Where friends of liberty probably need to go from here


By Jim Powell

Although President Obama continues to dominate national debates and intimidate opponents on Capitol Hill, we need to remind ourselves that pro-liberty movements have achieved stunning successes in circumstances more difficult than what we face now.

Consider the movement that became the war for American Independence (1775-1783), the movement to achieve equal rights for women (1848-1920), the movement to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere (1787-1888) and the movement to abolish compulsory racial segregation in the United States (1955-1965).  I talk about these and other movements in my e book The Fight For Liberty.

How do these movements compare with what’s happening today?  What can we learn from them and what, if anything, should we do differently?

Successful movements have a number of features in common.  Here are 6 take-aways:

First, the primary mission of a movement is generating continuous pressure on politicians to support specific policy changes by drumming up public support for them.  Successful movements are independent of political parties.  Movements keep going when election-related activities grind to a halt, and losing candidates vanish to lick their wounds.

Second, a desired policy agenda should be something simple that everybody can remember.  Ronald Reagan had the right idea when he based his 1980 campaign on four main points – cut taxes, stop inflation, deregulate the economy and rebuild national defense.  Mitt Romney’s 59 point plan was the wrong idea — how many people could name a single one of his points?

Third, since there are so many people whose self-interest favors ever higher government spending and a government-run economy, we need overwhelming support from those who pay for all this.  We cannot afford to lose many of their votes.  The most basic, easily agreed-on policy agenda would be to stop runaway government spending and unconstitutional government power.  These drive many other issues.

Fourth, moral appeals can motivate multitudes to take action.  That’s why all the historic movements for liberty were based on moral appeals, and many anti-liberty campaigns were based on moral appeals, too.  Obama based his class warfare campaign on moral appeals (“unfairness”), and his base showed up at the polls.  Romney didn’t base his campaign on moral appeals, he was incapable of dealing with Obama’s, and his base stayed home.

Fifth, there needs to be more coordination among the large number of groups promoting liberty, if their shared goals are to stand a chance against all the interest groups promoting runaway spending and bigger government.  We can’t expect the kind of transformation we want if we are both outnumbered and uncoordinated.

Sixth, it’s important to take a long-term view.  The more ambitious desired policy changes are, the more resistance there’s sure to be, and the longer it will take to succeed.  The movement to achieve equal rights for women lasted 72 years, and the movement to abolish slavery in the Western Hemisphere lasted101 years. These movements were successful, because enough people were committed to keep going until key goals were achieved.

By contrast, recently when I tried contacting Tea Party organizers and coordinators around the country, many couldn’t be reached because phone numbers were no longer in service or email addresses were invalid.  Others never answered.  The people I reached generally said they weren’t active anymore.  At Tea Party websites I checked, a substantial portion of individuals were listed as organizers or coordinators for as little as three weeks. In my sampling, only two states – Texas and Florida – appeared to have a high level of Tea Party activity.  The 9/12 Project reported thousands of participants, but most appear to have joined in 2009.   Bottom line: If what we have is mainly people available to help out in an election campaign, we don’t really have a movement.

I’m not criticizing anyone.  For a decade, I served on an independent school’s board, where a lot depended on volunteers, so I’m well aware that volunteers do as much as they can, and there are good reasons – not least, family and work obligations — why they cannot do more.  I also understand that an election campaign is important and exciting, and after it’s over people need to catch their breath.

Nonetheless, persistent grassroots activity is crucial if liberty is to be defended.  Activity limited mainly to an election campaign won’t accomplish much.  Remember that Obama has kept his campaign organization going, so that he can aggressively promote more spending and bigger government.

It’s not a good sign that so many people seem preoccupied with goings-on in Washington — what Obama will do next and how Republicans might respond.  Our eye should be on the states to see what’s being done to win more support for a pro-liberty agenda.  Nothing good is likely to happen in Washington or any other capital unless there’s persistent, popular pressure for it.

To some degree, we’re in a humble place, what the 20th century individualist author Albert Jay Nock called “the remnant.”  We’re keeping a vision of liberty alive, so it could be passed on to the next generation.  Throughout history, there have been many times when precious knowledge has been saved only because a few people did something to preserve it, like the Irish monks who made copies of precious ancient manuscripts.

The process of building more support for liberty is slow, but it works.  Each one of us has a “sphere of influence” where, with family members, relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow students and/or co-workers, we can ask questions and make points.  A person’s thinking is more likely to be affected by a thoughtful conversation than a melodramatic campaign speech.

I have been heartened to see so many people eagerly absorbing facts, improving arguments and building friendships as they participate in local meetups, pro-liberty book clubs, discussion groups, campus groups like Students for Liberty, outfits such as FreedomWorks that facilitate meetups and think tanks like the Cato Institute that provide a wide range of educational conferences, seminars, websites, podcasts, reports, periodicals and books.

In addition, guerrilla journalists can influence opinion by reporting stories that relate a movement’s mission – stories not covered in the mainstream media.  Such stories might be about how government squanders people’s money, how government programs harm those who were supposed to have been helped, how government officials assault people’s liberties and how politicians exempt themselves and their cronies from laws forced on everyone else.

All these efforts to inform, educate and persuade, increasing the number of people who support a pro-liberty agenda, are the core of a successful movement.  They, more than campaign workers, will determine how many pro-liberty politicians are elected and how much the politicians will accomplish, because there’s only so much campaign workers can do if few voters share a candidate’s views.

One thing we know from long historical experience is that governments always want more power, and they never willingly give it up.  The people who gain their liberty are those who fight long and hard and smart enough.  Hopefully, that’s us.


Jim Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of The Fight For Liberty, Critical Lessons from Liberty’s Greatest Champions of the Last 2,000 Years (2012), as well as FDR’s Folly (2003), Wilson’s War (2005), Bully Boy (2006) and Greatest Emancipations (2008).  He has also written for Forbes, Barron’s, Money, National Review, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and FoxNews Online, among other outlets.