Americans have long thought of themselves as people of action.
As Leonard Read noted in his article “How to Gain Liberty,” the sentiment “I want less talk and more action” is (or at least once was) common among Americans. It even extends to situations when people recognize that their liberties are threatened. But then the question arises as to what sorts of action are appropriate in defense of our liberties:
Thus speak Americans when they suddenly awaken to the fact that their liberties are endangered. Talk, they say, is useless; only action counts. But perhaps talk and action aren’t necessarily opposites. What if studying, talking, writing, and explaining should turn out to be the only worthwhile action there is? What then?
The issue arises because not all actions in response to restrictions on liberty are consistent with liberty. That is, the principle of equal liberty for all rules out many options:
Do those who would save liberty advocate physical action? If so, how? To use physical force against others, except defensively, is to destroy the liberty of others which, by definition, is not liberty. To adopt this tactic—to employ physical force against others in any form or degree, except in self-defense—would be merely to substitute a new form of compulsion for the existing forms of compulsion, trading violence for violence.
Most . . . mean only that they want “something done,” and quickly! They want to fight peacefully . . . they reject physical action in their calculations by not even contemplating it. Thus, according to their own thesis, nothing logically remains but intellectual action.
This leads Read to ask a crucial question: “How, then, does one fight for liberty intellectually?” As is often the case with respect to liberty, one must first pay close attention to what should not be done (and in the varied, changing, uncertain real world, we often know far more about what not to do—“do not violate your principles”—than about what is the best way to address many particular problems):
The best thing to do even in an intellectual fight for liberty, many think, is to organize—which is a form of action. Usually they think in terms of organizing someone else to do something instead of organizing their own time and energies. This damaging tactic is employed as though organizing had the power, somehow, to absolve individuals from doing any more than joining some organization. This mania for organizing is usually little more than an effort, doubtless unwitting, to transfer responsibility from oneself to some other person or persons.
Responsibility and authority always go hand in hand. Thus, if this process of organizing succeeds, authority over one’s own actions is lost precisely in the degree that responsibility is shifted to someone else. The citizen who “wants action,” and resorts to this type of tactic, ends up further from his goal than ever. In fact, organizing, more often than not, is merely an attempt to “pass the buck.” Yet, oddly enough, the mere act seems to have the strange power of conferring a sense of accomplishment on the ones who organize.
So, how can one effectively fight for liberty if organizing itself can be dangerous to liberty?
Organization, though much used, seems to be little understood. In the field of extending individual liberty, organization has strictly limited, technical possibilities. Unless these limitations are scrupulously observed, organization will inflict on liberty more harm than good; thwart, not abet, the spread of understanding. Sobering is the thought that if there were no organization, there could be no socialism!
Organizations can, however, serve a highly useful purpose in developing and spreading an understanding of liberty if organization is confined to its proper sphere. For the purpose of advancing liberty, which depends solely on the advancement of individual understanding, the only usefulness of organization would seem to be to accommodate and to make easier the joint contribution to, participation in, and ownership of the physical assets that will aid in the process . . . tools helpful to individuals who are attempting to extend their understanding of liberty.
These physical accommodations can enable searchers for truth to exchange and disseminate ideas and knowledge more effectively. They can be used to secure the advantages which derive from specialization or division of labor. Organization, limited to this form of voluntary cooperation, is a useful and efficient means for achieving these desirable ends.
Organization, however, like government, if extended beyond its proper sphere, becomes positively harmful to the original purpose. This fact constitutes the need for much careful thought on organizational limitation. Just as government becomes dangerous when its coercive, restrictive, and destructive powers are extended into the creative areas, so do voluntary organizations pervert and destroy the benefits of intellect when the capacity to merge is carried to the point of subjecting individual judgments to the will of the majority or group.
If organizing beyond certain very narrow limits is not, then, as Read put it, “the best way to secure liberty,” what is that best way?
Self-improvement is the only practical course to liberty.
Every individual ought to realize that he has not mastered the subject of liberty until he thoroughly understands, and can competently explain, this idea: With government properly limited to its legitimate function of defense, our problems of interdependence can be resolved through voluntary effort, and only through voluntary effort . . . [but] most persons are inexpert in their understanding of this subject.
Not a single person among us is justified in regarding himself other than as a student of liberty. No know-it-all exists or ever will.
For a student of liberty, the search must be within one’s self. . . . It is not possible to impart to others that which we do not possess. And even after we have made some progress in understanding, the most we can do for others is to make known to them a willingness to share what we have discovered.
So how does this comport with the American tendency toward impatience that is often the motivation toward action?
The search within ourselves may at times appear unrewarding. But if the understanding of liberty is to be advanced, the attempt must be persisted in.
The casual thinker might imagine that the best course is to try to tell others what to do and how to think. But reason supplies a contrary answer. It suggests that pursuit of one’s own personal understanding is the only practical action for one to take. If a person advances his own understanding of the true and the false, the understanding thus acquired will be sought by others.
Some persons will assert that . . . this suggested student approach—this process of self-improvement—is too slow to meet the challenge of these times. . . . But . . . there is no short cut. The only way to truth—that is, to understanding—is through one’s own person. When we gain an appreciation of this simple fact, we will be on our way to as little violence against persons, and thus to as much liberty among persons, as is within our power.
So how is someone who wishes to advance liberty to reconcile the potential conflict between talk (beliefs, thoughts, opinions, and arguments expressed) and actions (behavior)? In a nutshell, one could say that smarter talk on behalf of liberty is also smarter action on behalf of liberty:
Action? For authoritarians it is physical force. For libertarians it is first understanding and then explanation.