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By: Brendon Berger
Recently I was reading a thread between several self described Libertarians and the topic of Libertarian movement membership came up. Some lamented the relatively small size of the Libertarian party in America, perhaps it was simply too small to be effective. Others took the more viscerally satisfying though less eloquent line of “if they are too dumb to realize they should join then we don’t need them”. Finally there were those who suggested various reforms that might be undertaken to raise the Libertarian Party’s mainstream appeal. And of course there were those were only there to troll. And so so many birds…
This got me thinking about why recruiting can be such a problem for the Libertarian Party. I can hardly consider myself objective on this subject, but I believe that it shouldn’t have to be. After all we’re ‘selling’ personal liberty a product that many people want. It then struck me that our corporate struggles might best be summarized by one of history’s greatest thinkers: Plato.
Alright time to blow the dust out of the section of your brain where you stored any knowledge you gained during those College philosophy courses. You know the ones where you half heartedly scrawled notes on long dead Greeks as you fought off that morning’s hangover. Today we re-examine, and co-opt, one of the greatest thought exercises of all time: Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”. Because I am TOTALLY in a position to be co-opting and redirecting the great man’s work.
I know have a tendency to dither on the windup for a lot of my articles so I’ll summarize the core concept as briefly as I can while maintaining the essentials. In his work “The Republic” Plato, through the form of an imaginary dialogue between his brother his mentor Socrates, ruminates on: “the effect of education and the lack of it on our nature“. Narrated by Socrates the allegory begins by with him asking his listener(s) to imagine a cave.
In this cave are prisoners who are shacked at the neck and legs in a such a way that they are forced to stare at the wall in front of them all the time. Behind these prisoners is a large fire and between the prisoners and the fire is a low wall. Behind this wall are people who hold puppets or images “…of men and other living things” the shadows of which are then reflected on the wall in front of the prisoners. The people holding the images remain concealed behind the wall while any noises made echo around the cave and are attributed to the shadows by the prisoners.
Plato suggests that to the prisoners the shadows on the wall would constitute reality, having no way of understanding that they only see shadows nevermind that those shadows might reflect other ‘real’ things outside the cave. It is then proposed that one prisoner is freed from their chains and upon turning around is blinded by the light of the fire. If they were then told that they were only now seeing ‘reality’ they would reject this and in their pain would attempt to turn back to the shadows. Preferring the comfort of the familiar over the discomfort of his new perspective.
Suppose that this prisoner were then dragged further upward toward the cave’s exit? Plato postulates that they would struggle and fight every inch of the way as the closer they came to the exit the brighter the light of the sun would become, causing them further pain. Indeed the experience upon being dragged fully into the sun would be blinding. But gradually, and painfully, their eyes would adjust and slowly they would begin to perceive the world around them. Eventually not only seeing distorted and hazy images, but actually seeing people, animals, and other things as they are.
Plato concludes that our hypothetical prisoner would, naturally, decide that this new world they had discovered was superior to their life in the cave. So being the altruistic sort our prisoner decides to go back into the cave to ‘rescue’ their fellow prisoners. However upon entering the cave our former prisoner would once again be blinded by the darkness as they had once been from the sun. Upon stumbling upon the remaining prisoners their former fellows would conclude from the ‘freed’ prisoner’s blindness that their journey was harmful to them. Thus they would conclude that it was better to stay where they were.
I know I said I’d try to be brief and ended up with 5 paragraphs, but this should be starting to feel familiar to many of us. It has been my experience that most members of the Liberty movement have their own ‘out of the cave’ story. Most of us grew up shackled to the illusory ideas and promises of one team or the other in the duopoly. But whether through acquaintances, reading, an X-men style intellectual mutation, or some combination of them we all ‘found the sun’. And I believe it’s our responsibility to do the same for others.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but one of the most frustrating aspects of my life as a Libertarian is watching people I know and respect duly shuffle off to dutifully pull the lever for the red or blue team when directed. Many have even grasped, however dimly, the problems inherent in our duopoly. Rather than stare into the uncomfortable light of the implications of this conclusion many seem to consciously choose to look back at their bit of the cave wall. After all it’s just the way things are or so I am told. This leave me feeling vaguely like George Wells watching the Eloi dutifully marching off to get eaten by Morlocks.
The line we must walk is one of messaging. As Plato illustrates in his allegory and as Frank Weinerton learned to his chagrin, most people will resist being taken from their own particular cave for many reasons. And with due respect to the allegory I don’t believe this is a case where one can or even should ‘drag’ them toward the light. It must be our charge to convince not cajole. To lead and not to drive people towards that simplest of truths: Government is force and it isn’t somehow better if your team is wielding the stick.
In practical terms what does this mean? As tough as this kind of thing will be to hear we the physicians must first cure ourselves. Go to any vaguely political story on this website or others and you will probably find a Libertarian or self professed one delivery condescending lectures. This gets worse when it’s a group as there is no group of people who enjoy dividing and subdividing themselves more than Libertarians. For the love of Arceus stop. Lets not make a haughty sense of assumed superiority our analogue to the Democrats hand wringing and Republicans flag waving. Or at least let us stop making it so.
I know this is a done to death theme, but I have to say it feels like the stakes have never been higher. It now matters more than ever that we as movement get people out of their caves. We have an aspiring Caesar wielding unprecedented executive power with NONE of Gaius Julius’ conspicuous gifts. Opposing him we have a disorganized rabble clinging so tightly to outdated utopian ideals that they have seemingly failed to learn ANYTHING from history. And the angry mob divided between the two, sure of nothing except that the other team are the bad
Into this breach like a forlorn hope we must go. It won’t happen quickly, expect no mass conversions, but every single person we can pull out of the cave is another who can go back in with us to rescue others. We should expect those we attempt to help and the world in general to fight you every step of the way. This isn’t a character weakness, we are all of us ‘in the cave’ in someway or another. But I believe that circumstances have converged in such a way that the time is ripe. Liberty is not a hard sell, it’s a product most people want, even if they don’t realize it. And I believe it is our responsibility to spread it as far and wide as possible.