There’s certainly no shortage of personalities to mock in the political world. But while it’s always fun to mock the latest gaffe by one of our public servants, the battle of daily politics is exhausting and often leaves us with little progress. If supporters of freedom are ever to find long-term success in the political realm, they must be able to successfully advocate their foundational principles.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the new favorite target of conservatives, free-marketers, constitutionalists, and anyone with a general history education. But what is the goal of these groups? To push AOC out of office? If that happens, what will the result be? Her district certainly won’t then vote in a capitalist. At best, there will just be a new pseudo-socialist Democrat in Congress.
For those seeking to restore America’s founding principles to our society, the focus needs to be on ideas, not personalities. The great economist FA Hayek wrote that socialism gained so much support not, because it worked—we have a long, bleak history of experience that tells us as much—but because it “succeeded in inspiring the imagination.” This is the difficult task in front of advocates for a free society. It’s easy to take down one personality. It’s entertaining to yell at the TV screen or pile on a Twitter thread while the bureaucrat du jour is pilloried. But it’s much more difficult to debate ideas and to win over hearts and minds.
Those who oppose socialism must first know why they oppose it. Read the works of some of the greatest advocates for freedom: Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, John Locke, Frederick Bastiat, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell…the list is endless. You can go even further back and find similar ideas in the Bible or the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers. America’s founding fathers were some of the most well-read men in history. Throughout their writings, one can find countless references to history, literature, and philosophy. Without this vast wealth of accumulated knowledge, we would not have the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. The United States itself may never have come into existence. Today, we have the benefit of having thousands of years of great thinkers come before us. And we have the ability to access their writing—their very thoughts—at the click of a button. We cannot continue to waste that great privilege.
We’re busy. We have jobs, families, kids. It’s so much easier to flick on the news or press play on a podcast and have someone tell us what to think. We trick ourselves into thinking that’s educating us. (It’s often said that politics is melodrama for people who think they’re smart.) Instead, I challenge you to find a primary source, a book or essay in which the author speaks to first principles, and think about those principles. Do you agree with those principles? Why or why not? How would an opponent respond?
It is only through this rigorous intellectual challenge that one can truly develop a coherent political philosophy. And it is only then that one can truly make sense of the events of today. Whether you’re reading an author from the 2000s, 1900s, 1700s, or 2000 BC, humanity has faced the same issues time and again. Armed with this knowledge, the endless patterns you see develop on the news and in society become almost comical. These were the lessons that liberal-arts programs were designed to teach. Because our universities have failed in their academic duty, the burden is on us to self-educate.
What I am advocating is the long game. Economist John Maynard Keynes once famously opined, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” But journalist Henry Hazlitt later noted, “we are already suffering the long-run consequences of the policies of the remote or recent past.” Small political victories are certainly encouraging. But anyone who has spent enough time in politics knows that the pendulum just as often swings the other way. To ensure that the ideals that built western society prevail for the long-term, we must know where those ideals came from and why they are worth defending. We must advocate not only for our partisan side of the political divide, but for the foundational principles that have served everyone who has been lucky enough to live in a free nation.
We can continue playing the whack-a-mole game with every new lawmaker or media figure we don’t like, trying to take one down just as a new one pops up, or we can revive the timeless philosophical principles that motivated our ancestors. The latter is a much more difficult road, but exponentially more fulfilling.