Those of us who love liberty wish to see a free-market society in our lifetimes. But, as a near-term prospect, a society even approximating a thorough respect of individual rights and free exchange is not on the horizon. The best liberty-oriented activism, culminating in the passionate, motivated support for Ron Paul during his 2012 Presidential campaign, has only gained the ideas of liberty the sympathy of perhaps 15% of the United States population, with the ability to attract perhaps a few more percentage points in tactical alliances on specific issues. This is not enough to catalyze system-wide change and turn around the steadily deteriorating political situation. Probably the best near-term hope for the system is some semblance of the 1990s – a glorious time for liberty by comparison to today! This could be achieved if enough people are galvanized to oppose and overturn NSA surveillance, meaningless foreign wars, and the never-ending domestic “wars” on drugs and terror, which have always ultimately turned into wars on innocent, law-abiding Americans. Such an outcome would produce a sigh of relief from the liberty-minded, but it still would not be close to a free market; it would just be somewhat sane and non-totalitarian.
But if persuasion has not succeeded in convincing even a plurality of the population (at least for now) and if political change in the near term would mostly consist of reversing the most blatant, egregious travesties of justice, then what hope is there to actually achieve the ideals of liberty in our lifetimes? There is a promising approach, encapsulated in the following method. Ask yourself: What results would a fully free market, functioning in accordance with the principles of liberty and individual rights, bring about? Now go pursue those results directly, through your individual actions, without waiting for the system to change.
Yes, there are limits to this approach. One limit is the law, whose prohibitions and mandates today will certainly constrain certain beneficial courses of action that would have been possible on the free market, while requiring people to spend their time on other courses of action that the free market would have rendered unnecessary. Yet the approach I propose can still do considerable good within the bounds of current laws in any political system less oppressive than that of Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984. Another limit is that the outcomes of a fully free market are not entirely foreseeable. Future discoveries and innovations by free individuals are the currently unseen benefits of voluntary action and exchange, and we cannot always anticipate them in advance. Even with this recognition, though, it is possible to reasonably anticipate that a free market would uplift human beings materially, intellectually, morally, and culturally. People in a free society would be more prosperous, more knowledgeable (and better able to distinguish good ideas from bad), less inclined to aggression against their fellow men, and more inclined to refined tastes (as a result of increased prosperity, leisure time, and sense that life is generally good).
Direct, peaceful, lawful action by individuals today can bring about many of the results of a free market even without a free market being legally in place or supported by the majority of people. Furthermore, such results can be brought about by actions that are themselves fully consistent with free-market principles, since they would be entirely voluntary and respectful of the rights of others. There is one catch: the activities that would be profitable on a free market would not necessarily be so today. Their cost would need to be absorbed using one’s own resources, and one would need to consider the outcome not a loss, or even a sub-optimal profit, but rather a moral profit that outweighs the material cost, including the opportunity cost, in time and money.
To give an example, I compose classically inspired music and give recordings away for free online using a Creative Commons license. In a free market, which over time would uplift the tastes of the general public, the production of high music (which would be simultaneously sophisticated and appealing to the human ear) would be much more remunerative than it is today, and the likes of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus would be relegated to the ever-thinning ranks of the dregs of society. This hypothesis is supported by history: in prior, far less prosperous but economically freer eras, composers of high music were often seen as celebrities, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, Giuseppe Verdi, and Johann Strauss II being just a few examples. Today, creators of good music have to content themselves with far less remuneration than the dubious pop idols, manufactured by politically connected and protected record labels. However, no one inhibits the freedom to compose, and the available tools for doing so are more impressive than ever before. Voluntary private action can increase the abundance of newly produced high culture in music, art, and literature. Similarly, voluntary private research initiatives, ranging from the humanities to mathematics to DIY biology, can hasten the rate of meaningful discoveries in order to more closely approximate the pace of intellectual and technological progress that would occur in a free market. With the hyper-empowerment made possible through recent electronic technologies, the opportunities for any individual to make a difference in a field today exceed those available to large laboratories, academic departments, workshops, and orchestras in the mid-20th century. Thus, one person with free-market sympathies, acting on his own time with his own resources, can often achieve more than teams of people working through established institutions using old patterns of production, whose obsolescence is becoming glaringly obvious to anyone who pays attention.
As an added bonus, creating free-market outcomes in accordance with free-market principles will, in any system, highlight the benefits and possibilities of voluntary, private action to those who might otherwise be unconvinced. It appears to me, from observation and experience, that theoretical and abstract arguments for the benefits of liberty are not sufficient to persuade anyone who is not already extremely theoretically inclined – a tiny minority of the human population. For everyone else, practical demonstrations of how freedom would work are far more powerful than the most finely honed theory of liberty. Probably, the majority of people would only come to support free markets once liberty-minded people have, de facto, built an entire free market around them by informally approximating its outcomes and workings. At that time, achieving a formal free market would just be a matter of “flipping the switch” on the entire system and amending the laws (with popular consent) to recognize the kind of societal order that would have already formed in practice.
Interestingly enough, Rolling Jubilee, a more recent initiative by the Occupy movement, has valuable lessons to teach free-market advocates regarding the approach of pursuing desired outcomes directly. No, I am not referring to physical occupations of public places, but rather the efforts to purchase consumer debt on the secondary market (at deep discounts) and subsequently to abolish such debt, freeing consumers of its burden. While the economic ideas of members of the Occupy movement often differ from free-market views, this initiative has achieved an objective that free-market advocates should find salutary: the reduction of the total outstanding amount of consumer debt, much of which was the result of a credit bubble fueled by the reckless inflationary monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. Furthermore, much today’s outstanding consumer debt is an outcome of cultural malaise brought about by generations of unfreedom, as a result of which a condition of financial dependency has come to predominate instead of self-reliance and the robustness to contingencies that can only come about due to a buffer of present owned resources. Freer-market cultures tend to be more contemptuous of reliance on personal debt, and it is thus reasonable to expect the total amount of debt on a free market to be less than exists today. The Occupy movement did not wait for authoritative permission, or for majority agreement, or for system-wide change. Rather, members pooled their resources and, by paying $400,000, managed to annul $14 million of consumer debt. It is a drop in the bucket of the entire problem, to be sure, but it is also an invaluable proof of concept for the project of massive societal transformation through voluntary, private action.
Direct, peaceful, law-abiding action to bring about the outcomes of a free market would also help in another crucial respect by rehabilitating the image of free markets in the eyes of skeptics. The outcome of the course of action I propose would not be profit maximization in the present day; indeed, it would often require working for free on one’s own time and engaging in acts that would be considered charitable or philanthropic by professed opponents of the market. Even businesses that espouse free-market ideas could join in on this project and pursue practices that, while they may not capture every morsel of profit out there for the taking, are more in accord with how a free market would behave. Such businesses could, for instance, voluntarily renounce lobbying for special privileges and barriers to entry that would keep competitors out of the market. They could also spend resources to improve workplace conditions and surrounding neighborhoods in order to better approximate how workplaces and neighborhoods would look under a prosperous free market. Furthermore, internal salary schedules in such businesses could be based on an approximation of meritocracy as it would emerge on a free market, which would often mean higher compensation for innovative and talented employees (irrespective of age, origin, past socioeconomic circumstances, or connections), resulting in greater retention, improved morale, better products, and long-term competitive advantages for the business that undertakes such a step. To certain onlookers, these behaviors might seem consistent with what is today called “corporate social responsibility” – and perhaps they would be. But by engaging in these practices in the name of striving toward a free-market ideal, liberty-minded businessmen could perhaps for the first time break through to capture the hearts and minds of many present-day detractors.
What outcomes do you think would be achieved by a free market but are deficient today? Now go work to make them happen.