In recent years, the libertarian movement has seen a substantial surge in its numbers. On college campuses, young libertarians across the country now constitute the majority of student-driven political activism. However, the message of liberty, while it is gaining ground, has yet to take hold as a generally accepted doctrine. Many libertarians believe the best way to change this is through political campaigns, while others think that working in ideas and educational outreach will yield the best results for advancing liberty.
Many forefathers of the libertarian movement, including Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, Nock, Read, etc., have all explained that political change can only occur through a diligent educational effort. One of the most famous essays, Hayek’s The Intellectuals and Socialism, explains that social change occurs when the intellectuals (whom Hayek called “the second-hand dealers in ideas”) accept a doctrine at which point their ideas are filtered through to public opinion which later converts into political action. Thus, as Leonard Read used to say, politicians and political change is simply a lagging indicator of the state of intellectual opinion. Hayek said it best by noting that “once the more active part of the intellectuals has been converted to a set of beliefs, the process by which these become generally accepted is almost automatic and irresistible,” and that “it is merely a question of time until the views now held by the intellectuals become the governing force of politics.”
Mises, too, understood Hayek’s argument when he stated that, “What determines the course of a nation’s economic policies is always the economic ideas held by public opinion. No government whether democratic or dictatorial can free itself from the sway of the generally accepted ideology.”
We as libertarians should strongly consider the value of each strategy to advance liberty. Should we invest time in learning how to manage campaigns, or should we learn how to refute illiberal arguments in clear, cogent, and convincing form? Is it more valuable spending a week at the Institute for Humane Studies or the Foundation for Economic Education learning about different classical liberal theories, or is it more valuable canvassing for a local politician? These are the questions that will determine the success of our movement for many years to come.
The student movement for liberty is stronger today than any time in history, but we must not mishandle this opportunity by choosing the easy way out. Educating oneself in the ideas of liberty is a daunting task and requires an enormous commitment, but I believe that it will ultimately yield the most positive results for the advancement of liberty.
Consider what F.A. Hayek told Antony Fisher when contemplating how best to further the cause of liberty; Fisher asks Hayek, “What can I do? Should I enter politics?” To this question Hayek replies with a resounding “No” going on to explain that “society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.”
I will leave you with the following inspiring passage from Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism where he explains what FEE’s Frank Chodorov thought about social change. Chodorov’s ideas also exemplify the integral role that Students For Liberty will play in changing the world for many years to come: “Chodorov’s strategy for social change was a populist variant of the Hayekian model, aimed at changing the minds of the next generation of thought leaders, college students. (Chodorov thought it was already too late for the faculty.) The intellectual and political victories of the planning mentality in the United States were caused, Chodorov maintained, by student groups advocating socialism in the early twentieth century, capturing students’ attention by adopting an aura of idealism, radicalism, and pacifism. The individualist counterrevolution would have to do the same, assiduously planting individualist thought in the mind of the young, slowly turning the wheel that would change the world’s direction away from collectivism, toward individualism. A return to thoroughgoing individualism culturally could take another fifty years or more, he realized.”