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.
Voluntarism in a Free State
James L. Payne
For the general public, Libertarians have a negative image. They are generally perceived as selfish and anti-social. Their opponents easily get away with calling them "anarchists" meaning wild-eyed, and irresponsible.
It's easy to see where this negative image comes from. Libertarians say they want to drastically shrink government. They take this position because they are outraged at the waste, destructiveness, and misrepresentations of government. But it takes a perceptive and independent-minded person to comprehend the harm of government. The average person is swayed by appearances and rhetoric. His short attention span prevents him from being able to analyze indirect effects and opportunity costs. He views government positively, as a supplier of needed public services. He sees it providing schools, caring for orphans and the elderly, running job training programs, supporting libraries, museums, and orchestras.
So when the libertarian tells John Q. Public he wants to shrink government, it sounds like the libertarian wants to do away with needed public services. John Q. draws the conclusion that the libertarian wants children to go uneducated, orphans to starve, and libraries to close. No wonder so many people see libertarians as enemies of civilization.
Libertarians do not do well rebutting the charge that they are anti-social because their philosophy tends to ignore community needs. The libertarian tradition focuses on the individual and his rights. But this emphasis should not cause us to ignore the reality of social needs. When a house burns down, the inhabitants are made homeless. That is a social need. When parents die in an accident, little children become orphans. Someone needs to take care of them. Schools and universities cannot function entirely on the basis of tuition payments; there will always be a need for scholarships for poor but deserving students.
If libertarians are going to make a credible, positive campaign to "take over" a state, they need a persuasive answer to the question, "What will you do about public needs once you have shrunk government?"
The obvious answer is voluntarism. Instead of relying on the coercion of the state to meet community needs as we do now libertarians favor the use of voluntary groups based on generosity and cooperation. There's nothing difficult or obscure in this proposal. Voluntary groups already exist and fill just about every imaginable social need.
(To illustrate this point, I drew up a fictional example of a society that has no government. My book Princess Navina Visits Voluntaria describes a land where the inhabitants have sworn off using violence to accomplish social purposes. The result is a society thickly populated with voluntary groups, groups that run schools, build bridges, help the handicapped, and so on. All of these groups are modeled after voluntary organizations that have existed in the real world. Even the Committee for Peace and Safety known by its acronym, COPS copies Benjamin Franklin's volunteer police department in Philadelphia.)
By stressing the importance of voluntary groups in social improvement, libertarians can take the high moral ground against the state-loving liberals. Everyone wants to improve their community. We just disagree on how to take care of social needs. Liberals want to use force and the threat of force, in the form of policemen and tax collectors, soldiers, and jailors. They are the party of violence. Libertarians are opposed to using force to address social problems. They believe in using voluntary methods, methods that are sensitive, friendly, and efficient.
Libertarians need to emphasize this position. Libertarian groups and publications need to devote attention to the voluntary sector. They need to extol the importance of being personally active in voluntary organizations. They need to publicize libertarian contributions as volunteers and philanthropists. They need to cultivate the virtues needed for a voluntary society, especially patience with others, courtesy, and generosity.
When the public perceives libertarians as energetic volunteer leaders addressing community needs, they will be welcomed with open arms anywhere they choose to move!
April 14, 2003
About the author:Jim Payne's works on voluntarism, social reform and the future of government are available at www.lyttonpublishing.com. These books include Princess Navina Visits Voluntaria, as well as The Befriending Leader Social Assistance with Dependency, and a forthcoming work, A History of Force; Exploring the worldwide movement against habits of coercion, bloodshed, and mayhem.
Jim earned his PhD in political science at the University of California at Berkeley in 1968 and has taught at Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M University. In 1985 he became a free-lance scholar and moved to Sandpoint, Idaho. His recent books include The Culture of Spending (on Congress, the budget, and the case for term limits), Costly Returns The Burdens of the U. S. Tax System, and Overcoming Welfare; Expecting More from the Poorand from Ourselves.