Walking the Walk: Private Libertarian Social Service Alternatives
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 http://www.justlive.us 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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