The Art of Being Free

The Art of Being Free, by Wendy McElroy [Laissez Faire Books, 2012]

By Wally Conger

Long ago, when I was an evangelical libertarian punk, there were two tomes I hauled around in my book bag to help lure passers-by into the movement — Radical Libertarianism by Jerome Tuccille and Murray Rothbard’s monumental For A New Liberty.

Tuccille’s book, which hit the political landscape in 1970, is sadly hard to find these days (and terribly out of date, anyway). Rothbard’s 1973 classic is still in print, of course.

But now, here comes The Art of Being Free, a new manifesto from Wendy McElroy. And it’s not only a tremendous addition to the freedom literature, it will, I’m sure, also serve as a powerful recruitment tool.

As Wendy reveals in the book’s preface — and as anyone who’s spent twenty minutes in this movement should know — she’s no anarchist tenderfoot. At 15, Wendy was already reading Ayn Rand. This, plus her intense study of every American individualist from Benjamin Tucker to Murray Rothbard, led to a decades-long conviction that “whatever happens within society — from the free market to war — begins with the individual who agrees or dissents. The individual says yes or no and it is this lever of consent at which freedom lives or dies.”

Yeah, it’s that simple, which makes Wendy’s new book both eloquent and extremely persuasive.

The Art of Being Free is broken into four sections. The first provides a quick survey of natural rights, the State, and the theoretical footing for the freedom philosophy. The second section applies that theory to issues like public education, workers’ rights, foreign policy, and the war on drugs.

Where this volume really packs a wallop, though, is in the two sections that make up its second half. Here, McElroy tackles anti-political strategies and tactics for moving forward to a truly stateless society.

Section 3, “Principles Work Through People,” introduces five “historical friends” who embody Wendy’s ideals. Each of these mini-biographies — of French philosopher Étienne de la Boétie, French writer-historian François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, author-naturalist-tax resister Henry David Thoreau, American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and newspaper publisher R.C. Hoiles — is inspiring and insightful. And each illustrates a freedom principle. Listen…

“La Boétie stresses the role of habit in developing obedience, but habits can be equally important in becoming and remaining liberated. For example, develop the habit of questioning authority even if the question is asked quietly or only of yourself.”

And again…

“Garrison is a flesh-and-blood example of how effective one man can be in fighting against a massive injustice. … The smallest ‘group’ with an amazing ability to change the world is the person of principle who will not surrender. No force is stronger.”

And one more time…

“Through consistently applying his freedom principles to his daily basis, R.C. [Hoiles] richly prospered in family, finance and the respect of his associates. Living freedom does not mean sacrifice; it means enrichment both personally, professionally and financially.”

McElroy finishes up with a rousing — but qualified — call-to-action in the book’s final section, “Getting There From Here.”

Although she admits America is now a police state, Wendy confesses, “Nevertheless, I am an optimist.

“My optimism,” she continues, “comes from turning one question over and over in my mind like a worry bead. The question is, ‘What can be accomplished right here and now in my own backyard?’”

In other words, smaller is better.

“[W]hat I focus energy upon are the things I can affect and change for the better. I concentrate on grassroots movements in which individual voices are the driving force and individuals make an incredible difference. It is in the grassroots movements that are springing up and spreading like fire across North America that I see the future of liberty. … Freedom may be dead within the institutions like government, but it is unquenchable within people. It lives in the grassroots.”

How does McElroy define a grassroots movement?

“It begins,” she writes, “with isolated individuals who are desperately dissatisfied with an issue that deeply affects their lives. … It starts with an issue so deeply personal that people who have never said ‘no’ to authority before stand up and refuse to sit down. Grassroots movements usually begin by saying ‘no’ on a local level, to a local school board, at a town meeting or to district court. Sometimes they never proceed beyond the local level. But if the injustice they are confronting is widespread, then the voices multiply and spread. They become the most powerful political force on the face of the earth: the voice of the people. …

“Grassroots movements are the path from here to there.”

But Wendy advises against focusing on the struggle alone. Beyond the battle, we libertarians should center our attention on living the liberty lifestyle ourselves.

“This is a pitfall of caring passionately for freedom and being politically active: sometimes you forget to live. You forget that life is not about opposing things but embracing them.”

As an example, she points to Thoreau, to whom the business of living was immensely more important than politics. When he was released from jail for refusing to pay a tax that supported war, Thoreau “did not file a grievance. He immediately went on a berry hunt with a swarm of young boys. No bitterness. No brooding. No lingering resentment. Without missing a beat, Thoreau simply returned to living deeply.”

She adds: “As he tramped the trails in search of juicy treasure, Thoreau found himself standing on a high point in a field. He gazed about at the continuous, sprawling beauty that surrounded him and observed ‘the State was nowhere to be seen.’”

And so Wendy McElroy lives her own life.

“I act as though the State does not exist,” she says. “Make space for the ‘business of living’ — the areas of life that allow you to say, ‘Here, the state is nowhere to be seen.’”

The Art of Being Free is educational, instructive, and ultimately inspiring.

I can ask for no better guidebook to fighting for and living the stateless life.

2 responses to “The Art of Being Free

  1. The United States is not yet a formal police state, but government power has certainly vastly increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

    Indeed the Federal government, for example the Federal prosecution and court system, may now passed the point of no return, with even those basic principles of the rule of law that many State systems (such as Texas – although Texas and other States are very far from perfect) still respect, treated with contempt by the Federal authorities.

    Indeed it is possible to argue that it might (in a horrible way) actually be a “good thing” for Comrade Barack Obama to win reelection on November 6th as this will lead even moderate people (i.e. not anarchocapitalists in the Rothbardian tradition or even minimal state libertarian minarchists – but just ordinary people who believe there should be some limit to the size and scope of government) to give up on the (perhaps hopeless) task of trying to roll back the Federal government – and seek other alternatives.

    For example, two thirds of the States may (without reference to the Congress – let alone the President) call a Constitutional Convention – and such a Convention could negate the much abused words “general welfare” and “regulate interstate commerce” in the Constitution of the United States – as “common defence and general welfare” has been treated (with wild dishonesty) not as the purpose of the specific spending powers that then follow it in Article One, Section Eight – but as a catch-all “general welfare spending power” in its own right – allowing the Feds to spend the United States to the point of de facto bankruptcy. And the words “regulate interstate commerce” have been utterly transformed from ensuring free trade between the States (which the Congress does not even do – for example buying health insurance over State lines is undermined by State level regulations) to a weird power to control every aspect of human life.

    There is also, of course, the hard and stony path of secession.

    This would be incredibly difficult – but the situation is more favourable than it was in 1861.

    Contrary to what Southern apologists say the effort at secession in 1861 was (at least in part) about protecting slavery (indeed the dream of expanding slavey – into the West and elsewhere) and was a profoundly racialist enterprise.

    Today some Congressmen hostile to Federal power are black (and, yes, these black conservatives are elected in Southern districts). And some State Governors hostile to Federal power are non white also – such as the Governors of South Carolina, Louisana and New Mexico.

    Given the above it would be much harder for even the collectivist “education system” (most universities and the teacher training dominated schools) and “mainstream” media to convincingly claim that a movement against Federal power (in, say, 2014) was a racialist movement.

  2. Of couse the anarchocapitalist might reply that what is the point of freeing oneself from the Federal government – when State and local governments still remain.

    There is a two fold answer to this.

    Firstly getting rid of a layer of government is a “good thing” – this is a reason why (for example) getting out of the E.U. would be a good thing for Britain to do.

    And, in the specifically American context, the Federal government is today the source of the vast majority of regulations and of government spending.

    If a State and local government falls into the hands of lunatics people just drive down the road.

    But with something the size of the United States “voting with your feet” is very much harder to do.