A Program that Any Drunk Can Understand


Libertarianism enjoys the contributions of many pioneers, several of whom spring immediately to mind. There’s H.L. Mencken, to whom I recently paid homage in these pages. There’s Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and, of course, Ayn Rand. There are others I’ve neglected to mention here, but of whom readers may remind me. And there are Bill W. and Doctor Bob.

At my mention of the last two, some may scratch their heads. They may search their anthologies of political works, trying to find some mention of these eminent persons. When they come up short, they may conclude that I am kidding. But though Bill W. and Doctor Bob are better known in Twelve-Step recovery circles than in libertarian ones, and though neither may ever have considered himself a libertarian, together they formulated a philosophy that, in many ways, bears a striking similarity to the political convictions we hold dear. They were the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Of all political persuasions, libertarianism most nearly conforms to the principles of A.A. Both are clear and simple enough for any drunk to understand. Both adhere to guidelines everybody learned in kindergarten. And if most people hadn’t forgotten those guidelines by the time they graduated from high school, we would all live in a much better world.

We are not run by any elites who are presumed to know better than we do. Our leadership always emerges from the bottom up, and is guided not by airy theories but by practical experience.

How close is A.A. to libertarian principles? Strikingly close. We Twelve-Steppers believe in taking responsibility for ourselves. We believe, as we like to say, in “keeping our side of the street clean.” In seeking out solutions to our problems ourselves, instead of sitting around waiting for somebody else to do it for us.

Helping other people is also not something we’re encouraged to sit around and wait for somebody else to do. When we’re able, we’re supposed to pitch in and do it ourselves. No faraway potentate is seen as our ultimate benefactor. No potentate, that is, except our own, individually identified Higher Power — a Power that never takes a dime from us in taxes, yet provides far greater assistance than we’ve ever gotten from Washington D.C., for all the trillions we’ve sent it.

Just as in an economy based on liberty, an “invisible hand” can truly be said to govern the workings of Twelve-Step programs. Nobody needs to plan, organize, or dictate matters from the top, from the heights of any centralized organization. We are not run by any elites who are presumed to know better than we do. Our leadership always emerges from the bottom up, and is guided not by airy theories but by practical experience.

Busybodies and know-it-alls gain no traction in A.A. None has ever succeeded in taking charge. To outside eyes, this seems nothing short of miraculous. It may also seem miraculous that a ragtag assortment of freedom-loving citizens were ever able to govern themselves in a country without kings, emperors, or any sort of grand council to oversee operations down to the minutest detail.

In A.A., we hold each other individually accountable. And every individual counts. The dignity of each person’s choices is honored, whether for good or ill. In recovery, we come to appreciate that our lives have a value no one else can ever take away, and that — for the sake of our very survival — we must never throw away ourselves. Though I was well on my journey toward a libertarian perspective years before I became involved in A.A., my experience in the program had much to do with clinching my political conversion.

Over the past three-quarters of a century, millions of people’s lives have been saved by their adherence to the principles of Twelve-Step recovery. Those lives bear testimony to the fact that the principles work. If they work to save human lives, they might also help to save the larger human society.

When recovering drunks run across people who labor without the benefit of such help, those who are apparently clean and sober but who are whiny, self-absorbed, irresponsible, childish, over-dependent, nosy, meddlesome, or just plain impossible to get along with, we often remark that they “need a program.” We say this with a smile, but we are serious. We count ourselves fortunate that we have found a way of life that makes our individual lives worth living, and actually feel sorry for those who haven’t. More than ever before, today, Americans need a program. Be they drunk or sober, and regardless of whether they use recreational drugs, a huge number of them direly need to be Twelve-Stepped.

As a nation, many Americans are addicted to the hallucinogen of government aid. They grope their way through their existence under the delusion that, although they’re doing a lousy job of managing their own lives, they have the wisdom to manage everyone else’s. They may not believe that their Higher Power resides a bottle or a syringe, but they just as mistakenly believe that it resides in the state. This, as surely as alcoholism or drug addiction, is a disease that leads to disappointment, despair, and destruction. As we in A.A are also fond of saying, they “need a meeting.”

The next meeting of our local Libertarian Party, or of any similar group of liberty-loving individuals, would very nicely fit the bill.

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Clearly the 12 step program of AA has much to do with its popularity, but the "12 traditions" that define AA's structure are what has given the organization its longevity, without which it would be a story of the past. The delusional grandiosity of the alcoholic puts him or her in danger of engaging in the kinds of organizational power plays that ruin businesses, churches, schools, etc. Principles such as "the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking," "every group must remain autonomous, except in matters affecting AA as a whole," "AA as such ought never be organized..." etc., have kept this from happening. Bill W. and Dr. Bob were brilliant.
My one problem with your article is the idea that people cannot get sober in a meaningful way outside of AA. I know several people who have. It is a great organization, but there are miserable dry drunks in AA as well as outside of it, and happy sober drunks outside of AA as well as in it.


WOW...Looks like people in AA have found the true utopia of philosophical societies. Strange you didn't mention how estimates place relapse rates for first year at 80% and long term relapse rates as high as 50 percent. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1976118/
If this program has such poor quality of results it should be compared to a government program! You may state it is financially self sufficient but I am willing to bet you a beer more than a quarter of the people in AA are ordered to do so, or voluntarily attending to obtain a reduced sentence for a crime.
It is even more curious you claim AA holds such libertarian values without stating the courts often and regularly, with no scientific (or any) data proving it a successful venture, order people who have committed offense involving drugs and alcohol to attend classes.


AA as an organization does not force anyone to attend their meetings. Courts have no connection to AA. Members and groups of AA have been regularly petitioning the legal system to stop these mandated attendance sentences for years.

So the argument of forced attendance should be leveled at judges, not AA as an organization.

Lori Heine

Visitor, are you betting this beer on the basis of any actual knowledge of what you're talking about, or simply on what your friends have told you as they cry into their own beer?

Most of those who've shown up at meetings I frequent who have been ordered by a judge to attend are staying at a halfway house and have no money to put in the basket. They usually put in a slip of paper to be signed and taken back to the judge to verify they were there. I've never seen anybody turned away because they didn't put money in the basket.

If enthusiasm about something that works is now dismissed as belief in Utopia, then society really is doomed. The relapse rate in A.A. is, according to the last figure I heard, actually around 60%, which is still better than it would be anywhere else. Alcoholism is a terminal and progressive condition, and for many it is still fatal. The chance of survival used to be zero.

Of course the people who publish books saying A.A. does not work are very likely funded by -- people who make money doing for megabucks the same thing for which A.A. demands no payment. Tony clinics and hospitals don't like A.A. because it gives alcoholics another option.

I'm sure if we all had to pay $1,000 a week to dry out, that would be Utopia indeed. At least for the doctors and the tony clinics.

Lori Heine

Actually, the SUCCESS rate for A.A. is said to be 60%. Which is, indeed, not bad.

I don't know how that is figured. The only way to make sure someone has failed at sobriety would be to follow him or her all the way to the grave.

Of course the only way to know whether a person succeeded would be to do the same thing. I guess the numbers should be regarded with some skepticism either way.

I've known enough people who are certain they're alive today because of A.A. I'm one of them. Had my father not found sobriety when he was still a young man, I would likely never have been born.

Russell Hasan

Nice to see someone praise sobriety, and equate government with a drug--two positions with which I entirely agree. The only problem with AA and Al Anon, is that they are focused on alcohol (as I understand them, although perhaps I am wrong), whereas marijuana is the drug of choice for many people, including libertarians, with substance-altered brains.

Lori Heine

Actually, there's a sister program to A.A. and Al-Anon called Narcotics Anonymous, and I believe marijuana is one of the substances they consider narcotic. I don't know much about the specifics of that particular fellowship, but it certainly seems to be a good idea.

The Twelve-Step family has expanded to include fellowships that deal with just about every form of addiction known to humankind. There's an Overeater's Anonymous, a Gambler's Anonymous and even a Sexaholics Anonymous. Modern life truly is wonderful.

Perhaps someday there will be a Government Dependency Anonymous, for recovering statists. That really would be wonderful.


There's the old saying about madness being rare in individuals but common among large groups of people. Your excellent editorial brings a new perspective to the subject, and I suppose that addiction is more likely to be treated successfully at the individual level, while at the societal level it is difficult to dissuade a group from its addiction until it has run its course.


I could not agree more with your article on this topic. Being involved in Al-anon and being a long time Libertarian I had come to this understanding myself. Being exposed to libertarian ideas early on saved me from being an obnoxious know it all busy body bent on fixing the world. Occasionally, my insufferably liberal sister sees this also, but sadly her enlightenment is short lived and she quickly reverts to insisting that society must pay for the symphony that she loves but should not pay for a sports stadium that she does not value. My gentle assertion that we should each support what has meaning to us, does not satisfy her fear that things won't turn out just how she wants them to. She does provide me with a good reminder to keep on working the steps. Letting go of the illusion that we can control anything or anyone but ourselves is harder for some of us than others.

It has been interesting to find that many of the most helpful ideas that I have come across in varying areas seem to affirm each other: effective teaching, child development including moral development, economics all have provided overlapping examples. I can't tell you how many times the "recommended reading" at the end of a variety of books that I found particularly helpful have cross referenced each other. And to think we learned it all in Kindergarten, particularly if it was a Montessori one.


Freedom can only exist if we are beings of free-will. To admit that one is powerless over alcohol is to renounce that one is free.

If a person is powerless over alcohol, then that person lacks standing to protest if his neighbor, a judge, or a priest uses force to prevent him or her from using alcohol.

If one turns one's life over to a power greater than oneself (to paraphrase some of the 12 steps), then one renounces freedom. "My life is in the hands of X, Y, or Z," is not libertarian. One cannot choose to be a slave because of the bedrock libertarian principle that one has certain inalienable rights. But under AA, one can never reclaim the power over one's life that AA requires to be turned over because, it teaches, habitual alcohol use ("alcoholim") is forever.

But the higher power is metaphorical, an AA proponent might answer. Unfortunately, as one who has represented individuals subject to coercive rehabilitation in the criminal courts, including in drug courts, I can attest that the higher power which AA espouses cannot be restricted to a mystical one "a God." A very real force (one with jails), preys on those who deny their own free will. And the claim of powerlessness perpetuates the most un-libertarian treatment of suppliers of drugs and alcohol. 15 years for a recidivist seller of $5 rocks? I've had those clients. Tyrannical? Not to one who accepts that a user or a drinker is powerless to resist drugs or alcohol. If you buy the AA/NA premise, then one who supplies the "addict" or "alcoholic" has done something to harm another, which harm the law legitimately may proscribe. Either all humans are powerful enough to choose whether to use or to drink, or someone powerful, not of their choosing, will make the choice for them.

By denying free will, and by relinquishing power over one's life, AA is a regime for those who reject freedom, presumably because they have managed freedom poorly.

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