The Art of Being Free

The Art of Being Free, by Wendy McElroy [Laissez Faire Books, 2012]

By Wally Conger

Long ago, when I was an evangelical libertarian punk, there were two tomes I hauled around in my book bag to help lure passers-by into the movement — Radical Libertarianism by Jerome Tuccille and Murray Rothbard’s monumental For A New Liberty.

Tuccille’s book, which hit the political landscape in 1970, is sadly hard to find these days (and terribly out of date, anyway). Rothbard’s 1973 classic is still in print, of course.

But now, here comes The Art of Being Free, a new manifesto from Wendy McElroy. And it’s not only a tremendous addition to the freedom literature, it will, I’m sure, also serve as a powerful recruitment tool.

As Wendy reveals in the book’s preface — and as anyone who’s spent twenty minutes in this movement should know — she’s no anarchist tenderfoot. At 15, Wendy was already reading Ayn Rand. This, plus her intense study of every American individualist from Benjamin Tucker to Murray Rothbard, led to a decades-long conviction that “whatever happens within society — from the free market to war — begins with the individual who agrees or dissents. The individual says yes or no and it is this lever of consent at which freedom lives or dies.”

Yeah, it’s that simple, which makes Wendy’s new book both eloquent and extremely persuasive.

The Art of Being Free is broken into four sections. The first provides a quick survey of natural rights, the State, and the theoretical footing for the freedom philosophy. The second section applies that theory to issues like public education, workers’ rights, foreign policy, and the war on drugs.

Where this volume really packs a wallop, though, is in the two sections that make up its second half. Here, McElroy tackles anti-political strategies and tactics for moving forward to a truly stateless society.

Section 3, “Principles Work Through People,” introduces five “historical friends” who embody Wendy’s ideals. Each of these mini-biographies — of French philosopher Étienne de la Boétie, French writer-historian François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, author-naturalist-tax resister Henry David Thoreau, American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and newspaper publisher R.C. Hoiles — is inspiring and insightful. And each illustrates a freedom principle. Listen…

“La Boétie stresses the role of habit in developing obedience, but habits can be equally important in becoming and remaining liberated. For example, develop the habit of questioning authority even if the question is asked quietly or only of yourself.”

And again…

“Garrison is a flesh-and-blood example of how effective one man can be in fighting against a massive injustice. … The smallest ‘group’ with an amazing ability to change the world is the person of principle who will not surrender. No force is stronger.”

And one more time…

“Through consistently applying his freedom principles to his daily basis, R.C. [Hoiles] richly prospered in family, finance and the respect of his associates. Living freedom does not mean sacrifice; it means enrichment both personally, professionally and financially.”

McElroy finishes up with a rousing — but qualified — call-to-action in the book’s final section, “Getting There From Here.”

Although she admits America is now a police state, Wendy confesses, “Nevertheless, I am an optimist.

“My optimism,” she continues, “comes from turning one question over and over in my mind like a worry bead. The question is, ‘What can be accomplished right here and now in my own backyard?’”

In other words, smaller is better.

“[W]hat I focus energy upon are the things I can affect and change for the better. I concentrate on grassroots movements in which individual voices are the driving force and individuals make an incredible difference. It is in the grassroots movements that are springing up and spreading like fire across North America that I see the future of liberty. … Freedom may be dead within the institutions like government, but it is unquenchable within people. It lives in the grassroots.”

How does McElroy define a grassroots movement?

“It begins,” she writes, “with isolated individuals who are desperately dissatisfied with an issue that deeply affects their lives. … It starts with an issue so deeply personal that people who have never said ‘no’ to authority before stand up and refuse to sit down. Grassroots movements usually begin by saying ‘no’ on a local level, to a local school board, at a town meeting or to district court. Sometimes they never proceed beyond the local level. But if the injustice they are confronting is widespread, then the voices multiply and spread. They become the most powerful political force on the face of the earth: the voice of the people. …

“Grassroots movements are the path from here to there.”

But Wendy advises against focusing on the struggle alone. Beyond the battle, we libertarians should center our attention on living the liberty lifestyle ourselves.

“This is a pitfall of caring passionately for freedom and being politically active: sometimes you forget to live. You forget that life is not about opposing things but embracing them.”

As an example, she points to Thoreau, to whom the business of living was immensely more important than politics. When he was released from jail for refusing to pay a tax that supported war, Thoreau “did not file a grievance. He immediately went on a berry hunt with a swarm of young boys. No bitterness. No brooding. No lingering resentment. Without missing a beat, Thoreau simply returned to living deeply.”

She adds: “As he tramped the trails in search of juicy treasure, Thoreau found himself standing on a high point in a field. He gazed about at the continuous, sprawling beauty that surrounded him and observed ‘the State was nowhere to be seen.’”

And so Wendy McElroy lives her own life.

“I act as though the State does not exist,” she says. “Make space for the ‘business of living’ — the areas of life that allow you to say, ‘Here, the state is nowhere to be seen.’”

The Art of Being Free is educational, instructive, and ultimately inspiring.

I can ask for no better guidebook to fighting for and living the stateless life.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory