How to Herd Cats: Organizing Libertarian Activism

This subject will be covered during the talk “Herding Cats: How to Organize a Liberty Activist Army” at Liberty Forum in Manchester, New Hampshire. Event details are here.

Leading libertarians can be like herding cats. They’re solitary, stubborn individualists who do precisely what they want and nothing else, and therefore take directions poorly. Leading an organized and efficient liberty activist army is supposed to be next to impossible.

Yet it can be done, and done well, just as cats can be effectively herded. The Moscow Cats Theatre bases its entire act around getting house cats to perform tricks. Director Dmitry Kuklachyov explained that the key to training cats is that you can’t force them to do anything, but instead must nurture what they already want to do:

“You can’t force a cat. My job is to see the specialty, the spark that is inside it and develop that. You see, I already can see that this one can roll a little barrel”

The same goes for libertarians. Here’s how to get the staunchest of individualists to go along with your activism:

1: Pick your issue carefully

The biggest wildcard when organizing libertarians: they won’t simply trust you on an unfamiliar issue. You can run a right- or left-wing operation, and your loyal followers from one campaign will likely be ready to help you for another. Not so with the liberty faithful. They each have to become convinced, in their own mind, that what you’re asking them to do is worth doing. You can have a massive turnout for one issue, attempt a rally for something similar, and watch your participation numbers drop to zero. If you don’t first and foremost pick an issue that you know your audience cares about, and put in the necessary work to articulate the issue’s importance, you’re going nowhere fast.

2: Tailor your recruitment to each individual, not groups

With other groups, you can use a general-purpose strategy that works across a whole swath of potential activists. An approach like “Come stand for the Second Amendment” or “Come tell Wall Street that they aren’t getting another bailout” can successfully mass-recruit among people in political subsets that care about those issues. With libertarians, you have to target each individual. Find out what they care about, what their restrictions are, what their unsaid questions are regarding what you’re asking them to do. The stories of what will end up motivating them to action vary wildly from individual to individual, and your job as an organizer is to become exceptionally efficient at establishing one-on-one connections, rather than batch-processing your human resources.

3: Set the example but allow for individual deviation

“Lead, follow, or get out of the way” doesn’t fly in libertarian circles. While in other groups leading by example helps, with this group of cantankerous individualists it’s a minimum requirement. You have to show them how it’s done first, but don’t expect your activists to follow you word-for-word. Some will be happy to follow your lead, some will loosely follow but do things their way, and still others will do their completely separate thing. Keep leading and encouraging your followers into a good basic direction, but allow for as much creativity and individual initiative as possible without completely derailing the liberty train. Your notions of authority have no power here.

Bonus: Libertarians are humans, humans are libertarians

Now, I know I just spent the whole article telling you how libertarians are different. Don’t forget, though, that at their core, while they’re a different kind of people, they’re still people, and all the same basic motivational underpinnings still apply. The liberty-loving still like to feel like they’re making a difference and part of something bigger. They respond to recognition, both publicly and personally. They’re still more likely to act if they’re joining something established, and would rather join their friends than go alone. And, most important of all, they still will burn out if relied on too much, and need to be both fulfilled and offered a break from time to time.

In the same vein, all of this works great for organizing people of different philosophies as well. Sure, you can be lazy and use low-effort motivators like nationalism, duty, social popularity, etc. to get less individualistic people to act, but by doing so you will limit your reach and potential. Libertarians are simply the hardest group to organize, so if you build your leadership skillset on the strong foundation of motivating each person from scratch, you will run circles around pedestrian organizers forged under easier circumstances.

This is the second part of a three-article series on organizing activism. Read the second one here and the third one here.

Joël Valenzuela
Joël Valenzuela
Joël Valenzuela is the editor of The Desert Lynx. He is also the founder of the Rights Brigade, a mover for the Free State Project, and a martial art instructor.
  • Pingback: You can’t force a Libertarian: How to Herd Cats - Pima County Libertarian Party()

  • One thing to remember about a lot of libertarians. They often become libertarians because they used to follow the crowd and supported one of the two big parties, and ended up getting betrayed, used, lied to, or lost resources with zero return from doing so. That killed their trust in big political organizations, and government in general. Libertarians may appear to be selfish, Ayn Randian zealots; but that’s usually because their previous altruism and generosity was horribly abused far too many times. You can lie or distort the truth to Democrats and Republicans and usually get away with it. That won’t work on libertarians.