Montreal, March 15, 2008 • No 254




Martin Masse
is publisher of QL.




by Martin Masse


          Some of my friends are on occasion surprised by my optimism about the dissemination of libertarian ideas. Don't we read and hear tons of statist nonsense, coming both from the left and the right, every day in the media? Yes, we do, and the multiplication of the means of communication is such that the quantity of nonsense expressed has probably increased exponentially in recent years. But we have to see the other side of the coin, too: the quantity of pertinent information has also exploded, and it is more easily accessible than ever before in the history of the world.


          Remember that barely twenty years ago, most people read no more than one daily newspaper, possibly supplemented by one current affairs magazine, and stayed informed by listening to one of only a handful of television and radio stations available. The debates carried out in the opinion pages of the large dailies rarely offered anything other than the tired platitudes of the main political factions. Trying to get a point of view different from what was perceived as legitimate into one of these venues was practically impossible.

          A few hard to find magazines did offer more marginal perspectives, but that's just it: these were isolated debates taking place in a vacuum, debates that rarely reached a wider audience. Finding a relatively rare book was not easy either, unless you had access to a university library, and even then. Older readers will recall the difficulty of finding a book on a specific subject by searching through drawers filled with little typed-up index cards.

          During my university studies, I have no recollection whatsoever of any professor ever mentioning the Austrian School or libertarianism in a political science or economics course. It was in reading an article in the Financial Times of London in the early 90s that I first heard about Ludwig von Mises. It piqued my curiosity. Fortunately, the McGill University Library had a copy of Human Action. In the very first pages, I discovered the individualist and subjectivist methodological perspective on social phenomena that I had confusedly been trying to develop on my own for a few years, without realizing that others had done so long before me (see "Durkheim's Collective Conscience"). Other material on the subject (books or magazines) being hard to locate and obtain, it took me another few more years before I could really familiarize myself with all aspects of this school of thought.

          When I met other Quebec libertarians for the first time, about thirteen years ago, there were literally just a handful of us in the whole province who knew about these ideas. There was no quick way to find out if others were on the same wavelength. In such a context, trying to introduce an unknown philosophy or to launch a new political movement was an arduous, long-term enterprise.

The Surge of the Far Left

          It's true that extreme left-wing ideas spread like wildfire in Quebec and elsewhere in the West in the 1970s. But this was enabled in large part by the institutional support of universities and trade unions. Tens of thousands of social science students indoctrinated by Marxist professors and preparing to be hired into the civil service made fertile ground for such ideas. The unions, reinforced in number by the rapid growth of state employment and in power by the granting of ever more numerous legal privileges, naturally promoted a doctrine that favoured their interests.

          It is no coincidence, of course, that these are two essentially statist entities that would not exist in the same form in a free society. If we had a minimal State, practically every student would be planning to look for useful employment in the private sector instead of dreaming of a public sector sinecure.

          Similarly, in private universities where they would be required to pay the full cost of their education, far fewer students would waste their time learning the secrets of Marxism, Keynesianism, structuralism, deconstructionism, and the lesbian feminist perspective on Guatemalan peasant folk tales. Private, dynamic colleges and universities, competing among themselves, would organize themselves to offer pertinent training. They certainly would not have hired so many ignorant ideologues for professors.

          In a minimal State, there would also obviously be far fewer unionized civil servants. In the private sector, voluntary employee associations (i.e., unions that individual members would be free to join or not, as opposed to the current union mafia that legally imposes its diktats to all) would essentially work to protect the interests of their members, and not to serve as a political machine, spreading propaganda for the apparatchiks that run these organizations today.

          Unless you have hundreds of millions to invest in a newspaper chain, it's impossible to have this kind of impact by means of private institutions. Conrad Black was able to alter the tenor of the debate in English Canada by buying the Southam chain of dailies, by founding the National Post and by imposing an editorial line in accordance with his views (more classical liberal on economics, but neoconservative on foreign policy questions) to his new newspapers.

The Internet Effect

          The arrival of the Internet, however, has changed everything. Today, all the world's newspapers and magazines are available with a few clicks of a mouse. With the digitization of libraries that is now taking place, the totality of human knowledge will soon be available on the Web. With just a little searching, someone can easily uncover every imaginable viewpoint. One can become familiar with a philosophy in a single weekend.

“The 'barriers to entry' have been lowered spectacularly for those who want to disseminate their points of view. There is no longer any need for lots of start-up capital, hard-to-establish contacts or costly distribution networks.”

          The "barriers to entry" have therefore been lowered spectacularly for those who want to disseminate their points of view. There is no longer any need for lots of start-up capital, hard-to-establish contacts or costly distribution networks. Spreading new ideas is now relatively easy for intellectual entrepreneurs who care to make the effort and who are able to work with others to create a quality product.

          The Québécois Libre has, in ten years, gone from a small site hosted by a few friends to one of the largest independent sites in Quebec and in the French-speaking world. It receives around 100 000 visitors every month from all over the world, has contributors from three continents writing in two languages, and its update message is sent to over 1200 subscribers. Its sister site, Le Blogue du Québécois Libre, also brings thousands of visitors a month interested in discussions about Quebec current affairs. Both sites have a very high Google page ranking (thanks to the large number of links from other sites), which ensures that they are extraordinarily visible on the Web. It is practically impossible to research economic, political or social issues in French on the Web without regularly coming across QL articles.

          People who would no doubt never have discovered libertarianism without the Web can now drink from this source and many others too. Some who were in effect libertarians without knowing it realize it by reading us. We regularly receive messages that say something along the lines of: "I'm so happy to have found your site and discovered the libertarian philosophy. I've thought this way for a long time, but I thought I was the only one who did." The very existence of an alternative point of view being expressed and easily accessed completely changes the situation by allowing individuals who have until now been isolated to come into contact with each other, with no geographical limits.

The Marketplace of Ideas

          Now that we can compete more directly with collectivist and statist doctrines, bypassing the mainstream media that still speaks about us only rarely (though that too is changing, journalists being less and less able to ignore a school of thought that seems more and more influential), there is every reason to believe that our ideas are going to continue to spread.

          First and foremost, this is because when libertarian ideas find themselves on equal footing with others in the marketplace of ideas, they have an excellent chance of winning. Libertarian explanations conform to reason and reality, while statist ones are founded on myths. Those on the economically illiterate left, for example, have no logical explanations for economic phenomena. They do not understand how economic growth happens; they pay no attention to notions like productivity, price signals, or time preference; and they are too obsessed with denouncing the horror of profit to see what role it plays for example in allocating resources.

          Every version of centralized planning and statist interventionism has failed. In our society, the private sector usually displays dynamism and efficiency, while every publicly controlled sector from health to education is in constant crisis. It is becoming increasingly harder to deny that the free market is the one and only system that favours prosperity. Intelligent people who are exposed to libertarian ideas are going to realize this more and more.

          We are at the dawn of an era of economic dynamism that is without precedent in human history, with the continued expansion of capitalist globalization and with the integration of China and India into this great global market. A generation ago, Asia was still cursed with famines. Today, hundreds of millions of Asians are living comfortably thanks to the opening of markets and to the gradual retreat of state planning. Only Africa, whose economies are still largely bypassed by global economic networks and dominated by illiberal tyrants, has yet to understand the recipe for development.

          Because they are founded on myths, collectivist ideas also require unanimity or consensus. The whole collectivist logic depends on "raising the consciousness" of the masses, on a collective mobilization aimed at attaining abstract and unattainable goals. This mobilization is very costly in human terms and is hard to maintain for long, and the sought-after utopia is anyway impossible to attain. When these movements succeed in part in attaining their political objectives, there are always perverse consequences to their statist interventions. The structures created never attain their desired goals, and are always in crisis and about to fail. We either need to bail them out with public funds or impose new coercive measures, or they risk collapsing, as they did in the USSR and the communist bloc. That's why statist militants are constantly finding new reasons to be depressed, as we can see by reading their blogs and magazines.

          In contrast, to score points, libertarians simply have to explain the logic of human action in a context of liberty and voluntary cooperation, and show to what extent the civilization in which we live is based on these notions and depends on them for its continued survival and success. There is no need to call for collective action and mobilization. An ordinary citizen who believes in the libertarian ideal can do many useful things at home by himself: stop being manipulated by the statist propaganda of politicians and pressure groups; remain unaffected the next time a false crisis requiring the State's urgent intervention captures newspaper headlines; disengage from all movements that are based on collectivist myths; refuse to participate in any action aimed at increasing the coercive power of the State; get by as much as possible without calling on the State; and always choose a private alternative when there is one.

          Every time someone, in his or her daily life, takes responsibility in this way, staying away from collectivist movements and, as far as is possible, keeping out of reach of the statist octopus, our movement advances. Every time one more individual exercises his or her individual sovereignty, the State and collectivist movements retreat. All of these little actions have the effect of an acid dissolving the pseudo-consensus and the false unanimity upon which our adversaries rely to advance tyranny. Collectivist utopia (generally bloody when it is pushed to the extreme) cannot be maintained without the enthusiastic support of a significant proportion of the population. By simply refusing them this support, we are placing sticks in their spokes. And thanks to the Internet, there are more and more of us doing it consciously and deliberately.

Objective Conditions

          The apparatchiks seek every possible avenue to control our work, our education, our health, our culture, our food, and practically every other aspect of our lives. It is clear that we won't be living in a society that is truly free from their diktats any time in the near future. States did not stop growing during the 20th century, and it is only very recently that their growth has at least slowed. But there is every reason to be optimistic about the 21st century. To borrow a bit of Marxist jargon, the "objective conditions" are there for us to witness a revival and a radicalization of the grand classical liberal tradition that allowed for the emergence of civilization.


* This updated article was first published in French in QL no 151 – February 15, 2005. It was translated by Bradley Doucet.