Does Freedom Need to Be Organized?

by Carl Watner
From Number 34 – October 1988

In a recent book review* of John Henry Mackay’s The Freedom Seeker, Murray Rothbard noted that the author became more “passive or quietist” in his strategy over the years. This quietism, Rothbard observed

is, I believe, a blind alley for anarchists or libertarians. If individuals wish to improve or redeem themselves, they should, so to speak, do so on their own time, and not bother the rest of us. Trying to achieve social goals, such as total freedom and private property, by this route is a task for Sisyphus. It gets nowhere. Attaining a free society, like any other goal, requires organization. Anarchists must organize themselves to spread the message and to work toward their goals in the real social world. Contact must be made with the masses of fellow-citizens, and alliances made on the basis of issues of common agreement with those who have not achieved the full libertarian position, but are willing to collaborate on more specific goals. In short, it is incumbent on individual anarchists to leave their self-imposed sectarian holes and to forge out into the real world. They should seek to move the world consciously and as rapidly as possible, toward their cherished goals.

While Rothbard’s comments are offered as an aside, voluntaryists must challenge Rothbard on his continued insistence that we “organize.” Even without clear definitions of “quietism” or “organization,” let us note Rothbard’s deprecation of self-education and self-improvement. The Voluntaryist has consistently maintained that such virtues are the prerequisites to the achievement of spiritual freedom and physical liberty. Effective and long-lasting improvement in human affairs must begin with the individual. Reform begins with the individual because society is never better or worse than the persons who compose it, for they in fact are it. As Frank Chodorov once put it,

The only ‘constructive’ idea that I can in all conscience advance, then, is that the individual put his trust in himself, not in power; that he seek to better his understanding and lift his values to a higher and still higher levels; that he assume responsibility for his behavior and not shift his responsibility to committees, organizations, and, above all, a superpersonal state. Such reforms as are necessary will come of themselves when, or if, men act as intelligent and responsible human beings. There cannot be a ‘good’ society until there are ‘good men.’ (emphasis added) (ANALYSIS, July 1949.)

Bob LeFevre attributed to Rose Wilder Lane the saying that “freedom is self-control.” By this she meant that each person must learn to control his or her self so as to not interfere with the physical liberty of others. Freedom for all thus becomes a by-product or derivative of self-control. As each person assumes true self-government, there no longer is any need for any attempt at external governing. As LeFevre wrote in his article on “The Stoic Virtues,” “if individual men can be made right, society, a mere gathering of men, will be right of necessity.” Thus, the voluntaryist way of changing society is to concentrate upon bettering the character of men and women, as individuals. We refer to this as the,”quiet” or “patient” way since it focuses on the individual units of our social structure. As the individual units change, the improvement of the structure will take care of itself. Or as we have constantly observed, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”

The problem that we face is not really how to get rid of the State, but rather the longer range one of how to prevent another one from taking its place. That is why we must encourage individuals to seek self-enlightenment. There can be no backlash from this approach. It requires patience because the feedback loop, in ideological endeavors is a long one. We are not pointing toward a specific goal to be reached, but rather voluntaryism, with its emphasis on means, is simply pointing toward a direction to be taken. Whatever progress we make is to be measured by education and character building, not violence or votes. This is the only way that what tiny progress we may make will be permanent and not have to be done all over again by those who come later.

Rothbard’s insistence on “organizing” should also be criticized on the grounds that most organizations suffer from an inner contradiction or internal inconsistency. Generally, “when we create a structure to achieve a public mission, more time is spent on the structure than on the mission.” Although Sam Steiger, the Arizona politician familiar to some libertarians, made this observation, others have noted this same tendency. For example, historian Carroll Quigley in his book, The Evolution of Civilizations, describes the practice of “every social organization to become a vested-interest institution more concerned with its efforts to maintain itself or advance its own interests than to achieve the purpose that society expects it to achieve.” (p. 34) As evidence, he mentions fraternities (originally intended to promote student fellowship, but often dividing students into competitive cliques), and the institutionalization of football (originally intended to provide exercise for undergraduates, but which is now one of the great spectator sports). In each case the organization begins with a devotion to a purpose and somehow along the way turns away from that purpose and gradually becomes a collection of special interests. Surely libertarians are not immune from this tendency!

Rose Wilder Lane, in her correspondence with Jasper Crane in The Lady and the Tycoon, pointed out that people in organizations “tend to work for the existence and the expansion of the organization rather than for the organization’s ‘purposes’.” Non-profit libertarian organizations received some of her harshest criticisms. First of all she noted the inconsistency of advocating free enterprise while operating on a not-for profit basis. At least the profit motive offers an organization a measurable goal. The emphasis is upon achievement (building a certain number of cars, etc.). According to Mrs. Lane, groups of persons who possess money, unrelated to the profit and loss picture, may have a certain type of power, but they also become impotent to achieve their goals. Many of the major changes in history have been brought about by the “poor and powerless;” people who act “not for money, not for power, but ‘from’ a conviction of truth so strong that it compels them to action.” In defense of her thesis she cited both the Moslem conquest of the then “civilized” world in the 8th and 9th Centuries and the American revolution of the 18th Century. Both, in her opinion, were brought about by individuals who acted on their beliefs, rather than by people who formed organizations to spend money for intangible purposes. Mrs. Lane concluded that “it isn’t money that moves the world; it is faith, conviction, ardor, fanaticism in ‘action’.”

It is human action that creates human history; and human action comes from individual belief, purpose, will. None of these can be bought. It is the individual’s belief, purpose, will that’s needed. Not an organization, a suitable staff, transportation, printing presses, expert public relations men, etc., etc., etc. IF the belief and purpose exist, in time they will succeed. ‘An army of principles will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.’ If they do not exist, no funds, organization, staff, etc., etc., etc., will do anything at all – but waste the money.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, just as changing society must begin with each one of us. This is a very slow process, one with which we must not become impatient. We must be satisfied with concentrating on mastering our own self-control and with explaining to others why they should govern themselves. The truths of the world – if they are truly truth – do not, never have, and never will require an organization to support and promulgate them. Freedom does not need to be organized.
* “A Review” by Murray N. Rothbard in The Storm, No. 16-17, 1986-1987. Available for $5 from:
The MacKay Society, Box 131, Ansonia Station, New York, New York 10023.