The following is a submission written by SFL Campus Coordinator Brad Kells. Brad is a student at Michigan State University.
While collecting data for some upcoming research, I found myself mulling over a seemingly insignificant data point: why do Vermont and Oregon have nearly one microbrewery for every thirty thousand people in the state, whereas Arkansas and Alabama have only about one per one million people? Homebrewing was legalized in 1978, and the modern craft brewing industry was born. It quickly took off and today is proving a significant challenge to Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. But it is not a simple case of “legalize something and creativity automatically results.” Creativity is resulting from the opportunities now available, but even after controlling for state and local laws, there is a significant difference in how certain regions are taking advantage of their freedom to create malted originality. Why? Should we as libertarians care?
When innovation is the subject at hand, always quote Deirdre McCloskey. From Bourgeois Dignity:
“I claim here that the modern world was made by a new, faithful dignity accorded to the bourgeois… and a new, hopeful liberty… And both were necessary. My libertarian friends want liberty alone to suffice, but it seems to me that it has not. Changing laws is not enough (though it is a good start – and rotten laws can surely stop growth cold)… dignity is a sociological factor, liberty an economic one. Dignity concerns the opinion that others have of the shopkeeper. Liberty concerns the laws that constrain him. The society and the economy interact. Yet contrary to a materialist reduction, they are not the same”
As in the craft beer industry, there is more to the creation of a vibrant and creative society than just laws, and libertarians can gain from paying attention to those other details. There is, after all, a significant difference between a free society where people choose to interact with one another, where they create and trade and where they respect innovation, and a free society where people are suspicious of “the Other,” where they are unwilling to be open to new ideas, and where creativity stagnates.
Strictly following Leonard Read’s infamous motto “Anything That’s Peaceful,” these two societies are morally indistinguishable. I would like to argue that libertarianism, set historically, does not have to view these societies as equal, and that we can say, with philosophical grounding, that the more open society is better. Instead, let us begin with “Nothing That Isn’t Peaceful” and work to create a free society beyond mere government.
Many of the intellectual forefathers of libertarianism took their opposition to government not out of any specific hatred of coercion, but with the goal of creating a better, generally freer, society. One does not have to be a Rawlsian to care about the economic and moral results of any given social arrangement. In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith writes “Among civilized and thriving nations… the produce of the whole labour of the society is so great, that all are often abundantly supplied, and a workman, even of the lowest and poorest order, if his is frugal and industrious, may enjoy a greater share of the necessaries and conveniences of life than it is possible for any savage to acquire.” Freedom, for Smith, is respected BECAUSE of what it creates. He is interested, at root, in a prosperous society, one which is separated most significantly from the “savage” society by “the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which its labour is generally applied,” that is, not just its government, but the entirety of its economic and social arrangement. If the savage society had no government, and the civilized society had no government, Smith would have no difficulty choosing between the two of them.
And, of course one cannot forget Alexis de Tocqueville, who writes in Democracy in America, “It is especially the customs of the Americans of the United States which make them capable of supporting a democratic government; and it is customs again that cause the various Anglo-American democracies to be more or less orderly and prosperous… if, in the course of this book, I have not succeeded in convincing the reader of the importance I attach to the practical experience, behavior, opinions, and, in a word, the customs of Americans in maintaining their laws, I have failed in the main objective I set myself in writing it.” Tocqueville believed that America was successful because it had a culture and a government that supported prosperity. Is it wise for us as libertarians to only focus on the latter of the two prongs if we want to truly achieve Tocqueville’s goal of an “orderly and prosperous” society?
This is why many libertarians are disturbed when figures like Rand Paul make bigoted statements, and why libertarians have worked so hard to put moral distance between ourselves and Ron Paul’s racist newsletters; Freedom from government is not necessarily the be-all-end-all of “libertarian” society. Libertarians have historically wanted to see a free, flourishing society, and have viewed government as the prime roadblock to that goal. But other roadblocks, even if not strictly political, should be viewed through the same lens.
Freedom is valuable, but we must use it. We may have the freedom to create great beer, but if we don’t use it, that freedom is nigh upon useless. And just because an activity is free doesn’t mean we must condone it (though it does mean we cannot use coercion to change it). Dignify innovation in your community, and oppose close-mindedness. Libertarianism may be a political philosophy, but there is no reason our activism must stop at the doors of the statehouse. So come meet me in Alabama; I’m bringing a case of craft beer, and we’re going to make some converts to beverage creativity.