TCS Daily

Cheerful Libertarianism

By David Brin - October 28, 2002 12:00 AM

Here's a thought that might help freedom-loving men and women win elective office and gain influence over society's future course: Perhaps our fellow citizens aren't fools after all!

Isn't that the central belief of lovers of liberty? The notion that educated free adults can be trusted with matches... not to mention their bank accounts and votes? If the masses are intrinsically stupid - sheep - then the paternalists are right and no future society of maximized freedom will ever be possible.

The fundamental premise of classical liberalism is an assumption that people are basically rational and wise. Yet this flies right in the face of the most common libertarian lament - that those idiots out there keep electing statists and every resulting policy has been just plain awful.

One of these two deeply held beliefs will have to go!

My advice? Distrust the one that feels too good to be true - contempt. It's a delusional addictive drug. Your enemies wallow in it, why join them? We should let it go.

Consider instead the possibility that your fellow citizens have been doing pretty damned well with the crude tools at hand. Rising up out of the Cro-Magnon ooze, then shrugging off the tyranny of chiefs and kings and priests and magicians and clerks and robbers of all kinds, they have somehow managed to build the first civilization that raised millions of... libertarians!

So grit your teeth and then chew on this: Your fellow citizens have been doing the best they can.

Maybe the bulky government they've repeatedly voted for isn't intrinsically vile, but instead an awkward, intermediate necessity - one that's come a long the way from feudalism toward the world of open opportunity that we hope our brainy, hyper-educated grandchildren will take for granted. From the old implicit social contract toward one that each sovereign individual is fully capable - and empowered - to negotiate afresh for herself or himself.

Instead of railing how stupid our fellow citizens have been, Cheerful Libertarianism congratulates them on how far they managed to come using such gross and inefficient tools! During a century when communists and fascists and religious fanatics waved vicious-hypnotic ideological romanticisms around, Americans chose instead to follow Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Hey, they were statists, but we got the roads and dams and universities, managed to end Jim Crow and got cleaner air... all without crushing entrepeneurialism to death.

That's worth some grudging respect. No others who wielded that kind of state power ever showed such restraint, or came close to striking a balance - striving pragmatically to get both the left and right hand to do their stuff, without falling (entirely) for the old traps of blanket confiscature, cronyism or state micromanagement. No other statists achieved so much while leaving so many entrepreneurs running around loose to do their own thing. Compared to other statists... well... they sure stunk less.

"Only now" (libertarians should cleverly add!) "it's time to outgrow those complicated and coercive, bureaucracy-heavy tools!"

For example, instead of railing against public education in principle, how about using the following argument:

"Universal education in state schools helped uplift prior generations out of illiterate class systems - we admit it!

"Only now our higher standards and needs and wants have far outstripped the ability of those old-fashioned public schools to deliver. Yes, we have these higher standards because public education helped get us this high. We admit the irony! Nevertheless, it's obvious that the old model of public education is now dragging at the ankles of our rising ambitions. It won't get us any higher! Lack of choice is preventing further progress by stifling educational innovations that might arise out of competition.

"As a general principle, we argue that - with rising sophistication - people can move on to simpler and more mature synergies that make progressively less use of coercive state power, leveraging against individual effort more and more as time goes on.

"And yes, this will benefit the poor as well. We are absolutely counting on that.

"Give us a chance to try some experiments and prove it!"

People might actually vote for such a message. A message that congratulates them for their past success with crude tools, while insisting that the future should be different. A message filled with ideas that are pragmatic, incremental, even accepting of compromise, yet always applying pressure in the direction of less coercion, less bureaucracy and more reliance on the creativity of autonomous human beings.

One thing is certain - the present default stance of contemptuously railing at voters isn't working. They do not - and won't ever - cast ballots for candidates who call them fools, repeating the standard, self-righteous rant. That's a product that consumers have repeatedly rejected in the open market of politics.

Oh, it's a silly rant, yammering that this gentle, prosperous, tolerant, improving civilization is actually a cesspit of brutality and despair. Oh please. Yes, the rant feels good. But really, isn't it time to choose between the indignant drug-high of old-fashioned romanticism and the can-do spirit of getting things done?

Let's replace the failed harangue with a message offering our fellow citizens both our congratulations for all they have accomplished and a wave of fresh ideas. Ideas offering hope that we can rise even faster toward a future of freedom and opportunity for all.

Excerpted and adapted from remarks given before a recent Libertarian Party convention. For a more extended version see

David Brin's bestselling science fiction novels have won
Hugo, Nebula and other awards and have been translated into 20 languages. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the Web. A 1998 movie was loosely adapted from his Campbell Award winner - The Postman, while Foundation's Triumph brought a grand finale to Isaac Asimov's famed Foundation Universe. Kiln People portrays people using 'home copiers' to be in two places at once. David's non-fiction book - The Transparent Society - won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

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