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Contest Essay

Libertarian Entrepreneurs: Lives of Virtuosity and Generosity


     
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The 2009 Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Contest

Student Winner. Third Prize ($1,000)

Much attention has been dedicated to the virtues and behavior of a free society. The necessary preconditions to consider a people as “free” have been outlined thoroughly.[1] However, one glaring issue arises in the general neglect for the individual that ensures that this free society emerges. This paper will rectify this omission, and demonstrate that there is an entrepreneurial class—Libertarian entrepreneurs—that ensures that the freedoms inherent in a society are preserved, and strengthened.[2] Additionally, the institutional framework that aids the activity of this entrepreneurial class will be assessed to demonstrate where difficulties slow the advance of freedom by limiting the influence that Libertarian entrepreneurs wield.

The individuals that maintain and expand our freedoms with little regard to the hardships that this toil inflicts on themselves have received scant attention. By assessing this unique role, and the institutional structure that fosters or hinders it, we see how the return to a free society is established.

Libertarian Entrepreneurs

None of the classic writers on entrepreneurship—Cantillon, Say, Schumpeter, Knight, Mises, or Kirzner—explicitly focused on entrepreneurship in non-market conditions. The entrepreneur was a market-oriented individual, focused on increasing the welfare of consumers by offering highly valued options. More recently the political class of entrepreneur has been given increased attention.[3] Consumer welfare is not an immediate concern for these individuals, in fact, as a side-effect welfare is generally reduced through their rent-seeking activities. The key distinction between these two entrepreneurial classes—market and political—is that the costs of their proposed activities are voluntarily accepted for the former group’s customers, and coercively imposed on select individuals for the latter group.

Were the entrepreneurial realm solely divided between these two groups, we may be inclined to see a steadily expanding political sphere, with no counteracting force directed towards its less than socially beneficial policies. However, we see that this is not the case. Where societies have moved from high to low levels of individual freedom, the reason is not to be found in differing levels of effectiveness of the political entrepreneurs. Instead, the success of a different class of individuals—Libertarian entrepreneurs—is primarily responsible for abating this trend. This class of entrepreneur acts as a force countering rent-seeking activities of the political class. The benefits of their activities are not for their sole, personal enjoyment. Instead, the ensuing benefits are made available for all to enjoy. Consequently, although the bulk of the costs of their efforts will fall onto their own shoulders, the advantages wrestled from the political class will benefit all equally.[4]

The Libertarian entrepreneur has three distinct roles that define their specific place within society: ensuring established liberties remain available, fighting to gain new freedoms as society shifts towards a free existence, and the protection of those individuals who lack the capacity, or drive, to fight for their own rights.

At any given time there will be a residual of liberties available to an individual which have been fought for in the past. Frequently, the ideas embodied in these liberties will be forgotten, with no immediate reason for an individual to realize why they are necessary for the full flourishing of society. Indeed, as Hayek (1960: 1) opened his Constitution of Liberty:

If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same convictions; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking.

Hence, by continually restating old liberties in words that are pertinent to the present generation, existing freedoms may be maintained. The right to bear arms represents one such example. While originally a necessary means to battle the tyranny of the English crown, does any American of today think that any foreign government poses such an imminent danger that the individual right to bear arms remains relevant for its stated purpose? The goal remains the same—freedom through self-defense and the use of firearms for this purpose—but the rationale must be summarily altered for this right to retain relevance to the American public.[5]

The second role, that of fighting for the attainment of new liberties, has been a critical defining mark between the classical liberals of the European tradition, and their newer Conservative counterparts that have come into favor throughout the Anglo-Saxon world. Remember that in Hayek’s famous essay “Why I am not a Conservative” he lamented that one of the main points of difference between the conservatives of today and the liberals of yesteryear was the newly accepted tenet that established authority should not be strengthened, but allowed to remain within its bounds (1960: 401). The ordeal that Hayek faced was really one of an incomplete Libertarian entrepreneur espoused by conservative doctrine. By wishing to maintain the status quo, a significant portion of this entrepreneur’s role is reduced to insignificance. The task of continually striving to regain lost liberties is relegated away, at the expense of maintaining already established rights.

At any given time a state of existence defined by anything less than full liberty will require liberties that have been lost or neglected to be resurrected. The status quo has carried the general population to a state that is closer to freedom than tyranny perhaps, but there is always room for improvement. One significant problem has previously been made clear by Tocqueville (1840, II: 96): “The advantages that freedom brings are shown only by the lapse of time, and it is always easy to mistake the cause in which they originate.” The Libertarian entrepreneur must continually remind individuals that the true benefits that a society sees at any given time have been the result of past freedoms.[6]

The absence of any drive to regain lost liberties would result in a continual downward spiral in individual liberty. Empirically we see that this is not the case. Higgs’ (1987) “ratchet effect” is one particularly pertinent example. As government interventions on liberties culminate during crises, the post-crises’ environments see a gradual decline in these interventions, with a subsequent increase in liberty. The advance of liberties following these situations is primarily due to Libertarian entrepreneurs fighting to regain what is rightfully theirs. Any deficiency in liberties returning to their full pre-crisis level should not be viewed as an absolute failure of this entrepreneurial class, but rather as a relative loss to the powers of the political class. The situation without these Libertarian entrepreneurs would be much starker.

Last, we find that an essential role for the Libertarian entrepreneur is to maintain the rights of those lacking the capacity to do so themselves.

By fighting for those that lack knowledge of their abilities or capacities, the Libertarian entrepreneur is able to allow the full flourishing of society as a realizable goal. However, while some individuals will lack the knowledge of their abilities, another class cannot have this knowledge. That class of individuals unable to rationally make decisions and shoulder responsibility are those who are not directly able to exercise their personal freedom (for they lack the essential knowledge of the responsibility it entails) but must still be protected from coercion by others.[7] Any protection of this class must fall onto the shoulders of the Libertarian entrepreneur as well.[8] As any benefits accruing from their protection will be for their own benefit, and not directly for the entrepreneur’s, we see that the prime role of the Libertarian entrepreneur is fulfilled—the absorption of the cost of action for the benefit of others.

This may lead some to conclude that the equality of all should be a primary goal. However, nothing could be further from the truth. As Burke so eloquently clarified the issue, “all men have equal rights but not to equal things” (1790, II: 69). It is the Libertarian entrepreneur’s role to demonstrate that inequalities are not a force to be reduced artificially, but a natural occurrence to be rejoiced. As the more advantageous of an unequal society progress to ever higher absolute standards of living, those at the “bottom” levels are brought to ever higher standards as well. Remember that the peasants of today live better than the kings of 100 years ago. By allowing inequalities to occur, new goals are set for attainment, which improve the quality of life for all members of society.

The role of the Libertarian entrepreneur is primarily interested in making knowledge available throughout society. As Kirzner (1973: 68) makes clear: “[T]he kind of ‘knowledge’ required for entrepreneurship is ‘knowing’ where to look for ‘knowledge’ rather than knowledge of substantive market information.” The practical knowledge that Hayek stressed as a necessity for the functioning of society is to a large degree dominated by the same knowledge that Kirzner stresses. Furthermore, it is not so much knowing the actual knowledge that is of importance, but knowing where to look for it. The Libertarian entrepreneur’s role is particularly well suited for spreading this knowledge. They realize that the important condition for society’s improvement is not that they personally know the knowledge, but that others are free to learn and use their personal knowledge as they see fit. To the degree that the Libertarian entrepreneur fights to allow individuals a high degree of self-determination through the unrestricted use of their personal knowledge, they understand that benefits accrue to all, not only the individuals directly affected by the effects of such knowledge.

Libertarian Entrepreneurs: The Essential Ingredient

It is widely recognized that in a state of anarchy, a Hobbesian need for a central government to protect the rights of individuals has created a near-unanimity that the starting point of rights’ enforcement should be held by the government. Without exploring some controversies surrounding this view, we will instead explore the present political arena, dominated by democracy, and see why it is that the Libertarian entrepreneur is such an essential part of a free society.

The crux of democracy’s effectiveness relies on the collective wisdom of a group as best serving the interests of its individuals. However, as Hayek (1960: 109–110) points out, there is no logical inconsistency in rejecting this assertion, but accepting its corollary:

[T]here is the convention that the view of the majority should prevail so far as collective action is concerned, but this does not in the least mean that one should not make every effort to alter it. One may have profound respect for that convention and yet very little for the wisdom of the majority. It is only because the majority opinion will always be opposed by some that our knowledge and understanding progress. In the process by which opinion is formed, it is very probable that, by the time any view becomes a majority view, it is no longer the best view: somebody will already have advanced beyond the point which the majority have reached.

To assume that this adjustment of policies is always in a positive, socially beneficial, direction relies on politicians being benevolent. Politicians as they are conventionally viewed are thought to increase societal welfare by imposing costs on others. With the introduction of political entrepreneurs, we see that the political process may serve an end drastically different than the betterment of the general population. Costs are imposed on others with the desire to increase the political entrepreneur’s personal welfare with little heed to that of the greater population. To combat this occurrence, we have Libertarian entrepreneurs to thank.

The opinions that govern and direct the political process are the result of lengthy periods that proceed across many different levels of the social strata. New ideas originate with a few and spread until they become the possession of the majority who know little of their origins (Hayek 1960: 112). Hence, a dichotomy of groups forms—those concerned with a particular issue at stake in a changing opinion, and those mainly concerned with the general ideas embodied by the new opinions. As groups concerned with the specifics of a change in opinion, typically politically connected individuals seeking personal gain, alter the opinions of the larger population, the morals and values of a society are changed in ways which the common individual cannot always conceive. As new information comes in a round-about way—through the political class who are in many cases elected and trusted—the true goal of any change in opinion is masked. Indeed, as these individuals often gain election through an appearance of trust and sympathy for the common individual, they hold a station of prestige and respect unparalleled by other professions. Lacking a Libertarian entrepreneur to offset this force, individuals are at a unique disadvantage in the maintenance of their individual liberties.

John Maynard Keynes may not have always been a beacon of hope for the libertarian message, however, it is at times useful to review his words of caution concerning ideas and the individuals who change them:

[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else . . . I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.[9] (1936)

The present political system leaves the individual at a disadvantage in comparison to the politically connected. The Libertarian entrepreneur, by making the true interests of the politically connected known, aids in lessening the discrepancy in advantage. The disadvantage of the democratic system favored today is that legislation, policy and conditions have been adopted to the standards of the group, and as a result have become less favorable to the individual (Hayek 1960: 123). One advantage has been that these changes have occurred slowly compared to more centralized political systems.[10] Elected politicians enjoy, in many cases, the majority support of their constituents. This places them in a unique position to have their desires embraced by the trusting electorate—regardless of if these opinions are ultimately beneficial or not. By making the electorate aware of the true ends and consequences of the political process, Libertarian entrepreneurs slow down the degradation caused by the political process and allow individuals to see both the full costs and benefits of political actions.

Institutional Considerations Affecting the Entrepreneur

Institutional factors affect the success of the Libertarian entrepreneur’s efforts. Free speech and association are the two largest general groups of rights that ensure that the voice of liberty is allowed to be heard. Given that today’s society ensures a high degree of free speech in most of the Western world, it may prove instructive to look at some particular institutional arrangements that ensure the freedom of a society may flourish.

Huerta de Soto (1992: 88) defines two types of aggressions that inhibit the entrepreneurs role: systematic and asystematic. Although both breed detrimental effects, asystematic are by far the more egregious of the two, owing to the fact that they are “dispersed, arbitrary and difficult to predict.”[11] A specific example of the difference in these two aggressions in one particularly molested field of action—the monetary field—will demonstrate the point.

Hayek (1960: 337) notes that the monetary problems resultant from the political inflationary bias have continued “not so much due to the strength of those who deliberately advocate it as to the weakness of the opposition.” In this particular case, we have seen the results of one area in which the influence of the political entrepreneurs has exceeded that of their libertarian counterparts. A small, though vocal minority has been insufficiently powerful to deter the negative effects of monetary expansion, and instigate a return to sound money. However, this is not to say that libertarian entrepreneurs have failed at their task. The question must be asked: “What could the monetary situation look like today if no countervailing opinion was offered contra this inflationary viewpoint?” Although one group of individuals may view the dollar’s near total loss of purchasing power since the inception of the Federal Reserve in 1913 as a lost battle, a second group may view the dollar’s continued existence as a significant win. The advantages of a rule-based, as opposed to an ad hoc monetary policy, as forward by Simon (1936) has gripped part of the economics profession and saved the monetary system from a much worse fate.

The inflationary trends of the 1970s under the Burns and Miller administered Federal Reserve administrations had pushed inflation rates into the high teens, and monetary ruin seemed on the horizon. The Volcker Fed instigated a necessary increase in interest rates coupled with a decline in monetary growth that returned the American economy to a much more stable monetary equilibrium. Many would be apt to point out that the Volcker Fed had not gone far enough, yet the alternative we were faced with was much bleaker. Libertarian entrepreneurs have espoused the advantages of a sound money policy for the Fed since before its existence. The calamitous state of our monetary system compared to an unknown ideal should not be evidence of failure. Rather, the continued existence of a flawed system in light of even worse alternatives should give us cause to applaud our Libertarian entrepreneurs; and also let them know the battle is far from over.

There can be no doubt that the influence of rule-based monetary policy coupled with the influence of Milton Friedman’s monetarist economics, did much to save the monetary realm from certain disaster. Interventions in the monetary realm continued, however, they diminished in both magnitude and uncertainty.

Only by completely stifling free speech and association between individuals could the Libertarian entrepreneur’s role be diminished. This would effectively amount to imprisoning every individual and precluding any form of communication to prevail. Fortunately, the presence of these individuals continually insights a backlash making this type of legislation unlikely. Unfortunately, there are other minor infractions on liberty that may complicate this entrepreneurial process. Those aggressions that are asystematic serve to complicate the entrepreneur as a great deal of uncertainty is created. While some interventions may be so ingrained in society that their removal is a near impossibility (i.e., such as we see in the monetary realm today), Libertarian entrepreneurs can advocate interventions that are at least predictable and less intrusive on society. Milton Friedman’s monetarist policy advice would be a prime example of this. While not advocating a full removal of monetary interventions, the interventions he advocated were at least of a more minimal level than other political entrepreneurs would have desired. To the degree that a Libertarian entrepreneur can make existing aggressions more predictable, the whole of society may benefit accordingly.

A Conclusion and a Plan for the Future

Libertarian entrepreneurs are that class of individuals who virtuously fight for the maintenance and increased scope of individual liberties. That the benefits from this action befall all of society while the entrepreneur must individually bear the cost is of no immediate concern. . The drive to maintain and expand upon existing liberties in hopes of attaining freedom is an example of generosity that shows little regard for the costs which must be borne. The motivation for this virtuous action comes from the realization that the attainment of rights is an event not only beneficial to their own personal well-being, but many others’ as well. Indeed, this entrepreneurial class understands that the only way for society to flourish is by allowing all individuals access to the same liberty that permits a great degree of social co-operation

Sometimes, however, the best efforts of a Libertarian entrepreneur are not enough to fully counter the pressures of the political class. In this case, these efforts should not be viewed as a failure relative to an unrealized ideal, but successes relative to an unrealized alternative that may be far worse. As Libertarian entrepreneurs may not be able to fully offset the infringements of their political counterparts, society will be inclined to function in that “gray” area—not fully abiding by the political class’ artificial aggressions, but not allowed to fully flourish according to its natural order.

This conflict, although bothersome in the short-run, should not mask the fact that in the long-run the system of evolved rules trending towards liberty will prevail (Hayek 1967: 102). This is not to deny that considerable frictions will arise in the short-run. Institutional structures may arise in a society which conflict with the evolved norms that have been developed. Indeed, any society existing in any less than full freedom will involve some degree of coercively imposed rules dictating the boundaries of action. The extent of “gray” economies—those characterized as being neither fully legal nor illegal—in all modern mixed-economies are characteristic of one such avenue which individuals pursue to circumvent the imposed rules, despite well-developed and organized enforcement schemes. In cases where an imposed order of rules is in conflict with the evolved order of interactions that society has gradually and spontaneously accepted, a considerable amount of short-run “frictions” may arise (Gerken 2004: 229). The reason why the system of evolved rules will prevail in the long-run becomes striking.

The complexity of the system of rules endogenously evolved comprising society’s relations is of a high degree and largely only implicitly rather than explicitly stated.[12] Consequently, it is quite difficult to assume that the complex of such rules that prevail at a given time may be replaced with a synthetically created system of rules (Hayek 1960: 63; 1978: 3–22). As any exogenously imposed artificial system of rules will necessarily be less than fully coherent with the complex of existing endogenously developed rules, the desired actions of individuals will conflict with the artificial order and create a backlash. Libertarian entrepreneurs are the leader’s of this backlash, as they see the disconnect that exists between action within a free-society, and that within a command-based regime. They will be the individuals who realize the source of the conflict is the incoherence between the imposed and natural orders, and move towards eliminating the barriers to free interaction, necessary for the smooth functioning of society. It is important to note that these individuals may simultaneously not fully agree with the natural order of rules (they may well prefer the imposed order more), but will still fight for the return to the natural complex of rules. The reason has nothing to do with ideological affiliations. Instead, the realization that a freely functioning society, one able to develop and evolve its own set of rules, is a necessary condition to a society that may simultaneously benefit all.

As Lord Acton made clear over 100 years ago: “At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to the minority, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition” (1907: 1). Libertarian entrepreneurs could increase their influence by mating with strange bedfellows, but this will always be a risky endeavor. Compromises that increase the scope of some liberties, at the cost of others will only dilute the full message that is forwarded. It is the paradoxical reality that the existence of liberties is inconsistent with any concept of liberty.[13] As concessions are made to allow individuals to participate in one sphere of their lives while limiting this action in other spheres, a hierarchy of priorities is created which moves any individual within society further from achieving full liberty, even though society as a whole may be moving in the positive direction.

This very tendency incited John Stuart Mill to comment that “almost all the projects of social reformers of these days are really liberticide” (1855: 294). Indeed, the situation 150 years after Mill wrote these words is little different.

The message of the virtuous should not be unnecessarily muddied, even if a particular goal may be furthered. Instead, the overriding message that must be stressed at every point must be that of liberty—fully realized through the elimination of the complicated array of liberties which have been imposed exogenously. Indeed, many liberties are now so ingrained in the lives of free Western-world citizens that they have merely codified and needlessly complicated that state of liberty that we are naturally endowed with. Making concessions to some powerfully connected groups so that a specific goal may be furthered can have no role in the Libertarian entrepreneur’s repertoire. Indeed, how could one decide which objectives are more pressing than others? The message to be forwarded must be a more unitary whole. As Rothbard (1982: 259) would liken it: “The libertarian . . . should be a person who would push a button, if it existed, for the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty.”[14]

Only by keeping the message clear can the true message of liberty be consistently forwarded, based upon a pursuit of justice instead of ad hoc estimations of which liberties are most important at any given time. To the degree that Libertarian entrepreneurs may pursue their message of liberty with conviction, the attainment of freedom for all remains a distinct possibility.

Footnotes

[1] See Mises (1927; 1936), Hayek (1960), Nozick (1974), and Rothbard (1970; 1982).

[2] Following Howden (2009) we adopt the term “Libertarian entrepreneur” to signify, and differentiate, this individual from more conventional market-based entrepreneurs (i.e., Mises 1949, Kirzner 1973, Huerta de Soto 1992) and political entrepreneurs (i.e., Folsom 1996, DiLorenzo 2004).

[3] See Folsom (1996) for the earliest look at poltical entrepreneurs. Mises (1944; 1949: 303–311) had distinguished sharply between “profit management” (or entrepreneurial management) and “bureaucratic management,” identifying the former with initiative, responsibility, creativity, and novelty and the latter with rule-following within strict guidelines—oft times political.

[4] Much like Kline and Martin (1958) posit, if there is freedom available for a few to be taken advantage of, there must first be freedom for all. By reducing the special priviledges offering freedoms to select individuals, Libertarian entrepreneurs increase society’s greater degree of freedom.

[5] Polanyi (1951: 199) argued along the same lines, noting that changes in language, and understanding, over time would create grave difficulties in interpreting ideas and concepts popular in the past. That these past ideas may have timeless relevance makes the necessity for their continual updating, so that they may be better understood in the present.

[6] As Hayek (1976: 29) noted, “what will certainly be dead in the long run if we concentrate on immediate results is freedom.” Just as the welfare-states of Scandinavia are much heralded today, it must not be forgotten that the present success they enjoy is not due to policies in place today, but a beneficial overhang from a prior period marked by high degrees of liberty and freedom. See Karlsson (2006).

[7] Responsibility for actions is an integral part of liberty (Hayek 1960: 71). As individuals face the burden of choice regarding their actions, they also recieve praise or blame for them.

[8] As Hayek (1960: 13–14) notes, one does not need to participate in political liberty to enjoy personal liberty. Inhabitants of the District of Columbia, resident aliens in the U.S., or children too young to vote do not particpate in the political process, but may enjoy the resultant liberties.The Libertarian entrepreneur fights for these liberties in the political process so that others need not do the same.

[9] Likewise, as Supreme Court Justice Brandeis warned of this assault: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding” (as quoted in Hayek 1960: 253).

[10] Norms that have evolved over centuries still remain in effect today, and are not readily eliminated in a short time period through the typical legislative process—one marked by defined rules as per North (1990: 87). Norms that have become established and entrenched are difficult to change. This is a blessing for those freedoms that we wish to retain against the negative forces trying to stifle them. However, for that class of infringements on our freedoms which exist and are an accepted part of life, the Libertarian entrepreneur faces an uphill battle to alter the public perception that accepts, and indeed, embraces these norms.

[11] For a similar argument, see Hayek (1960: 143, 208).

[12] As Montesquieu noted: “Intelligent beings may have laws of their own making; but they also have some which they never made” (1750, I: 1). See also Hayek (1973: 43).

[13] This paradox is, no doubt, what Drucker (1939: 19) had in mind as he observed that “the less freedom there is, the more talk there is of the ‘new freedom.’”

[14] The classical liberal Leonard Read provided the fodder for Rothbard’s “button-pushing” example as he (1946: 3) declared: “If there were a button on this rostrum, the pressing of which would release all wage-and-price controls instantaneously, I would put my finger on it and push!” The passion with which Read pursued the path of liberty his whole life is indicative of the unwavering dedication these entrepreneurs embody.

References

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Antonio Zanella is a Ph.D. candidate in Economics at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid. He won third prize in the student division of the 2009 Sir John M. Templeton Fellowships Essay Contest.






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