Liberty Movements in American History

Steve Davies,

Release Date
November 16, 2011



Historian Stephen Davies describes how various nonprofit institutions have made the advocates of liberty more productive and effective. These institutions have also made the ideas of liberty more available and have created and facilitated networks that enable people to share and strengthen their ideas.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of advocates. There are those who advocate policies for their own self-interest and there are also those who advocate polices on principle. The second group tends to benefit society most effectively, but in order to enact change, must overpower the incentives of the first group. This is a difficult task, as the first group derives concentrated benefits to themselves by dispersing costs on everyone else through the political process.
Luckily, there are historical examples of the principled advocacy groups defeating the vested interests of the rent seekers. The most obvious example is the campaign against the slave trade in Britain and France in the late 18th and early 19th century. Despite the large interests of those employing slave labor, the principled advocates abolished slavery.
It is often claimed that the liberty movement is a self-interested right-wing conspiracy. However, this is logically invalid. If it were indeed a conspiracy, the wealthy individuals who invest in liberty advancing institutions would be acting against their own financial self-interest. Individuals who lead large corporations can most easily maximize profits by befriending politicians and encouraging them to grant their business special government privileges. Liberty advancing institutions fight relentlessly to abolish these government granted special privileges, and therefore, are advancing ideas that are not nearly as beneficial to the bottom line of big business.


Liberty Movements in American History
I am going to talk about the way in which the creation of institutions in the United States and elsewhere made the advocates of liberty more effective and more productive and enabled them to turn the intellectual tide. If you go back to the 1930s or 1940s, there were many libertarians and classical liberals around at the time. There were many important scholars and intellectuals like Frank Knight and Henry Simons, both of the University of Chicago. However, compared to later on in American history, they were not very effective. They had the ideas but they had great problems in getting them out into the public domain.
Over the next 30 to 40 years, however, what happened was that an organized movement was created. The key feature of this was the creation of a whole series of institutions, think tanks, pressure groups, policy-research organizations, and the like. What these did was first of all to connect otherwise isolated people together. So they were no longer simply doing their own thing, but came into contact with other people who shared their beliefs and ideas. This enabled them to develop their own ideas, to pick up new ideas from other people, and simply to feel less isolated.
The other thing that the creation of these institutions did was to create actual activities, programs and products if you will, which made the ideas more available to a wider audience and which also helped, particularly in some cases, in the development of new generations of fresh blood for the pro-freedom, pro-liberty movement. The long-term result of this has been a major impact upon political debate, upon economic policy, upon intellectual life, and on perhaps the wider culture.
What this is now increasingly showing is in the way in which large parts of educational life, for example, have been transformed by or are in the process of being transformed by the recruitment of increasingly large numbers of liberty-friendly scholars and academics who have been partly brought about and identified by the kind of institutional networks that were created in earlier years. What does this mean for the future?
Well what it means is that there are certain things which are crucially important if certain ideas are to be successful in public debate. And one of them is to maintain networking. Twenty people who are networked together are more productive and more effective than a hundred people who are not. It is also very important, if you want ideas to succeed in the public domain and to become a part of the public conversation, to make use of advanced technology, to use all of the communication means that are now available to you. But above all, it is important to create institutions which will last for a long time and which will create an effective mechanism through which you can spread the ideas, defend the ideas, attack the opposition, and identify future people who will carry the intellectual fight forward.
Many people are involved in advocating particular policy positions or ideas within the public and political realm. However, not all of this is the same. And it’s important to distinguish between two different kinds of public advocacy, depending upon the motives of those involved. On the one hand, in many cases, people are motivated to advocate particular policy or to argue for certain ideas, which needs that policy out of self interest because they have some special interest or stand to gain by the particular policies that are being advocated being adopted.
On the other hand, there are people who advocate the policies even if they do stand to gain from them, but in many cases without that being the case, because they believe on the basis of principle that the ideas involved are the correct ideas and that their adoption will be good not for just themselves, but for people in general. That second kind of advocacy is obviously superior by a number of standards to the first kind.
A common argument is that principled advocacy based upon the belief of the ideas advocated are the right ideas is only going to win if it coincides with people’s self interest and that also it’s very, very difficult to argue against the problem that while a group which gains a concentrated benefit is always going to be superior in organization effectiveness to the large diffuse people who bear the costs but are not easy to organize.
However, there are a number of historical cases which show the contrary. The most obvious and dramatic is the great campaign against slave trade and against colonial slavery in Britain and also in France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Here you had an enormously concentrated interest and a very diffuse opposition, and yet that opposition was mobilized. And in fact, the evidence is that abolishing colonial slavery actually reduced British GDP by a significant amount, well over 2 percent is the current estimate. So the British in fact made themselves worse off and were persuaded to do so by an argument driven by principle and support for liberty.
So one obvious question is, is America unique in having this plethora of advocacy groups of principled advocates of political positions? The answer is that it’s not unique. There are groups of this kind in many countries. There are think tanks or advocacy groups, there are campaign groups. What is unusual in the American context is the number of such organizations, the amount of money that they have, and the kind of profile that they have. Typically most countries outside the United States will have only a handful of typically poorly funded organizations. In the United States there will be hundreds upon hundreds of such organizations. So this is a much more important feature of political life in the United States than it is in most other countries, although it is found elsewhere as well.
At the moment, it’s very popular to make the case that organizations of this kind are part of a malign and nefarious vast right-wing conspiracy. The underlying notion is that this is being advocated by interests who are using it purely to pursue their own material gains and that they’re duping large numbers of people and employing people to deliberately and systematically mislead, deceive, or dupe a wider population.
The fact is that this is simply not true. If you are a person in large-scale private business, the real way to maximize your own income and returns is by making cozy deals with politicians, not by spending large amounts of your fortune on campaigning for policies that will reduce the chances of government acting in your favor and benefiting you personally. It certainly does not do any good for public debate to respond to people who oppose you by saying that you should discount their arguments because they’re motivated by some base material interest. That is simply an ad hominem argument that is logically invalid.