Advancing liberty where it would count the most

I was at a libertarian event recently where the question was posed: “What would you do if you had $10 million?” [To advance the cause of liberty, that is.] There were several good answers, all of which were reasonable ways to disburse the money that could be effective. I had an inkling of an answer, but didn’t chime in. This is my answer: spend it all in a small Latin American country.

The United States of America is more or less the center of the worldwide libertarian movement. Libertarianism has intellectual roots from many places, and there are many smart libertarians active right now across the world, but the USA is undeniably the headquarters. Libertarians in foreign countries tend to side with the USA, as far as I’ve noticed, in international affairs. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are generally regarded as disasters, but I recall that the initial invasions were relatively more popular with libertarians in other countries than they were with the general public there. The default tendency seems to be to favor the USA, although in specific cases this may not hold.

American history is generally regarded as more libertarian than the histories of other countries. Any educated Western person can immediately summon opposing examples—I am not making the claim that American history is unanimously libertarian. But it is relatively more libertarian than the histories of other countries.

However by the modern day, American culture and institutions have had a long time to develop more statist features. The entrenched intelligence-military-industrial complex is overwhelmingly powerful in foreign affairs, and their means and ends can hardly be construed as libertarian. The median voter on most issues expresses a position that makes me sputter, and the major news media outlets very consciously reinforce the left-right level of analysis that excludes consistently pro-freedom people from a group identity. Big business and the banks use the rhetoric of free markets to insure favoritism for them at our expense. The judicial system is not entirely lost, but that may be only a matter of time.

The point is that $10 million or even $100 million or $1 billion would do plenty of good in the United States, but sometimes this feels like draining the ocean with a pail. The Old World attitudes about state control are firmly entrenched here.

A better use of the resources might be to spend them in a small country without such a vast army of opponents. Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Panama, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic are all relatively small countries in which these resources would make a large splash. Feel free to object to any of these countries in particular; I recognize that Cuba may be a difficult starting point, and that others are already much further along. But the influence of a regional think tank or movement dedicated to free minds and free markets would be relatively much larger, and would have positive spillover effects in other Latin American countries.

The primary opponent of such a movement, if it became popular, would ironically be the US Department of State and behind it the US military, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and other agencies. The USA has a long history of negative interference in the Western Hemisphere, and I’d hardly expect the government to sit idly by while people starting marching to their own tunes. This would not only help to unite the other Latin American countries around the idea, it would also expose the decay of the dream in the USA to the world. Hopefully this would force us all to reevaluate our own history and institutions, and prevent others from getting too hung up on defending the United States. This could only be good for the libertarian movement. (For a historical analogy, think of the intellectual discomfort when honest socialists and communists had a default attachment to the Soviet Union.)

I often think that if one Latin American country legalizes marijuana, the rest will legalize shortly after. I believe that anti-legalization forces believe this too, which is why several years ago a suggestion by Mexican president Vicente Fox was answered with an immediate visit by George W. Bush, after which the proposal was abandoned. This is but one facet of freeing people, but it is illustrative. Imagine the prosperity if Latin American countries began to trade with each other freely, to recognize the property rights of their indigenous populations and everyone else, to renounce militarism in domestic and foreign affairs, and in general to let people flourish. It would be good for them, good for us, and in the long run good for everyone.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate the financial resources being spent on my behalf right here. While we have the means we still ought to support the scholars, organizers, activists, and others who keep the movement afloat, and in the immediate short term this means spending a lot of the resources in the US. Even if this Latin American think tank were to get started, a large amount of the intellectual material flowing through it would originate here. But it’s worth considering.


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