Financial Sustainability or Irrational Exuberance in Liberty Projects?

May 16th, 2012   Submitted by Davi Barker

I’ve been thinking about this since Ofer Nave spoke in the Agorist Panel at the New Hampshire Liberty Forum this year. He drew a distinction between sustainable and unsustainable counter economic activity, but predicted a series of tipping points when more unsustainable activities become sustainable as the counter economy grows. He also made an economic point that in the current market it makes more sense to spend dollars than silver currency. Greshem’s Law suggests that when legal tender laws exist, if a merchant accepts silver and paper it’s in the customer’s best interest to spend paper and horde silver. But, agorists still spend silver against their economic self-interest out of what Ofer called “irrational exuberance,” or passion for liberty. I have a similar concept that I call the “entertainment premium” on activism.

There is an axiom libertarians use to talk about government spending; that which is economically unsustainable cannot endure. This applies to liberty projects too. I’m concerned that if our liberty projects are sustained by irrational exuberance, and not by actual economic incentives, these projects, maybe the movement itself, is unsustainable without the zeal of converts, because eventually the enthusiasm bubble pops. Even communism works for the first generation, because the labor force is motivated to work by the irrational exuberance to prove the concept. But the second generation has no such enthusiasm. They are motivated only by the actual economic incentives, of which there are none. Lots of revolutions rise and fall based on this dynamic, but I want more for our movement.

Something happened to me recently that indicated this topic needed exploring. There’s a videographer from which I often use photos and videos for blog posts. I make some small coin from blogging so I asked to make a donation to his work. He was shocked, and said no one had ever offered. This is a guy with professional equipment who flies around the world to document political activism. If his video work is all out of pocket it will always need to be subsidized by other income.

In a free market profit means sustainability and growth. So if we want sustainability and growth for the liberty movement we’ve got to figure out how to make it profitable. Part of the responsibility falls on the activists to seek strategies of activism which can be sustained, but another part falls on the supporters of the projects. Sometimes living our values means buying a little less candy and video games. It means being as principled in our economic decisions as in our actions. So, I contacted the activists behind some of the liberty projects that I support to hear their thoughts on the subject.

Agorist Business

Mandrik of George’s Famous Baklava was one of the first people I contacted. He was also on the Agorist Panel at the Liberty Forum, and he’s something of an agorist rockstar, being one of the only full time agorists. He wrote:

“My first job was working for my family’s restaurant. I always considered myself a hard worker and it carried over into my corporate job, but I never received the appreciation I was looking for. I was constantly trying to climb the corporate ladder. No matter how hard I worked it was more about who liked you. You had to play the game and I hated it.”

Since 2009 he has sold baklava at mandrik.com. Starting next month he’ll be selling low carb, gluten free almond cookies too. He cooks at liberty festivals, and works as both a personal chef and housekeeper for personal clients. Mandrik’s primary strategy for sustainability appears to be working like a dog.

It’s truly remarkable if you think about it. Mandrik makes his entire income, puts food on his table and a roof over his head, through voluntary, tax-free, exchanges. Best of all his conscience is clear of all the atrocities committed by the State that the rest of us are paying for. Supporting his work doesn’t even require any sacrifice or generosity on your part. All it requires is that you eat some delicious food. I’ll never order baklava from anywhere else, and I’m eager to try his new almond cookies.

Mutual Aid

Fr33 Aid, co-founded by Teresa Warmke, is one of the only non-profit liberty projects I’m aware of. It’s an organization of volunteer medical professionals who demonstrate the value of mutual aid as an alternative to government services. They primarily educate people about CPR and offer first-aid at liberty festivals. She wrote:

“Fr33 Aid will sustain as long as our donors and volunteers are willing to keep it going. We’re happy to be as different as possible from government organizations, including in our practice of only spending money we have. There is much more we could do if we could afford to pay our staff and start some of the other projects we’ve considered. Meanwhile, we’re all volunteers who have chosen to spend money on programs rather than taking salaries.”

Among their future plans is to begin offering effectiveness data and critical reviews of healthcare products, competing with the FDA, and eventually growing into a chapter-based global organization where members can organize their own local projects. And all the while they talk to people about healthcare in a voluntary society and help people to see we don’t need to depend on the State to keep us healthy.

In the beginning Fr33 Aid ran in the red in the sense that those who donated the startup capital for equipment and medical supplies wanted to be reimbursed, but today Fr33 Aid’s operating budget comes completely from donations made at fr33aid.com. Volunteers keep everything running even when donations are low. Now Fr33 Aid stays in the black by not over spending, but to grow and launch new projects fund raising is a constant necessity.

The constant refrain of libertarians and anarcho-capitalists is that we don’t need State aggression in the medical field because doctors could operate in a free market much more efficiently and charitably that they do in the current bureaucratic labyrinth. So, I think it’s important not only to make the economic argument, but to demonstrate it in our actions.

Animated Film

Pasha Roberts is the mastermind behind the Silver Circle Movie which has been in the works since 2009. Now in the final stage of production and ready for a sneak preview at PorcFest this year, and a theatrical release in August. Silver Circle is an animated, feature-length, independent film set in 2019 after a the economic collapse, and a power grab by the Federal Reserve. In the film a group of Rebels take on the Fed, and hopefully educate audiences about honest money along the way.

With a production budget of almost $2 million the project required significant investment capital from Pasha at the outset, but it also subsists on donations, the sale of anti-Fed shirts and stickers and the issuing of their own silver Rebel Rounds like the alternative currency the Rebels use in the film all available at silvercirclemovie.com.

The Silver Circle Movie is essentially an entrepreneurial enterprise and Pasha says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about a return on his investment. The long-term vision is to launch a series of films following the Rebels though other anti-authoritarian adventures. He hopes this will lead to a new genre of explicitly liberty themed films from other studios that reach audiences outside the liberty community, but all that depends on the success of the first film.

Silver Currency

At the Liberty Forum the big names in silver currency were Shire Silver and Don’t Tread On Meme.

Ron Helwig was also on the Agorist Panel discussing his monetary model, Shire Silver. As a Regional Currency Officer for Liberty Dollar before the raid, to Ron “sustainability” also means having a strategy to avoid State aggression. To combat centralized power Ron utilizes decentralized power. The Shire Silver model avoids both a vault and the high cost of minting. Ron embeds measured weights of gold and silver strips into wallet sized laminated cards. This way the value is physically distributed and there is no central hub to raid. But he’s also decentralized manufacturing, so even if the State shuts Ron down, Shire Silver goes on without him, because everything is in the public domain. Instructions on how to launch your own Silver Trading Cards are published on his website: ShireSilver.com.

The Silver Dime Cards at DontTreadOnMeme.com are similar in that they are laminated cards, but they avoid minting costs by laminating existing silver Liberty Dimes minted between 1916 and 1945. They also include a QR code leading to WhatIsThisCoinWorth.info where you can download a SmartPhone app that calculates value of various alternative currencies. Drew Phillips wrote:

“I have been selling the cards slightly over spot price for a ‘profit,’ but if I were to take into account all the events I have gone to promoting the cards it’s a losing venture for sure. What the cards are worth does not compare to what it’s worth for me to go around the country to promote sound money.”

Podcasts

Of all the liberty projects, I am primarily a consumer of podcasts. So, I try to make modest donations to most of the podcasts I listen to. I contacted the hosts of Free Talk Live, Porc Therapy and Declare Your Independence to get their thoughts on sustainability.

Free Talk Live is probably the most successful liberty show there is. The podcast is free, and the radio program is syndicated to over a hundred stations. It’s also the flagship program of the Liberty Radio Network at lrn.fm which hosts a wide variety of other liberty podcasts. Both of the show’s primary hosts, Ian Freeman and Mark Edge, earn their salary from the program making them full time liberty activists. Like many radio shows, the hosts earn their salary from advertisers, but the key to their growth is the donation based AMP Program which stands for, “Advertise, Market and Promote.” Ian wrote:

“AMP is critical to the success of Free Talk Live. Early on, it enabled us to become known in the talk radio industry by attending conventions and advertising in the premier publication, TALKERS.  Without it, we’d be nowhere close to where we are today.  For a paltry $3 per month, we can deliver more new liberty-oriented people to the movement per dollar than any DC think-tank or political campaign can.”

The AMP Program also gives listeners access to high quality, commercial free archives, a toll-free AMP-only call in line, and an AMP-only forum on the message board. Find out more at FreeTalkLive.com. So, Free Talk Live is a fully sustainable liberty project, at least until Ian gets arrested for tax evasion. But even then, the show has many secondary hosts who can fill in when a primary host is in jail.

Porc Therapy is one of my personal favorites, especially when I’m looking for a much needed break from politics. It’s a pro-freedom relationship talk show that applies libertarian principles in our personal lives. The show’s host, Stephanie Murphy wrote:

“I have a policy of investing any money I got from donations or ad sales back into the show to help it grow. I fronted the money to buy some professional studio equipment when it switched from a podcast-only format to a live show, and over time I was able to pay 100% of that money back. I have been able to make several upgrades to my equipment over time, hired other people to produce original music and graphics for the show, purchased printed materials to promote the show, and have been able to fund travel to events where I will do live shows. For now it is not only self-sustaining, but growing.”

The show is available at porctherapy.com, and from the sound of it it’s run on Stephanie’s own passion for broadcasting, and the meaningful relationships she has formed through calls, emails and online chats with listeners.

No one exemplifies exuberance like Ernie Hancock, and based on its web presence FreedomsPhoenix.com looks like a liberty media empire. They’ve got a forum, a newsletter, an E-Zine, a daily radio and video broadcast, blogs, archives, and an online store. Plus it’s all translated into over a dozen languages. Freedom’s Phoenix looks like it runs in the black from the outside, but the first response I got from Earnie was, “We don’t make no stink’n money.” Yet Freedoms Phoenix stays up and running, and it looks like a tremendous amount of time and passion are put into the project… or maybe Ernie never sleeps. He wrote:

“FreedomsPhoenix has positioned itself to have a good chance to benefit from the economic shift as it evolves. I think we are at ‘Peak Government.’ The economic opportunities that will make themselves available will likely be understood only by the freedom oriented individuals. But only our Credibility, Honesty, Accuracy, Value etc. will give us any kind of advantage. The financial benefits come later, and they’ll be benefits that are shared with my fellow human beings without initiating force upon a single individual.”

From the sound of it Freedom’s Phoenix is preparing for the economic melt down. Ernie’s strategy for sustainability is the most long term of all. He’s investing in assets that will be valuable after the collapse, not just silver but human capital. Why worry about financial sustainability in an unsustainable financial system?

Conclusion

Even if you’re engaged in different types of activism, I think it’s important to support projects you want to endure. One of the ways I do this is by separating my agorist income into an activist fund. I have a regular full time job doing graphic design, and I have a separate income from the counter economy doing graphic design, blogging and online marketing. That money always goes back into the counter economy, sometimes as donations to other liberty projects, and sometimes by buying a tray of baklava or another agorist product.

Most of us have one foot in the counter economy and the other in some day job. We’re like superheroes. It’s like having a secret identity. I’d like to figure out how we put both feet in the counter economy. I’m of the opinion that agorism provides the most sustainable strategy because it’s rooted in mutual self interest and not self sacrifice, and it combines the successful strategies of all these projects. Agorists can use a sales model or a donation model. They can accept fiat paper or any alternative currency. But perhaps most importantly successful agorism depends on the relationships and human capital that will sustain us even through a complete economic collapse.

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8 Responses to “Financial Sustainability or Irrational Exuberance in Liberty Projects?”

  1. Van DempseyNo Gravatar says:

    ” Sometimes living our values means buying a little less candy and video games.”

    Actually, being a mega software pirate as a kid (even cracking and releasing to the underground a few games myself), when I later joined the game development industry I realized that while my teenage perspective that “piracy doesn’t hurt anyone” was correct, it was also short-sighted in that every purchase is an investment in future production by that developer and as a pirate I was definitely not investing in the continued production of the things that I loved to spend endless hours playing.

    I could pirate just about any game I want still, but I don’t. I buy far more video games today than ever before (I call it market research, which is often a joke but actually means something in my case as an indie developer.)

    All that being said – yes, absolutely, our economic activism endeavors must be self-funding and profitable or else they will not be sustainable. Charity only breeds weakness, in people and in business.

    I regularly donate time and effort to non-profit theatrical endeavors, and it’s disappointing how much they have to struggle and scrape to re-start each and every project, instead of treating it like one ongoing thing that needs to at least support itself.

    You cant help people if you can’t help yourself first.

  2. RPNo Gravatar says:

    Great writeup, many important points. One is that there’s a bit of a blurred line between charity and entrepreneurship in the liberty movement – many ventures are some of each (both on the part of their founders and those who choose to support them)

    Also brings up some interesting questions. For example, what if an agorist vendor offers a product that I feel is inferior to what is offered elsewhere? Should I buy from the agorist in solidarity/support of what he/she is doing, or should I simply purchase the best product? Economically, I find it hard to justify that “Buy Agorist” makes any more sense than “Buy American” or any other similarly flawed mantra.

    • Bob RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

      “what if an agorist vendor offers a product that I feel is inferior to what is offered elsewhere?”

      Tell them. Without feedback from people who don’t purchase the product, the provider can never know what it is that is not satisfying.

      That feedback doesn’t cost us anything, and it is a great way to make things better.

      Personally, I have found that the lower costs involved with direct transactions more than offsets the lack of commercial “polish”.

      When I visited Tanjin, China, I noticed people running what amounted to noodle shops out through their kitchen windows. Sure enough, that was exactly what people were doing. And they were operating out of public housing, too.

  3. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Addressing the Gresham’s law concern, it seems to me that in order to keep spending bad money, you’ve got to keep accepting bad money. If we want to get rid of the Dollar and get back to silver as money or even Bitcoin, we’re going to have to start rejecting Dollars as payment for goods and services. I’ve slowly begun doing so, and look forward to the day when I can completely reject the Dollar as payment for my goods and services.

  4. anonymous infowarriorNo Gravatar says:

    “oh look I just bought something on the black market… I’m totally getting back at the state”

    Agorism for Dummies…

  5. augustNo Gravatar says:

    These are all good points and here’s another one: For all of us in the liberty movement to thrive with our agorist businesses, it is critical that we support each other whenever possible. TheMarketForLiberty.com is the liberty movement business directory to help you keep your dollars (or bitcoin/metal/barter etc.) within our group!

    Since this site is just getting started, it needs your help. So, please send in any websites you know of that are operated by liberty activists or for our benefit.

    When one of us thrives, we all do.

    Thanks.
    contact@themarketforliberty.com

  6. check out http://www.tetla.org for a liberty project that is absolutely financially sustainable.