November 3, 2011 columns

Spreading the Ideas of Liberty

Trevor Burrus discusses his perspective and philosphical interests.

I’m Trevor. I’ve been close friends with Aaron, the creator of this website, for over a decade and we have spent much of that time ruminating together on questions of justice, freedom, and ethics, and perhaps the occasional foray into the age-old question of who’s better, Daredevil or Batman. It is incredibly exciting, if not a little surreal, to have the opportunity to carry on some of those conversations and thoughts here.

For my “day job,” so to speak, I am a Legal Associate at Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies. But a fondness for the law is not just a vocation, it is an avocation. Specifically, I am a huge fan of The Law (capital “T” and “L”) and not so much a fan of laws, which tend to be annoying, mass produced, and a little tawdry. Much of what I have to contribute to this site will concern The Law and how it relates to political theory. I am particularly interested in the history of law and the evolution of the state, so expect to see some material on those topics. My interests are hardly confined, however, and expect to see material on a broad range of topics.  

Libertarianism.org is an exciting and quintessentially libertarian project. If there is one thing that libertarians love to do it is proselytize. Libertarians have a lot to say, whether it is an 18-year-old Randian wanting you to know how much Atlas Shrugged changed his life, or a breathless economist testifying before Congress trying his best to get them to understand that the money they’re injecting into the economy as “stimulus” was originally taken out of the economy as taxes. But there is another, more foundational reason that we love to proselytize: because most of us believe that convincing others is one of the only justifiable ways to advance our policies.

If you think about it, this is somewhat unique. Libertarianism is a political theory that largely decries the use of force against others. Historically, most political theories have used coercion to create better citizens for their form of government. In the most extreme instances, this entails repressive, autocratic regimes such as North Korea and the Soviet Union clamping down on all information and completely controlling education and media.

But even less repressive political philosophies use the state to control information and affect the beliefs of their citizens. Controlling public education has always been a popular method for producing “good citizens” and, in America, both the left and the right use public education accordingly. The right decries the lack of God in school as a central cause of decadent modern American culture; the left has pushed environmentalism, positive thinking, and multiculturalism. And both sides loved D.A.R.E.

In some sense, libertarianism makes it difficult on itself by denying, on principle, the use of such tactics. If we are to live in a freer, more libertarian society, we must do it through voluntary education. Many great sites already exist to help teach the ideas of a free society: FEE, the Institute for Humane Studies’s LearnLiberty, and Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty. I hope we can contribute to this already excellent set of resources.

Forward to the future.