Presley argues that libertarians will be more persuasive if they actively support private alternatives to government poverty programs.

Sharon Presley, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and co‐​editor of Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre. She is editor of Libertarianism and Feminism: Individualist Perspectives on Women, Men, and the Family, an anthology in progress. As a social psychologist, her specialties are gender studies and obedience and resistance to authority. A long‐​time libertarian activist, she is the co‐​founder of Laissez Faire Books. Her articles have appeared in Reason, Liberty, and other libertarian magazines.

In a previous essay here, I wrote about how libertarians need to do more than just talk about the libertarian‐​pie‐​in‐​the‐​sky‐​by‐​and‐​by. I noted that we need to talk about actually existing private alternatives to government solutions, not just historical ones. But if libertarians are to be taken seriously, and not erroneously characterized as heartless monsters who only care about themselves, we need to do more than just talk: we need to walk the walk.

Merely saying the free market will take of problem X won’t be persuasive to many. We need to be doing something about X right now. If the free market and a free society are supposed to be the answer, who is it that is doing the answering? The invisible hand? But what or who is the invisible hand? It’s us. Individuals acting to solve problems and to help others. If all we do is say “oh, the market will solve these problems,” and do nothing to help make it happen, then who will? Yet, when it comes down to working, volunteering, donating, organizing—suddenly almost everyone disappears.

If we do nothing, we become hypocrites. Hypocrites are quickly spotted and convince no one.

Part of the problem is the kind of mentality that many libertarians have. Perhaps some of you saw the post about Matt Ridley’s commentary on the Jonathan Haidt study of political activists, including libertarians (emphasis mine):

Perhaps more intriguingly, when libertarians reacted to moral dilemmas and in other tests, they displayed less emotion, less empathy and less disgust than either conservatives or liberals. They appeared to use “cold” calculation to reach utilitarian conclusions about whether (for instance) to save lives by sacrificing fewer lives. They reached correct, rather than intuitive, answers to math and logic problems, and they enjoyed ‘effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks’ more than others do.

The researchers found that libertarians had the most “masculine” psychological profile, while liberals had the most feminine, and these results held up even when they examined each gender separately, which “may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women.”

People deficient in empathy and emotion are not going to be good at persuading others. They will have no idea how to persuade others in effective ways. They will keep on thinking that the answer is to preach abstract ideas. But the average person wants practical answers, not theory. They respond best to emotional appeals, not rational principles. If you don’t believe me, read The Political Brain by Drew Westin. It’s based on solid research. His conclusion: emotional appeals are the one that work best. If that makes you balk, let me point out here that emotional appeals can be based on reason. Even Ayn Rand thought the two could be compatible.

If you want to make an emotional appeal, it helps to show that you’re willing to do something yourself. It shows you aren’t all talk, even if your talk is ultimately correct. Compared to libertarians, left wingers have been much better at this. They have started food coops, worker‐​owned companies, nonprofits that help women start their own businesses, health care collectives. There are hundreds of examples. What do libertarians do that is comparable?

Libertarians need to be more actively involved in creating, supporting, and participating in private alternative solutions. Some are helping already through volunteer work or charitable contributions. A few do it through their own organizations, like the now‐​defunct Mothers Institute, which used to give out scholarships for home‐​schooling parents, or the Morefield Storey Institute, which has a small microloan program. The new Seasteading Institute is trying to provide a complete model community. Some left libertarians and anarchists are starting small mutual aid organizations such as SMART (“Sovereign Mutual Aid Response Teams”). There are even a few practical institutions, like The Institute for Justice (“IJ”) and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (“FIRE”), that many movement libertarians are likely to know about already.

What can libertarians do? Here are a few suggestions for helping foster the private alternatives we claim will work better than the government.

  1. Promote private social services.
    Inform yourself. Then get active in your local community promoting these ideas. Here is my reading list for getting started.
  2. Promote libertarian work alternatives
    Get involved in your local community. Help organize or contribute to food, health and job coops, or even worker‐​owned companies.
  3. Contribute to and/​or volunteer for private alternatives to government social services.
    I hope I don’t have to convince anyone here that benevolence is a good thing, but it’s a topic worth exploring at some length.

Here is what the late libertarian philosopher Tibor Machan has to say about the virtue of benevolence. Speaking from the viewpoint of what philosophers call “virtue ethics,” he wrote in his book Generosity: Virtue in Civil Society (published by Cato):

If we choose or have cultivated the inclination to act benevolently toward others, who are themselves sociable, then our potential for fulfilling our social capacities will be realized. If we do not, we will remain arrested, truncated, limited in how far we go in developing ourselves.…The beneficiary of generous conduct is not, as noted before, benefiting from some duty or obligation—the respect of his rights as a child or a citizen or a party to a contract. Rather the beneficiary is benefiting from a respect bearing on his individual circumstances—what he might enjoy, need or want…

Generosity, then, is a good trait because practicing it makes us more at home with the world. By bestowing upon some others various goods, such as time we have to spare, skills they could use, some article of value or money, we contribute to the positive upkeep and improvement of the community that can make a more hospitable setting for our life. We may not be making extreme sacrifices by being generous, but we are going beyond the call of duty or obligation, we thus contribute to an atmosphere of congeniality, a fulfilled human life.

In other words, it makes the community a better and more pleasant place to live.

What kind of society do you want to live in—one where people are generous and nice to each other as a matter of course, or one where only the “chosen few” are regarded as worthy of any attention or concern? One where people are benevolent or one where anyone who doesn’t agree with you is regarded as an “outsider” not worthy of talking to, let alone worthy of your benevolence? Where people are nice, or mean? Kind or arrogant?

I know what I choose. Yet I worry that things are heading the other way. I see a nasty trend in the libertarian movement toward the survivalist me‐​against‐​the‐​world mentality, toward bullying and holier‐​than‐​thou arrogance. I don’t want to live in that kind of society. Do you? Then don’t be that kind of person.

One way you can exemplify a better type of libertarian, a better type of person, is philanthropy.

“The word philanthropy may conjure up images of wealthy donors who build entire hospitals and wings of universities, endow foundations, and vow to buy a laptop for every child in the developing world. But you don’t have to give like a Rockefeller for your contribution (even if it’s less than the price of that proverbial cup of coffee) to make an impact, because when you choose wisely, good can come from whatever resources you can give. An everyday philanthropist evolves not by the amount or nature of the gist, but simply by the habit of giving.” (How to Be an Everyday Philanthropist, p. 181)

Here are only some of the possibilities. None of them requires large donations. Give whatever you can afford:


  1. Kiva​.org. Donate $25+ and you’ll get email updates from them. You pick a person in need from their vetted list and give them a loan. It has a 98.31% repayment rate.
  2. Grameen Foundation. Started by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus, one of its important values is seeking to empower the world’s poor, especially the poorest women. It also has a high repayment rate.
  3. Moorfield Storey Institute. This is run by libertarian James Peron. It gives out small microloans to help others help themselves.

Giving “a hand up, not a handout”

  1. Modest Needs is a nonprofit that helps prevent otherwise financially self‐​sufficient people from entering the cycle of poverty. According to its website: “Modest Needs is a national nonprofit empowering members of the general public to make small, emergency grants to low income workers who are at risk of slipping into poverty. Since 2002, Modest Needs’ donors have stopped the cycle of poverty for 13,042 hard‐​working individuals and families that conventional philanthropy otherwise had forgotten.” You can make donations to specific people in need in whatever amount you can afford.
  2. Food for All is a UK organization that “is a registered London charity distributing 1,000 enriched nutritional meals 6 days a week to the most deprived people locally.” There is also a branch in Washington, DC.
  3. FirstGiving encourages you to set up a fund‐​raising page for your nonprofit with help from this organization. According to its website: “Empower your supporters to become life long fundraisers and cause ambassadors through peer‐​to‐​peer fundraising.”
  4. The authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide have a website where people can donate to help poor women to help themselves.
  5. And let us not forget libertarian‐​owned Whole Foods. Many of its stores collect donations for charities. Check the link to see if the store near you is on the list.

Social networking

  1. At Idealist, thousands trade ideas, post charity events, interact with others who want to make the world a better place. Create your own community. According to its website 115,075 organizations use Idealist.
  2. Start your own organization that will help your community.

Existentialist author Albert Camus called standing up for what you believe in “being a witness.” Let your own life be a witness to the power of individuals caring about each other instead of depending on Big Brother Government. If we want to convince others that a libertarian free society can work, we have to be able to point to practical existing alternatives to government “solutions.” We also have to practice what we preach and be involved. We have to model libertarianism in our deeds, not just our words. The pen may be mightier than the sword, as Camus said, but actions speak even louder.