Taking a Lesson from Jazz: Libertarian Cooperation

I really like jazz music.

Part of the time, I would even consider myself a “jazz musician”, so I probably should like it. But, over the years, it's occurred to me that I have a more subtle reason for liking it than many of my colleagues. While most (including me) seem to be challenged by its musical complexity and diversity, what has always made the music most fascinating to me is it's uniquely American, or rather, it's laissez-faire nature. Let me explain, for I do have a broader point to make here as well...

Jazz is the only musical art-form, and possibly the only organization of performers into a group dynamic in any medium, which truly exalts each individual performer as an indispensable part of the whole.

For most musical genres, from orchestras to rock bands, the focus is always on the “leader”, but jazz at its best works nearly opposite. Musicians work under a loosely organized structure – a lot like social or cultural norms – but the end result is the product of performers making their own, largely unplanned, decisions at any given moment. The medium is entirely about improvisation, and the end result isn’t always what you expect, it’s not always what you personally might have wanted (other times it’s far better than you could have ever imagined), but it is always the aggregate expression of free choices.

Sound familiar? As I see it, much of jazz is simply free market philosophy applied to music, but shh… don’t tell the beatniks!

But beyond all that, working in jazz groups taught me a valuable lesson about life which I wish more libertarians were mindful of in general… And that is this:

Individuals utilizing their respective talents together to support a common goal are vastly superior to both individuals working alone and to groups working with no regard for the individuals involved.

Playing in jazz groups helped me to realize that no matter how talented an individual you might be, standing alone on a street corner blowing your modes just gets you weird looks and occasionally some chump-change tossed into old hats and instrument cases.

But... Combining forces with other like-minded (yet unique!) performers can lead to some of the greatest and most enduring creative works ever produced.

So what, you ask? Why is this even a relevant lesson anyway?

Because: While many libertarians recognize the main axiom above as true and important (and the main reason division of labor and free trade is the basis for real growth and human progress), a lot of us forget what it means in more direct sense. We forget to apply it in our worthwhile support of freedom.

Let's be honest, libertarians are great at a lot of things in general, but we’re pretty horrendous at presenting an organized front against the forces of tyranny. I used to chalk this up to the typical libertarian personality being so “individualist” that any effort at creating group activities really amounts to herding cats. In fact, I recently went on a minor mission to meet some other libertarians in Los Angeles and one person I’d contacted literally wrote back;

“… As a Libertarian, you can imagine I'm not much for group-think, and have never been much attracted to clubs or the like, so I haven't really sought them out, to be honest.”

I imagine a lot of libertarians feel that way. I know I do a lot of the time myself... However, I think it goes beyond a general mistrust of groups, which is a relatively healthy trait overall in my view. I actually suspect that more of it than we'd like to admit comes down to simple vanity. We are at root a group of iconoclasts, and I think most of us are proud of it. But for some, being an iconoclast is only fun if you can feel like you're the only one out there speaking truth to power. And I get that too I guess, but of all people, we should be best equipped to understand that it's not actually a “David vs. Goliath” situation here, but David vs. Goliath and his 200-million-man army. Simply going it alone – blogging, annoying friends & family, writing letters to the editor and harassing our elected “representatives”, etc. - is not going to make a meaningful dent in the ranks of the other side, much less the Goliath hiding behind them.

We shoot ourselves in the collective foot even more by the in-fighting amongst ourselves, which, although very important intellectually, is nothing short of catastrophic politically. I've never encountered a more pedantic group of people than in the libertarian community... And I am most certainly not exempt! This is a great thing in many respects. Being constantly challenged forces people to re-evaluate their views and question virtually every premise they hold daily. It means being less susceptible to fads, or to poorly thought out ideas, and means obtaining a deeper understanding of the world than most people even really aspire to obtain. However, when the world is crumbling around us, governments are moving towards a decidedly fascist direction and any meager value placed on liberty has been all but completely abandoned, it might be wise to put aside some of the more subtle debates. In the end, maybe you’re a CATO libertarian, or fan of the Chicago School, maybe you’re a hardcore Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist, maybe you’re a minarchist and a gold-bug or maybe you aren't really that far along in your philosophical development, but just get the sense that things are out of control right now... We will all have plenty to disagree about later, but right now the important thing is that everyone who fundamentally values liberty put the little squabbles aside and fights the big fight together.

What's worse I fear, is that the multitude of people who are more Statist in nature are exactly the opposite of iconoclasts. They have no problem, indeed they relish, working in groups; even, or perhaps especially, at the expense of their own individuality. This is obviously a tremendous benefit to the leaders of such organizations – they literally have millions of people ready and willing to do anything asked of them with no expectation that they will be uniquely recognized. These are ready-made mobs that leaders merely have to agitate and point in a general direction. It works remarkably well as we've seen again and again. But this mode of action has a tremendous flaw... With the majority of participants relying on a small oligarchy of leaders to tell them what to do, very few of the people involved contribute all that much to the whole, other than in relatively non-thinking man-power.

But here’s the good news: What works better than a mindless mob directed by a dictator or three, is a loosely-directed group of individuals who are each motivated to contribute their unique voice to the overall goal. As Samuel Adams said:

It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds”

Adams was right of course, but there’s a crucial element missing from that quote: Direction.

An unfocused minority, no matter how tireless sets no fires in any minds. Our intellectual focus, liberty, is no different than our Founding Fathers, but without additionally taking action to support that focus, I fear we will be no more effective than your average street-performer.

…And that brings me full circle. What I've learned as a jazz musician, is that not only is there is no shame and no detriment to a person's individuality in forming groups, individuality can actually be highlighted and supported by complementary voices promoting similar goals. We all have different talents, different interests, we've all developed different skills and we live all over the world... By combining those talents, surely we have a chance at influencing the generally accepted philosophies of the public.

We don't all need to agree on everything. In fact, it's good that we don't; our strength is in our intellectual independence. But let's not forget that we are carrying the tune of liberty, and if we all play it together, people will stop and pay attention.

If we don't, then maybe it’s time to put out the hat.

Sean MaloneComment