The FSP's Unique Role among Libertarian Organizations
NOTE: The opinions and commentary expressed in this essay are those of the author and are an exercise of free speech. They do not necessarily represent the views of Free State Project Inc., its Directors, its Officers, or its Participants.
The Free State Project's Unique Role among Libertarian Organizations
by Stephen Cobb 4/12/04
A large and growing organization faces communications challenges, with many, especially newcomers, unclear on its mission and values. Since the FSP has attracted over 5,000 participants and now has some real muscle, it is important to occasionally communicate and clarify its role. The FSP has a new and unique function in the libertarian ecosystem, where other organizations have long been specializing in the various phases that ideological movements cycle through:
Observe facts of human natureour desires, behavior, and limitations.
Develop principles to describe human behavior, and the values, goals, and rules of the movement.
Spread ideas throughout society by persuasion (educating and propagandizing) or coercion (laws or violence), targeting the authorities, people with influence, educators, the mass media, and common people.
Act on the basis of principles in all spheres of life, e.g. economics, religion, politics, volunteer work.
For several reasons, libertarians have been less successful in the third and fourth phases than our opponents on the left and right (who, we would protest, are weaker in the first two phases). Libertarians tend by nature to be analytical, and to care about ideas (e.g. justice, the rule of law) and process. Our superficially utilitarian opponents tend to be more emotional, and to think first about people (children, families, the elderly, the poor) and short-term results; it is hardly surprising that they are more persuasive. Furthermore, libertarian principles will not allow us to spread our ideas through coercion, one of our opponents' favorite tools. Libertarians cannot abandon our attachment to principle without giving up who we are. However, we can turn our superior analytical ability on the evaluation of our failures. What has been missing?
The libertarian organizational ecosystem is full of thinkers and propagandizers. Think tanks abound, such as the Cato Institute, which exerts wide influence: according to FAIR, the media cite Cato material more often than any other think tank except Brookings, and, according to Cato, of all think tanks, its web site is the most visited. At least four Nobel-prize-winning economists are avowed libertarians, and more could probably wear the label. Educational organizations such as the Foundation for Economic Education and the Institute for Humane Studies spread the ideals of freedom to thousands. We don't lack for journals and writers: there are many paper and electronic magazines, like Reason, and Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged has been voted the second-most influential book in the US, right after the Bible.
The libertarian failure can be seen in the lack of concrete results: by nearly any measure one could name, our ideas have not won out. Where libertarians believe that government should be smaller, decentralized, less intrusive, and act only to defend rights, the trend in the US has been the exact opposite, dramatically. We can only try to console ourselves with the idea that without our action, things might have been even worse. And anyway, to libertarians it is nearly enough just to be right, because it is the principle that counts (like to left-wingers it is enough to care, because it is the thought that counts). We think that our principles should win out on their own logical merits, without any elbow grease from us.
The problem is that the large numbers (in absolute terms) of libertarians successfully produced by the thinkers and propagandizers have not been put to good use by the action organizations, because in relative terms we remain a small, ineffective minority throughout the country. Since such a minority has no hope of effecting change, enthusiasm for every new doomed effort is unsurprisingly minimal, and we console ourselves with being right. While there is still room for improvement (for example, the organization The Advocates teaches libertarians the gentle art of persuasion), the best solution is to concentrate resources enough to effect change. That requires providing a missing organizational linka concentrator of libertarian activist manpower.
Consider the Free State Project to be equivalent to a talent agency, providing diverse, energetic libertarians to any New Hampshire activist organizations that can use them. The FSP has no business determining what should be the end goals of these organizations; they are free to compete for the migrating porcupines' attention and energies. The role of the FSP is simply to ensure a supply of at least 20,000. The organizations need not be large or pre-existing; the activists may self-organize in small temporary groups to accomplish a given goal.
What kind of activities might these activists engage in to effect societal change? In the FSP we can only speculate, but we would expect a wide range. Political action of various kinds (like depoliticization) comes to mind first, because it is the most obvious in our politicized world, but many libertarians out of principle will not vote or otherwise take direct part in the political system. More important are one's everyday market decisionswhere you choose to shop and whom to socialize with. Libertarians could actively promote free-market alternatives to state semi-monopolies, e.g. education, and actively support friendly businesses. They could contribute to the organizations that form the foundation of civil society, e.g. charities, churches, and other fraternal organizations. Such small daily interactions shape a culture more than crude, infrequent elections. Activists could spread the ideas of liberty, which would now be of more than mere theoretical interest. Activists could even counter unjust laws using the techniques of jury nullification and civil disobedience, both of which require a concentration of informed citizens.
As the only libertarian organization performing the role of concentrating activist manpower, it is critical that the FSP stay focused on its mission: "The Free State Project is an effort to recruit 20,000 liberty-loving people to move to New Hampshire." There is a subtle but important difference between the roles and responsibilities of the FSP leaders (more than thirty people in formal or informal positions) and those of the FSP members (officially participantspeople who have signed the Statement of Intent). In one sense, the leaders actually form the FSP, while the participants are really the FSP's customers, whose goal it is to get active in New Hampshire. In another sense, the FSP is itself an activist organization whose purpose is to help participants attract more participants. For this critical task, the FSP must have priority. While theorizing, propagandizing, and general activism are critically important, they are not the FSP's role. The first task of all FSP activists is thus recruitment, until we reach the critical mass of 20,000 participants. The resulting explosion of libertarian energiesuncontrolled by the FSPwill be felt for many years to come.