Education and Activism

26 05 2011

I’ve been doing a good deal of thinking about the roles of education and activism in the in the fight against statism as I prepare to head to Wake Forest University for a week-long Institute for Humane Studies seminar (“Liberty & Society”).

Yes, I know, I tend to think about boring things, but when I spend as much time as I do getting involved in “the cause,” what with my reading, writing, and constant interaction with like-minded friends and colleagues, I can’t help but begin wondering (as many others do, I’m sure), whether what I do is worth it.

Of course, it is worth it – to me personally at least – or I wouldn’t be involved at all. But time is a scarce resource, and I want to maximize my return on the time I invest in the cause. There are many ways to invest one’s energy, or the energy of a student group: informative events, publicity stunts, political activism, etc. But I think all forms of pro-liberty action can be placed into one of two broad and overlapping groups: Education and Activism.

Education means working to inform oneself and one’s peers about libertarian concepts and ideas. This could be as simple as taking a few minutes a day to read a book or holding a discussion group at a coffee shop, or as complex as bringing scholars to campus or hosting a seminar.

Activism is a similarly broad category, involving everything from campus demonstrations to door-knocking for a particularly principled candidate (it sucks, trust me) to running for elected office.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive; the election of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, clearly the work of many dedicated activists, has exposed the politically aware to some very controversial intellectual concepts. Similarly, Rand Paul’s father, Texas Representative Ron Paul, sparked a tremendous interest in the ideas of liberty in the wake of his 2008 presidential campaign.

Still, given the embarrassing state of our current political discourse, I tend to lean towards education. An army of activists can mobilize to put an excellent candidate in office (or at least give him or her a platform from which to spread ideas), and then…nothing substantive ever seems to happen. We’ve seen this over and over again; look at the current crop of “limited government” politicians. With few exceptions, they lack either principles, a backbone, or both.

The process of education is slow, seemingly unforgiving, and frequently un-sexy compared to direct political action (though in my experience, scholarly conferences have about as many open bar nights as political conferences). Ultimately, however, education is the only way to change the way we approach society and society’s challenges – which means education is the only way to change the course of politics.

There’s an interesting piece by Clint Townsend up at the Students for Liberty site on this very subject. Granted, I probably think it’s interesting because it backs up my case, but it’s worth reading even if you disagree. An excerpt:

The student movement for liberty is stronger today than any time in history, but we must not mishandle this opportunity by choosing the easy way out. Educating oneself in the ideas of liberty is a daunting task and requires an enormous commitment, but I believe that it will ultimately yield the most positive results for the advancement of liberty.

Consider what F.A. Hayek told Antony Fisher when contemplating how best to further the cause of liberty; Fisher asks Hayek, “What can I do? Should I enter politics?” To this question Hayek replies with a resounding “No” going on to explain that “society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.”

The concepts talked about at the conferences and seminars hosted by Students for Liberty, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Mises Institute, and others are world-changing. I do not say that lightly. Still, these concepts will not gain currency until they become part of the societal background against which all political action, or the lack thereof, is weighed.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight. It won’t happen this year. It may not happen during my lifetime. But before a idea can enter the realm of common knowledge, it has to pass from the thinker to the scholars to the educated laymen and so on.

The core concepts of liberty aren’t new; the desire to be free is a fundamental part of our humanity. Activism serves a purpose, and it can be fun, but the arduous (and rewarding) process of education is the only way to eventually bring these concepts into action.




One response

26 05 2011

I remember the first time we encountered a Ron Paul supporter, a guy with a big banner at the Mackinac Bridge Walk years ago—could it have been before the 2000 election? Or was it in 2004? You were intrigued by his message way back then.

Keep up the good work.

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