When and How to Be a Political Activist for Liberty

Recently I argued that liberty advocates should remain or become active within the Republican Party rather than join a minor party (unless a viable new party can replace the GOP, which I doubt). This gave rise to a number of questions: Does that mean everyone should be a Republican? Should everyone be active at the level of party politics? Do people even need to be active in politics at all?

My answer is that most liberty advocates should indeed be active in politics at some level—not as some alleged moral duty, but as a means of protecting their values. Only for some people does this mean activism at the level of party politics.

My previous article addressed the choice of whether to be active in the GOP or in a minor party; the article took for granted that a person had chosen party activism. Now I want to back up and look at the broader questions. When should people become active in politics, and how should they do it in broad terms?

Liberty as a Value

The context here is people with the philosophic maturity to understand what liberty is and why it matters. Here Ayn Rand articulated the essential issues: To consistently pursue our values by our own judgment, we need to be free from the coercion of others, whether street crime or rights-violating government actions. Proper government exists to protect people’s rights and morally may not seize their wealth, throttle their productive activities, or the like.

Liberty is critically important in an advanced economy such as ours, in which we rely on an intricate network of producers to trade the goods and services we need to live and prosper. Rights-violating government actions undermine the pursuit of values in a market economy and thereby threaten our prosperity, our health, and sometimes our very lives.

Consider just a few examples. When government forcibly restricts people from earning a living by offering car rides, they are less able to support themselves and travelers are less able to get where they need to go quickly, economically, and comfortably. When government forces parents to finance schools that serve their children poorly, they have fewer resources and fewer options for educating their children as they judge best. When government forcibly prevents doctors from offering and patients from trying path-breaking medicines and procedures, it undermines medical advances and takes many people’s health decisions out of their hands. When government throttles reliable energy and subsidizes unreliable energy, consumers must sacrifice part of their wealth and pay higher energy prices.

Most people do not make politics part of their careers. But just because your profession does not involve political activism, doesn’t mean that politics does not involve your profession. Whether you work in banking, health care, energy, auto repair, or any of countless other fields, you spend your professional time producing and trading the goods and services people need to live and thrive, not engaged in politics. But, given the alphabet-soup of federal regulatory agencies, the reams of federal and state regulations, and the massive tax burdens now imposed on producers, politics almost certainly has a major influence on how you spend your productive hours.

Politics even heavily controls your recreation, whether by forcing you to pay heavy taxes on beer or by regulating the ebooks you buy and the internet services by which you stream movies. A modern American simply cannot escape the pervasive economic influence of politics.

Regarding so-called “social” policy, government within the United States has in fact murdered people for selling the “wrong” drugs or doing so in the “wrong” way; locked countless people in cages for doing the same; threatened to punish doctors for offering medical services in a politically disapproved way; sought to punish people for speaking about politics in the “wrong” way or at the “wrong” times; and in countless other ways unleashed government force against those violating no one’s rights.

Because government in the United States routinely violates people’s rights and often fails to protect people from other sorts of violence, we are less prosperous, less wealthy, less healthy than we otherwise would be; less able to produce and use life-advancing goods and services; and more prone to suffer violence at the hands of government agents, criminals, and terrorists.

Obviously people who do not grasp the above will not become advocates for liberty and a government that consistently protects individual rights.

People who do grasp the nature and importance of liberty will thereby understand the value of protecting the liberties we still enjoy and working toward the expansion of liberty.

So should people who understand the value of liberty work to advance liberty? Put that way, the answer is obvious: Yes, except in unusual circumstances, such as when an individual suffers a crisis of finances or health (or the like) or works in a career (such as the military) that precludes political activism. Assuming you do value liberty and are willing and able to help advance it, how can you effectively do so?

There are, of course, many ways to actively promote liberty, and different individuals will find that different sorts of activism mesh better with their broader values. Here I will summarize some major forms of political activism. My ideas in these matters are drawn partly from Friedrich Hayek’s essay, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” and Ayn Rand’s essay, “For the New Intellectual.” Incidentally, a few years ago I gave a talk based partly on those essays:

Incorporate Intellectual Activism in a Career

Some people make intellectual activism an essential part of their careers. They become university professors in the humanities (who properly may advocate their views in appropriate ways), work for think tanks and legal groups, or work in advocacy journalism. Consider, as examples, the books of Thomas Sowell, the efforts of the Foundation for Economic Education and the Ayn Rand Institute, the legal suits of the Institute for Justice, and the columns of George Will.

Support Professional Liberty Advocates

If your career and other values leave little time for politics, you can still play a crucial role in political advocacy by financially supporting people you trust to work for liberty. To be effective in this, you need to discover the essentials of the types of political ideas and actions worth supporting, find people who effectively advocate your shared beliefs, and support those people when and how you can. You can contribute funds to university programs, think tanks, publishers, writers (ahem), and others who support your values in the realm of culture and politics.

Financially supporting professional liberty advocates is a little like investing in businesses. You don’t engage in the primary activity yourself, but you do sufficient research to know your resources are used well. Just as you look for a financial return on your business investments, so you should look for a cultural-political return on your activist investments.

Advocate Liberty Part-Time

If you enjoy writing or speaking and want to take the time to master one or more areas of policy, you can write op-eds, issue papers, and letters to the editor, or produce podcasts or the like, on a part-time basis.

A great example of this sort of activist is Paul Hsieh, a full-time radiologist who writes about politics (and other cultural matters) on the side. Hsieh has a regular column at Forbes, and he is now the main force behind Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine.

If you want to write on a less-ambitious scale, you can write letters to newspapers and other publicans. (Some years ago I gave a talk on writing letters to the editor.) And of course you can advocate your ideas via social media (just avoid flame wars and the like).

Share Ideas with Peers

If you enjoy social engagement but want something less confrontational than party politics, you might consider starting or joining a liberty-oriented reading group, speaking group, or meeting group. The purpose of these, in terms of activism, is to help yourself and your allies better understand and advocate the principles of liberty.

Here are a few examples. I helped to lead an Atlas Shrugged reading group near Denver (and Diana Hsieh later wrote up extensive study notes), and I ran Liberty In the Books (and developed study notes) for several years. Quite a few Colorado activists are now involved in Liberty Toastmasters groups, Liberty on the Rocks groups, and other social networking and education groups.

Get Involved in a Party

All the political theorizing in the world makes no practical difference until it is reflected in public policy. In today’s world, political parties are the primary way that political ideas make their way to legal application.

As a party activist, you have many opportunities to articulate your views to others in your party, influence your party’s platform, seek to persuade office holders, support candidates who share your views, and network with other activists.

For most liberty advocates, I think getting involved with the Republican Party is the way to go. Recently I discussed my participation in this year’s Republican caucus system in Colorado.

If you think you will have an immediate and large impact on a political party, you are setting yourself up for failure. The idea here is to join with other like-minded activists and slowly push your party in a more liberty-oriented direction. This is not an easy task, but it is, I think, a necessary one.

Joining a political party is not for everyone. If you enjoy public meetings, debates, and the thrill of the campaign, you’ll fit right in. If not, you’ll probably want to migrate toward other forms of activism.

Incidentally, I do think that some people might do better in the Democratic Party, especially if they live in an area dominated by Democrats or are most concerned about issues (such as abortion) where Democrats tend to be better. By contrast, I think third-party participation is a complete waste of time.

Look to the Future

Regardless of how you get involved, if you hold liberty as a value, it is probably in your interests to take action to support it. How you do so depends on your other interests and values. If you enjoy writing in solitude, perhaps you should consider writing op-eds or blog posts over joining a political party. If you have little time to spare, you might focus on finding worthy recipients of your financial support.

You might long for an imaginary world in which you didn’t have to devote much time to politics in order to protect your values from rights-violating policies. But we don’t live in that world.

Even if in the future we achieve a world in which government consistently protects people’s rights, it will still be important to keep advocating the right ideas and fighting the wrong ones.

Unfortunately, the fact that previous Americans in many cases did not do their “due vigilance” means that we have to pick up the slack now. We have to fight for everything we’re worth to keep our nation from sliding into the muck of Venezuelan-style or nationalist-style socialism.

Imagine the future we can have if we achieve a government that protects the rights of producers rather than continually assaults them, that spends its resources checking initiatory violence rather than fanning it, that offers individuals true security to pursue their values rather than security theater and the surveillance state, that protects what you earn rather than loots it.

Imagine a future in which individuals consistently interact and trade by consent, not force.

Imagine a future in which the political ideal of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is fully realized.

I hope you agree this is a future worth fighting for.

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