[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 real toll on otherwise good minds. A young person can start out with real commitments, but he may fear the marginalization that comes with holding unpopular ideas. He tries to pass himself off as a conventional scholar, while sneaking in libertarian thoughts along the way. He may intend to reveal his true colors eventually, but then there are the demands of tenure and promotion, and social pressures to boot. Eventually, in short, he comes to sell out.
CONVINCING THE POLITICIANS. Another type of problem stems from the belief that political organizing is the answer. But this can only lead to despondency, as effort after effort fails to yield fruit. Despite what you hear, the political class is not interested in ideas for their own sake. They are interested in subsidizing their friends, protecting their territory, and getting re-elected. Political ideology for them is, at best, a hobby. It is only useful insofar as it provides a cover for what they would do otherwise. I’m generalizing here, and yes, exceptions are possible. In fact, I can think of one in our century: Ron Paul.
PLACING HIGH-PROFILE ARTICLES. I know think tank people who would do just about anything to get in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. This is a snare and delusion. Once you put a priority on the medium over the message—and this is inevitable once you begin to think this way—you are forgetting why you got in this business to begin with. If these venues come to you and ask you to offer an opinion you hold, by all means do so. But that is not the way it works.
GETTING ON TV. The same applies here. I know people who were once dedicated to the ideas of liberty who developed a hankering for media attention, and eventually forgot why they got into the ideas business in the first place.
STARTING MORE THINK TANKS. I know this sounds silly, but some people on our side of the fence believe that the more nonprofit organizations there are, the more likely we are to win the battle of ideas. To me, this amounts to confusing the success that franchising represents in the commercial marketplace with ideological success, which is not guaranteed by the proliferation of websites and institutes. Indeed, ideology is not solely a commercial enterprise. We are a nonprofit research institute for a reason. What we do pays huge returns for civilization but not in the form of accounting profits. Our reward comes in other ways.
BUILDING AN IMMENSE ENDOWMENT AND HIRING A HUGE STAFF. Funding and staff alone will solve nothing. Funding is crucial and heaven knows the Mises Institute needs more of it. Staffing is great, so long as the people are dedicated and competent. But neither is an end in itself. The crucial question is whether the passion for ideas is there, not just the financial means. Amazing things are possible on small budgets, as I think the success of the Mises Institute shows.
WAIT FOR THE COLLAPSE. We know that socialism and interventionism cannot work. We know they fail, and we suspect that they might finally fail in a catastrophic manner. This may be true, but we are mistaken if we believe that the ideas of liberty will naturally emerge in such a setting. Crisis can present opportunities but no guarantees.
Finding errors such as these is easy, and I could list a dozen more. Let me offer a few points I think we should remember.
Our ideas are unpopular. We are in the minority. Our views are not welcome by the regime. They often fall on the deaf ears of an indifferent public. Big newspapers don’t often care what we think. In fact, they want to keep us out of their pages. Politicians will always find us impractical at best, and threatening at worst.
In short, we fight an uphill battle. We must recognize this at the outset. We are what Albert Jay Nock called the remnant, a small band of brothers who have special knowledge of theory and history and a concern for the well-being of civilization. What we do with that knowledge and concern is up to us. We can retreat or sell out, or we can use it as our battle cry and go forward through history to face the enemy.
Let me offer just a quick outline of some principles I use:
EDUCATE EVERY STUDENT who is interested in what we do. Never neglect anyone. One never knows where the next Mises or Rothbard or Hayek or Hazlitt is going to come from.
ENCOURAGE A PROLIFERATION OF TALENTS. Some people are great writers. Others are great teachers. Still others have a talent for research. There are other abilities too, like public speaking and technological competence. It takes all these abilities to make up the great freedom movement of our time. There is no need to insist on a single model; rather, we should make use of the division of labor.
USE EVERY MEDIUM we can to advance our ideas, from the smallest newsletter to the largest website. Never believe that a medium is beneath you, or above you. We must be in the academic journals and we must be in the pages of the local newspaper. Along these lines, the web has solved the major problem we faced throughout history, namely finding a medium to communicate our ideas in a way that makes them available to everyone who is interested. But it never happens automatically. It requires tremendous effort and creativity to bring about change.
ADHERE TO WHAT IS TRUE. This means avoiding fancy ways of pitching your ideas in keeping with current trends. It’s fine to be attentive to sales techniques. But never let this concern swamp your message.
SAY WHAT IS TRUE. Never underestimate the power of just stating things plainly and openly. Whatever the topic, the ideas of liberty have something to add that is missing from public debate. It is our job to make that addition.
DON’T NEGLECT ACADEMIA. Yes, colleges and universities are corrupt. But they are where the ideas that rule civilization come from. We must not neglect them. We must publish journals, sponsor colloquia, help faculty and students. Never let academia believe it has the luxury of forgetting about our ideas. This is why the Mises Institute holds seminars for professors and students, as well as financial professionals and interested people of every sort.
DON’T NEGLECT POPULAR CULTURE. Yes, popular culture is corrupt, but not entirely. We must not neglect it, because it has a huge impact on the way people see themselves and learn about their world.
USE YOUR MINORITY STATUS TO YOUR OWN BENEFIT. There is no sense in duplicating what others already do. If you publish, publish something radical and surprising. If you produce a book, make it a book that will change people’s minds. If you hold a seminar, say things that are worth saying. Never fear the unconventional. It is possible to be conventional in form and radical in content.
REMEMBER THAT INFLUENCE CAN BE INDIRECT. The effect of ideas on a civilization is like waves on water. By the time they reach the shore, no one remembers or knows for sure where they came from. Our job is to stick to the task. We should use every means at our disposal to get the ideas out there; what happens after that is as unpredictable as the future always is.
SUCCESS CAN TAKE MANY FORMS. I am often asked how we can think we are succeeding even as the government keeps growing. To me, this poses no great quandary. All governments want total control. What stops them, primarily, is ideological opposition. Without it, the government would grow much quicker and civilization would be doomed in short order. To what extent has the circulation of the ideas of liberty slowed down the growth of the state? How much worse off might we be?
CHANGE CAN HAPPEN QUICKLY. The ideological foundations of statism weaken in ways that are not always detectable. Change can happen overnight, after which all becomes clear in retrospect. If you had told the average Russian in 1985 that in five years the Soviet Union would be defunct, you would have been dismissed as a madman. It’s my opinion that statism in America may have run its course. We should all do our best to speed up the process.
In the history of warfare, there have always been armies that are ruled by the center and emphasize drills, lines, and discipline. They tend to treat their soldiers as expendable. They can win but at a huge price.
The other model is guerrilla warfare, usually undertaken by the underdog in the battle. Guerrilla armies usually consist of volunteers; every soldier is considered valuable. Their tactics are unpredictable. They are not ruled by the center but rather exploit the creativity of each member. Such armies have proven remarkably effective in the history of warfare.
I believe that the guerrilla model is what suits us best—a campaign of ideological guerrilla warfare conducted by the remnant. This is no guarantee of success but it is the best guarantee against failure that I know.
The key to our success, I believe, is that the Mises Institute is all about being attached to principle and truth before anything else. We’ve never traded short-term attention for building for the long term.
Mises did not either, and he paid a personal price. But his ideas are changing the world. We must all follow his lead, never giving in, never giving up, fighting for truth until our last breath. We have the passion and energy. Most importantly, we have truth on our side. I believe we can have the victory.