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“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.” -Frédéric Bastiat

As a diehard libertarian at the ever so statist UC Berkeley, it is fair to say that I’ve indulged in an ample serving of political arguments over the years. Tabling on Sproul Plaza, the central hub of the eccentric California campus, always makes for an interesting experience– especially when clad in Students For Liberty gear and holding provocative signs about the day’s hot button issue.

From my argumentative experience, advocates of state intervention tend to boil down complicated policy issues to simplistic narratives to bolster their position. Are you against the minimum wage? Well, then, you’re also against the poor! Not an advocate of universal health care? Then, neither are you an advocate for the impoverished ill! Government cheerleaders conflate opposing a policy to opposing its noble (yet misguided) intention. Every time I find myself on the receiving end of such a passionate punch line, I wait patiently to elucidate the complexity of the issue, to trace how the status quo is the result of failed policies and how further intervention would be, in the words of Robert LeFevre, the “disease” of government “masquerading as its own cure.” Sadly, most of the time my opponent will stomp away with the last word before I even have the chance to open my mouth. Nuance, after all, takes too long to explain. Thus is the central problem with communicating free market ideas.

Libertarians are excellent at peeling the odorous layers of the political onion back to its rotten root of government intervention. However, the trouble arises when communicating the intricate manners in which government polices pollutes society to others. The crux of the problem comes down to the distinction that 18th century economist Frédéric Bastiat made between the “seen” and the “not seen.” Proponents of government intervention typically only consider the “seen” effects of a given policy without taking into account the its unforeseen unintended consequences. Returning to a previous example, advocates of the minimum wage see the policy’s immediate effect of poor workers receiving slightly higher wages. However, they fail to consider the unseen trade-off of higher unemployment the policy brings along, a tragedy that would have Milton Friedman turning in his grave. Sadly, this is just one unintended consequence of one government policy. Every action the state makes has “effects [that] emerge only subsequently,” as Bastiat put it. From foreign military intervention with blowback to the War on Drugs with the violence in Mexico, the list is never-ending.

The problem of the “not seen” can also be seen (no pun intended) in political discourse surrounding the economy. Government interventionists are quick to blame markets for society’s ills because they fail to consider the unseen effects of its shifts. President Barack Obama was guilty of this fallacy recently when he implied that technology such as ATM machines cause unemployment because “businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers.” While the immediate effect of bank tellers losing their jobs to an ATM is seen in the President’s example, what is not seen is the money saved by customers and employers to spend on more goods and services. Thus, contrary to Obama’s beliefs, this penny-pinching process actually spurs economic growth, as excellently explained in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by economist Russell Roberts. While the unseen is easily understood by libertarian geeks with a passion for free market economics, it becomes difficult to communicate this idea to bleeding hearts with closed minds and short attention spans.

Thus, I believe that the main obstacle to achieving a free society is a comprehensive one. Pundits and politicians are too quick to jump on the legislative bandwagon because they fail to understand the damaging skid marks their veering carriage leaves behind. The only solution in my mind is to somehow make the “not seen” seen, as paradoxical as it sounds. Libertarians must convey the harmfulness of government intervention and helpfulness of market forces to the masses in a concise and effective manner, without requiring a reading of the collected works of F.A. Hayek. But, how can one make the blind see? It is to that question I will not give the pretense of knowledge.

What do you think?
Do libertarians necessarily have to make the “not seen” seen to affect change in politics and achieve a free society? If so, what is the most effective technique to accomplish this enormous task?

The Foundation For A Free Society has realeased a video titled The Philosophy of Liberty: Plunder, which is based on Frederic Bastiat’s concept of legal plunder. Is it ok for the government to forcibly take your property and give it to someone else? Watch the video and find out!

This video is the follow-up to their first video, The Philosophy of Liberty: Property.

Over the past few days the libertarian and progressive internet communities have been in a tizzy over a recent Slate article by Stephen Metcalf on The Liberty Scam, Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired.

This post is not a rebuttal to Metcalf’s article or a defense of Nozick.  Those have already been well stated by David Boaz, Aaron Powell, and Jason Kuznicki at Cato, Will Wilkinson at The Economist, Professor Steven Horwitz at Coordination Problem,  and summed up by Matt Welch at Reason to name a few.  This article has been fisked more thoroughly than anything I have seen on the internet in a while.

Essentially, Metcalf’s article is a snide explanation as to why Robert Nozick’s work is important for the libertarian philosophy and movement, examines and critiques a few of his arguments, and attempts to refute libertarianism on the basis that Nozick later changed his mind (not true).  It is much less a fair treatment of Nozick (it is full of factual inaccuracies and stereotypes, see the links above) and more an attempt to get progressives rilled up about fighting against libertarians.

As far as I can tell from reading various historical sources, Metcalf’s description of the importance of Robert Nozick and Anarchy, State, and Utopia is correct.  His publication of that work was a game changer, a Harvard philosopher authoring a robust defense of libertarianism and individual rights.  It helped change the general perception of libertarianism from that of a fringe movement to a political philosophy that deserved serious attention. The modern libertarian movement would not be where it is today without him and his work.

To me, the important takeaway from the article is growing trend from progressive-leaning media outlets, attacking libertarianism as libertarianism.  This is a good thing! It is significant because the standard strategy from the left has been to either ignore the philosophy of liberty or to discredit it by lumping it in with conservatism.  Libertarians on most college campuses have likely heard an argument similar to “conservatives are wrong, and libertarians are just more extreme conservatives, ergo libertarianism must be wrong”.  While this argument is both factually incorrect and intellectually dishonest, it is still something we libertarians have to work to overcome on a daily basis.

This is why I see articles like Metcalf’s as a positive for libertarians.  It means that some progressives are treating libertarianism as a distinct philosophy that they need to address.  It is a continuation of the trend that Nozick boosted in the 70s.  Due to the work of countless advocates, organizations, academics, and activists, the ideas of liberty are seen as a viable threat to the status quo.

At Students For Liberty this has always been one of our core goals, to promote the ideas of liberty in a way that positions them as a viable alternative to the orthodoxy of the intellectual and public debates.  We treat liberty as its own entity, not philosophically or strategically tied to any other ideology.  Metcalf’s article and others like it is proof that our strategy is working.  Both the progressive and conservative establishment now see libertarianism as a threat.  As the ranks of libertarians grow and our ideas continue to gain acceptance I would expect to see many more of these types of attacks in the months and years to come.  Again, this is a good thing.

The International Policy Network (IPN) is now accepting submissions for its Tenth Bastiat Prize for Journalism. In celebration of its tenth anniversary, this year’s prize will have a total prize fund of $70,000, with a First prize of $50,000, Second prize of $15,000 and Third prize of $5,000.

The Prize is open to writers anywhere in the world whose published articles eloquently and wittily explain, promote and defend the principles and institutions of the free society.

Submissions must be received on or before July 31, 2011. All submissions must be made through the online entry form found here.

Please note that this year IPN has established a new Hoiles Prize for Regional Journalism and will not be running a separate online prize. Authors of blogs and other online articles are encouraged to enter either the Bastiat Prize or the Hoiles Prize.

In its first nine years, the Bastiat Prize has attracted over 1,500 entrants from more than 50 countries. Winners of the first nine Bastiat Prizes were:
2002: Amity Shlaes and Sauvik Chakraverti
2003: Brian Carney
2004: Robert Guest
2005: Mary Anastasia O’Grady
2006: Tim Harford and Jamie Whyte
2007: Amit Varma
2008: Bart Hinkle
2009: John Hasnas
2010: Bret Stephens

Further rules and information can be found here.

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the
fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

An endearing (enviable?) characteristic of my socialist classmates emerges prominently whenever I begin a conversation: their idealistic vision of society develops the social, economic and political opinions they hold. Any pragmatic or realistic restrictions placed upon their vision is secondary to foundational ideals because of a pre-occupation with what should be rather than what is.

This is not to deride idealism as irrelevant and destructive of progress; to the contrary, idealism precipitates activism that alters society and develops a movement. When individuals constantly look toward heaven, to that ideal society, it is an invigoration of sorts which inspires action and thought. As Isaac Morehouse and Christopher Nelson have written, “ideas precede and are necessary for action.  Radical ideas are perhaps the most valuable of all.  Acting without a clear idea of what you are combating and what you are hoping to achieve is irresponsible and certainly reduces the likelihood of success.” Indeed, socialism accomplished (and continues to accomplish) much because of the brave new world it purports to establish and free individuals from overpowering societal constructs. Without idealism, socialism could not have wielded such great influence.

Libertarians tend to be a cynical and skeptical bunch. A heavy economic emphasis, coupled with a derisive (if not hostile) attitude toward government action, usually fails to produce a wild-eyed wonder bordering on childish naïveté. However, maybe a shift in emphasis from economic analysis toward idealism and what society should be is desirable. If we act as reactionaries and fail to present a revolutionary vision, why should anyone care?

Abolitionists in the 19th century did not develop an anti-slavery sentiment throughout the United States by rooting their arguments in slavery being economically inefficient and retarding growth; anti-slavery sentiment grew because of sound moral arguments against the abhorrent idea of owning an individual and controlling an individual’s life. The ideal of liberty and equality precipitated change, not a pragmatic argument critiquing the cost of slavery.

Libertarians should focus more on our heaven, on what society we truly desire to live in and develop. Pragmatic considerations are valid, of course, but only after that ideal society is comprehended. A society where individuals act voluntarily to assist or patronize others, rather than compelled by taxation; a society where individuals may pursue their desires within a capitalist system or a socialist system; a society that is inclusive and rejects fetters put upon individuals by intrusive laws, economic systems, and our own luxury: Such idealism is worthy of a movement to support its aims.

Anarchists are often caricatured and maligned, their radical and idealistic ideas being cannon fodder for insults and an occasional critique. Valid criticisms of anarchism exist (as with any other philosophy), but it misses the point: all philosophies are idealistic to a certain extent and a lack of idealism in any movement may be a foreshadowing of a dying philosophy (conservatism and liberalism come to mind). Minarchists tend to be just as idealistic, along with conservatives, liberals and socialists, the difference being that anarchist idealism is simply less culturally acceptable. However, the radicalism of anarchism remains highly inspirational and its conception of Utopia continually pushing the philosophical debate.

A philosophy advocating partial, gradual reform of existing society is a weak motivator when compared with a philosophy advocating a radical alteration of society. If a movement or philosophy settles on earth and forgets heaven, the utility of its existence is questionable. Libertarianism as a philosophy motivates me not from its rigorous philosophical defenses of lower taxes and a free market as a path to prosperity, but from its Utopian vision of heaven that attempts to foster and develop a framework for individuals to achieve and fulfill their desires. Libertarianism can only grow as a result of its moral, philosophical and spiritual arguments for a better society; an economic, utilitarian argument is valuable in as much as it may demonstrate how a libertarian society would prosper and function.

“One day…I saw a striped snake run into the water, and he lay on the bottom, apparently without inconvenience, as long as I stayed there, or more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state. It appeared to me that for a like reason men remain in their present low and primitive condition; but if they should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them, they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life.”

-Henry David Thoreau, Walden.

An undue emphasis on idealism may lead to stagnation, retreatism or irrelevance, but without a vigorous idealistic vision to drive individuals, they (and society), like Thoreau’s snake, will remain in a torpid state, never entering heaven.

To read more of Anthony Hennen’s writing, check out his blog here.