When people focus too much on icons of the past – like a famous Tea Party – the lessons that history contains become obscured. People who believe they are against government power can be led into supporting more power if they don’t look for alternatives to rulers.
George Santayana warned “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I don’t think there is a warning that goes “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to innovate.” If there is, it would be a silly use of language.
The more we understand the past, the better our actions are informed. But we go wrong when we confuse the conditions of the present with the conditions of the past, when we try to copy people who acted without the knowledge of the years between their times and ours, or when we simplify multifaceted historic groups into convenient homogeneous blocks of unity.
When people entrust their grassroots work for freedom to those who want to govern, they end up with rulers. This is true of Daniel Shays, the Whiskey Rebels, the French revolutionaries, the Russians, and the 1960s counter-culture. Even the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States, by its connection to government action, resulted in a reduction but not the abolition of racist social, economic, and political domination.
Government is not established to protect individuals; it is established to protect power. People don’t establish governments to secure themselves; some people establish governments to formalize or strengthen their rule over others.
Rather than looking for establishment figures to throw their weight behind, America’s Tea Partiers would do better using their grassroots energy and connections to help each other build a free world. Building economic autonomy and social solidarity would increase freedom at the expense of would-be rulers. When a person engages in mutual aid, underground trade, and community production, she helps herself and her associates live apart from authority. Social solidarity works with consensual economic arrangements to strengthen the free communities that are created in opposition to authority.
Solidarity and libertarian ideas can ensure that the world built from the bottom up is a free world and not a world of small authoritarians. Libertarian ideas focus on maximizing individual liberty. Solidarity is as simple as people helping those with a common interest in freedom.
Herbert Spencer, whom Roderick Long calls a “much-maligned but seldom studied philosopher”, defined the limits of freedom in terms of a Law of Equal Liberty: “Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of every other man.” Freedom is not to be rationed nor partitioned according to rank. Though politicians try to restrict freedom to put themselves in charge, libertarians recognize that the only just limit on freedom is the equal freedom of other individuals. The state holds freedom as something to be dispensed or restricted according to the convenience of control, while anarchists hold the freedom of the individual as the purpose of any consensual organization.
Liberty starts with yourself and how you interact with others. Respect people as autonomous individuals instead of viewing them as identities that have been made by power.
The political system works for those who control it – and that probably isn’t you. And if you do gain control of the system, you put yourself in the position of attempting to control the lives of other people – crippling their liberty and crushing resistance.
If you want to live in a free world, build one! Take stock of your resources and connections and ask: What can I do, with what I have, to build liberty without taking unjustly from others? Stop looking backwards toward government solutions – look forwards toward liberty!