Anything peaceful and voluntary.

Walking the Walk: Private Libertarian Social Service Alternatives

Sharon Presley

Many libertarians have talked and written about how in theory a truly free society would provide for the public works and social services any civilized society needs: police, defense, settlement of disputes, etc. But theory is not enough. The average person is not convinced by theory; people are far more likely to be convinced by practice, that is, actual examples of working solutions. Years of dependency on the State have shriveled most people’s imaginations. They can’t imagine how private alternatives could possibly provide enough of the needed services. The problem of defense, police protection, and providing for the poor and needy just seem too overwhelming. They can only imagine a strong central authority solving such problems.

Libertarian Michael Shermer has argued in several of his books that humans evolved in simpler times when there were relatively simple solutions to community living. Our brains, he asserts, are just not wired to understand the complexities, let alone the efficacy, of what libertarians and economists call the “invisible hand.” That is, many individuals, working cooperatively and noncoercively, peacefully trading for mutual benefit, helping others and finding solutions to social issues on the community level. That such complexity on a micro level not only happens but actually works is hard for most people to mentally grasp. They can only understand some god-like central authority that can allegedly make it all work and keep people in line so they don’t run roughshod over others. Libertarians know this god-like authority called government does not in fact work. But if we are ever to have a free society, our task is to convince others that freedom will work, and not just through talk of libertarian pie-in-the-sky by-and-by.

Unfortunately, libertarian discussions of private solutions have been somewhat spotty, particularly in the area of social service solutions for the poor and needy. Many libertarians have criticized the inadequacies of existing structures, including police, military and social services. That’s a good start. Some have pointed to a few already existing examples of current private services (e.g., garbage, fire departments, schools). A few have written about successful social services in the past, most notably David Beito and others in The Voluntary City. Such services have included private courts and police, mutual aid societies, roads, and medical care. The anarcho-syndicalist CNT/FAI kept the water, electricity and mail delivery working in Catalonian Spain while fighting the fascists from 1936 to 1939. Such examples are helpful. But it’s still not enough.

If we are to convince the unconvinced that a truly free society would work without the stupendous bureaucracy, astronomical costs, and books full of laws and regulations for our “protection” that currently characterizes government, we have to do at least two things. One is more discussion and promotion of the efficacy of private alternatives with actual working examples that exist right now. The other is to put our metaphorical money where our proverbial mouth is, that is, walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

Back in the ‘70s we sold a book at Laissez Faire Books titled Uplift: What People Themselves Can Do. It was full of wonderful stories about how individuals working through small community groups and nonprofits, many of them without any government help, provided needed social services, including employment services, housing, education, and health services. Some of the articles discussed how much more efficient and cheaper their community services were than comparable government agencies. In the introduction, the authors said: “It is imperative that the self-help movement be neither organized nor wholly serviced by government or any outside organization. Self-groups are not—and cannot be—a rigid network of identical programs imposed on or handed to the people. The worth of the projects rests in their individuality and independence and natural growth within their local communities.” That is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 1970s.

Many of these organizations are still around. In fact there many such organizations operating today, but only occasionally are they ever publically noted beyond their communities. Instead we hear cries for more and more government answers. But the real answers are in the communities. These voices need to be heard and encouraged, both philosophically and financially. For starters, an updated book along the lines of Uplift is needed. 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. There are dozens of libertarian think tanks and magazines but where are the libertarian self-help organizations? The think tanks and magazines are needed, no argument there, but so are the self-help organizations.

Libertarians need to be more actively involved in creating, supporting, encouraging of, and participation in private alternative solutions. Some are helping already through volunteer work or charitable contributions. A few do it through their own organizations, e.g., The Mothers Institute, which gives out scholarships for home schooling parents. The new Seasteading Institute is trying to provide a complete model community. Some of the left libertarians and anarchists are starting small mutual aid organizations such as SMART (Sovereign Mutual Aid Response Teams) ; some of the activities of these groups are commented upon in Gonzo Times and other blogs such as and the Alliance of the Libertarian Left. We need many more such activities.

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 model it in our deeds, not just our words. The pen may be mightier than the sword but actions speak even louder.

Sharon Presley will be speaking at Libertopia Festival 2011 in San Diego
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16 responses

  1. ” Our brains, he asserts, are just not wired to understand the complexities, let alone the efficacy, of what libertarians and economists call the “invisible hand.” ”

    I’m unsure whether it’s a smart move to imply that people who can’t “understand” our ideas are inherently less complex or what really comes to my mind is “more stupid” than we are. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case and even if it *was* I don’t think it’d be a wise move to display that idea because it just makes us look like elitists in lieu of the common man who toils most of their life with no time to grasp what’s in front of them.

    Further comments:

    I really feel Sharon, that we libertarians are the populists of our age. That doesn’t mean we need to grovel down at effigies such as “the people” or we need to use over general collectivizing language but I think it means we should try to alienate as few people as possible while still retaining our radical message. It’s my opinion that places like, ALL and many left-libertarians seem to do this and have had success at it.

    I see that because it seems to me that these organizations keep growing and more and more people seem to be getting the radical message of anarchism and great theories like those. I believe that anarchism is the true answer to the problems of state-democracy and collective decision making while still retaining the autonomy of the individual through free association.

    What I’m trying to get across I suppose is that this sort of near biological determinism that somehow makes it that people who don’t “understand” our ideas is not only tactically hurtful but I think wrong because of how libertarians should be seen.

    To use the cave that Plato talks about, once we get out ourselves we should do our best to make ourselves and the others around us seem like people who enjoy our lives much more than if you were in one. And while the cave *is* there and we’re out of it I don’t think it’s appropriate or right to say that everyone who is in there is somehow “less capable” than us.

    I may be extrapolating too much and if I am I apologize, it’s not my intention to strawman you but to conduce thought about how libertarians should better present their message. I’ll stop here and hope you’ve at least found my points insightful and thoughtful at some level.

    September 11, 2011 at 2:11 pm

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Nick. Naturally I didn’t mean to imply that others are “less capable” than libertarians. Actually, if anything, I think that some libertarians are “less capable” than others at understanding social issues and having empathy for others. They imagine that merely providing people with wonderful theories will somehow make everyone agree with us. So there is actually a great deal of implied criticism of libertarians in this post.

    However, I don’t consider Shermer’s point to be “near biological determinism.” I am very far from taking that position. But the brain has a physical structure and that structure has consequences. On the other hand, the brain, whatever limitations it might have, is also amazingly adaptive and flexible, as a great deal of research has shown. People can change their brains. Shermer is not saying that we are doomed never to understand complexity, otherwise why would he have written his book? It’s just a fact we have to be aware of, a fact to help guide us in trying to explain our somewhat outre (by some standards) to others. It’s our obligation to try to persuade others in ways that people can understand. We need to understand what we’re up against in order to make persuasive arguments.

    Your point about how we come across to others is well-taken. I think many libertarians have a big problem with that, being blithely unaware of how others perceive their arguments. A good book in this regard is “Secrets of Libertarian Persuasion” by Michael Cloud, sold by Advocates for Self-Government at

    BTW I should also point out that this is a blog for libertarians and it is unlikely that anyone except libertarians will read this (excluding certain others who came from my Facebook post). However for future comments elsewhere, I’ll keep your points in mind.

    September 11, 2011 at 3:05 pm

  3. “Actually, if anything, I think that some libertarians are “less capable” than others at understanding social issues and having empathy for others. They imagine that merely providing people with wonderful theories will somehow make everyone agree with us. So there is actually a great deal of implied criticism of libertarians in this post.”

    Alright, that makes more sense actually, thanks. 🙂

    “People can change their brains. Shermer is not saying that we are doomed never to understand complexity, otherwise why would he have written his book?”

    That’s true…perhaps I said my concern a bit awkwardly but either way you’re right.

    “”t’s just a fact we have to be aware of, a fact to help guide us in trying to explain our somewhat outre (by some standards) to others. It’s our obligation to try to persuade others in ways that people can understand. We need to understand what we’re up against in order to make persuasive arguments.”

    Understood and agreed.

    “However for future comments elsewhere, I’ll keep your points in mind.”

    Thank you Sharon.

    Also, as I said, this is a mostly great article that I only had one problem with so upon clarification even that doesn’t seem to bad apart from tactics and some language issues perhaps so that’s why I don’t have much else to say I think because we’re both on similar tracts of thinking here. 🙂

    September 11, 2011 at 3:32 pm

  4. Your constructive feedback is much appreciated.
    BTW Nick is one of the people actually trying to walk the walk. He and others at the Alliance of the Libertarian Left (ALL) are working on some good projects. See their Facebook page. Here is some info about them: “A multi-tendency coalition of mutualists, agorists, voluntaryists, geolibertarians, left-Rothbardians, green libertarians, dialectical anarchists, radical minarchists, and others on the libertarian left.”

    September 11, 2011 at 3:51 pm

  5. Dear Sharon and Nick,

    Your text,Sharon and your comments, Nick have made my day. We are working in a very small way here in Casas Grandes Mexico to empower women whose cave has become impossible. Will talk more at Libertopia because we prefer to stay underground. We are using the power of the computer to communicate. Spencer and Emi Maccallum

    September 12, 2011 at 5:44 am

    • Thanks, Spencer. I’ll look forward to seeing you and talking with you at Libertopia. I think we need to start collecting information about what libertarians are doing to help their communities. More than people think. And every effort, no matter how small, makes the giver and the community richer.
      In that regard, I want to mention two groups that help others that are run by libertarians: One is the nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization North Pole Mission [] It is run by Libertopia’s own Kristi Stone, who is the administrator of this blog! One of its projects is a food bank that collects food from restaurants, etc and distributes it to the needy. Kristi says: “I can set up food runners and food picking projects anywhere in the US.” She deserves our support!
      I already mentioned the Mothers Institute, which is run by Jan Stover, a libertarian powerhouse in Illinois. That url is Also see it on Facebook.
      Here is its statement of purpose:
      The Mothers Institute is a non-profit educational and networking organization working to unite the Anti-War, Pro-Peace Mothers’ Movement. At the heart of the organization is the philosophy and practice of the non-aggression principle: “We oppose the initiation of force or fraud.”

      September 12, 2011 at 3:09 pm

  6. shaun lee

    The University Association of Mutual Aid, or SMART, has had a great deal of success in helping people battle the state. Mutual Aid associations are cropping up across the country as people see how serious the dire circumstances REALLY are. In helping one another walk a principled path, we have to be able to come together and rescue one another from the grips of a government that thinks it is OK to put people in cages that I would not even keep a dog in. There is such big money in the prison industry that our foes are very powerful. The only way to go up against such foes is to go up against them together, in numbers.

    Sharon, I thank you for spotlighting these efforts. Many of us are truly trying to walk the path not just talk about it. You have mentioned many articles and books here that I am looking forward to getting my hands on.

    September 13, 2011 at 9:27 am

  7. Thanks, Shaun. SMART provides medical and other assistance at political demonstrations, among other efforts.

    Here are some urls suggested by a responder on Facebook: “ and are two I’ve been pretty impressed with. Food Not Bombs and the Really, Really Free Market could be worth adding too(” Though these organizations have a leftist flavor, their ideas are noncoercive and nonviolent. The latter is basically the kind of bartering of goods and services suggested by libertarian Karl Hess as well as others. The first two deal with nonviolent ways to deal with disputes with larger entities.

    Another responder suggested some more excellent books that I will add later.

    I think we will see a proliferation of many different kinds of mutual aid societies in the future. I hope libertarians will continue and increase their efforts to be part of this.

    September 13, 2011 at 10:20 am

  8. The New York Initiative is worth adding

    “We are individuals organized towards achieving peacekeeping objectives and humanitarian missions. This will translate into a variety of non-monetary services as unfolding events demand Our primary goal will always be to help those in the most need to the highest ethical standard and to the maximum effect”

    Also, The Burrito Project is less well known than Food Not Bombs and could use some publicity.

    September 13, 2011 at 1:18 pm

  9. LGBT Centers are great community resources offering career building advice, mental health and other social services.

    September 13, 2011 at 1:31 pm

  10. Also, Fr33 Aid, offers free first aid and training at events such as Porcest

    September 13, 2011 at 1:40 pm

  11. Thanks to both of you for your suggestions. There’s a lot going on that needs to be known and advertised–and supported.

    And here are some reading recommendations from long-time libertarian Fred Cookinham. I second them: Richard Cornuelle’s book “Healing America,” about the non-profit sector, Karl Hess’s “Community Technology,” and Gene Sharp’s work on citizen resistance.

    September 13, 2011 at 4:17 pm

  12. Anther url suggested by Brian Combs:

    September 13, 2011 at 5:13 pm

  13. I have a correction on the title of Cornuelle’s book. It is “Reclaiming the American Dream : the role of private individuals and voluntary associations

    September 14, 2011 at 1:19 pm

  14. Jesse Mathewson

    I truly enjoy your writing, you have helped inspire different thinking for myself and forced me to address questions and approaches. Thank you.

    October 17, 2011 at 10:57 pm

  15. Barry Schwartz,

    Sharon – I liked the post… and the topic — and also to all for the commentary. The issue of charity can sometimes light more sparks than the issue of war.

    June 11, 2012 at 11:18 pm

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