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Activism is activity directed at reforming the laws or political system as a whole. Libertarian activism occurs in many forms, such as letters to newspapers, campaigns for public office, and demonstrations. Murray Rothbard writes that education alone will not achive libertarian goals: "After education, what? What then? What happens after X number of people are convinced? And how many need to be convinced to press on to the next stage? Everyone? A majority? Many people?"[1] Presently, an estimated 15 percent of the U.S. population is libertarian.[2] It is unknown why they do not take Henry David Thoreau's advice and do what is necessary to become that minority that "is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight."[3]

If, say, all those libertarians were to physically block the entrances to all government buildings, and refuse to leave until government officials ended the drug war, the government would have little choice but to accede to the demands. The jails would not have enough capacity to hold all those activists, and American governmental officials are usually not ruthless enough to order the machine-gunning of protesting crowds. Without resort to either of those two methods, it is unclear how the government would get rid of the occupiers.

Some advocates of change prefer not to be known as "activists".[4]

The individual activist

A common criticism of individuals' getting involved in activism is that one person cannot achieve very much. Ayn Rand attempts to refute this in her essay "What Can One Do?" She remarks, "No one can change a country singlehandedly. So the first question to ask is: why do people approach the problem this way?" She compares it to trying to stop an epidemic overnight or build a skyscraper singlehandedly. On the other hand, she argues, "In an intellectual battle, you do not need to convert everyone. History is made by minorities — or, more precisely, history is made by intellectual movements, which are created by minorities. Who belongs to these minorities? Anyone who is able and willing actively to concern himself with intellectual issues."[5]

It has been argued that it is a fallacy of division to say that, because a large movement could accomplish political change, one individual should attempt to further political change. This is said to be comparable to arguing that if an airplane composed of engines and other parts can fly across the ocean, then one of its engines could get across the ocean without the assistance of the other parts. This is a straw man argument, because no one said that one person could achieve political change singlehandedly. Even individuals such as Rosa Parks, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, who were active at pivotal moments of history, usually had help and inspiration from others that was necessary to bringing about change.

Indeed, to say that because one individual cannot achieve political change singlehandedly, the individual should make no effort toward achieving political change, is a fallacy of composition. It is like saying that because an airplane engine cannot get across the ocean without the help of other airplane parts, there is no point in starting up an airplane engine under any circumstances. The task at hand is to figure out under what circumstances an individual activist should take a given action. Each member of the movement has a role that he can play in helping coordinate, inspire or otherwise cooperate with others' efforts.


Activism can sometimes take a great while to fully bear fruit. Sometimes it continues bearing fruit for decades or centuries. For example, one might write an article that influences the development of a new school of economic thought that persists for many years to come. The record of many activists' deeds continues to inspire other activists long after those activists are dead. Sometimes people do not give credit to every single person who inspired them, directly or indirectly; for one thing, it is impossible because we cannot always trace back the lineage of every idea we hear to the people who first originated and propagated them. But it is important not to necessarily get discouraged by the inability to be certain of exactly what impact one is having.

Methods of activism

Rothbard points out that there are many different avenues of activism that can be pursued:[6]

There has to be an effort to deal with the problem of how to get these guys off our backs. So, if you really have a dedicated group in Congress or the Senate, you can start voting measures down or whatever. But I don't think this is the only way. I think maybe there will be civil disobedience where the public will start not paying taxes or something like that. If you look at it, there are several possible alternatives in dismantling the state. There is violent revolution, there is non-violent civil disobedience and there is the political action method. I don't know which of these will be successful. It's really a tactical question which you can't really predict in advance, it seems to me that it would be foolhardy to give up any particular arm of this.

Rothbard has also pointed out that one flaw in the argument that democratic channels are the only peaceful means of achieving freedom "is that it completely overlooks the possibility of the nonviolent overthrow of the government by the majority through civil disobedience, i.e., peaceful refusal to obey government orders. Such a revolution would be consistent with this argument’s ultimate end of preserving peace and yet would not require democratic voting."[7]


  1. Rothbard, Murray. "A Strategy for Liberty". For a New Liberty. 
  2. Boaz, David and Kirby, David (23 October, 2006). "The Libertarian Vote". Cato Institute. 
  3. "On the Duty of Resistance to Civil Government". Wikisource. 
  4. Buford, Talia (9 July 2013). "Anthony Ingraffea: Don’t label me an activist". Politico. 
  5. Rand, Ayn. "What Can One Do?". Philosophy: Who Need It. "A few suggestions: do not wait for a national audience. Speak on any scale open to you, large or small—to your friends, your associates, your professional organizations, or any legitimate public forum. You can never tell when your words will reach the right mind at the right time. You will see no immediate results—but it is of such activities that public opinion is made." 
  6. Rothbard, Murray. "'Exclusive Interview With Murray Rothbard'". 
  7. Rothbard, Murray. "Democracy (Binary Intervention: Government Expenditures)". Power and Market.