despite the enormous built-in handicaps of lack of people and of funding: first, because most Americans will only act ideologically, and will only listen to ideology, in the context of political parties; and, second and as a corollary, because the LP has provided an extremely important vehicle for formerly idle libertarians to become active, to work in the world to advance their ideals, and to meet as well as to foster the development of other libertarians with whom they can mutually reinforce and inspire one another. In short, the LP has proved to be by far the best single vehicle we know for organizing libertarians and getting them active, and to influence the media and the public with libertarian ideas. For one thing, the LP has garnered enormously more publicity for libertarian ideas in the course of its campaigns, than any other individuals or groups have been able to accomplish.
And so, the Libertarian Party has already proved its great merit in developing and organizing libertarians, and in influencing the "outside" world. But these are not the only goals, important as they are, that the LP could possibly accomplish in the future. For the LP might even acquire substantial and direct political influence, and thereby provide us with a tangible institutional conduit for rolling back and dismantling the State. Let us put it another way: by what other means could we, tangibly and concretely, ever hope to dismantle the State? Suppose that, either through the LP or through educational means, we managed to convince a large number of people, or the media, in fact even a majority. Our work would still be far from finished, for how then could we begin to roll back the State? The State is not merely ideology; it is a collection of vested interests who benefit from the exploitation of the citizen and taxpayer. The State is not going to roll over and play dead, even if the public and influential opinion-molders turn against it. We cannot make the State wither away or disappear by the wave of an ideological wand; we must be able to translate those ideas into concrete institutional pressure. And the only way to do so is to garner votes and representatives that will issue the coup de grace, or, even before that point, to exert great political pressure from below upon the State apparatus and force it to get out of our way.
This of course does not mean that the LP is the only viable form of social activity for libertarians. Education, propaganda, alternative institutions, tax refusal—all have their role to play. But the actual roll-back, the actual voting for repeal of tyrannical laws, the actual political and institutional pressure from below upon the State, can only be accomplished by libertarians in politics, and concretely by libertarians gathered together in a purist party devoted to working for their goals in the political arena. A Libertarian Party is not a sufficient condition for the triumph of liberty, but it is a necessary one.
Of course, there are cogent reasons for worrying about a successful Libertarian Party—for instance, the LP might someday sell out principle for political advantage. But there are risks in any course of action, and even greater risks in no action at all. Anyone can sell out, at any time, but that is scarcely warrant for curling up in a corner and hugging ourselves in a mantle of purity as the State comes to confiscate our cave. Yes, we must, as our forefathers warned us, be eternally vigilant as the price of liberty; but yes, also, only he who dares and risks can succeed at any task, including especially the glorious task of the victory of the libertarian ideal.
Professor Murray N. Rothbard teaches economics at the Polytechnic institute of Brooklyn and is the most prolific representative of the Austrian school of economics actively working in his field. He has published many books—his monumental Man, Economy and State is now a classic—and he is the editor of the Libertarian Forum. This article was originally presented as a speech in February 1975 at the Libertarian Party of California's convention in Santa Monica.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Save Yourself by Saving Freedom".