Breaking the Intellectual Isolation of Libertarianism

At the Texas Students for Liberty conference I heard a lot of speakers. One of the issues several of them touched on was the intellectual origins of the libertarianism, pointing out quite correctly that it is an intellectual movement on the political right which balances out the intellectual left which generally has a much higher profile. Nigel Ashford from the Institute for Humane Studies was particularly effective in conveying the relationship between intellectualism and libertarianism in the context of the work of F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman.

What became clear during Ashford’s very enjoyable speech and from the questions which followed is that libertarians, including the young activists at this conference, really do think of themselves as intellectuals and identify with the intellectual elite. What also became clear was that they are utterly oblivious to the fact that they suffer from exactly the same liabilities as the leftist elite, particularly intellectual insularity and the ineffectiveness as a political movement which comes from being so focused on ideology and operating outside of the system that they are incapable of effectively acting on their beliefs or accomplishing anything in the political arena.

The long-time libertarian activists who made up maybe a third of the audience were eager to stand up and talk proudly about their token political campaigns where they spent no money but got their name mentioned in the local newspaper when they won 3% of the vote. Ashford led them on by asking what they would do if they had $10 million to spend on whatever they wanted, which produced a variety of unrealistic pipe-dreams and schemes to flush money down a rat-hole. What he should have said as a conclusion was that so long as they keep themselves splendidly isolated from mainstream politics no one will ever give them $10 million because the money would be wasted on achieving nothing and certainly do very little to grow liberty in the nation.

It’s heartening to see the growth of interest in liberty and bringing our government under control, but it’s enormously frustrating to see so much of this enthusiasm misdirected into the political dead end and do-nothingism which still characterizes the Libertarian Party. The truth is that the pissed-off non-intellectuals of the Tea Party movement who come to libertarianism out of expediency rather than intellect have already accomplished more real political change in a year than the Libertarian Party has accomplished in more than 30 years.

I suppose that in the academic environment where Students for Liberty operates, the over-intellectualization of libertarianism is inevitable. The members are students, many are graduate students or even professors, and they have already made the decision to live in the ivory tower of academia. This predisposes them to the fallacy of intellectual elitism and the belief that if you think about liberty enough and perhaps write monographs and blog about how society could be perfect you are actually achieving something. What they don’t seem to grasp is that there has already been plenty of writing about liberty and how great it is. Hayek, Friedman, Rothbard and scores of others have already produced an excellent body of libertarian thought. What we really need now is people who understand practical politics and can figure out ways to actually address the reality of out of control government.

The young libertarians of SFL are on the fast-track towards a think tank fellowship and a career sucking on the teat of the Koch Foundation. Very few of them will ever break out of that mold. They are thinking of politics and economics as pursuits of the intellect and don’t understand that real change only happens in the world of deeds and actions. Even the most activist among them just don’t know where to begin to get involved in politics in a realistic way. The answer is not to take put on your ideological purity like armor and launch a Quixotic campaign for congress when you’ve never served in public office or even worked for a real politician. The purity of your beliefs doesn’t actually make you qualified to hold public office and the voters and the groups which endorse candidates and get them elected are looking for practical experience.

If I had Ashford’s $10 million or the power to effect real change, I’d take these young libertarians and get them the hell out of academia and away from the environment of intellectual quilting bees and abstract theory. They need to spend time working on actual political campaigns or on Capitol Hill. Even if they’re working for politicians they don’t necessarily agree with, they’d learn more that’s practically useful in advancing liberty from a summer internship in DC than they are going to learn in a pointless lifetime of books and lectures and conferences. They need the practical experience to transform their ideas and beliefs into practical reality and they need to access a different kind of learning.

With some of that practical experience and immersion in the political system, they might learn that the political process isn’t really closed to them and that the isolation they find among the libertarian intellectuals is largely self-imposed. Politicians don’t listen to libertarians because the libertarians have not learned to explain their ideas in terms of real world. If the liberty message were presented in terms of utility and specific applications then libertarian intellectuals might be surprised to discover that there are real opportunities to influence established leaders and build alliances that will advance their ideas much more effectively than they can ever do in their ideological isolation.

So give me a bucket of money and I’ll start a college internship program and put young libertarians to work in the salt mines of Washington. Give them 3 months or even better a year answering constituent letters or researching legislation or making fundraising calls and I guarantee that they will see countless opportunities to advance liberty in real ways that they could never even have imagined in the isolation of academia and the community of the intellectual elite. Give me the money and I’ll give you a generation of libertarians who know how to lead and who know how to create change, not just talk about it.


About Dave 536 Articles
Dave Nalle has worked as a magazine editor, a freelance writer, a capitol hill staffer, a game designer and taught college history for many years. He now designs fonts for a living and lives with his family in a small town just outside Austin where he is ex-president of the local Lions Club. He is on the board of the Republican Liberty Caucus and Politics Editor of Blogcritics Magazine. You can find his writings about fonts, art and graphic design at The Scriptorium. He also runs a conspiracy debunking site at

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