Self-improvement is the answer to interventionism.
The world is beset by meddlers run amok. Government officials around the globe have been on an interventionist decree spree, placing whole populations under house arrest, shutting down entire industries, mandating medical procedures for millions, and so much more.
What can anti-interventionists do about such a metastasis of mass-meddling?
The Office Swap Solution
The solution that gets the most attention is direct political change: remove the mass-meddlers from power and replace them with leaders who respect liberty. Leonard E. Read, the founder of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), discussed this proposed fix in his book Elements of Libertarian Leadership.
“The interventionists, it is observed, have ‘leaders’ galore in the political arena. Why, inquire many anti-interventionists, should we tarry any longer?” Read wrote. “Why not find ourselves some political leaders who will represent our points of view?”
This solution, he noted, misunderstands the problem.
“The reason,” Read continued, “that the interventionists have so many ‘leaders’ is only because there is throughout our land a very substantial body of influential, interventionist opinion. The ones out front and who are popularly appraised as leaders are, in fact, not the real leaders. They are but echoes of the underlying opinion, and an echo implies an antecedent sound.”
As Read’s colleague Ludwig von Mises explained, thought-leaders (“influential opinion”) sway popular support, and popular support sets the parameters for political success. The reason anti-interventionist policies have not prevailed is that the ideological groundwork for them has not been laid. Read warned of “the futility of attempting to build on a foundation that does not exist. One might as well look for an abundance of flowers where there has been a scarcity of seeds…”
“The out-front folks in political parties,” Read explained, “are but thermometers—indicators of the political temperature. Change the temperature and there will be a change in what’s out front—naturally and spontaneously. The only purpose in keeping an eye on the thermometer is to know what the temperature is. If the underlying influential opinion—the temperature—is interventionist, we’ll have interventionists in public office regardless of the party labels they may choose for their adornment and public appeal.”
In other words, we will be stuck with interventionist overlords so long as the masses are under the sway of interventionist thought-leaders. Until that changes, deposing one set of tyrants will only make room for another. The only way to rid ourselves of mass-meddlers is to reorient the meddlesome masses. “Politics,” as Andrew Breitbart said, “is downstream from culture.”
Ideas Reign Supreme
And both politics and culture are downstream from ideas.
The political culture of a people is shaped by the moral, social, economic, and political philosophy of its thought-leaders.
“It’s the influential opinion,” as Read clarified (or “ideological might” as Mises called it) “that counts, and nothing else. This is to be distinguished from ‘public opinion,’ there being no such thing. Every significant movement in history—good or bad—has resulted from influential ideas held by comparatively few persons.”
“For the masses of men,” as Murray Rothbard explained,” do not create their own ideas, or indeed think through these ideas independently; they follow passively the ideas adopted and disseminated by the body of intellectuals. The intellectuals are, therefore, the ‘opinion-molders’ in society.”
It is important to note that the ranks of influential intellectuals are not exclusive to university academics and corporate journalists—which is a relief, since those establishment professions have become so compromised by interventionist governments. Especially in the age of the internet, entrepreneurial intellectuals (like podcasters and Substack writers) and amateur intellectuals (like you or anyone else with the interest and intellect it takes to read an essay like this) can rise and come to the fore.
Influence does not come from the government-aligned establishment vesting someone with a PhD or a press pass. True influence, Read taught, comes from within.
“Here, then,” he wrote, “is the key question: What constitutes an influential opinion? In the context of moral, social, economic, and political philosophy, influential opinion stems from or rests upon (1) depth of understanding, (2) strength of conviction, and (3) the power of attractive exposition. These are the ingredients of self-perfection as relating to a set of ideas. Persons who thus improve their understanding, dedication, and exposition are the leaders of men; the rest of us are followers, including the out-front political personalities.”
To realize liberty, we must first cultivate “an influential libertarian opinion.” To rid ourselves of mass-meddlers, we must first persuasively advocate an anti-interventionist, pro-liberty philosophy. And before we can effectively do that, we must understand and uphold that philosophy ourselves, which, as Read cautioned, is harder than many libertarians suppose.
With that in mind, what exactly is interventionism, as distinct from liberty? What constitutes meddling, as opposed to minding one’s own proper business? To rid ourselves of something, we must first be able to identify it.
The most fundamental distinction between proper and improper conduct is between the proper and the improper use of force. As John Locke discussed and America’s founders (for the most part) agreed, force is only proper in the defense of individual rights. Any use of force outside of that, whether by government agents or private criminals, is therefore the worst kind of intervention: meddling with someone else’s person or property. When government agents infringe on the rights of individuals, they transgress the most fundamental bounds of propriety.
And by meddling in other people’s business, government officials also stray beyond their domain of competence. As F.A. Hayek explained in his work on “the knowledge problem,” central planners are incapable of “social engineering” the affairs of others without making a massive mess of things. Tyrannical order can only yield “planned chaos,” as Mises called it.
Interventionism is morally wrong and socially destructive, whereas liberty yields justice, harmony, and flourishing. If more intelligent and upstanding men and women had understood these truths well enough to consistently abide by them and persuasively explain them, their influence would have prevented the interventionist blitzkrieg that has made such a mess of the world over the past two years.
Clean Your Room
But advancing a pro-liberty and anti-meddling social, economic, and political philosophy is only half the solution. As Mises explained in “The Psychological Roots of Antiliberalism” (a section of his book Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition), many people have moral failings and psychological issues that make their support for interventionist and socialist doctrines immune from rational counter-argument.
Some people embrace interventionism and socialism as a coping mechanism: they respond to disappointment over their own lives by shifting most of the blame away from themselves and onto outside factors: like “greedy capitalists” or capitalism itself. Through political activism, they meddle in the affairs of others as a way of evading responsibility for their own lives.
As Read put it, “Those who refuse to rule themselves are usually bent on ruling others. Those who can rule themselves usually have no interest in ruling others.”
With people for whom meddling is less an intellectual error and more of an emotional hangup, a different approach may be needed. You may need to help them understand that a life philosophy of resentment is debilitating and self-destructive, while a life philosophy of responsibility is fulfilling, ennobling, and can be downright life-saving.
Frédéric Bastiat said to the mass-meddlers of 19th century France: “You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”
Psychologist Jordan B. Peterson echoed this injunction when on Joe Rogan’s podcast he said, “don’t be fixing up the economy, 18-year-olds. You don’t know anything about the economy. It’s a massive complex machine beyond anyone’s understanding and you mess with it at your peril. So can you even clean up your own room?”
Before you get caught up in restructuring society, Peterson advised, sort out your own life first, starting with your room, because then “you’re not exceeding your domain of competence.”
“My sense,” he said, “is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward, because you build your competence that way.”
As you improve yourself, you may become an inspiration and good influence for your family, then your circle of friends, then your colleagues at work, then maybe even wider communities.
You change the world for the better by acting as a role model, not a mass-meddler. True leadership is modeling, not meddling.
That is how you can become a force for good instead of a do-gooder. It’s the difference between meaningful virtue and vain virtue-signaling. And attaining the former is vastly more satisfying than indulging in the latter. You can sometimes fool others, but you can’t fool your own conscience. And the human conscience knows the difference between actually doing good and fraudulently looking good.
Peterson’s message of personal responsibility and self-improvement has resonated powerfully with young audiences and inoculated them against the gospel of resentment and intellectual arrogance preached by interventionists and socialists.
Leonard Read would have been delighted to see Peterson’s impact and not the least bit surprised. “Right method,” he wrote, “…consists of self-improvement. If everyone were devoted to the perfection of self, there could be no meddlers amongst us, and without meddlers there could be no socialism.”
A message of self-improvement and personal responsibility can succeed where socio-economic arguments fail, because it’s less of an intellectual exercise and more of a practical dilemma. A person can still cling to their coping mechanism and deny the truth of the message, but only to their own great personal detriment.
The Paradox of Changing the World
We free ourselves from mass-meddling by educating ourselves and others about the dangers of meddling: both on a societal and a personal level.
But in so doing, we must be wary of fighting fire with fire: of meddling with the meddlers.
For example, we must never use government intervention for cheap “wins” against interventionists, for then we become what we hate.
And as Read stressed, we should even avoid “imposing” our explanations on those who have no interest in them. Sharing wisdom where it’s not welcome is its own kind of meddling. Rather than “casting pearls” at those incapable of appreciating them, we should address those who are open to learning.
Above all, Read stressed improving one’s own understanding, dedication to, and ability to explain the freedom philosophy, because the more you do that, the more you will attract students who are not only open to your teaching, but actively seek it.
As Lawrence Reed, President Emeritus of FEE, has stressed in his book Are We Good Enough for Liberty?, improving one’s character in general is also essential, because it greatly increases your influence with those who admire you.
Of course that shouldn’t be the main reason you pursue character development. Self-improvement becomes self-defeating when it becomes primarily about garnering influence, winning praise, and other forms of moral vanity.
The paradox of changing the world is that the best way to improve others is not to try to improve others. Instead seek self-improvement for its own sake, and you will inspire others to improve themselves as a natural and blessed byproduct.
As Leonard Read taught, the most powerful way to minister to the meddlers in our midst is to exorcize the meddlers within ourselves and devote our hearts to self-improvement, thereby leading the way to liberty by our example.
Dan Sanchez is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in chief of FEE.org.
EDITORS NOTE: This FEE column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.