Plug In to Freedom
by Ari Armstrong, October 29, 2003
The statist model of society is top-down, imposed order. The market model is often described as spontaneous order or dispersed power. Which model best serves libertarian sociopolitical goals?
True, some market activities require large organizational structures because of economies of scale in certain industries. For example, while production advances might eventually make possible single-person auto manufacturing firms, today cars are made in fairly large factories. That said, libertarians support the truly free market, not today's state-industrial complex in which corporations are given special privileges and entrenched by reams of regulations and armies of bureaucrats.
For marketeers, society is composed of autonomous individuals, and business structures are secondary consequences of free personal interactions. Libertarians want a world of open labor markets, rapidly advancing technology and capital formation, and relative economic security found when politicians quit screwing up the economy and taxing people to death. In such a world, people are fundamentally in control of their own destinies. People cooperate when it's mutually advantageous, and social structures are relatively fluid and dynamic.
How does this apply to social activism? One phrase that has become popular among libertarians is, "let a thousand flowers bloom." I quite like that notion, which suggests each of us can contribute something unique and beautiful to the landscape of freedom, while retaining the autonomy to "bloom" according to our own personalities.
I think an even better model is what I think of as the "plug-in model." We each control the sphere of our own activity, and we are able to connect with others when doing so seems mutually advantageous. We "plug in" to specific projects and particular groups. These ties may be limited in scope and time.
Yet some libertarians implicitly reject the plug-in model in favor of the centralization model. Some libertarians simply give up on social activism, thereby downplaying their personal efficacy in creating change. Others assume particular large groups must be the most important way to advance liberty. For example, some Libertarian Party members limit their activities to what can be accommodated by the LP, and some attempt to discourage activities that don't mesh with the LP. Some attach an almost mystical quality to the LP, such that, say, running for office as a Republican or Democrat is taboo. Some make conversion a higher priority than cooperation. In general, those who put too much trust in centralized social structures are less open to new, innovative forms of individual action.
From what I've seen, libertarian activism in large groups has accomplished much less than libertarian activism by autonomous, self-driven individuals and small groups. Independent Colorado authors L. Neil Smith and Boston T. Party have accomplished more than the Libertarian Party of Colorado. Ernest Hancock and Marc Victor are leaders in Arizona, with a radio show, the Freedom Summit, and countless individual acts. Even within the LP, most of the work gets done when self-motivated individuals take on particular projects. For example, Libertarian Frank Atwood has "plugged in" with local Republicans and Democrats in an effort to repeal the grocery tax in Littleton.
When "plug in" is our model, we're more likely to see the LP as a strategy, not a religion. We're more likely to find opportunities to form short-term alliances with disparate groups to accomplish specific goals. Thus, we are more likely to form a larger network of friends with whom we can share ideas. We're more likely to take responsibility for our freedom, rather than expect "someone else" to do it and grow cynical when that doesn't happen. "Plugging in" is more interested in process than in specific outcomes. Thus, we're less likely to keep butting our heads against a wall, and more likely to plug in to more useful strategies. Plugging in is more welcoming of competition.
Robert Nozick famously said he supports "capitalist acts among consenting adults." The plug-in model similarly appreciates "freedom-enhancing acts among consenting adults."
In epistemology, realists dismiss subjectivism and intrinsicism and instead adopt a relational model of perception. That is, perception is an interaction between the external world and the individual. Similarly, libertarians reject atomistic individualism just as they reject collectivism. Instead, society is properly understood as a web of autonomous individuals who freely choose to interact with each other. The "plug in" model recognizes the free will of the individual as well as the value of voluntary cooperative ventures. Just as non-relational epistemology often concocts metaphysical "essences" of external entities, so centralization models of society tend to reify social structures, attributing to them powers that really exist only on the individual level.
I want to offer only one small example of how libertarians might "plug in" to freedom. The Colorado Freedom Report is a pretty good vehicle for "plugging." People can join the list or not, contribute articles and letters or not, follow up on ideas for political action or not, as they freely determine. It is a major way I "plug" into political activism. When I was researching the proposal to increase Westminster taxes, it occurred to me that it would be great if a single person at every level of government would spend 5-10 hours a week tracking local issues. If one person in every city, county, and special district spent the time to expose government waste and promote liberty, many abuses could be reigned in. Politicians get a blank check mostly because nobody knows what they're up to, and this is especially true on the local level. Usually the only people who know about illegitimate government expenditures are those who benefit from them. I would love to see various individuals start the Westminster Freedom Report, the Grand Junction Freedom Report, and so on. In a small area, a person could locate most of the freedom-oriented neighbors in a year or two, with some effort. And if the project remains issue-based, not organization-based, it will attract the largest number of supporters, because people can "plug in" only when they wanted to.
Of course, some people have no taste for politics. There are plenty of alternatives, like a local "buck the vote" campaign, a local homeschooling group, or a local charity group that encourages self-responsibility and voluntary aid. The brilliance of the plug-in model is precisely the brilliance of the market economy: I cannot possibly imagine all the cool projects people will come up with.
So down with endless meetings. Down with unnecessary bureaucracy and quasi-religious ceremony. Down with waiting for permission. Down with inflexible organizational ties. Down with cynical apathy.
Plug in, and get busy. Freedom is won an individual at a time.