Raising Consciousness beyond the Political Means

Johnny Harrelson
Aug 16, 2013 at 4:59 PM

I propose in the following discussion to call one's own labor and the equivalent exchange of one's own labor for the labor of others, the "economic means" for the satisfaction of need while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the "political means."

— Franz Oppenheimer, The State

On a recent trip to Arlington, Virginia for the 5th Annual YAL National Convention a question was asked by one of the speakers: “How many of you are political science majors?”

The vast majority of the hands in the room went up.  I found this phenomenon exceedingly interesting.  As a matter of fact, one could certainly understand why Young Americans for Liberty, a group founded for the purpose of political activism in youth circles, would attract university students who also happen to be political science majors, and who also most likely have ambitions for professional life.

Yet what does this represent?  Is the goal of liberty a purely political goal?

Liberty certainly is the essence of what Oppenheimer termed the economic means.  Such as it is, can a political movement, based on the ‘economic means’ of voluntary exchange, property rights, self-defense, etc. achieve a goal which is antithetical to the very means which it has professed to abolish?

It is impossible not to come to the conclusion that, in order to make an allowance for the political means, that by degrees we must neglect the ultimate goal of the economic means, which is liberty.

This being said, it is crucial to understand the political means in terms of an overall strategy for liberty.  Pursing liberty via its antithetical political means could best be described as what Murray Rothbard termed ‘right opportunism;’ a strategy defined as activism pushed forward by a series of short run gains and compromises. As an overall strategy there is certainly room for the political means. The political means must be infiltrated. It must be delegitimized. It must be dismantled and it must be thrust out of the realm of human action in order for humanity to elevate to a more perfect, moral, and free state of being. Yet, to focus solely on the political means as an end towards the liberation of humanity is shortsighted and ultimately doomed to fail.

The use of political means by economic oriented activists, proto-libertarians, classical liberals, and principled statesmen of the past, did so initially as an earnest attempt to create a more just and free society, yet as fiction writer Frank Herbert aptly proclaimed “every revolutionary is a closet aristocrat.”

This comment, although flip and overtly cynical, does cautiously and succinctly point toward a history filled with several moral revolutions, rooted in the economic morality of voluntary exchange, property rights, and justice; which in time had grown only to be subdued by the seduction of political power.  From the Leveller Movement to the Reagan Revolution, history is filled with political movements that professed a vision grounded in the defense of the economic means against the political means, yet all too often, did more to perpetuate and grow the political means at the latter’s expense.

The point is all too clear.  For if the ultimate goal of Liberty, as a vision and as a code for a free and just society is the north star, the guiding light for a Liberty activist, it must be unequivocally understood that the State, the organization of the political means to accumulate wealth and power, ultimately will fail the test to live up to the principles of a free and voluntary society.

Yet, if the future of the Liberty movement is predominantly dominated by political scientists; either with ambitions to demonstrate their profession in practice, or to create and perpetuate a cadre of a new political elite, it must be understood that this fledgling cadre of vanguard professionals, if they are successful in the cause, at some point will have to make a choice between the political means and the economic means of sustaining themselves.

Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.

— Mao Zedong

In war, especially a just war, there must be designs for victory.  What are the terms, conditions, and desired outcomes?  When will an activist or a movement know that they’ve succeeded?  When Liberty is achieved?  When will the political vanguard make an exodus from the political realm and use their organizational skills for the benefit of a voluntary society?   It is the tendency of political classes to perpetuate the political means for as long as possible.  Prestige, wealth, and power; all the things which afflict the human condition, tend to aggrandize itself more potently in the realm of politics. 

What should be done to guard against this familiar matter of fact?  Will this incarnation of the Liberty movement have room for the apolitical?  Or will it assert itself by descending into doublespeak and self-aggrandizement?

I contend that the liberty movement and Young Americans for Liberty in particular, should devote more time and spread its reach into the realm of the apolitical. Entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, chemists, artists, and those devoted to the productive, economic means of procuring wealth.  It is here on the cutting edge of human development where the ‘disruptive’ advancement of our culture and our humanity progresses. As a matter of fact, great gains in liberty almost never come from the political sphere of human society.  The Gutenberg Press, the airplane, William Shakespeare, etc. — all of the riches of the free human soul be they material, intellectual, or spiritual have rarely came by way of the political means. 

Furthermore, I urge that more work be done to enlarge the cadre of Liberty activists beyond the insulated world of politics and make it a point to stretch and elevate the consciousness of humanity far beyond the self-induced limits of using the political means to an end.  Reaching out to engineering majors, technology majors, tradesmen, chemists, and scientists; those young men and women who are working in fields which can do more to disrupt the status quo than any political movement are vital to focus the cause of liberty and sharpen its effect on our local, national, and global communities.  These are the innovators who even now will inherit and further pioneer the way for such 'disruptive' technologies as 3D printing, information encryption, and alternative currencies.

The great men of liberty have understood this need and have offered several examples about the ways in which humanity is furthered by a just economic system and the ways in which political efforts as a sole means to an end usually ends badly.

Ludwig von Mises, in a letter written to F.A. Hayek, laid out the reasons for the failure of liberty-minded activists in their efforts to effectively stop the growth of fascism and national socialism before the second World War:

The cause of this lamentable failure was that the founders of these movements could not emancipate themselves from the sway of the very ideas of the foes of liberty. They did not realize that freedom is inextricably linked with the market economy. 

Again we see Franz Oppenheimer’s common sense dialectic between the economic means and the political means at work in this exchange. 

The greater point is this.  That while the political means does have a role to play in the greater strategy for the ultimate end towards liberty and a free society; every political scientist, every student who is banking on a long career in politics, be it on K Street or in a state house somewhere, if that person is to be honest with themselves and honest with the Liberty movement to which they profess a sincere and shared goal, must also understand that the state of political affairs are only temporary.   It must be understood that sooner or later, such a person will either work to break the hold the state has on society or they will succumb to it, justify their role in it, and may turn out like our favorite Goldwater girl, Hillary Clinton

Use politics, but use wisely.

Content published on the Young Americans for Liberty blog is only representative of the opinions and research of the individual authors. It does not necessarily reflect the views, goals, or membership of YAL. 

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. Robbery! Forcible appropriation! These words convey to us ideas of crime and the penitentiary, since we are the contemporaries of a developed civilization, specifically based on the inviolability of property. And this tang is not lost when we are convinced that land and sea robbery is the primitive relation of life, just as the warriors’ trade—which also for a long time is only organized mass robbery—constitutes the most respected of occupations. Both because of this, and also on account of the need of having, in the further development of this study, terse, clear, sharply opposing terms for these very important contrasts, I propose in the following discussion to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the “economic means” for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.”


Adam Gottbetter

adamg's picture

it's nice to hear about the younger generation taking an interest in politics.

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Balairat's picture

I was looking at my collection of books on one of my many teak bookcases and ended up thinking about this very thing. So now I'm here reading this and I must say, this is really well written. Nice job, Johnny.

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