NH Liberty Forum 2015March 5–8, Manchester, New Hampshire.
Activism cannot make the world free, it cannot liberate others, because at heart, it consists of struggle, the trap of negative sum games. Passivism can make the world freer — by making one person free: you. It is both more efficient and morally superior. But it also requires a saner approach to yourself, others and the world, grounded in acceptance and understanding. Freedom then appears as a technological problem at root. Many existing technologies are available to use. To further Freedom requires innovating in freedom technologies; we’ll discuss a few challenges and prospects.
This speech was delivered at the New Hampshire Liberty Forum 2015, in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Saturday March 7th 2015.
Today, I’m going to diss activism and promote passivism: In other words, don’t sacrifice yourself to save the world, don’t try so hard to change other people, but make it a priority to improve yourself and your fare.
Isn’t it wonderful, to come to a conference rife with people who are doing activism or think they should be doing more of it, and tell them that activism is by and large bunk?
Of course, the devil is in the details of what I mean by “activism”, and what I mean by “passivism”.
Note that I’m not here to discourage you from doing anything in particular — I’m here to encourage you to step back. I want you to rethink what efforts do or don’t work for what ends, and where your first duty is — to think both in terms of efficiency and morality — and then you’ll take the actions by which you can do most to save the world: those that save yourself.
But first, since this conference is about escaping the unjust oppression of evil-doers, let’s imagine this cross-over remake of two great Hollywood jail-break classics: Cool Hand Luke — and the Shawshank Redemption.
Who here doesn’t know these movies? The protagonists are in prison domineered by evil guards, accused of crimes they haven’t committed or shouldn’t even be crimes. Cool Hand Luke is the rebel who will never bow to authority; sent to years of prison for a petty act of vandalism against so-called “public” property — in the end, he is in prison just because he fails to respect authority. And there he is made to toil with common criminals. He never bows to the guards, ever defiant, despite cruel punishments; and never stops trying to escape, despite even worse punishments — until he ends up killed by the evil prison warden. Different story, in the Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne, an accountant, is wrongly convicted to life in prison for the murder of his wife; he is victimized by both imprisoned criminals and criminal prison guards — until he shows the guards how to dodge taxes and manage their finances, at which point they protect him rather than kill him, and he can live a quiet life managing the prison library.
And so in this cross-over remake, you can imagine every prisoner looking up to Cool Hand Luke every time he sticks it to The Man, cheering every time he escapes, supporting him every time he is caught again. They love him so much, at least for the few months that he lives; and they remember him forever afterwards. He’s the prototypical hero that activists aspire to be: always standing straight, never giving up, never surrendering, always head on against The Man. At the same time, everyone looks down on Andy Dufresne, who bows to the guards, and works for them (well, everyone except Luke himself, who is too good for such negative sentiments). And for the many many years that Andy survives — they despise and hate him, though they fear and envy the protection he gets, and enjoy the prison improvements he obtains from the guards.
Yet, in the end, who wins against the system, and who is beaten? Who manages to not only escape but also punish the bad guys? And who dies miserably, his only achievement being to have given the bad guys additional opportunities to revel in sadism? Cool Hand Luke may be a supremely likeable guy — in the end, he is a loser, and is shot like an animal by the prison guards while running for his life. Meanwhile, Andy Dufresne secretly digs a tunnel every night; and after twenty long years in jail, not only does he make an escape, but he also elopes with all the money from all the accounts he was managing for the jailers, and sends proofs of their corruption and murders to the authorities.
Cool Hand Luke had a great potential, but he wasted his life and achieved nothing — near the end, he blames God, but really, he brought it all upon himself. And no, his short lived “moral victories” don’t count. The proper way to spell out “moral victory” is “D E F E A T”. Andy Dufresne on the other hand, was dealt a bad hand, but he did manage to stick it to The Man, to improve his life and the lives of other inmates while in prison, and eventually escape young enough to still enjoy life — with lots of money, while the bad guys got punished.
And so who is the real hero: Cool Hand Luke, the activist? Or Andy Dufresne the passivist?
My message to you today is: don’t be Cool Hand Luke. Be Andy Dufresne. (And I’d like to thank my friend Evan for the story.)
I like to collect quotes. Here is a great one from a play by Paul Claudel: “Who released the most slaves? The one who spent his wealth buying them back? Or the capitalist who found a way to power mills with water?”
We could also ask, for instance, who saved the whales from extinction, back when their blubber was the world’s first source of oil for burning? Was it ecologist activists? Think again! Rockefeller, that’s who it was: the man who managed to extract oil from rock, at an industrial scale, at falling prices that no one could beat, so fishing whales became a very expensive proposition instead.
Who stopped the genocide conducted by Leopold of Belgium and his goons in Congo? Was it pacifist activists? No. It was the botanists and industrialists who planted rubber forests in India and made extraction of wild rubber through mass murder no longer profitable.
Who freed Western women from being second class citizens? Was it feminist activists? No. It was the inventors and industrialists who commercialized the washing machine, the refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner, plenty of home appliances, etc. — and of course, the researchers who developed contraceptives.
I could go on and on and on.
Activists like to claim that the good that happened what thanks to them, just because they fancied good stuff happening, and made a lot of noise on the front scene. But reality doesn’t run on good intentions. Passivists are those who do the real hard work of bringing about the change. You don’t hear them, but they create the technology that makes change not just possible but inevitable.
So what do I call “activism”, and what do I call “passivism”? How can you tell the difference, and why do I claim “activism” can bring no good?
Activism is the attempt to change other people through protests, demonstrations, calls to boycott, picketings, disruption, shouting, pressure, threats, etc. In extreme cases, activism can become violence, terrorism, death squads — all of them legal when the activism is completely successful. In other words, activism is about being confrontational with those with whom you disagree, and getting them to submit to your will, by hook or by crook. It is about playing negative sum games.
Unsuccessful activists are toothless nuisances, always restless, who only make the world a noisier, less friendly and more bitter place. Successful activists are powermongers who can and will use the State to impose their will upon their opponents through unaccountable coercion. In other words, they are the very thing that libertarians stand against!
Passivism is the pursuit of improving yourself and being the change you want to see in the world. It doesn’t seek or depend on support or approval from others, even less submission; all it seeks is lack of interference, through avoidance if discussion doesn’t work. It is about creating useful and beautiful things, about building robust structures that may last or be easily rebuilt, whether physical or social. It is about further progress through technological and social understanding. It is about playing positive sum games.
Unsuccessful passivists are still honest people with whom you can positively trade, from whom you can learn and who can learn from you. Successful passivists are great businessmen who create vast wealth that benefits millions of people. In other words, they are the very thing that libertarians stand for!
To explain what I mean by passivism, by contrast, let me read you this piece I wrote a few years back for a French libertarian anthology:
Unless you free yourself, you cannot save other people. – Musō Soseki (1275-1351)
Saving the world by subjecting it to the yoke of a Power wielded by angels. That’s the dream of Politics, sold on credit to all the suckers ready to believe in angels, superior men and supreme saviors. You don’t fall for it anymore: you’re a libertarian.
Although, do you still wonder how to save the world? Are you planning on one of these fantastic events where all the worse losers than you are would suddenly reach enlightenment, resolve all coordination problems, and establish some utopia, driving away the current parasites without their being replaced by new ones? You are still a victim of the same scam; in vain are you trying to use against the Masters a Power that the populace is said to hold, by which it allegedly reigns: this Power is illusory. Masters control the people, and not the other way around; and their very real Power is that of deception and domination. Through this Power, you might conceivably topple the masters and become master in their stead; but you cannot possibly save the world; for to save the world would be to destroy this very Power.
Vain hopes, collectivist delusions. You do not possess the power to save the world. Nobody possesses such a power, not anymore than anybody possesses the power to damn the world, and happily not so. You do not possess the duty to save the world, either. However you do possess a duty, that this diversion is only leading you astray from, a reachable goal, that was personally assigned onto you, your most important task, one for which you are the best placed and most capable person: to save yourself!
Even assuming you really want to save other people, you will have a hard time saving anyone so long as you are yourself in distress. Whereas once saved, you will have a world of possibilities opening before you; and I trust you to then work towards saving whomever you really care for. Therefore, not only is saving yourself your first and foremost goal, it is the necessary means for any ulterior and superior goal you seek to accomplish. And it is a very efficient means, for the example of your success will drive more followers than your best arguments, that will only convince the few people curious about your topic who haven’t set their minds yet. Lastly, having saved yourself is the criterion by which to judge the means you propose to use to save other people. Does your idea work? Put your money where your mouth is! It’s also by trying, by starting an interaction with the world, that you will perfect the proficiencies that will help you and those you will be able to help, by showing them the way more so than by sharing the fruits of your success.
Your mind is to be emptied from the neuroses by which you try to control other people or let yourself be controlled by them. To seek to convince who doesn’t want to be, is already the poison of politics. So is to seek to please, whether it be your parents, family, friends, colleagues, bosses or customers, or worse a nebulous “society”. By submitting yourself to their supposed judgment, expectations, self-righteousnesses, you live under a mask. Choice is the stuff life is made of. When you are not the one doing the choosing, you are not the one living, and it’s not any one of them either; you’re just a zombie who doesn’t make anyone happy.
Off with the mask! Show yourself as you are. Find who will appreciate you for who you are, not who cherishes a fake image inside which you are hidden, a prisoner. Those who truly love you will accept you. Others will shun you, leave you — for the better.
Uncovering yourself, you will discover yourself. Learn to accept yourself as you are. To accept others as they are, the world as it is. Truth is your ally, lies are your enemy. That includes the lies you tell others to enter relationships of control, but most importantly, the lies you tell yourself, that make you fail at your projects, or what is worse, that make you miss the living of your own life. Truth sometimes hurt now, lies will cost you even more, and for a longer time.
Recant the “I must”s, the externally imposed beliefs and internalized neuroses. Let go of any superfluous baggage, of any superstition, and even of any of those theories that seem true but that you are not personally qualified to assess, of your second-hand “I know”s. Explore your “I can”s and acquire some “I understand”s; many are they that evade you only because you are not even looking at them, you are not used to seeing them anymore, you haven’t acquired the skill of examining them, of creating them.
Shed all shame and start by acknowledging your ignorance. Then, deepen those topics that interest you. Become an expert, out of humility, reading, practice, experimentation, reflection. The scientific method applies to your life: research what others have done, try several approaches, measure results, see what works for you.
Explore the world. Dare to travel. Are you having a hard time being yourself where you are? Would the truth put your life in danger? You live in the wrong place, a place where you don’t have a future, and that doesn’t have much of one itself. Run away. Somewhere, anywhere, there’s a career waiting for you, friends, a husband or wife. The trip can be inside yourself. It involves change and wonder. Be not afraid to lose what you possess that leaves you a stranger to yourself, to win that by which you will blossom. Grapple with your fate.
Late it may be, yet many, having lost everything, older than you are, have started their life again with great sucess, in a new country of which they didn’t speak the language, in a new profession that they knew nothing about. It might be too late to be as successful as some celebrity at the same age, it is never too late to start to live free, to live well.
Passivism is not just more efficient: it’s your first and foremost MORAL DUTY. If you fail this duty, you’re behaving as an immoral person, and no amount of trying to help others will excuse your failure. Worse: until you get your act straight, you won’t be able to efficiently help others, either.
As a principle for social change, activism cannot achieve anything good. Note that I’m not saying that it can’t accomplish anything — there is plenty that activism can achieve and has achieved. I’m saying that in the long run it can achieve nothing good. As Mencius Moldbug noted, activism is the perfect tool for the statists, whether they call themselves “progressives”, “collectivists”, “socialists”, or with less principle “conservatives”, or even “islamists” — whatever is the favorite flavor of the day and place. And with that tool, statists have managed to gain power, oppress people, silence dissidents, keep their victims in check. For at heart, all mass demonstrations are intimidation; they are displays of force; they are the implicit threat “look how strong we are, look what we can get away with in total impunity; don’t go against us — or else!”.
That’s why free market or “tea party” demonstrations are so pathetic: people who threaten no violence, who promise they will obey the law no matter what, who don’t litter, don’t vandalize, don’t disrupt, destroy, injure, insult, defame — people who not only do not demonstrate how they can get away with violating other’s rights; but quite on the contrary, people who demonstrate that they are well-disciplined farm animals, who will always walk in rank to the slaughterhouse, though they staunchly refuse to run to it. These people are absolutely worthless as a political force. They may possess inertia that will slow down the State, but since they can never fight back, they slowly but surely are led to the abyss, one shove at a time; the statists may not always manage to budge that mass, but they can run circles around it, and they have all leisure to choose which least defended angle to attack next. A purely defensive war can never be won, can only be lost. And that’s what the legal “opposition” to power can achieve at best.
Christian fundamentalists, nationalists and other crazies who are ever ready for violence — they count, politically, by using activism to display and use their strength; and that’s how they earn their share of the evil in government. They are not of course as systematic in their evil as those who worship government in and of itself: the “progressives”, “socialists”, etc. For these and all kinds of statists, activism can work wonders — and often does.
But to libertarians, it’s of limited use. When they are a tiny minority, it’s a ridiculous display of weakness rather than strength; when they are a majority, it’s a wasteful activity opposite to everything they stand for. Demonstrating in small numbers to tell your aggressors that you respect the NAP has negative political value. Even worse when your message is that furthermore you won’t retaliate at all against their violence.
An important equation here is about what resources are at stake: is activism nurturing the cause it purports to further, or is it using up the scarce resources available to that cause?
Quite clearly, the first, direct effect of activism is to spend the resources: the time, the focus, the energy of the activists are being spent doing whatever they do. You must be wary to never, ever, count these resources positively in your balance books. Just like all efforts expended on any goal — they are on the cost side of the equation.
If you get one million people excited for one hour each about some cause, you’ve just wasted one million hours of human life. That’s a hundred and fourteen years of waking hours. Three human lives, gone. And what do you have to show for it? If each of these people, instead of getting all excited for one hour, could have instead been productive during that hour, and given five dollars each, — which they could easily make in an hour counting taxes and living expenses — that would be five million dollars. Was grabbing the attention of a million people for one hour worth spending five million dollars? When it isn’t, and it often is not, it is a sorry sight to see millions of people getting all excited for days about some half-a-million dollar issue, and doing nothing for the more important issues that their individual and collective energy could tackle.
That’s why I’m always so sad at all the activism successfully deployed on insignificant, useless or outright harmful ends: it’s a huge waste, the opportunity cost for greater achievements that never will be.
Aren’t you disgusted when you see a lot of buzz on TV or on the internet, with plenty of demonstrators and hash-taggers shouting and being all indignant, when the problem could have been solved swiftly and efficiently if only each of these “indignant” people had instead just donated a few bucks instead? The impact of donations could often easily swamp the problem being spent time on. And in cases when donating money doesn’t work — it’s not like spending mental time on the issue helps, either. But, most people don’t care to donate anything. They are not being indignant as a means to solve the problems, but as a means to signal tribal affiliation. Please don’t be like those people. Don’t spend energy being indignant to signal your affiliation to the tribe of losertarians.
And so, always be careful to count as a cost all the resources spent on activism, all the time, money, energy, focus poured into it. All the good-will capital tapped from the non-activists who we get to support our causes. It’s all spending. What are the revenues?
Note that I don’t mean that activism can never, ever, be used to further a good cause. I am not talking against each and every political action that can be taken. Later on, I will even speak positively (if you can believe that) about the Free State Project. But I want you to be careful to always count activism on the negative side of your balance sheet. It’s like paying taxes: while sometimes something good comes out of it, mostly taxes are buying more harm rather than more good; and whatever good you get in exchange, the paying in itself is always the negative side. Sometimes, something good can come out of some activism — and there you have the choice of funding it or not funding it. But the activism as such is part of the costs of achieving the effect.
Well, statists who capture power through activism certainly have a lot to show for it. Palaces, mansions, boats, airplanes, lavish parties, fancy booze and whores, trips to beautiful destinations, plenty of sex and money, and the sweet, dizzying taste of Power over other people. They do spend a lot of resources indeed, but be assured that the mighty among them gain, enormously, though the brainwashed sheep on the lower rungs of the machine are all net losers. Political Power is a well organized industry that is making a lot of money to its shareholders and successful entrepreneurs.
But the spoils of war are precisely what libertarians can’t get when they gain power. By definition, all or most of these benefits are forever denied to libertarians, who count its value as negative when statists count it as positive. And therefore, however successful, activism can never benefit libertarians remotely as much as it can benefit statists who become powerful.
Yet, there is some thing that any activism that has any success does, whether it’s libertarian, anti-libertarian, or unrelated. What success in activism necessarily buys is: legitimacy and opportunity in using activism as a means to an end. To make it clear in an extreme example: if you somehow succeed at overthrowing the government by violent revolution, you may or may not bring about a better government than the previous one — but either way, you’ve legitimated violence as the means to grab power, and that doesn’t bode well for the future. Activism, though it need not be as violent, is intrinsically confrontational; it is a struggle — a negative sum game. And while failure at activism is a negative sum in vain, success at activism is more negative sum games to come. Activism breeds confrontation, and that’s bad.
As my friend Jan Krepelka says: “activism is more popular because it’s confrontational”. It triggers neural pathways that give instant meaning to your life — problem being, these neural pathways optimized for short-term survival amid immediate struggle are poor guidance for building your life in the long run. Worse, he would add: when you fall into activism, you become a second-hander (to reuse the randian term), living through what other people see, and caring more about the appearance of winning than the actual winning. Activism is tribal: once you’re within its frame, success means beating your rivals (the alpha males vying for tribal leadership) and winning social status (within the tribal hierarchy), all within a tribal context of a zero sum game fight over limited resources. But capitalism and globalization have brought about precisely the disruption of the millenia of these zero sum tribal games, and the passage into civilization, by putting an end to tribal limitations and introducing a positive sum game: producing wealth instead of fighting for wealth. It isn’t as attractive as politics in terms of tribal psychology; it doesn’t grab your guts like activism, it isn’t primitive as tribal rivalry, as primal as inter-tribal war — but it’s the Right Thing; it is what distinguishes the Civilized Man from the Brute and the Animal.
There is one all-important resource that is at stake in activism: the good will of people; their opinions toward your cause. By getting people to do things, are you using up that resource, or are you getting more of it? Obviously, the mobilization of people is using up scarce good will resources. As such, activism doesn’t create more good will — it spends the existing good will.
Sometimes, that’s exactly what you need to do. Sometimes, it’s time to fight, and to show your strength; consider the Bundy Ranch. An armed standoff against government force made them retreat, momentarily. Later on, they come back with slightly different pretenses that won’t trigger as much attention. Getting bureaucrats to retreat, and to fail at their activism, that’s the good part; having to mobilize thousands of people, that’s the bad part; and failing to mobilize the same thousands of people when government comes back with a different law, that’s showing them which way they must twist the law to conduct their criminal affairs and which way they mustn’t. So while struggle is sometimes useful in the short run, in the long run, it’s a game libertarians lose by definition.
In the long run, what you want is not activism, but the opposite: Marketing. Not to spend the good will resources in actions against government. But create new good will towards libertarian ideas, by education.
Now, activism can sometimes serve a positive role — but that’s not automatic. Consider for instance, the 2011 electoral campaign of Ron Paul for president. As activism, it was a total disaster: it destroyed a lot of good will resources, only in the end to demonstrate weakness, and failure to grab power. But as marketing for libertarian ideas, it was great: it helped spread our ideas, and made a lot of people aware of them. It made clear how the Establishment will cheat to maintain its grip on Power; how the rules are made to bind the little people and prevent them from gaining power, whereas the big club members can get away with anything. It’s hard for me to tell whether or not it was the best way to spend all those resources, but at least, it did buy something with these resources. It was quite good as a marketing campaign for libertarian ideas.
If you campaign not to use your power base, but to expand your power base — that’s where you’re doing good. But the part that works is not activism as such, it’s marketing. Activism can be a tool for marketing. But is it the best? Seldom. There are usually more direct ways of doing marketing. And while activism sometimes can serve marketing and bring more good will, it always first and foremost taps into the existing good will. So don’t use it lightly.
Harry Browne, in How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World, introduces the concept of Direct Solutions vs Indirect Solutions. A Direct Solution is something you can do, that doesn’t depend on the yet inexistent good will of others; An Indirect Solution is something that won’t happen until you’ve convinced other people to change their mind. Activism is all about indirect means of achieving some goals, by requiring that things you can’t do yourself be done by other people, whom you have no power to change. It’s helplessness. Passivism is all about direct means of achieving your goals, by doing things directly yourself, that don’t require anyone else to change. It’s efficiency. Indirect means are necessarily less efficient. You should always focus on things that you can change all by yourself, what Harry Browne calls a direct solution. It’s not just more efficient, it’s also personally empowering. No more frustration at other people not doing what you want — power and satisfaction of achieving things you can do.
Then among things you can do, some are horribly wasteful, and you should avoid them. Lefists like to go on vacations in “Peace Camps” that cost thousands of dollars to run per participant. Giving the same money to a local charity could have done ten times the effects for one tenth of the cost. So Peace Camp is not at all about helping people, it’s about rich leftists feeling good and signalling both their wealth and their commitment to the leftist Establishment. Don’t be that man. If some activism needs to be done, be the man who donates to the efficient charity that gets things done affordably. If you’re going to help, bring useful skills that locals don’t possess and that you can teach them — don’t be just an unskilled laborer eating their food, or a luxury that they can’t afford anymore once you’re gone back home.
I’m not a big charitable donor. But every year, I give a few thousand dollars to select charities. Last year, some of these thousand dollars sent to a South Korea-based association LINK that helped save a North Korean woman, who had escaped her country to China, but was living as an “undocumented immigrant” on the run from authorities. If caught, she would be sent back to certain rape, torture and death in North Korea. Meanwhile she was surviving in slave underground jobs. Was it worth shelling out a few thousand dollars to save her? I think so. Was it the best use of those thousand dollars? That is open to discussion; but it sure beats the alternative of my spending the same thousand dollars on plane tickets and hotels to go do some “activism” and protest against the injustice in front of the North Korean or Chinese embassy.
And so, be efficient, embrace division of labor. If you see some activism needs be done, either be the best in the world at it, or pay professionals to do your activism for you. If you want to promote the ideas of liberty, give to the Atlas Network, to CATO, to the Mises Institute, etc., whichever you find does the greatest job.
If you are going to be an activist, then yes, you should be the best in the world at it, and you should go professional. If the effects you’re seeking can’t be achieved more efficiently by a professional earning his life doing it, then it’s not worth it, and can’t be successful. You may have heard this saying by the famous libertarian radio host H. L. Hunt: “If this country is worth saving, it’s worth saving at a profit.” Well, it was wisely completed by Patri Friedman: “This country can only be saved if it can be saved at a profit.”
And so, if you can’t make a living out of activism, you’re an amateur. It’s quite fine to be an amateur, and do something you love as a hobby you take pleasure from. But then, if you’re going to do it for the enjoyment, remember that you’re doing it for yourself, buying yourself some personal good time, though it may be otherwise inefficient. And then, don’t go to other people and tell them how you’re “sacrificing” yourself. If you’re sacrificing yourself, you’re an idiot, and you’re morally repugnant. Remember the wise words of Aunty Ayn: “I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” But if you want to be efficient, then work a few extra hours, acquire new skills to get a higher-paying job, and write a check to professionals with the proceeds.
If you want to advance the cause of liberty, consider spreading the message of Liberty. And that means, don’t be confrontational — be amicable.
Consider the specialists in confrontational activism: the Westboro Baptist Church. Does their activism get anyone convinced? No, it mostly just gets them universally loathed.
Contrast with people who understand religious marketing right: Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses, etc. — what they’re doing works. They come in pair or groups, personally find people who resonate with their message. Convince them — then send them to convince more people in viral marketing. Of course, in the case of Jehovah’s witnesses, the viral message is “Hey I’m a loser who found that I can feel superior to everyone else by entering this support community for people who can’t otherwise find meaning to their lives.” But in the case of the Mormons, it’s more like “Hey, we discipline each other in living a healthy life, looking good, etc. and at the price of stupid superstitions no worse than in other religions, you too can be part of a healthy support group.” So if you want to advance the cause of liberty — find how you can turn it into a viral message that addresses people’s needs, then turns them into more proponents of liberty.
Notice though how any marketing campaign has to be targeted to a receptive audience. The same methods and arguments that convince a given audience will fail miserably on another audience. Libertarians tend to have quite powerful arguments to those who are already interested in politics and approach the topic with a mind moved by rational arguments, in terms of causes and consequences. That’s already quite something, but still a small fraction of the public. Different messages tailored to different audiences are needed. One-to-one interaction is required to tailor the message. (And, if we are to emulate those viral sects that work, two-to-one interaction is even more efficient.) If we are to believe Myers-Briggs typology of psychological characters, a majority of people are sensitive foremost to appeal to authority (SJ in MBTI), and we must explain how our ideas are backed by great men and constitute the very fabric of civilization; they most likely will be the last to be convinced, when enough counter-“authorities” have risen to challenge the established authorities. A large majority of the rest of people are sensitive foremost to demonstration by example (SP in MBTI), and will happily follow us if we lead the way and show how being free works — and it does; they are thus a natural target for libertarians to address, and that’s why established authorities do their darned best to prevent any ostensible libertarian experiment from happening that could sway them. Then come people sensitive foremost to appeal to emotion (NF in MBTI), and we must display how ours is the way of real justice and compassion; but they are easily lured by socialist propaganda then hard to convince out of what they weren’t rationally convinced into. Only a small minority of people are sensitive foremost to rational arguments in terms of causes and consequences (NT in MBTI) like most libertarian literature is built — and those interested in being convinced probably already have, or are already being catered to. The next bigger audience for libertarians therefore seems to be people who can be showed that freedom works; and there again being successful and embodying yourself how freedom works is the best thing you can do to advance the ideas of liberty.
That’s also why I believe that passivism is important: it’s about finding what liberty can bring to each and everyone of us. It’s about reaping the benefits of a free life, and making your ideas worthwhile for you, and thus for everyone who’d adopt them.
The first principle of passivism: you should focus first on your own life. Even if your end-goal is to defeat this Enemy that destroys your and other people’s liberty, as any martial arts teacher will tell you, before you have any chance of controlling the opponent’s moves, you must first learn to control your own. Do you have the best job you could have? I have friends who say that if you possess the bent of mind that would make you productive at writing software, and you’re making less than $100K a year, you should definitely switch career. That doesn’t necessarily mean that all of you should be writing software — but that you should all be looking for the most productive venue in which to spend your life, that will therefore earn no less than this opportunity no doubt among others.
Are you not happily married? There are a lot of single men (and a few single women) at libertarian conferences. Instead of spending too much time in activism, you could do a lot more for liberty by learning dating skills, finding yourself a nice mate, and having kids that you raise to live as free responsible people.
Are you unhealthy? By acquiring discipline, eating healthier, doing exercise, you can live longer and healthier, and have more resources to spend on furthering liberty or any cause of your choice.
Are you a prisoner of superstitions, fears, neuroses, bad relationships, etc.? By working on to free yourself from negative beliefs, negative relationships, etc., you can also do more for liberty than through activism.
Getting your shit together should be your number one priority. And if you are to do activism afterwards, it will pay off mightily: you’ll convince more people to follow your lead if you are healthy and successful than if you are a frustrated loser.
Mind that motivation won’t get you there. Discipline will. Progress is necessarily slow, and only gives results when it’s steady for a long time. Trying to pull yourself with constant promises of results is bound to actually demotivate you, as the false hope never materializes. Learning to enjoy doing the positive things because you have determined them to be positive, regardless of enjoyment while doing them, even in absence of motivation or inspiration, is what will get you results in the end. Once again, mormons understand that well: they are said to “not be a religion, but a multi-level marketing company”; maintaining discipline in all aspects of life is part of the culture they enforce on each other; it helps make them successful personally; and personal success in turn makes them successful at marketing their lifestyle. Also, Tibetan Buddhists, who mastered the art of emptying your mind from immediate worries to fill it back with your own chosen long-term values, can teach you the art of what they call “Self-Compassion”.
In other words, Passivism 101 is about applying the latin proverb: Medice cura te ipsum — Doctor, start by fixing yourself.
One important thing you can do for yourself, is move to a better place. And of course, that’s very relevant to this conference. Should you move to New Hampshire? There are pros and cons; and the Free State Project is doing a great job weighing on the “pros”. — but whether it ends up being New Hampshire or not, you should definitely consider moving to whichever place will be best for you. Voting with your feet is the most potent thing you can do. The most important vote you can cast. Much more effective at improving your life and that of those you love than voting either with your ballots or your bullets.
I myself moved to the US from France. I don’t live in New Hampshire. Actually, I consider myself part of the “Unfree State Project”: I moved from Massachusetts to NYC. The taxes were not high enough, and the gun laws were too lax. More seriously, I moved there to have a great job, while my wife goes to a great school; but I’m ready to move again if and when things change.
New Hampshire is not a bad venue for Passivism. Here, the people and the laws are more libertarian than in most other places. That counts for something. But that doesn’t count for everything. It’s a definite plus, but there are also minuses. Can you find a job you like here? If you have to lose revenues, that counts too. Can’t stand the climate, the food, or what limited cultural life there is? That also counts. Determine which is the best place for you. New Hampshire has a lot of assets, and the Free State Project is working towards making it an even better place. It does expend some activism — but hopefully, the result is that you can reap benefits and enjoy passivism here. And so, please do not move to New Hampshire because there’s a lot of activism to do here. If anything, move to New Hampshire because there’s less of that negative-counting activism thing to do here to achieve the positive effects that you seek for yourself and those you love.
One big non-goal of passivism: Fighting the State. You can’t win. By definition, the State is whoever is best at fighting. If somehow through cunning and force you win, you will have become It, the Enemy. One big goal of passivism: surviving the State. Russian, Chinese, people from so many destroyed countries... those who survived communism reached their goal; those who fought and died failed. Sometimes it takes running away; sometimes it takes knowing when to stop fighting. But always it means not making a frontal assault against the state; for a frontal assault is confronting it where it’s the best at: violence.
Another non-goal of passivism: saving the poor. “The poor keep getting poorer” bemoan the socialists. That happens for some people, but not mainly because they are being oppressed by other people, including by the State. Mainly and more importantly, they are being oppressed by themselves, by having bad habits. The best thing to help the poor is to lead by example. Break your own bad habits, and cultivate better habits. Perikles famously said: “As for poverty, no one need be ashamed to admit it: the real shame is in not taking practical measures to escape from it.” An explicit goal of passivism is thus instead: save yourself from poverty. Develop the skills to acquire wealth; once you have this wealth, you may share it and teach those skills with other people. But mostly, do it and show the way. “The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” ― Paulo Coelho
A general goal of passivism: instead of focusing on destroying, focus on creating. Proponents of destruction always claim they are destroying evil, but we know better, and though there are exceptions, in general, the destruction itself is evil. Similarly, most creation is good, especially if it is not based on the past or future destruction of other people’s property. Try to play fewer negative sum games; and play more positive sum games.
Ayn Rand famously declared how she mostly loved the famous serenity prayer — the one adopted by Alcoholic Anonymous, that goes:
God, please grant me
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Her rightful reservation was that she hated the prayer part itself, the first line; for, as Ambrose Bierce defined it in his Devil’s Dictionary: “Pray: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”
Passivism relies on the realization that one of the main things for you to change is yourself. And for successful passivism, as in successful anything, you need those three things indeed: serenity, courage and wisdom.
A good story about Passivism and wisdom is thus that of “The Prince and the Three Doors”, that I included in an appendix.
As you endeavor to improve yourself, you must also have the wisdom and serenity to learn and accept your deep and true self, that you cannot, will not, shall not change. And before you improve others and the world, you’ll similarly have to learn and accept these other people, and the world at large. In other words, you must learn what reality is, and what it always will be, before you may improve the things that are but need not be.
This implies a shift from a normative point of view to a positive point of view: before determining how things should be, find out how things are.
And so passivism may be about changing yourself rather than trying to change other people or the world. But before you may change yourself, you need to accept yourself — accept other people, accept the world. First, you need find the serenity of accepting the things you can’t change, and the wisdom of distinguishing them from the things you can, — only then can you enact effective change, if you have the courage.
Understanding how to affect the world, without depending on a change in people — this activity has a name, and the name is: technology. And so, if you want to improve things for you and for others, you must learn to master some aspect of technology.
When I say “technology”, you may immediately think of electronics, biotechnology, robotics, material science, etc. And these are technologies indeed. But I’m using the word in its widest sense. Finance, marketing, law, management, etc., that’s technology, too. Even pick up artistry is technology, if that’s what you need. Just because people are involved doesn’t mean that it’s Indirect Solutions — because these technologies don’t depend on people cooperating against their will, but rely on their being freely cooperating out of their already understood self-interest.
Even “enhanced interrogation techniques” could be argued as being technology. Thus, obviously, not all technologies are as amenable as all others to lead to more freedom. You still have to carefully pick a technology that will advance your values. I’ll get back to that. But on first approximation, any technology that makes you better off while respecting the life and property of others is worthy of pursuit, and improves freedom in the world, starting with your own.
It takes training and exercise to acquire a technological skill, but if you have the discipline to practice over and over again, you’ll get no worse at it than other less intelligent people who make a living at it. So pick a domain you think matters to you and to the world, learn the technology, and make a positive impact.
Learning marketable skills, finding a good job, being good at it, making money, is already the most useful thing you can do to advance freedom. In his article “Working and Saving are Revolutionary Acts”, Pierre Rochard argues exactly that, better than I could. Of course, once you’re making good money, don’t forget to spend some of it paying professionals to do the things you think matter that you want done but can’t efficiently do yourself. But just advancing the wealth of the world, in itself, displaces the negative sum games of the State, and replaces them with the positive sum games of Free Exchange. It makes the world freer and is a reward in itself, even if you don’t give any money to anyone, because you think you know best how to spend it on everything that you care about.
Technology informs us of the extent and the limits of what we can do. Some things we can do, and technology tells us how to do them, when we’d otherwise be powerless. Some things we can’t do, and technology informs us of the limits of things we can do. And some things we can’t do yet, but we suspect we might be able to do them, if we could improve our understanding and develop new techniques.
Thus, if you want to further freedom beyond what existing technology allows — then you need to create more technologies. Do it yourself, if you are capable of it. Mind you, it does not always require to be a genius; but it does require that you be on the bleeding edge of whatever you’re doing, and then tirelessly experiment new ways of doing it. But even if technological research and development is not for you, you can further technology by funding other people you believe are capable of advancing the technology you care about. Investing in technology is the greatest thing you can do to outcompete the State. So do whatever you’re the best at, and invest the proceeds in innovation.
Indeed, change in technology determines change in social and political structure. Consider how capital-intensive technologies such as horse riding and the sword necessarily instituted a caste of professional soldiers as the ruling class. Consider how the crossbow and then small firearms just as necessarily shifted the military balance towards democracies. Consider how recent technology seems to have only somewhat favored capital-intensive weapons again, and how bent the ruling class is on eliminating small firearms among civilians. Technology definitely shapes political structure. I already discussed how it liberated women, which has also had a profound impact on social structure.
The idea that “the base structure determines the superstructure” has been popularized by Marx and his followers. Does that mean I am repeating a marxist idea? Nope. Not at all. The idea that technology influences politics and tips political balance is as old as the study of history. Just like Class struggle, False Consciousness, and other marxist tropes, the socialists contributed their keywords, slogans, and twisted narratives; but the general concepts existed long before they were corrupted then spread in corrupted form by marxists.
So, what if you have freed yourself, and are aspiring to a future where politics is no longer keeping you and your fellow men behind? The goal is not to convince statists that we are right and they are wrong. The goal is to win. The goal is for statists to be powerless, not to acknowledge their powerlessness. To ensure that they cannot hurt you, not to convince them to stop hurting you. The idea of convincing the master that his interest is not to be master anymore is ridiculous. It is. And through the leverage of force, it is also the interest of other men to obey and be complicit in making you obey. If you want to win against politics, you cannot play the game and win, you need to change the game. And that’s technology.
Technology is a frontier where the future of mankind is decided, and where freedoms are done and undone.
On the technological frontier, not all technologies are born equal to each other. Some more directly advance freedom. Some more directly advance oppression. Most are neutral, or context-dependent, and can be used either way — but if we develop them in a peaceful setting (as opposed in the setting of say a government oppression program), they will most likely result in more good and less bad. Hence, better torture techniques and mass murder devices are likely to advance oppression. But uninvasive lie detection and personal defense weapons are likely to advance freedom. Medical advances are usually neutral with respect to freedom, but generally useful for mankind. Robotics or surveillance technology can be good or bad depending on whether they are used by government to control citizens, or by citizens to protect themselves from aggression including by government officials.
There are many techniques that focus specifically on evading the control of the State; but they can’t be advertised without quickly becoming ineffective. And they still become ineffective after enough time, as the State eventually catches up; so if you start using them, you have to keep updating them to stay at least one step ahead of the State. But they do exist, and you might want to work on them if you are intent on living an adverserial life and “fighting” the State. However, that’s still playing negative sum games, even if playing on the “good” side to decrease the destruction by the evil side. To develop freedom most people should be working on positive sum games.
Which leads us to the question of how to identify which technologies contribute most to increasing rather than decreasing freedom.
Let’s consider law enforcement. You may improve freedom by decreasing accountability for lawful but “illegal” acts that are not actually crimes, such as trade and use of prohibited substances, of secret or monopolized information, etc. This could happen through techniques that improve privacy and anonymity for civilians through e.g. encrypted, distributed networks. The opposite evil technology, that increases the ability of the State to enforce its unlawful “legislation”, is 1984-style omnipresent surveillance and identification of all civilians. You may also improve freedom by increasing accountability for unlawful acts, “legal” or not. Distributed “sous-veillance”, ubiquitous private drones, identification of government thugs, etc. The opposite evil technology, that increases the ability by the State to get away with murder, is secrecy of its proceedings, anonymization of its agents, etc. As you soon realize, the very same technologies can often be used to protect the innocent and prosecute the guilty, or to protect the guilty and persecute the innocent. It is thus important to put the technology in the right hands, and to facilitate its use by the good guys vs the bad guys. But it also appears that the real long-term advancement of liberty depends on determining who will hold whom accountable according to whose and what rules.
The Real fight is always about the power to decide and enforce rules. Is this power Distributed amongst the legitimate owners of the respective resources at stake, or is it Centralized in the hands of a few mighty? At one extreme of Centralization, you have the totalitarian power of those who purport to mystically “represent” millions or billions of other people. That’s “Democracy” with a big D. At the other extreme of Decentralization, you have the propertarian ideal of each one being the arbitrary master of his own property while remaining respectful of that of others. That’s “democracy” with a small d. That’s the real struggle that matters, and that’s where you can make a difference. Develop technologies that support decentralization vs those that support centralization.
A hot topic in decentralization technologies is Crypto-anarchy: peer to peer communication and anonymization networks help people avoid unlawful government meddling; blockchains provide a way to achieve a distributed consensus without a coercive government.
An opposite topic is surveillance drones, that may help make government criminals accountable if massively controlled by the public, or give them totalitarian power if they control them.
If anonymous distributed surveillance of government criminals is achieved, then the next step would be Vehmic courts: secret courts that determine guilt based on the consensual evidence and dish out lethal justice. Back in the middle ages in western Germany, they were successfully used to keep in check the bureaucrats and politically mighty who thought they could be unaccountable in their violation of other people’s rights.
Of course, when people don’t understand justice better than the government, they can dish out injustice rather than justice; and so this technology depends on a good understanding of Law being more available; but once a lot of people do understand Law, they can advance it against government using existing technology as well as new distributed justice technology. Libertarian Law is the essence of Civilization: it is maximally inclusive, and welcomes all the productive people who recognize others’ rights, whatever their motives, preferences and other ideological premises; and since government must necessarily hurt victims, and some more than others, there is always an audience for libertarian ideas. But the flip side of the coin is that civilization does have to be exclusive against parasites, violent people, declared enemies of civilization, etc. Both aspects are linked and must be advanced together; technology that fails to support the peaceful promotion of both social conservative values and liberal mores, or to reject the forceful promotion of either, is deficient. And we seem to still be lacking good reliable technology to thus promote the ideas of liberty.
The most powerful Freedom Technology, if it could be achieved, would therefore be the propagation of libertarian ideas in the public at large. The Age of the Internet has allowed these ideas to flourish like never before, by connecting those who were previously isolated. This in itself was a big stride forward; but the existing technology for libertarian propaganda is obviously not touching much more than a small minority of people who already had inclinations toward liberty. To go beyond that and touch a large minority or even majority, new technology is required. In particular, rational arguments and the most ironclad theory will never be enough. A working example always speaks louder. And that’s why initiatives like the Free State Project are just as important as the best-written essays and the best delivered speeches — which themselves have more value than any activist protest.
May you too, become passivists and work on improving technology in general, and possibly freedom technology in particular.
“I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” by Scott Alexander
“How I Found Freedom In An Unfree World” by Harry Browne
“The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer
“Nock and Leonard Read on “One Improved Unit” and the Power of Attraction” by Stephan Kinsella
“Isaiah’s Job” by Albert J. Nock
“Working and Saving are Revolutionary Acts” by Pierre Rochard
(This story was passed as an online meme; the oldest instance of that version found by Google is on the Excelia website, but it looks like the actual original is this tale in French by Charles Brulhart from December 1995, Les trois portes de la sagesse, with an official translation Three Gates of Wisdom.)
A King had for an only child a young, courageous, agile, clever and intelligent Prince. To perfect his education on Life, the King sent him to an Old Wise Man. “Teach me about the Path of Life,” asked the Prince.
“My words will disappear like footprints in the sand,” answered the Wise Man. “But I will give you a few clues. On your way, you will see three doors. Read the precepts engraved on each one. You will feel an irresistible urge to obey them. Do not try to ignore them or you will be sentenced to ceaselessly live time and again that which you tried to ignore. I can’t tell you more. You must experience it all in your heart and your flesh. Now, go. Follow the path right in front of you.” The Old Wise Man disappeared and the Prince started off on his Path of Life.
He soon saw a large door on which was written: “CHANGE THE WORLD” “That’s what I intend to do,” thought the Prince. “Because while I like some things in this world, I don’t like everything.” His first battle began. His ideals, his ardor and his energy gave him the strength to confront the world, to build, conquer and fashion reality to suit his desires. He achieved the pleasure and intoxication of conquerors, but no peace of mind. He managed to change some things, but many others resisted him. Years and years passed by.
One day, he met the Old Wise Man, who asked: “What did you learn on your journey?” The Prince answered, “I learned to discern what I could do and what I could not, what depends on me and what does not.” “That’s good,” said the Old Man. “Use your strength to change what you can. Forget the rest.” And he disappeared.
A while later, the Prince saw a second door. On it was written: “CHANGE OTHERS” “That’s what I intend to do,” he thought. “Others are a source of pleasure, joy and satisfaction, but also pain, bitterness and frustration.” And he rose up against anything in his brethren that bothered him or displeased him. He sought to change their character and correct their faults. That was his second battle. Many years passed by.
One day, when he was thinking about the usefulness of his attempts to change others, he met the Old Wise Man, who asked: “What did you learn on your journey?” The Prince answered, “I learned that others are neither the cause nor the source of my joys and sadness, nor of my satisfactions and disappointments. They only reveal them to me or provide me with the opportunity of experiencing them. All these things are rooted in my being.” “You are correct,” the Wise Man answered. “Others reveal themselves to you by that which they awaken in you. Be thankful to those who bring you joy and pleasure. And also to those who cause you suffering or frustration. It is through them that Life teaches you what you still need to learn and shows you the path you must continue to follow.” And the Old Man disappeared.
A while later, the Prince arrived in front of a door bearing the words: “CHANGE YOURSELF” “If I am the cause of my own problems, that is what I should do,” he said to himself. And his third battle began.
He sought to improve his character, fight against his imperfections, correct his faults and change anything that did not please him in himself or correspond to his ideals.
After many years of battle, with some successes, but also failures and resistance, the Prince met the Wise Man who asked: “What did you learn on your journey?” The Prince answered, “I learned that there are things within us we can improve and others that resist and cannot be broken.” “That’s good,” said the Old Man. The Prince continued, “Yes, but I am starting to get tired of fighting against everything, everyone and myself. Will it never end? When will I rest? I am feeling like ending the battle, giving up, abandoning everything.” “That is your next lesson,” said the Old Wise Man. “But before going further, turn around and look at the path you have already followed.” And he disappeared.
Looking backwards, the Prince saw the 3rd door in the distance and, on its reverse side, the words: “ACCEPT YOURSELF” The Prince was surprised he had not seen these words when he went through the door the first time in the opposite direction. “When we fight, we’re blinded,” he said to himself. He also saw on the ground around him everything he had rejected and battled against within himself: his faults, shadows, fears, limitations and old demons. He learned to recognize them, accept them and love them. He learned to love himself without comparison, judgment or blame.
He met the Old Wise Man who asked him: “What did you learn on your journey?” The Prince replied, “I learned that in hating or rejecting a part of myself, I was sentencing myself to never achieve a balanced life. I learned to accept myself totally and unconditionally.” “That’s good,” said the Old Man. “That’s the first sign of Wisdom. Now, you can go through the third door.”
On the other side, the Prince saw on the back side of the second door in the distance: “ACCEPT OTHERS” All around him, he recognized people he had met in his life, those he had loved and those he had hated, those he had supported and those he had fought. But to his great surprise, he was unable to see their imperfections, faults, and all that had bothered him so before, and that he had fought against.
He met the Old Wise Man again. “What did you learn on your journey?”, he asked. The Prince replied, “I learned that when I felt good about myself, I had nothing to fear or hold against others. I learned to accept and love others totally and unconditionally.” “That’s good,” said the Old Man. That is the second sign of Wisdom. You may now go back through the second door.
On the other side, the Prince saw on the back side of the first door in the distance: “ACCEPT THE WORLD”
“That’s strange,” he said. “I didn’t see those words the first time.” He looked around him and saw all that he had tried to conquer, transform and change. He was surprised by the glimmer and beauty of everything. By the perfection around him. Even though it was the same world as before. Had the world changed or his perspective?
He met the Old Wise Man who asked him: “What did you learn on your journey?” The Prince replied, “I learned that the world mirrors my soul. That my soul doesn’t see the world, but the world is seen in my soul. When my soul is content, the world seems gay. When my soul is suffering, the world seems sad. The world is neither sad nor gay. It is there. It exists. That is all. It was not the world that troubled me, but my vision of it. I learned to accept it totally and unconditionally.” “That is the third sign of Wisdom,” said the Old Man. “Now, you are at peace with yourself, with others and with the World.” A deep feeling of peace, serenity and abundance filled the Prince. Then the Old Man disappeared.