Rules for Liberty

Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff

Don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff. That’s the philosophy of liberty in a nutshell. Everyone should be free to live their lives as they think best, free from meddling by politicians and government bureaucrats.

To me, the values of liberty just seem like a commonsense way to think about political philosophy. The rules are easily understood, our aspirations for government are modest and practical, and our designs on the lives and behavior of other people are unpresumptuous, even humble. The rules are pretty straightforward because they treat everyone just like everyone else: simply; they are blindly applied like Lady Justice would; across the board. No assembly required.

I am not a moral philosopher and I don’t particularly aspire to be one. That said, I have stayed at more than one Holiday Inn Express. That makes me at least smart enough to know what I don’t know. So the rules that follow represent my not-so-humble attempt to boil down and mash up all the best thinking in all of human history on individualism and civil society, the entire canon of Judeo-Christian teachings, the spontaneous evolution of common law, hundreds of years of English Whig, Scottish Enlightenment, and classical liberal political philosophy, lots of Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, a smattering of karma, and, like any morally relevant updating of a time-tested ethos, at least a few hat tips to The Big Lebowski. All of this in six convenient “Rules for Liberty.”

What on earth am I thinking? My inspiration, in an odd way, is Saul Alinsky, the famous community organizer who so influenced two of his fellow Chicagoans—Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Everybody’s favorite leftist community organizer famously wrote thirteen Rules for Radicals for his disciples to follow. His book is “a pragmatic primer for realistic radicals” seeking to take over the world.

Alinsky actually dedicates his book to Lucifer. I’m not kidding: “Lest we forget at least an over the shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins—or which is which), the very first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom—Lucifer.” What in hell was he thinking? Did Alinsky really mean it? Who knows? But tongue-in-cheek or not, it seems to reflect the by-any- means-necessary spirit of the book.

So how could I find inspiration here? It’s no secret that many of us liberty-minded “community organizers” have appropriated some of Alinsky’s tactical thinking in the defense of individual freedom. But I think there’s a categorical difference between them and us.

Rules for Radicals is not a tome about principles; it is a book about winning, sometimes with wickedly cynical and manipulative tactics. The principles seem to be missing, or an afterthought, something to be figured out later, airdropped into the Grand Plan depending upon who ends up in charge. This cart-before-the-horse thinking seems to be consistent with the progressive mindset: The rule of man instead of the rule of law, or the writing of a blank check to unfireable government agents empowered with great discretionary authority over your life. If we just suspend our disbelief and trust them, everything is supposed to turn out just fine.

In practice, it never, ever does.

We, on the other hand, start from first principles. The nice thing about the Rules for Liberty is that our values define our tactics, so there’s no ends-justify-the-means hypocrisy.

These Rules are applied equally, without bias or discrimination. Liberty does not permit gray-suited middlemen to rearrange things for your special benefit, or against your personal preferences, arbitrarily.

1. Don’t Hurt People

This first rule seems simple enough, and no decent person would hurt another unless the action is provoked or in some way justified. Free people just want to be left alone, not hassled or harmed by someone else with an agenda or designs over their life and property. We would certainly strike back if and when our physical well-being is threatened—if our family, our community, or our country were attacked. But we shouldn’t hurt other people unless it is in self- defense or in the defense of another against unchecked aggression.

Libertarian philosophers, wanting to dazzle us with big words seemingly designed to keep the unconverted out of our small tent, call this the Non-Aggression Principle. But this is not a new idea. I actually stole it from your Mom, who in turn likely borrowed it from her Mom, who probably got it at church on Sunday.

Government is, by definition, a monopoly on force. Governments often hurt people and take their stuff. That’s why the political philosophy of liberty is focused on the rule of law.

Government is dangerous, left unchecked. Consider the way too many examples from modern history to see the murderous results of too much unchecked government power: communists, fascists, Nazis, radical Islamist theocracies, and a broad array of Third World dictators who hide behind ideology or religion or war to justify the oppression and murder of their countrymen as a means of retaining power. Unlimited governments always hurt people and always take their stuff, often in horrific and absolutely unintended ways.

2. Don’t Take People’s Stuff

In our personal lives, taking from one person, by force, to give to another person is considered stealing. Stealing is wrong. It’s just not cool to take other people’s stuff, and we all agree that ripping off your neighbor, or your neighbor’s local bank, or your neighbor’s credit information online is a crime that should be punished.

But what if the stealer in question is the federal government? Is thieving wrong unless the thief is our duly elected representation, or some faceless “public servant” working at some alphabet soup government agency?

It seems to me that stealing is always wrong, and that you can’t outsource stealing to a political party and expect to feel any better about your actions. In the real world, where absolute power corrupts absolutely, there are no good government thieves or bad government thieves. There is only limited or unlimited government thievery.

3. Take Responsibility

Should you wait around for someone else to solve a problem, or should you get it done yourself? Liberty is an individual responsibility, not a blank check. The burden always sits upon your shoulders first. It is that inescapable accountability that stares you in the mirror every morning. If it didn’t get done, sometimes there’s no one to blame but yourself.

Free people step up to help our neighbors when bad things happen; we come together to make our communities a better place, by working together voluntarily, solving problems from the bottom up.

This is the “I” in community. Communities are made up of individuals and families and volunteers and local organizations and time-tested institutions that have been around since long before you were born. But notice a pattern that should be self-evident: Families are made up of free people. So are churches and synagogues, volunteer soup kitchens, and countless community service projects that emerge spontaneously. All of these social units, no matter how you parse it, are made up of individuals working together, by choice. It does take a village, but villages are made up of individual people.

Barack Obama, an ardent fan of the Political Straw Man, thinks we face a stark either/ or choice between individualism and strong communities. “Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has  opportunity—that that’s a pretty narrow vision. It’s not one that, I think, describes what’s best in America.”

I was introduced to the philosophy of liberty by reading Rand’s Anthem. I found her work compelling because it focused on individual responsibility. Do you own yourself and the product of your work, she asked, or does someone else have a first claim, or a responsibility, for your life? I thought the answer was obvious. Rand’s critics love to attack her views that individuals matter with the caricature of “rugged individualism”: Everyone is an island, uncaring of anyone or anything, willing to do anything to get ahead.

Can governments require that people care, or force you to volunteer? Can you mandate compassion? Can you outsource charity by insisting that the political process expropriate the wealth of someone you don’t know to solve someone else’s need? The process of getting to the “right” outcomes, the properly reengineered social order, is never well defined. It’s all about power, and who gets to assert their power over you. The rules are always situational, and your situation is always less important than the situations and interests of the deciders.

Of course, if someone else is in charge, we always, conveniently, have someone else to blame. Not left free, we might just not step up. We might not get involved. Without liberty, any sense of community that binds us might just unravel.

4. Work for It

Liberty is a weight. If you have ever tried to do something you’ve never done before, or tried to start a new business venture, or created new jobs and hired new workers, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The same is true for people who step up to solve a community problem. These are all acts of risk-taking, an attempt to serve a need, solve a problem or disrupt the status quo. These are acts of entrepreneurship. And it’s all hard work.

“What distinguishes the successful entrepreneur and promoter from other people is precisely the fact that he does not let himself be guided by what was and is, but arranges his affairs on the ground of his opinion about the future,” says economist Ludwig von Mises. “They are free to embark upon their projects even if everyone else laughs at them.”

You might fail. But the upside of work, and risk-taking, and judgment is the secret sauce of liberty. It’s all about the infinite potential that sits right around the next corner. You can go get it. You are free to pursue of your own happiness. Or not. It is up to you.

For all of the debate about “the rich” paying their fair share, the real question is not about the proper redistribution of the diminishing spoils between rich and poor. Every country throughout history has had its privileged class, usually favored and protected by government cronies. The real question is: Are you free, regardless of who your parents were or the color of your skin, to get rich, free of government-enforced class distinctions and other barriers to entry that prevent the poor from climbing the economic ladder?

5. Mind Your Own Business

Free people live and let live. I figure I have enough on my plate just keeping myself straight. How I live my own life, and how I choose to treat others, matters. But is it really my place to mind the business of the millions of other people working out their own dreams? I don’t think so. I don’t have to accept their choices or their values. But as long as they tolerate mine, as long as they don’t try to hurt me or take my stuff, or try to petition the government to do it for them, why should I care?

Certainly other people will disagree with my live-and-let-live attitude. But the real question is about the proper role of government in limiting my personal decisions, or dictating my values, or the practice of my religion, or the codification of cherished social institutions, social rules that have evolved over centuries through peaceful cooperation.

The temptation to manipulate social behavior finds support across the political spectrum, a trend bluntly criticized by F.A. Hayek: “The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes… Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.”

Can the political process better arbitrate the definition of time-tested social mores? It seems like a ridiculous question. Consider the definition of marriage. Why does the federal government have an opinion about my marriage? How dare they politicize the most important personal relationship in my life. Why would we want government, with all of its competing agendas and interests other than your own, involved? I would like other people, and the government, to stay out of my personal business. I plan to return the favor.

6. Fight the Power

The cost of knowing what it is that governments are up to has always been the biggest threat to liberty. Historically, it’s the insiders, the well-heeled interests that want a special deal, or a subsidy, or a carve-out, or an earmark, or an exemption, who have always known first.

Public choice economists refer to this perverse incentive structure as the “concentrated benefits” of power players versus “dispersed costs” incurred by you, the taxpayer. This process, more than anything else, explains all of the bailouts and the incomprehensible mountain of national debt and the seemingly mindless expansion of government into our personal and economic lives.

Today this mindless march forward of big government—like White Walkers descending on Westeros—is being undermined by the Internet, the decentralization of knowledge, the breakup of old media cartels, and ubiquitous social media that lets us easily connect with other concerned citizens. The democratization of politics is shifting power away from insiders, back to the shareholders.

But you still have to step up and take personal responsibility. No one’s going to fight the power for you. You can’t proxy-vote your shares in personal governance to some third party. If you don’t like the direction your country is taking, if you don’t like the dominance of insiders, politicians-for-life, and super-lobbyists who get special access, it’s time to take a look in the mirror.

Before you convince yourself that it’s impossible to change things, think about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lech Walesa or any other lonely activist that has done the undoable through peaceful resistance to government power.

This burden, the weight of liberty, is what has driven a small minority, those special few freedom fighters over history to buck the status quo, often at extraordinary personal costs. Those who step up, in an act of lonely entrepreneurship, and fix “unfixable” problems even as the anointed experts “laugh at them.” Would you be willing to risk your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor for the principle that individuals should be left free, provided that they don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff?

Matt Kibbe is President and CEO of FreedomWorks. This is adapted from his New York Times bestseller Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff (William Morrow/HarperCollins 2014).

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