A Free-Market Energy Blog

Big-Picture Policy: Talking Points for Economic Liberty (energy included)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- March 1, 2013

“[T]here are, at bottom, basically two ways to order social affairs. Coercively, through the mechanisms of the state … and voluntarily, through the private interaction of individuals and associations…. Civil society is based on reason, eloquence, and persuasion, which is to say voluntarism. Political society, on the other hand, is based on force.”

– Edward Crane (quotation), founder, Cato Institute

The worldview for entrusting consenting adults with energy is, broadly speaking, libertarian. Consumers are more knowledgeable than government agents on what (energy) products are most valuable in terms of convenience, price, and reliability. And as experience has shown time and again, politicizing energy creates problems rather than solves them. Restated, there is government failure in the quest to address alleged market failures.


Arguments about energy also apply to health care, money and banking, and other pillars of the modern economy. And so the science of liberty is at the center of the debate writ large. And it is at odds with President Obama’s out-of-the-closet Big Government model as stated in his second inaugural address.

After paying lip service to the American ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness, Obama stated:

But we have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. [1]

Is Obama talking about civil society, that huge engine of goodness and progress standing between the “selfish” individual and “good” government? Hardly! He assumes, fallaciously, that economic freedom is the enemy of broad-based  progress (including for those most vulnerable to poverty through no fault of their own). He assumes, romantically, that government redistribution can take care of the indigent and elevate the masses.

Sadly, the end state of this implemented philosophy is a growing nation of dependents (including business cronies) and of planners/regulators–and a shrinking productive class. The powerful third force of civil society, as Edward Crane has noted over the decades, falls prey to political society.

David Boaz on Liberty

How can libertarian ideas be best communicated to the next generation and to open-minded statists, Republicans and Democrats?  David Boaz, Executive Vice-President of the Cato Institute–and “Mr. Cato” to a lot of folks–recently addressed this question in  the Cato Policy Report (of February 2013), titled Top 10 Ways to Talk About Libertarianism. I reproduce this essay verbatim with permission.


I give a lot of speeches and interviews about libertarianism. Often I have to begin simply by explaining what libertarianism is. Always I’m looking for effective ways to convey the essential libertarian ideas. So today I’m just setting out very briefly my Top 10 Ways to Talk about Libertarianism.

10. When I talk in the broadest terms about Americans who hold libertarian views, I often use the popular journalistic phrase “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” — as in my new ebook with David Kirby and Emily Ekins,The Libertarian Vote: Swing Voters, Tea Parties, and the Fiscally Conservative, Socially Liberal Center.

9. I’m also partial to Adam Smith’s lovely phrase, “the simple system of natural liberty.” Set up a few simple rules, protect people’s rights, and liberty is what happens naturally.

8. The most eloquent piece of libertarian writing in history is Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a great statement of the libertarian vision.

7. I like this rarely quoted line from Ayn Rand:

“If men of good will wish to come together for the purpose of upholding reason and establishing a rational society, they should begin by following the example of the cowboys in Western movies when the sheriff tells them at the door to a conference room:’Gentlemen, leave your guns outside’.”

Exactly. Civilized people rely on persuasion, not force.

6. Sometimes I organize a speech around three key ideas of libertarianism:

Spontaneous order: the understanding that most of the order in society, from language and law to the economy, happens naturally, without a central plan;

Natural rights: the rights to life, liberty, and property that we have inherently, not as a gift from government; and

Limited government: the political system that protects our rights without infringing on our freedom.

5. At Tom Palmer’s urging, I created a speech, or at least a speech opening, around the theme that “Libertarianism is the application of science and reason to the study of politics and public policy.” That is, libertarians deal in reality, not magic. We know that government doesn’t have magical powers to ignore the laws of economics and human nature.

4. Inspired by Robert Fulghum’s bestseller All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, I like to tell people that you learn the essence of libertarianism— which is also the essence of civilization — in kindergarten:

Don’t hit other people.
Don’t take their stuff.
Keep your promises.

3. Another pithy explanation I like came from a high school libertarian newsletter some 20 years ago: Smokey the Bear’s rules for fire safety also apply to government — keep it small, keep it in a confined area, and keep an eye on it.

2. In Libertarianism: A Primer, I described the fundamental libertarian principle this way:

The corollary of the libertarian principle that “Every person has the right to live his life as he chooses, so long as he does not interfere with the equal rights of others” is this: No one has the right to initiate aggression against the person or property of anyone else.

This “non-aggression axiom” is perhaps most associated with Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, but its roots go back to Spencer, Mill, Locke, Pufendorf, and even Epicurus.

1. And finally, the number one way to talk about libertarianism — or at least a sentence I found effective when I was talking about Libertarianism: A Primer on talk shows: “Libertarianism is the idea that adult individuals have the right and the responsibility to make the important decisions about their lives.” Every word is important there: We’re talking about individuals. We’re talking about adults; the question of children’s rights is far more complex. Responsibility is just as important as rights.

Of course, today government claims the power to make many of those decisions for us, from where to send our kids to school to what we can smoke to how we must save for retirement. And that is why it’s important for us to promote the ideas of liberty and to do so as effectively as we can. [END]

David Boaz is a leader in pro-liberty messaging. It is now your turn (in the comments section). How can the ideas of personal and economic liberty and civil society in place of government central planning and the welfare state be best explicated?


[1] Government economic rights trump individual rights against coercion: “Every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity,” Obama states, continuing:

The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.

“Liberty” is subjective and pliable to Obama (and the Progressivist worldview):

Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness. Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time – but it does require us to act in our time.


  1. Jon Boone  

    The interplay between civil and political society is often nuanced, always complex, and reciprocal, with multiplicative tensions, much like two ends of a rubber band. They are not dipolar.

    I agree political society ultimately depends upon force, which is why so many are concerned about the powers of the executive branch; this is why Patrick Henry smelt a rat, and worked so hard for the Bill of Rights, which at least had the apparent virtue of constraining all three branches of government, especially the executive.

    Civil society depends upon a widely shared morality. As history shows, through its rotten-apple-in-the-barrel lens, civil society is threatened when the action of only one in a thousand departs from the moral concord. After which, the deluge…. And the call for government intervention, whether in the form of High Noon’s sheriff or the Allied response to Lebensraum. Or law suits filed because of a welling sense of injustice.

    The real problem today with much of western society, which transcends idealogical nostrums, is the concentration of economic power that is protected by political society and works to exploit captive consumers in key marketplaces. One example of this is in the electricity sector, extended more widely to the utilities sector. Another is health care–and how cost and price are manipulated artificially to produce bodacious revenues, at the expense of both the captive market and civil society. For those who want to know more, considering reading Steve Brill’s astonishing reportage in this week’s Time: http://healthland.time.com/2013/02/20/bitter-pill-why-medical-bills-are-killing-us. It’s comprehensive–and chilling.

    Note the pervasive reference to the Chargemaster, a largely non-existant document used in the most ingenuously Orwellian way to engage in wholesale theft, with evidently no recourse, particularly on the part of “political society.” One could use this expose as a template for what’s happening in the various “energy” sectors under the guise of marketplace transactions, where it’s Chargemaster uber alles.


  2. Ray  

    The Leftists ideal is the politically controlled Cartel, whether in medicine, energy or finance. These cartels exist not to benefit the citizens but to benefit the politicians, bureaucrats, and their cronies. Cartels force consumers to pay higher prices for lower quality goods and services and force producers to work for less pay. It’s like Mussolini’s facism.


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