The Path to Victory
[This talk was given at the Mises Institute Spring Seminar Series, Auburn, Alabama, March 5, 2003, and included in Speaking of Liberty (2003).]
The Mises Institute was founded as a research center based on liberal ideas that have always been under fire: the ideas of Mises and the tradition of thought he represents. That means a focus on the Austrian school of economics, and, in political philosophy, individual liberty and the need to prevent the state and its interests from crushing it, as all states everywhere are inclined to do.
The first priority of such an institute is to keep a body of ideas alive. Great ideas have no inherent life of their own, especially not those that are opposed by the powers that be. They must circulate and be a part of the academic and public mind in order to avoid extinction.
And yet we must do more than merely keep a body of thought alive. We don’t just want our ideas to live; we want them to grow and develop, advance within the culture and public debate, become a force to be reckoned with among intellectuals, be constantly employed toward the end of explaining history and current reality, and eventually win in the great ideological battles of our times.
What is the best means of achieving such victory? This is a subject that is rarely discussed on the free market right. Murray Rothbard pointed out that strategy is a huge part of the scholarship of the Left. Once having settled on the doctrine, the Left works very hard at honing the message and finding ways to push it. This is a major explanation for the Left’s success.
Our side, on the other hand, doesn’t discuss this subject much. But since some sort of strategy is unavoidable, let me just list a few tactics that I do not believe work. The following, I’m quite sure, will fail for various reasons:
QUIETISM. Faced with the incredible odds against success, there is a tendency among believers in liberty to despair and find solace in being around their friends and talking only to each other. This is understandable, of course, even fruitful at times, but it is also irresponsible and rather selfish. Yes, we may always be a minority, but we are always either growing or shrinking. If we shrink enough, we disappear. If we grow enough, we win. That is why we must never give up the battle for young minds and for changing older minds. Our message has tremendous explanatory power. We must never hide our light under a bushel.
RETREAT. One mark of the liberal tradition is its intellectual rigor. It contains more than enough intellectual substance to occupy the academic mind for several lifetimes. There is a tendency, then, to believe that retreating into academia and eschewing public life is the correct path. The idea is that we should just use our knowledge to pen journal articles and otherwise keep to ourselves, in the hopes that someday this path will pay off in terms of academic respectability. But this has not been the path of brilliant minds from Turgot and Jefferson, Bastiat and Constant, Mises and Hayek, to Rothbard and the adjunct scholars of the Mises Institute. They are all engaged at some level in public debate. They believed that too much is at stake to retreat solely to private study. We cannot afford that luxury.
HOLDING CHAIRS IN THE IVY LEAGUE. I’ve seen this related error take a re
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