Race to the Top

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What might it look like if the libertarian vision prevailed over that of the “progressive” Left? If the Democratic Party, and the statist Left in general, is to be repealed and replaced, then something must take its place. Merely repealing it, with no replacement, won’t get rid of it. As long as people believe that it fills a need — no matter how badly it may accomplish that — they will at some point, and in some form, welcome it back.

The Libertarian Party has a platform that answers every Democratic crusade with a superior solution. We really can offer those in poverty the hope that they might enjoy a better life instead of a life sentence in their present condition. Our vision of human rights, based on the understanding that we all derive them not from the circumstances that differ but from the humanity we share, would elevate our status beyond that of pawns on a political chessboard. By concentrating on responsible behavior instead of a phobic obsession with drugs or guns — anything inanimate and utterly harmless unless abused — we can stop banning everything and encourage people to stop abusing one another. When we liberate education from the grip of the teachers’ unions and offer real choice to parents and kids, the lessons in liberty they will learn can turn the tide of human thought toward freedom.

Studies show that of the overall population, about 20% are on the hardcore Right and 20% on the equally hard Left. These people will never be moved. That leaves 60% somewhere in the middle. It is these folks who determine the outcome of elections and other decisions affecting us all. The statist Left survives because a majority of those 60% think it performs a necessary function. They may not all think it does its job well, but they at least tolerate its existence, and endure its idiocies, because they can’t imagine anything taking its place.

Libertarians really can offer those in poverty the hope that they might enjoy a better life instead of a life sentence in their present condition.

Statist leftism and liberalism — the latter being the openness to new discoveries, trust in rationality and belief in individual freedom that has given libertarianism its name — are two different concepts entirely. That mammoth standard-bearer for the Right, Rush Limbaugh, evidently ignorant of the difference, bellows about destroying “liberalism.” That isn’t going to happen, and it wouldn’t be a good thing if it did. Liberalism is as much a part of our Western, Judeo-Christian tradition as conservatism. To speak of lopping off half of our tradition is as foolhardy as it would be to advocate the extraction of half of our chromosomes.

Until we figure out how to make the Left obsolete, we will never repeal and replace the Democratic Party. As long as there are marginalized and discontented people — even though the Democrats are largely responsible for their marginalization and discontentment — the donkeys will never be sent out to pasture. Leftism has always been a powerful influence on the modern Democratic Party, and during the Obama years it tightened its stranglehold. Post-Obama, it has throttled the life out of every moderating philosophy.

There truly is a difference between how libertarians might pursue objectives formerly monopolized by the statist Left and the way “progressives” have done so. If every attempt we might make is blasted by our own side as “capitulation,” we need to recognize the message that will send. It will be an admission that the leftists are correct when they lump us all into the “far Right” and claim that they alone can move society forward. Those who have had it drilled into their heads that without their Democratic champions they’d be friendless and hopeless will be more convinced than ever that they can’t live without the authoritarians who supposedly care more about them than they do about themselves. Our lack of interest in replacing what we want to repeal — and in clearly articulating how we can do it — will be taken as an admission of defeat.

To speak of lopping off half of our tradition is as foolhardy as it would be to advocate the extraction of half of our chromosomes.

A crucial difference between libertarianism and the statist Left is our approach to social problems. Contrary to what our adversaries so often assert, many of us do understand that these problems exist, and we are by no means unconcerned about them. But we believe that problems are to be solved, not used as a basis of political employment. Because they think that if those problems disappeared, they themselves would no longer be needed, “progressives” merely perpetuate them. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty must never be seen to diminish. The strangeness of a political movement that can never take credit for its successes — because it dares not admit that any real progress has been made, yet keeps insisting that progress is direly needed — never occurs to its adherents.

Libertarians will always be needed, because liberty will always need to be defended. Problems are impediments to freedom, unless they are solved. But libertarians have no incentive to perpetuate misery into infinity. People who are free to find solutions to their problems are happy, and not susceptible to “progressive” quackery.

The notion that liberty can only be defended by waging war is now widely shared by Republicans and Democrats. Perhaps the most important contribution a Libertarian challenge to the GOP could make would be an end to perpetual war. We would spread American ideals through peaceful trade. Instead of offering the world death and destruction, we might help it to attain a higher standard of living. What if the terrorists held a recruiting drive and nobody came?

The only political war worth fighting is the war for freedom. Government is the number one perpetrator of violence and the biggest threat to liberty. All it knows how to do is force people to conform to its dictates, so no political party dedicated to increasing its power can defend liberty. The political struggle in our country must include one major combatant that fights for freedom — because even if the Democrats magically vanished overnight, the Republicans would still be authoritarians. The GOP must be substantially and consistently challenged by a rival committed to uncoerced cooperation, based on mutual trust.

Perhaps the most important contribution a Libertarian challenge to the GOP could make would be an end to perpetual war.

We can trust that our fellow human beings are not idiots, and that they truly can govern themselves — even when they’re not like us. Each of the big-league political parties portrays the members of its opponent as vile — almost subhuman. They are comic-book villains: godless commies or gun-crazy deplorables. Political contests have degenerated into races to the bottom. Like manic limbo dancers, each side feels compelled to compete with the other by seeing how low it can go.

As it abandons faith in every principle but force and fraud, the Democratic Party is unraveling. If the Libertarian Party were to reach major-league level, it would bring its principles with it: faith in peaceful persuasion, respect for every individual human being, and optimism about our country’s future. Instead of a race to the bottom, competition between the Libertarians and the Republicans might become a race to the top. The repeal and replacement of the Democratic Party could herald a whole new direction for America.




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Power or Persuasion

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My title may suggest a Jane Austen novel, but I have something totally different in mind. I write about the politics not of amour, but of state. There isn’t much love in our politics, and there probably never has been. But the bigger and more oppressive the government becomes, the smaller the space left in our society for love.

When I speak to fellow libertarians of the Republican and Democratic parties as “major,” and the Libertarian as “minor,” the sparks fly. They’re insulted because they think I’m suggesting that the Libertarian Party is less important. Since that’s not what I mean, I’ve tried to find more accurate terms. The Democrats and the GOP are the parties of power, but the Libertarians are the party of persuasion.

These terms respond to the fact that the two types of political parties have different functions. If we remember what that difference is, we may keep a clearer picture of the goals we can accomplish. Not only that, but we’ll likely spare ourselves a lot of frustration.

The bigger and more oppressive the government becomes, the smaller the space left in our society for love.

Devotees of the power game can’t understand us, because they don’t understand the importance of persuasion. No truly free society can exist without it. If coercion and aggression are everything, then only power matters. People who think like that will always belong to parties of power.

Libertarians are believers in persuasion. We measure our political success not by “winning,” but by convincing. It took me some time to make my peace with that concept, but when people tell me that my candidate has no chance of winning an election, in that condescending tone they always use, it no longer makes me gnash my teeth. I simply measure success by a different yardstick.

Even if we’re not capital-L people, if we are lovers of liberty we are people of persuasion. And a growing segment of the public is being persuaded. We have every reason to hope that the number will continue to grow. Power players will go right on telling us what losers we are because we can never “win.” But the game is changing.

The success of anti-establishment candidates in the power party races has plunged the power players into gloom. They think the voters are having yet another temper tantrum, and are lecturing us all on the unsuitability of the popular favorites. Their argument has morphed, however, from hyperventilation over Trump’s vulgarities and Sanders’ revolutionary fantasies into warnings that they can’t “win.” It’s almost — almost — enough to make me wish that the two surprise contenders would face off in the finals, making it a battle of losers, one of whom would then actually win. It would, at least, confound the morons who’ve mistaken the process of choosing the most powerful executive on earth for a national championship.

If coercion and aggression are everything, then only power matters. People who think like that will always belong to parties of power.

Would it lead them to see how silly the exercise has become? Perhaps it would, for some. For a great many others, it already has. Polls show Libertarian Party presidential frontrunner and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson poised for an historic level of electoral support for that very reason. Johnson won’t win, but he’s changing the game — and persuading.

We need parties of persuasion to exist as civilized people. Politics isn’t going away, whether we like it or not, because for the foreseeable future, despite how much we hate the idea, government is here to stay. And power politics will exist as long as there is big and intrusive government. The twin Goliaths care about nothing but power, having long ago abandoned most pretenses of caring about persuasion. That’s where the Davids come in, and it’s why we’re necessary.

Even when they win, power-game voters almost never get what they want. They are merely being used as a means of keeping the Goliaths in charge. And this time, until the next time, once they have served their purpose they will be discarded and disregarded. If we explain this to them, some of them just may stop telling us what losers we are and begin to consider voting for more libertarian options.

The primary concept to get through to them, though, is the difference between power and persuasion. Which function do they want politics to serve? That is the decision that determines not only their own choices but the direction our country will take.




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Apocalypto-World

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Opponents of libertarianism often make its adherents sound deadly dangerous. They speak as if, at any minute, libertarians might seize absolute power, changing life as we know it in cataclysmic ways and at supersonic speed. Dire warnings are issued of the apocalypto-world, Mad Max society we would create. The poor would starve in the streets, children would wither from lack of nurture, rabid dogs would tear us to bits, people would be perpetually naked and stoned and copulating in public and nobody would even care. Where the hell does this stuff come from?

It comes equally from the statist left and the statist right, from everyone who buys into the notion that if government doesn’t do absolutely everything, absolutely nothing will get done. The fact that for the vast majority of human history, government didn’t do most of the things it does right now is entirely forgotten.

Some libertarians contribute to this by talking as if we could, or should, make dramatic transformations simultaneously and in the blink of an eye. But of course, any change we influenced could only happen gradually. And once implemented, every step would also need to succeed very rapidly, or it would be even more rapidly reversed.

The fact that for the vast majority of human history, government didn’t do most of the things it does right now is entirely forgotten.

If a full libertarian agenda were enacted all at once, we would be in trouble. Our society has become so corrupted, degraded, and infantilized that we probably wouldn’t be able to deal with it. We have, indeed, come to depend on government to do everything for us except think. And government wantsto do that for us, too. But in order for a nation with limited government and a reliance on personal responsibility to survive, people must once again be willing to do for themselves all that countless generations did far better than government ever could.

The process wouldn’t be like that of children growing up. It would be like that of adults who, having suffered debilitating brain injuries, must be rehabilitated to full functionality. The difference is that we have suffered injuries not so much to our brains as to our spirits.

It isn’t the nature of libertarians to rule over everybody and everything. If we did that, we would no longer be libertarians. The most we really can do is exert an influence. If that influence is great, it will open a wider space for experimentation, to verify what works and what doesn’t. The best ideas, once proven, don’t need to be forced.

Most libertarians actually know that our agenda could never be enacted all at once, nor do we all agree about what the agenda should be. I wish we did a better job of assuring people that we can’t flip a switch, wave a wand, or cast spells with a wiggle of our nose, like Samantha on Bewitched. A libertarian transformation of society could indeed be enacted only over a long period of time. People opposed to it would have to fight it, be won over, and — perhaps hardest of all — get used to it.

Government does everything it can to discourage us from taking care of one another.

Behind the fear of a libertarian nose-wiggle is the notion that if government doesn’t force people to do good things, they simply won’t do them; that when they’re not being bullied by thugs with a license to kill, human beings are incapable of responsible behavior. According to this view, we are toddlers who will need Mommy, Daddy, Nanny, and Teacher all our lives.

I beg to differ. We are perfectly capable of cooperating peaceably with one another, engaging in trade, and caring for those who need our help. Government of some sort will always be necessary to protect us from force and fraud, but when it attempts to do anything beyond that it inevitably becomes a nuisance, and generally something worse than a nuisance. Then it does more harm than good. Though we’re always being told that government makes us virtuous, what it actually does is degrade us morally. Its constant warnings of our irresponsibility, infantilism, and decadence become self-fulfilling prophecies. Government does everything it can to discourage us from taking care of one another. It breaks us of the habit of spending on behalf of our families and communities by taking our money and spending it for us — often on things we don’t want. It tells us, again and again and again, that we can’t take care of ourselves or each other, that we’re too stupid to know what’s best and that we can’t run our own lives until we begin to believe what it says.

Increasingly, however, instead of helping us to do good things for each other, government is actually keeping us from doing them. Thus municipalities levy fines against churches for feeding the homeless, or for taking them in, to save them from freezing. Law-abiding citizens are now prohibited, in many areas, from defending themselves or their families against violent criminals. The police themselves are rapidly becoming militarized, devoting nearly as much time to preying upon the innocent as they do to protecting them.

It is no longer possible for statists to conceal the emptiness of their claim to be keeping us safer or making us better. In fact, they barely bother trying to hide their intent to control us. In pushing their authority, they are in-our-faces brazen.

The people who actually do the work in this country are merely expected to foot the bill. We have little, if any, say over how the money bled from us is spent. Yet nothing gets my “progressive” friends more apoplectic than my claim that we should be the ones to determine where our money goes. They splutter that it should be spent on behalf of “social justice.” As if that’s what’s happening now.

The common, working American is presumed to be too selfish to use his or her money to help care for those less fortunate. As in imperial Rome, the state has been deified. It is credited with powers of divine benevolence and entrusted with the duties of upholding every worthy cause and providing for our every need.

Big government is expensive. It will inevitably belong to those who can afford to buy or bribe it. This stark reality, which should be obvious even to simpletons, somehow eludes the statist Left.

People built and sustained communities for thousands of years before government decided it had to do that for us. Systematically, the leviathan state has destroyed community. It wants to plan how we live, where we live, and with whom we live. But true community is the nexus between the individual and the larger society, and to function in ways that contribute to human happiness, it must equitably serve the needs of both. That which crushes the individual for the supposed sake of society — micro-managing people so they’ll be good little cogs in the social machine — really serves neither.

Those in other countries who pose a danger to us are often protected and enabled by our own government. Most of the weaponry with which they attack us was manufactured by us. If protecting our own people ever became a greater priority than milking money from us to fund our enemies, the great majority of those who pose a genuine menace to us would be disarmed. If we had more control over how our money is spent, we would certainly spend it on ourselves — and each other — instead of on them.

I suspect that what the powers-that-be actually fear is that we might use our time, talent, and treasure for our own good, and for that of our fellow human beings. That would explain the millions of dollars they’re pumping into the corporate media to warn us how dangerous and irresponsible we are. A hell of a lot of capital is being invested in telling us to trust our self-proclaimed (and handsomely-funded) betters, instead of trusting ourselves and each other.

Big government is expensive. It will inevitably belong to those who can afford to buy or bribe it.

If we truly got the chance, once again, to work together unimpeded by government restraint, we could put to constructive use all that progressivism genuinely has to teach us. Would some use their freedom to do things of which others disapprove, and that would, perhaps, even be self-destructive? Of course they would. But those who did so would lack the government-backed brawn to force themselves on all the rest of us, or to dump the consequences of their irresponsibility on us.

The nervous nellies can relax. Libertarians have great confidence that our way is the best way. And we have reason to hope that someday, even many of the most dogged skeptics will come to realize it, too.

Those opposed to our ideas seem very much afraid that our influence could succeed. They don’t dare to even let us think so. But a world in which statist control freaks don’t rule over everyone else would be an apocalypse only for them.




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The Ghost of Elections Yet to Come

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On February 11 a mayoral election took place in my town, San Diego. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and on reflection, I believe it has considerable significance for the nation as a whole. It was a test of current Democratic electoral strategy, and of what may become Republican electoral strategy, if the Republicans are canny enough to adopt it.

The contestants were David Alvarez, Democrat, and Kevin Faulconer, Republican, both city councilmen. They were running to succeed disgraced Mayor Robert (“Bob”) Filner. Filner had been thrown out of office because of serious — though, in my view, overstated — charges of sexual misconduct. Other charges, even more serious, involved political bullying and bribery. These latter charges, unfortunately, have not been so closely considered, given the overwhelming emphasis that our society places on sex in all its forms. Both the sex charges and the political charges were important to Faulconer, who was a leader in the drive to oust Bob Filner. As for Alvarez, he was a Filner confidant who turned against him. In other, less kindly, and perhaps less objective words, Alvarez was a Filner flunky who stabbed him in the back.

Both Filner and Alvarez regarded themselves as Progressives. Both emphasized leftist political programs and played strongly to hardcore ethnic sentiments — Mexican-American and Mexican nationalist. Alvarez ran an ethnically oriented mayoral campaign with a borrow-and-spend platform to attract disciples of “growth,” “jobs,” “planning,” and share-the-wealth. Most importantly, however, he was the inheritor of Filner’s mantle as labor-union apparatchik.

A few years ago, San Diego, like many other California cities, was on the verge of bankruptcy because of the insanely favorable deals that city officials had made with city workers. Now the place is sort of back on its feet, but the unions remain as greedy as ever. Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions. It was an instance of the employees trying to take over the company — except that in this case, the company has the power to make everyone pay for whatever the employees do.

Faulconer’s supposed liability was that he (like all other Republicans, according to the common mythology) was the candidate of rich people. Yet the donations of the rich were only a minority of his campaign fund, which, as I mentioned, was much smaller than that of Alvarez, the friend of the poor and excluded. It was also charged that Faulconer was the candidate of white old men. This wasn’t said in so many words, but it was conveyed in the usual campaign style and with the usual so-called reporting on the usual so-called public opinion polls. When Alvarez seemed, in late polling, to be narrowing the gap with his opponent, it was said in the local media that Faulconer’s fate depended entirely on the willingness of white old men to totter to the voting booth.

Alvarez ran with about 20% more money than "the candidate of rich people," Faulconer, and about 80% of Alvarez’ money came from government employee unions.

Now, Alvarez is only 33 years old, and the Faulconer people made a huge and really silly issue out of his youth and inexperience. Faulconer himself is only 47 — fairly young for a successful politician. Both are reasonably personable. Neither has skeletons in the closet. So far, there’s a rough equality. But what about political customs and allegiances? Like much of the rest of the country, San Diego has a long history of moderate Republicanism. Still, in 2012 Obama won 61% of the city’s votes. Obama endorsed Alvarez; and the Democratic labor unions, both local and national, paid for an immense get-out-the-vote drive. For weeks before the election, people with Spanish surnames and people in left-leaning parts of the city, such as mine, were deluged with propaganda. The calls and mailings came at them from both sides, but it was representatives of Alvarez who came and knocked on their doors, sometimes returning three or four times. On election day I could hear, all afternoon, young men with big voices pounding on the doors of people with Spanish surnames and calling them out to vote. Feeling the muscle of their organization, the Alvarez people became confident of victory.

Then, on election night, their hopes were ended. Alvarez got about 45% of the vote, and his Republican opponent got about 55%. It’s possible to say that the turnout was a few percentage points higher in the Faulconer districts than in the Alvarez districts, but there were exceptions both ways. Republicans are usually more certain to vote than Democrats, despite all the get-out-the-vote efforts on the other side — but not always. As for rich people, the latest polls had shown only a 1% advantage for Faulconer among the well-off. Several wealthy districts went for Alvarez or almost did. As Bill Bradford used to say, “Wealth is liberal.”

So what are the lessons for America as a whole? They are all probable, not definite, but there is some clarity here.

  1. Obama is a detriment, if anything, to Democrats’ campaigns.
  2. Get-out-the-vote has been badly overrated.
  3. Ethnicity has been badly overrated.
  4. As professional pollsters know, though seldom say, Democratic voters often exaggerate their commitment to vote, and other voters often tell people on the phone that they are planning to vote for someone of minority ethnicity, just to sound nice.
  5. The identification of Republicans with “a dwindling number of old white men” is silly.
  6. Unions continue their furious slide downhill.
  7. A Republican campaign that focuses not on “issues” but on “the work to be done” is likely to succeed. This “work” is not “restoring a sense of community” or “addressing income inequality” or “valuing education” but actual stuff you can see getting done, like synchronizing the traffic lights, getting the bums out of the library restrooms, or lowering the tax rate.

San Diego has always been a socially liberal town, informal and discretely religious. Its social liberalism is balanced by the strong social conservatism of its large military population. But these isms are apples and oranges — social liberals in one sense can be social conservatives in another. I often say that San Diego is as far west as the Midwest gets. In that sense, it is a reflection of America.

Faulconer’s campaign was about financing and maintaining a basic San Diego — fixing the roads, paying the bills, and not paying anybody extra just because he’s union labor. It was not about moral or metaphysical issues — gay marriage, abortion, income inequality, whatever. Alvarez probably wished that it had been about those things. His own campaign persistently assumed that all gay people and Mexican American people and female people and workin’ people are or ought to be Progressive Democrats who favor spending money that you don’t have and making social promises that you can’t keep. It additionally assumed that all Republicans are old male white homophobes, and have a moral screw loose, being opposed both to “diversity” and to “unity.” These demographic assumptions now appear not to be true or electorally useful, and why should anybody have thought that they were?

I imagine that if the Republicans can talk about paying bills and fixing roads, they can show that those assumptions aren’t any truer about America as a whole than they were about San Diego. Do I think that talk of this kind is the be-all and end-all of politics? I do not. But I’d rather have the bills paid and the roads fixed than see another Obama elected.

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Logic and Liberty

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A key instrument of political persuasion is the logical argument. Advocates of every ideology back their ethical and political beliefs with arguments based on premises that reflect their fundamental views of the nature of reality and the nature of man.

Libertarians promote freedom-oriented values using closely reasoned arguments based on widely accepted social and ethical norms. Yet few people newly exposed to such arguments become libertarians. Why is this the case? Is it moral failure on the part of the listeners, failure such as envy or the desire for the unearned? Is it a refusal to accept rational arguments, putting faith or feelings above reason? Is it peer pressure, favoring the traditional and conventional?

Or is it something else entirely, something we’ve missed?

To understand why communicating the value of libertarian principles is often so difficult, we need to reexamine the nature of logical argumentation and the role it plays in political and ethical debate. Classical or Aristotelian logic is a powerful tool for grasping and organizing concepts and defining their relationships to one another and to reality. But decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas. Indeed, when used improperly or in an inappropriate setting, it often achieves the opposite of its intended result.

Decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas.

A widely held belief among libertarians is that, aside from direct perception, the primary way that people acquire knowledge or beliefs is by using their rational faculties, employing either classical logic or mental processes that are reducible to classical logic. This is not true; and even if it were, the use of logic alone would not be an efficient means of promoting a libertarian worldview. Here are several reasons why.

When dealing with concepts, people construct mental models of these concepts. These models are mental images representing typical examples of the concepts under discussion, based on previous encounters with instances of them. For example, when one is presented with the concept “bird,” the image that comes to mind is likely a “generic” bird such as a robin or a sparrow, rather than a less typical bird such as a penguin or an ostrich.

Once an image has become associated with a specific concept in an individual’s mind, that image becomes the standard by which he or she judges any instances of that concept encountered at a later time. When presented with a logical statement — for example, “if A, therefore B” — a person will evaluate not only whether the statement makes logical sense, but also how well “A” and “B” match his or her mental images. If two or more competing arguments are presented, people usually accept the one most strongly in accord with their preexisting images.

This leads to difficulties in the realm of political discourse. Taking an example from the libertarian playbook, consider the following syllogism: “Taxation is theft. Theft is morally wrong. Therefore, taxation is morally wrong.”

As libertarian arguments go, this one is relatively straightforward, easy to explain and understand. However, a listener’s response to this syllogism and its embedded concepts will be heavily influenced by the images that these concepts generate in his or her mind. For a non-libertarian listener, the word “theft” is likely to conjure up the image of a conventional criminal rather than a tax collector.

By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought.

Since the argument presented by the libertarian conforms to the rules of logic, the listener will evaluate the validity of the argument based upon the degree to which the image of “tax collector” corresponds to the image of “thief” in the listener’s mind. If the listener’s mental images for “thief” and “tax collector” are too far apart, the listener may conclude that the libertarian is attempting to stretch the definition of the word “theft” beyond its appropriate boundaries, and as a consequence may reject the argument entirely.

This is more than a trivial issue regarding the effectiveness of libertarian outreach. Mental images can be much more influential than logical arguments in shaping and maintaining a society’s character, laws, and customs. The history and political culture of the United States at present provide a case in point.

For many Americans in the revolutionary era, the exemplar of a person fully entitled to liberty was a white male, preferably a landowner and farmer. Native Americans, African-Americans, and women were seen as inferior in various respects when compared to this idealized image, and thus not entitled to enjoy the same rights as white males. These images or mental models were widespread in colonial and revolutionary America, reflected in policies such as expulsion of Native Americans, enslavement of African-Americans, limitations on women’s (especially married women’s) property rights, and exclusion of all three groups from meaningful participation in the political process. The pervasiveness of these mental images partially explains how so many white landowners were able, in their own minds, to justify owning slaves while simultaneously fighting a revolution based on “inalienable” human rights.

Political and cultural images are no less powerful today. Most of them (though not all) help to sustain the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of government intrusion into all aspects of a supposedly “free” society, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Statist politicians take full advantage of these images to bypass rational debate as they advance their agendas. Virtually all political advertising in the mainstream media attempts to influence voters by appealing to their established mental images in order to manipulate their emotions.Experience has shown that such advertising is effective. By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought; if it could, libertarians would have won the ideological battle long ago.

People assign measurement parameters to qualitative concepts, based on how well particular instances of these concepts match their mental images. The relationship between concepts and measurement is a tricky one. Many concepts, such as height, require some form of measurement when applied to a concrete example. Concepts that are more abstract, such as motivation, can be given descriptive forms of measurement (“highly motivated”, “barely motivated”), allowing specific instances to be compared to one another. Finally, there are concepts, such as “bird,” that apply to a specific set of entities and appear to be purely qualitative and not subject to measurement — either a particular entity is a bird, or it isn’t.

But people apply measurement parameters to qualitative concepts also, in terms of the degree to which a specific example matches a person’s mental image. A penguin may have all the formal characteristics of a bird and yet be too different from a “typical” bird to be considered a full member of the “set” of birds. Faced with this conundrum, people often give only partial or qualified recognition to a penguin’s status as a bird (“a penguin is sort of a bird”).

When qualitative concepts such as “bird” are assigned a measurement component, their inclusion in logical statements becomes problematic. If this type of concept is used in the premise of a syllogism, the measurement component will also carry over into its conclusion, and in some cases will diminish the perceived validity of the entire argument.

Revisiting our previous example of taxation as a form of theft, a non-libertarian is likely to assign the concept “tax collector” only partial membership in the set of conceptual entities denoted by the word “thief.” Depending on the listener’s perspective, the concept “tax collector” will correspond to the concept “thief” anywhere from 100% (if the listener is a hardcore libertarian) to 0% (if the listener is a hardcore socialist who does not recognize any right to private property). Most people will estimate the percentage as somewhere in between, depending upon the degree of legitimacy that each person assigns to the concept of taxation and how reasonable the person considers a tax rate to be. The extent to which a person believes that a tax collector is a thief is the extent to which that person will agree with the libertarian’s position regarding the morality of taxation. Only rarely will such agreement be total.

The higher the level of abstraction, the more widely a population’s mental models of a concept will vary. Higher-level concepts are derived from multiple lower-level concepts. The same holds true for mental images. Each lower-level image varies from person to person, increasing the overall variation in a population’s higher-level mental images. As an analogy, consider a contest among several chefs preparing a meal from the same recipe. The recipe itself is identical for all chefs, but each chef’s interpretation of that recipe will make each final product unique. The more complex the recipe — the more ingredients used and the more steps required in the meal’s preparation — the greater will be the variation in the resulting dishes.

Propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public.

Variation among high-level images greatly increases the difficulty faced by libertarians seeking to change people’s minds through the use of logic. Most concepts relating to libertarian principles and values — concepts such as justice, morality, property, and individualism — involve high levels of abstraction. But the more abstract the concepts employed in a libertarian’s argument, the less likely is the listener to share the libertarian’s interpretation of those concepts. To convince people to adopt a libertarian view of high-level abstractions such as justice, one must also convince them to revise their mental models of the lower-level concepts that give rise tothese high-level abstractions. Often this can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of a non-libertarian’s core values. Logical arguments, no matter how elegantly structured, are not sufficient by themselves to accomplish this task.

Because of evolutionary pressures, people are “hardwired” to resist change, an attribute that logic alone cannot overcome. In his recently published book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo identifies a widespread human trait — one that helps explain why it is so difficult for libertarians to be successful in challenging the political status quo. He writes: “The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival — which is, in effect, our survival.”

This universal human tendency — developed in a much more dangerous world to cope with ambiguous threats, and now part of our evolutionary heritage — raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the methods we use to advance our political philosophy. In employing an “educational” strategy using logical argumentation, we are constantly outmaneuvered by the hardwiring of the human brain that craves “stability, certainty, and consistency.” Our political agenda is not an obvious fit in any of these three categories. However, most libertarians do not recognize this as a serious problem, and ignore or downplay voters’ concerns regarding stability, certainty, and consistency, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the advantages of liberty and less intrusive government.

In doing so we make it difficult to gain adherents, because we are urging people to take a leap into the unknown and untried — at least in their experience. The prospect of instability triggers a perception of heightened risk and uncertainty in listeners’ minds. Most people are risk-averse, especially in matters concerning their own survival, their livelihood, and the wellbeing of their families. In times of crisis such as now, they gravitate toward solutions that promise stability, and shun proposals that are fraught with uncertainty, even if such proposals promise a greater level of individual freedom.

Given these reasons why logic alone cannot convince most people to adopt a libertarian philosophy, it might appear that our most potent weapon in the battle for liberty is inadequate to the task. But each of the limitations described above can be overcome by employing logic carefully and in combination with other means of persuasion. Here are a few suggestions in this regard.

If two words or phrases mean substantially the same thing, choose the one that is most likely to evoke the desired mental image in the listener’s mind. For example, defenders of economic liberty often use the terms “capitalism” and “free market” interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the two concepts are nearly identical in meaning. But to the general public, the word “capitalism” evokes a multitude of unfavorable associations and images that do not arise when the term “free market” is used.

For many people, “capitalism” conjures up images of politically connected financial institutions receiving government favors; multinational corporations “outsourcing” American jobs to cheaper and less regulated labor markets abroad; giant retailers crushing helpless smaller competitors; exploitation of conscientious workers by uncaring employers; and the awarding of multi-billion-dollar bonuses to rich Wall Street executives.

Although most of these undesirable events result from massive government interference in the economy, the public at large perceives them as failures of capitalism. This happens because of the pervasive influence of the media and the public education system, both of which are overwhelmingly friendly to “activist” government and hostile to business.

However, propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public, and “free market” is familiar to many people as shorthand for a system of voluntary exchange. While “capitalism” can readily be personified and caricatured (“evil capitalist,” “plutocrat,” “exploiter,” “monopolist”), the term “free market” does not lend itself to such verbal distortion — we never hear statists castigating “evil free marketers.”

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy.

When we promote our ethical and political principles through the use of logic, we are evoking people’s mental images as we attempt to appeal to their rational faculties. Our arguments can be much more persuasive if we strive to use words and phrases that evoke the most favorable images and associations in their minds. In this instance, promoting the “free market” rather than defending “capitalism” is more likely to achieve this goal.

Avoid the use of higher-level concepts when lower-level ones will address the issue at hand. For example, in casual conversation with non-philosophers, it is usually not helpful or appropriate to invoke natural rights theory, Austrian economics, or high-level abstractions such as individualism when discussing issues such as Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Most listeners will more readily connect with everyday libertarian talking points about freedom of choice and the unfairness of income redistribution.

Demonstrate that our policy proposals promote “stability, certainty, and consistency.” This means toning down the language of “radical upheaval” in favor of the language of “sensible reform.” As noted earlier, most voters are risk-averse when faced with the prospect of major changes in the social or political landscape. Such voters will be more receptive to arguments promoting a libertarian agenda if these arguments are presented in a manner that is reassuring rather than unsettling.

When proposing policies based on libertarian principles, avoid the temptation to insist that such policies be applied in every case. Although principles are not contextual, policies are. For most policies there are exceptional circumstances, such as “lifeboat” situations, that make it appropriate to modify them temporarily, or waive them. If we treat our political principles as axioms and our policy prescriptions as moral absolutes, our arguments become fragile; any real or perceived exceptions will weaken such arguments in the minds of listeners.

In libertarian circles, an unfortunate but common example of this phenomenon is misuse of the non-initiation-of-force principle (really a policy prescription rather than a principle), which states that no one may initiate force against another person. This policy is appropriate in most adult-to-adult interactions. However, in other contexts exceptions come readily to mind, such as dealings with children or persons afflicted with severe mental problems.

If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy. We can more effectively promote our principles, and receive a more respectful hearing from a non-libertarian audience, if we do not overstate our case by insisting that our ideas be put into practice regardless of any circumstances that may arise. Libertarian proposals for public policy are aimed at maintaining or defending values, and can legitimately be overridden when higher or more fundamental values are at stake.

Ultimately, our success in promoting a libertarian worldview depends not only on presenting well-reasoned logical arguments, but also on making sure that we employ language and concepts that are appropriate to the particular issue and the particular audience we are addressing. Putting in this extra effort can go a long way toward making libertarianism accessible and attractive to those we seek to reach.




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The New Landscape of Libertarianism

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New York magazine published an article called “The Trouble With Liberty” in its January 3–10, 2011 issue. I was intrigued by a line on the magazine’s cover. It asked, “Are we all libertarians now?” And what I found in the essay was very interesting.

The author, Christopher Beam, presents a brief yet wide history of libertarianism, ranging from Ron and Rand Paul and Paul Ryan to David Boaz to Ayn Rand and Friedrich Hayek. Beam explains that libertarianism has elements from both the Right and the Left and does not fit easily into either mode, and he outlines the various attempts to promote a libertarian country — from those that would enlist the Republican Party or the Libertarian Party, to Brink Lindsey’s Liberaltarianism, to the Free State Project and the Seasteading Institute.

Beam pegs libertarians as crazy old uncles or Dungeons & Dragons players, but his history of libertarianism is quite complimentary. He says that the Founding Fathers and the Constitution were actually more libertarian than anything else. The gist of the essay is that with the Tea Party movement and the rise of Rand Paul and Paul Ryan, libertarianism is on the rise and our moment has come.

But halfway through, Mr. Beam changes his tone and gets to the heart of his essay, which is a critique of libertarianism and an explanation of why he thinks it is a bad policy for the United States. His arguments aren’t theoretically sophisticated and are designed to appeal to a mass audience: if there are poor people, and charity can’t provide for them, then we need welfare or else they will steal from us; we need public education in case the free market can’t educate everyone; we need a central bank in order to print a uniform currency. He mentions “asymmetrical information” and “public goods,” and argues that if the bailout had not happened then innocent investors and homeowners who innocently misunderstood the riskiness of their loans would have been punished. “There’s always a tension between freedom and fairness,” he says, and we libertarians “pretend the tension doesn’t exist.”

We must shift the alignment of America’s political discourse so that socialism no longer sounds like common sense, and our proposals seem like the new common sense.

Libertarianism can never succeed, he claims, because politicians must compromise and libertarians refuse to compromise or cooperate. One of the overarching criticisms in the essay, and perhaps its most obnoxious, is the subtle implication that libertarians have such a hard time accomplishing real change because we know that our theories are mere impractical abstractions unsuitable for pragmatic flesh-and-blood reality, so we would be revealed as idiots if we ever achieved political power.

The refutations of Beam’s arguments are so obvious that I need not detail them. What is more significant is the mere existence of his essay. It is, in my opinion, one of the early post-Tea Party attempts by the Left to come up with an ideological response to people with open minds from taking libertarianism seriously. I strongly doubt that libertarianism has reached the peak of its popularity, but what this essay signals to me is that people who ten or twenty years ago might never have known what libertarianism is are now hearing the word “libertarianism” and asking what it means. Beam provides a leftist answer to that question. But he also cites surveys showing that more people now define themselves as libertarians than ever before, and that this poses a threat to the liberal-conservative establishment.

If the Tea Party phenomenon grows and Rand Paul’s career continues, we should expect to see many more such essays. I think that they will all follow Beam’s pattern. “The Trouble With Liberty” shows what two challenges we must overcome in order to be taken seriously.

First, there is something, call it “common sense” or the “social imagination” or whatever, but there is a set of simple political ideas that, whether true or false, permeates a culture. We need to introduce arguments into the American intellectual culture to refute the “common sense” arguments for statism, such as the argument that we need a welfare state to rescue the poor. We must shift the alignment of America’s political discourse so that socialism no longer sounds like common sense, and our proposals, which Beam skewers as extremist, seem like the new common sense. This is similar to what Glenn Beck claims the socialists did to us with the Overton Window – shifting cultural common sense by gradually introducing extreme ideas until they become mainstream  — but it works in reverse.

Second, we must prove that libertarianism can work in practice as well as in theory, and we must call upon our libertarian politicians to show the American people that it is possible to have noble ideals while still being pragmatic and getting things done. In my opinion the danger is not that Rand Paul and Paul Ryan will make too many compromises; it is the opposite: they will be too idealistic and take an all-or-nothing approach to change, and thus will be unable to work with their Republican colleagues. In that way, they will confirm the fears that Beam would like to promote.

“Libertarianism is still considered the crazy uncle of American politics,” Beam writes. It is only natural for the liberal-conservative establishment to oppose us by laughing at us so loudly that nobody will take us seriously. That is, after all, right out of Ellsworth Toohey’s playbook. The question is how we will respond to the laughter — by behaving like weird extremists and impractical idealists, or by showing that we deserve to be taken seriously and that our abstract theories really will work in practical reality.




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