With the retirement of Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) from the House of Representatives, libertarianism will lose its most famous leader in public office. While Paul plans to stay very active outside of Congress, it will be interesting to see what the future of libertarianism will look like without Paul's presence.
As someone who advocates for libertarian principles to anyone who will listen, supported Paul during his last two presidential campaigns, and been immersed in as much literature, protests, and reflection as possible, I wanted to give my thoughts on the future of an intellectual movement that Paul, perhaps more than anyone in history, has done to spread and popularize.
I have already noticed some in the broad libertarian movement looking towards the presidential race of 2016, the supposed gains made in Congress with Paulian Republicans, and involvement in the political process in general. While I sympathize with the desperation behind much of these short-term answers, libertarianism and politics are like oil and water. Looking to politics, elections, and offices for solutions will only lead to selling out, compromise, and frustration.
Just look at American history. Is there a single U.S. president that left office with the country more libertarian, freer, and more prosperous? There are examples of presidents that did the least amount of damage compared to the rest (Cleveland and Harding come to mind), but even that great classical liberal Thomas Jefferson was so embarrassed of his presidency he left it off of his gravestone. The history of presidents is a history of wars, police states, taxation, welfare, spying, and imprisonment.
A recent story in the New York Times sums up the futility of looking to the White House for anything remotely libertarian. In case of a Romney victory, President Obama was apparently scrambling to write a legal code governing his illegal drone war in the same manner that Obama expanded upon the authoritarian powers former President Bush seized. Would, say, a President Rand Paul or Justin Amash's kill list be more libertarian?
No, the libertarian movement sees the presidency itself as the problem, not as an office that needs a bit of tweaking. This may seem like a radical concept to some, but the idea of society as a self-governing, spontaneous order goes all the way back to at least Lao Tzu in the 6th Century BC. In his classic libertarian work, Tao Te Ching, Tzu recognized that peace and voluntarism are the way of great nations, and by letting go of our desire to coercively control others, human prosperity will flourish.
Peace and prosperity is the great legacy of societies governed by liberty, civil society, and the market, yet as Paul asked in his amazing farewell speech, why is is not more popular and universally accepted? Paul argued that freedom breeds wealth, which breeds politicians eager to redistribute it until we forget how that wealth is produced in the first place.
It's also easy to blame government schools and "the mainstream media" for the lack of understanding for the principles of libertarianism — but this is also where it falls on the rest of us. We must become even better defenders, teachers, and practitioners of these principles. Anyone sympathetic to libertarian thinking knows the common, scaremongering objections that predictably result from skeptics, and a knowledge of history, economics, and philosophy is essential. Read, study, and read some more. With the Internet and the availability of literature, there is no excuse.
Libertarians are often accused of criticizing without offering any solutions, and perhaps that is a fair assessment. But given that there are so many state evils to oppose, we first have to stop doing harm before we can do good. What libertarianism can do is offer non-state alternatives and lead by example. Home-school your children. Practice agorism and mutual-aid whenever you can. When the federal government was predictably absent after Hurricane Sandy, the voluntary civil society swooped in. Live your life as freely as possible in all of your human interactions, and others will follow.
There are some who will never stop loving the chains and shackles imposed upon them, and there is nothing more frustrating than a love and thirst for liberty when others around you applaud and cheer their servitude. But there is a remnant of libertarians out there who likely didn't even know they were libertarians. Paul woke many of them up, and that is what the libertarian movement must continue to do.
Given the obstacles that libertarians are up against — a brutal military empire, a growing police state, corporate media — it is understandable to feel daunted by the task. But as it may turn out, the same technologies that have allowed the state to brutalize and spy on us are now being used against them and in favor of liberty. Individualized cameras now catch police doing what they have always done: looting, abusing, and coercing with impunity. The Internet connects us all together, especially like-minded people and creates a printing press Gutenberg couldn't have imagined. There are even smart phone apps that help protect you from police brutality.
In private hands and in the marketplace, the growth of technology is proving to be a bulwark against the state and will only continue to be so. I am also confident that while many may not be persuaded by the moral and philosophical arguments in favor of a free society, the growth of technology will likely make the state irrelevant, helping to allow the market to circumvent the state and treat people like customers rather than subjects.
And fundamentally, the most important contribution libertarianism holds for the future is the principle that Etienne de La Boetie offered in the early 16th century. Boetie argued that no matter how powerful or brutal a state was, its legitimacy rests on the consent of the people's willingness to take it. Without this consent, a state can crumble and a Hitler turns into nothing more than a crazed, screaming idiot on the sidewalk. Withdrawing consent from the state, in any form, is the most revolutionary thing we can do. Just imagine if no one showed up for an election or soldiers started refusing to kill?
Ignore the state, and always expose it. Just like the market economy has the division of labor that benefits us all, so too do political movements. Whatever one can do to highlight how horrible the state is, the less excuses people have to support it. The future and strength of libertarianism lies in the fact that we offer the most principled and radical undermining of the state's ability to initiate aggression against the innocent and the practical alternatives in a free society. This is strong armor in the battle of ideas and makes the future of libertarianism look optimistic.