Libertarians are notoriously poor communicators, ranting in a manner guaranteed to appeal only to others born with a libertarian nature (a minority), not to the bulk of normal people (well-meaning college-educated moderately well-informed adult, e.g. your typical listener of National Public Radio). We need to reframe our arguments, and our thinking, for the invisible NPR listener in the room. by Simplulo
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Having spent most of my adult life outside the US, in Russia and Germany, I have not had the pleasure of much direct contact with other libertarians, certainly not in large gatherings. That came when I moved to New Hampshire with the Free State Project. Besides the FSP's two large annual events, the winter New Hampshire Liberty Forum and the summer Porcupine Freedom Festival(PorcFest), each with hundreds of participants, numerous weekly and monthly gatherings in towns across New Hampshire attract from 5 to 50 people. After many hours of listening to these people rant to each other, a pattern begins to emerge. Libertarians are notoriously poor communicators (which is why The Advocates exist), but they rant in a manner guaranteed to appeal only to others born with a libertarian nature (a minority), not to the bulk of normal people. By "normal" I have in mind a vague sort of well-meaning college-educated moderately well-informed adult, e.g. your typical listener of National Public Radio. Most of my friends are such people, and they would be appalled by the things libertarians say. We need to reframe our arguments, and our thinking, for the invisible NPR listener in the room. I have noticed five common emotional, theoretical, and factual errors:
1. Mischaracterizing the opposition--There are two types of statists, based on how they want to use the state: those who want to employ it to help others, or at least for the common good, and those who want to exploit it to for their own selfish interests (dominators, predators, and parasites). Call them good statists and bad statists (actually misguided statists and evil statists). Libertarians overwhelmingly assume that the opposition consists of bad statists. In my experience, there are many more good statists, and it is they who have to be convinced. For example, white NPR listeners overwhelmingly believe that government schools are a positive thing, especially for minorities and disadvantaged children. (I, a passing mulatto, have a hard time convincing a black friend that whites really believe this, as she firmly believes that government schools are a white plot to keep blacks down and maintain a pool of cheap labor.)
2. Arguing from selfishness, not compassion--An unsophisticated statist might not understand much theory, but he does understand that the typical guns 'n' taxes right-libertarian is looking out for himself, not others. Superficially, and ironically, this puts the libertarian in the same category as a bad statist. It does seem rather suspicious when a libertarian preaches the Non-Aggression Principle and then gleefully talks about justifiably using his guns in self-defense against a well-meaning tax collector. This appeals to a relatively small minority of people.
Libertarians should frame their arguments in terms of what is in it for the poor and disadvantaged, especially by showing the perverse unintended consequences of paternalism and social democracy. For example, high taxes that are seemingly paid by the rich are actually paid partially by the poor, as the rich pass them on as higher prices (this is called tax incidence, as opposed to tax burden). Regulations and licensing that supposedly protect unsophisticated consumers actually exclude simple people from entering an industry and lowering prices for the poor. Drug laws that supposedly keep drugs out of children's hands actually create violent black markets that seduce poor people into trafficking and make drugs available to children. Government schools that supposedly provide universal education actually deny poor parents choice, while providing a lousy education at exorbitant costs. Just about any libertarian issue can be framed in terms of compassion.
3. Ignoring theoretical weak spots--Libertarians are a bit too confident of their monopoly on justice, deriving it from first principles. Unfortunately, there are some very real flaws and counter-arguments. For example, without coercion, social public goods (e.g. homes for orphans and invalids) face the twin problems of under-provision and free-riders. Whatever one considers the "optimal" level of contribution, people will contribute less if not pushed, e.g. taxed or cleverly persuaded. When libertarians casually dismiss this with a wave of their hands, saying, "Charity will take care of everything," normal people do not share their faith, and suspect their motives. (Ironically, NPR is supported by voluntary contributions, but its listeners and journalists believe in coercion.)
One rarely hears libertarians acknowledge counter-arguments, let alone express them seriously, but an excellent collection can be found at the Critiques of Libertarianism web site and its blog. Instead of preaching to the choir and beating up statist straw men, libertarians would be advised to train against the best that the enemy has got.
4. Confusing libertarian theory--Libertarians arrive at their ideology via different paths, and are often operating with gaps in their knowledge of the theory. Probably the most common path is emotional: most libertarians are born with an instinctive aversion to authority. They thus often oppose government action even when the free market would do the same. If a government were to post a warning sign in front of a cliff, libertarians would walk off it. At PorcFest I heard two people rant vigorously on stage about driver's licenses, but in an anarchist society, a freeway owner would certainly require a driver's license from his customers, who are all operating machines that in the US kill over forty thousand people each year, a significant threat. When libertarians rail against driver's licenses, normal people rightly dismiss them as insane. Admittedly, Americans are unusually confused about driver's licenses, which in the US serve as a vehicle operation permit, rite of passage, and personal identification.
Another theoretical confusion comes from a lack of appreciation for freedom of association. Individuals have the right to associate and enter into contracts limiting their freedoms, e.g. living in a community without nudity, profanity, or guns. Libertarians might not like rules, but local laws against these things would not disappear in an anarchist society. They are just, given the existence of a reasonably free market in communities, e.g. they should be small and stable, with easy exit.
5. Exaggerating conspiracies and doomsday scenarios--Libertarians have no monopoly here, but the profusion of other conspiracies (e.g. doubting records of Bush's service or Obama's birth) does not make ours sound any less loony. We lecture on government's inherent incompetence, and then in the next breath warn of government conspiracies such as the Amero, brain-washing government schools, shadowy political puppet masters, 9/11 truth, and now (I heard this twice at PorcFest) the BP oil spill. The Amero is especially amusing: in a North American currency union, who would dominate, and who should worry? (Hint: the US has a population of 307 million, Mexico 106 million, and Canada 33 million.)
Doom-mongers compete to predict the direst scenarios and recommend the most extravagant preparations for the coming Mad Max post-apocalypse world. With nary a nod to past "The End Is Near" fizzles like Y2K or Paul Ehrlich's 1968 The Population Bomb, libertarian doom-mongers exhort me to buy gold and stock a year's worth of food and ammunition. With what historical precedent do they predict a "collapse"? Rome did not fall in a day. Libertarian doom-mongers sound as suspiciously religious and self-serving as their left and right counterparts (environmentalists and end-timers.)
When libertarians gather, they understandably want to let their hair down, but if they want to win this ideological war they had best maintain their readiness for battle. In particular, this means keeping the moral high ground, employing more-compassionate-than-thou tactics, and neither underestimating nor demonizing the enemy.
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Excellent points. A good question to ask myself as a libertarian is: What do I want here? To encourage as many other people as possible to consider the benefits of libertarianism, or to browbeat them into submission and "win" the argument?
I find a couple other styles helpful as well.
Switch the players in theoretical situations. Instead of suggesting that "You should not have the right to trump a voluntary contract between me and someone else", try "I shouldn't have the right to override your contract". I find that this helps the listener understand that I accept non-aggression towards them as a given. It translates as a show of respect to the other free person in the conversation. I listen better when I'm shown some respect. I imagine they do too.
Ask questions rather than making statements. A Socratic style can often shift a participant from defending an attack to considering a question. If I make an attack, "Government workers are all just lazy bureaucrats", the other person often immediately starts to try to find examples to prove me wrong and "win". If I ask questions like, "What incentives are built into government solutions versus private solutions? Are there many reasons for that employee not to coast once he knows he can't lose his job?" Let your partner in the argument do some of the work too.
Start with the low-hanging fruit. When talking to a person who has not heard much about libertarianism, I don't start with the furthest theoretical possibility. Sure, private fire response and private roads are defendable. But how often do you find yourself convinced by an advocate who demands that everyone needs to move immediately to a completely vegan diet for health, versus someone who suggests that a vegetable or two every once in a while but help people feel better and live healthier.
Government has legitimate functions. Okay, this one won't be so popular for anarcho-capitalists and others, but for minarchists like me, it can go a long way to communicate that I accept government's role in defending rights. I find discussions about which tool (government versus markets) is best for which purpose to be very fruitful.
Ah, the irony of a non-aggression advocate using a martial analogy: Do we want to win the battle if it loses the war?
Posted By: Jahfre Fire Eater
Date: July 17, 2010 01:32:35 PM
Everyone has their own unique combination of motivations, filters, strength, weaknesses and resources; including their time. The nature of that "set" changes very slowly. One must pay deliberate attention to the nature of the change in order for it to be an improvement rather than an erosion of effectiveness towards one's goals. With that in mind, I have a few critiques of my own regarding specific points in your article but overall I agree with your analysis and I think this was well written and well thought. So, here goes with my comments:
1. The sub title: "Libertarians are notoriously poor communicators, ranting in a manner guaranteed to appeal only to others born with a libertarian nature (a minority), not to the bulk of normal people (well-meaning college-educated moderately well-informed adult, e.g. your typical listener of National Public Radio). We need to reframe our arguments, and our thinking, for the invisible NPR listener in the room."
- It must depend on who you know. Most libertarians or liberty-oriented conservatives and liberals that I know are very good communicators. They can bring the choir to its feet with well-honed confidence. :-)
- You assert a need but do nothing to justify that assertion. So, taking Akston's suggestion I'll ask, Why? What is the goal of having a dialog with the NPR listener in the room? (BTW, as a life-long NPR listener I find your characterizations ridiculous but that is your perspective; you are certainly free to hold it...that isn't relevant to my critique, just a point of context.)
2. On second thought there really isn't a #2. I've appreciate your take on what's wrong with the libertarian "convincing engine" (Also know as the evangelical movement in many other religions...). The crux of my critique rests in the answer to the question Why? Here is an elaboration on that and then I'll answer it from my own perspective. Why?" = "Why do libertarians 'need' to 'convince' the invisible NPR listener?"
Answer: The underlying assumption that continuously marginalizes libertarians before they even open their poorly communicating pie holes is that if people "see", "wake-up", "understand", etc. then they will suddenly agree with you and then they will do exactly what you do and the more people who do exactly what you do the better the results and if enough people do exactly what you do then the two-party system will topple and a libertarian utopia will arise to replace our experimental republic. The libertarian faith is built upon the misconception that evangelism can quickly change the nature of large masses of individuals. That's simply wrong. Ask the Christians who have been practicing that approach for 2000 years if they feel sorry for libertarians who whine about oppression and lack of growth of their movement. They believe just as fervently in the absolute truth of their evangelism as libertarians do in theirs. Both faiths are self-marginalizing in the world of politics.
The "need" you assert rests on the evangelical fallacy that: "If everyone would just..." Well, in the real world, everyone won't. What's plan "B?" There isn't one in the libertarian religion. This is why philosophy is far more effective at establishing religions than it is in achieving political success.
Again, going back to Akston's question, "What do I want here?" (But ignoring the false dilemma Akston offered as an answer..)
This is my take on possible answers:
1. If one's goal is an adrenalin rush, or an ego boost from a victorious confrontation, or to preach to the choir or to just not be laughed at by NPR listeners, then by all means, "convince" till your heart's content...or stops. :-) It doesn't matter. The words, the lectures, the endlessly redundant message board debate of minutiae, the preaching and the sycophantic Rand, Rothbard and Ron worshiping are all for naught; worthless to Nth degree in the world of political success. This evangelism is the key self-marginalizing factor and it cannot be eliminated from the religion of libertarianism. They are two aspects of the same thing...mistaking philosophy for politics.
2. If one's goal is to defend liberty by thwarting progressive and statist advances then one must participate in flushing anti-liberty candidates out of the candidate pipeline by participating in local party politics.
3. If one's goal is to eliminate the State and to pursue "Freedom From" the consequences of actions taken by our ancestors then...it really doesn't matter what actions you take or audiences you can appeal to. The only way a religion can be imposed on a society is by force and continuous, overwhelming oppression of any diversity. Most libertarians I have encountered personally fall in to this category; their blind faith prevents them from grasping the self-contradictory nature of pursuing a world of "Freedom From" and a no-force, no-violence philosophy. The two are mutually necessary.
The key to effectiveness is aligning the consequences of one's behavior with their stated goals. Most libertarians seem to state goals that are 180 degrees out of phase with the consequences of their favorite behaviors.
Posted By: EJ Moosa
Date: July 17, 2010 02:49:53 PM
The majority of America is not college educated nor well informed. As of 2007 the United States Census Bureau reports that 27% of the population has attained a bachelor's degree or higher. That is a far cry from a majority.
Nor does listening to NPR qualify one to assume that they are well informed.
And regarding the two types of statists, where are those that want to live unselfish lives yet not use the force of government to force me to live an unselfish life? Why must they rely upon the power of the state to accomplish their "unselfish motives"?
"It does seem rather suspicious when a libertarian preaches the Non-Aggression Principle and then gleefully talks about justifiably using his guns in self-defense against a well-meaning tax collector."
I am afraid I have not seen too many accounts of this in the media. Is this a common occurrence, or are you violating suggestion # 5?
"without coercion, social public goods (e.g. homes for orphans and invalids) face the twin problems of under-provision and free-riders."
Why is this? Why must your system rely upon coercion? Why is there an inability to get those that believe in whatever program being "pushed" to get volunteers to donate? Frankly, there is nothing more pathetic than to hear the likes of Warren Buffett, Al Gore, and others, who are making millions of dollars, clamoring for higher taxes from everyone else to support their "pet" objectives. If you are not voluntarily getting enough funds, I will say you must be doing a poor job promoting it.
What about leading by example? There is simply nothing in today's tax code that prohibits Buffett or Gore from paying higher taxes voluntarily. Nor do they have to claim their charitable deductions, or take other credits we all know they do.
"Individuals have the right to associate and enter into contracts limiting their freedoms, e.g. living in a community without nudity, profanity, or guns."
Yes they have the above rights, so long as they do not force me to enter into a contract that takes away my rights under the Constitution of the United States. And for example, you do not have the right to go into a community, grab majority control, and then forcibly remove my guns. The Constitution guarantees that I have certain inalienable rights.
Posted By: Adriansrfr
Date: July 19, 2010 06:52:30 AM
1. A "good statist" is an oxymoron; therefore, this is not a "critique."
2. Altruism is a vice, not a virtue; therefore, this is not a "critique."
3. The "free-rider problem" is not a problem. Even in nature, there are many organisms that give benefits to others and receive nothing in return e.g. commensalism. The real problem is parasitism. The ... See Morestate fits this description like a charm.
4. The problem isn't with identification per se, but with statist identification.
5. Gold has been the best investment of the decade. Nothing wrong with survivalism and being prepared for the worst. This guy would love the movie, Pollyanna.
Posted By: Simplulo
Date: July 22, 2010 11:10:57 AM
I'll address the first five commenters in order of their negativity:
@gede: Thanks! You must have suffered like me. ;)
@Akston: Thanks! Note that I am not merely talking about tailoring your arguments to your listener, or general rules of persuasion. I'm pointing out general *errors*, which irritate even me, a fellow libertarian/anarchist (I can adopt either point of view). They make me say dang, my people are nuts, I'm going to spend less time in New Hampshire and more down in Boston hanging out with starry-eyed statist chicks.
Your stylistic suggestions are excellent. I like the Socratic method, but find it hard to maintain. I find that when I present arguments already pre-digested, people resist, but when they do some of the brainwork themselves, they are more inclined to buy in. That's true on all subjects, not just politics.
I'll add something to your statement about libertarian evangelism: if people continue to disagree after the libertarian has presented his overwhelming arguments, they must be evil, dupes, or brain-washed by the public schools (wait--I thought the public schools were incompetent?).
You don't like my use of the NPR listener as the representative of our target audience, but I'll stick with it, at least until someone suggests something better. NPR does lean left and its style is gently highbrow; presumably its listeners on average are similar. I suggest that this is an important group of people--reasonably large, wealthy, involved, and influential--and they are actually susceptible to arguments properly presented. Reason Magazine and the Cato Institute have people who frame arguments this way, which maybe explains why they reach a wider audience.
27% of the US population has a bachelor's degree? I'm surprised the figure is so high. You support my point. Many of those people are elderly; college education has been increasing over time (arguably because K-12 sucks so bad). An additional percentage has "some college", even Associate's degrees. Finally, these people are much more influential, e.g. much more likely to vote and participate, than the uneducated demographic. Their opinion thus matters more.
Listening to NPR obviously does not "qualify" anyone as being well informed, but it is a useful proxy. Because NPR is all about news and information, the average listener is probably much better informed than the average non-listener, as well as better educated. Feel free to suggest a better symbol.
Public goods face a very real problem of provision. We libertarians need to acknowledge this, and present alternative solutions when we reject coercion. "If you are not voluntarily getting enough funds, I will say you must be doing a poor job promoting it." Who is this "you"? Have you ever run a charity? It's bloody hard to get volunteers and donations. Some are good at it, like NPR (another reason why I chose the NPR listener as my symbol).
Granted there is a conflict over changing rules in changing communities. Maybe constitutions/contracts/bylaws could slow the rate of change, so that fewer people would be subjected to rules that they did not sign up to. We're not going to solve that here. My fellow libertarians tend to conveniently forget communities' right of association and contract; I just want them to acknowledge it.
@ Adriansrfr: Thanks, for being an example of what I'm complaining about! ;)
1. I understand what you're getting at, but I defined "good statist" (irony intended) for the purposes of this article, and my definition is not self-contradictory.
2. That's a weird assertion, even for an Objectivist, and, right or wrong, it will turn off normal people.
3. The free-rider problem I referred to (admittedly not very clearly), is that of the non-contributor to charity, who still benefits from others' contributions (e.g. sleeping soundly at night, knowing that the poor orphans are cared for). This lowers the contribution rate to below optimal. It is related to the "Volunteer's Dilemma". Your opinion of whether this is a problem is not really relevant; I'm talking about normal people. However, even most libertarians with an understanding of economics and game theory would accept that it is a problem, and a well-recognized one; that's why it has a name.
5. Housing was also a very nice investment, until the bubble burst. As I documented with the Simon-Ehrlich Wager, commodity prices tend to fall over time. Survivalism has a cost in both money and energy; I suggest that they could be allocated better. Survivalism also represents a turning inward, ceding the ideological war to our more eloquent and more social opponents.