Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How should libertarians talk to those who are not pre-disposed to think like them (advice from a guy that talks to a lot of libertarians and is not pre-disposed to liking libertarianism)

Sarah Skwire considers a question that a lot of libertarians have been talking about lately - how to convince those darned non-libertarians! The obstacle - many seem to think - is "soft hearts" and sometimes even "soft heads". If you think the problem is that we non-libertarians have soft heads, then you're probably not going to be very successful in your efforts.

Skwire's approach is much stronger than the soft-head types, I think. She talks about her experience as a poet and the similarities between the work of a poet and the sorts of things that Hayek talked about. She concludes:
"Every poet (and, I suspect, every musician/painter/actor/novelist/sculptor/etc.) has been here. We sit down to write what we are sure will be a sonnet about how cold our hands are, and it turns, before we have even noticed, into a love poem.

The soul of the poet and the soul of the Hayekian, the libertarian, the classical liberal, the free marketer, are not really so far apart. The beauties of spontaneous order are the key connection. Because really, how much difference is there between knowing that the creative process works–because of its disorder and not in spite it– and knowing that the market does the same thing?"
This is a much stronger avenue, I think, because it clues people in to some very important insights of Hayek, which helps them to accept his contributions.

But I promised advice of my own (as someone who is not pre-disposed towards libertarian), and that advice is to simply realize that you don't have to be a libertarian to appreciate Hayek and his work on the discovery process. In other words, while this will give Skwire and other non-libertarian poets quite a bit to talk about and avenues for jumping into Hayek, it doesn't really address libertarianism at all.


Well the biggest weakness that I've noticed in libertarian outreach is that they think promoting libertarianism is all about promoting markets and spontaneous order (as Skwire suggests above). This misdiagnoses the nature of libertarianism, in my opinion. Now it's true - talking up markets is important. Most people are not exactly anti-market (contrary to apparent popular opinion), but they also usually don't think much about why the market works so well or how much it has contributed to human flourishing. So elaborating on that point is always going to do good, but that doesn't make you a libertarian at all. That just puts you in the liberal tradition (which is not a bad place to be!). The more you talk to people about Hayek or Smith or markets in general, the better educated people are going to be about what it means to be in the liberal tradition when it comes to the economy. Most people know what it means when it comes to social relations and when it comes to politics. We as a society are very good at communicating liberalism in those areas because liberal social relations are a basic part of childrens' upbringing, and liberal government is taught very early on - in history and government classes. Young people usually don't see economics discussed seriously until they get to college (if they ever see it), so there's usually catching up to do on this front.

So these things that Skwire raises are important to talk about, but they won't make you a libertarian.

What differentiates libertarians from other classical liberals is not the market, but government. Libertarians have a very different view of the role of government and what is acceptable in government than their fellow classical liberals. Qualitatively, it's simply a far less active role. This gives you a spectrum of people that includes Friedman, Mankiw, Sumner, or even Hayek that call themselves "libertarian" but exist on wider range of possible roles of government. The common thread is that they're all more limited than most of the population. Of course there are other strains of libertarianism that are much more specific in what is and is not allowed.

So there is a range of what we call "libertarianism", but it is not distinguished by a preference for liberty or the market or limited government. It is distinguished by a preference for a very inactive government. I am pro-liberty, pro-market, and pro-limited government, but I support a decently active government which is why I'm not a libertarian.

As I said above there is a public education function to be fulfilled when we talk about the market and about spontaneous order, whether or not you're a libertarian. But to really convince people to be libertarians you have to epxlain why the government should not be all that active.

I've been explained to many, many times about the wonder of spontaneous order, the importance of liberty, and why markets work. If you want to make more libertarians talk about active vs. inactive government. If you spend all your time talking about markets and spontaneous order you're probably going to just end up producing more liberals and conservatives that are better educated about markets than they were before. That's not a bad thing, but it doesn't make libertarians (if that's your goal - obviously it's not mine!).

This is hard for a lot of libertarians to grasp, of course, because a lot of them assume that liberty, non-active government, limited government, and free markets are synonymous and interchangable.

They're absolutely not. I think liberty requires limited government and free markets, almost as a matter of definition. I don't think it requires non-active government. I also doubt that free markets require limited government and vice versa (although of course it helps).


  1. As a libertarian I find the notion that I'm going to convince a non-trivial amount of people to think X, well, unconvincing. We live in a pluralistic society and it would be helpful if liberals, conservatives and libertarians got used to that idea (then again, that's a fairly libertarian idea in the first place - so I may even be in trouble with that). Indeed, if someone like Haidt is correct, certain people are prone to liberalism, conservatism and libertarianism and it would be best for people to admit that and to listen to other people and recognize that they see the world fundamentally differently in some ways without necessarily agreeing with them. FYI: This way of thinking also works for that other hot button issue, religion.

  2. "Libertarians have a very different view of the role of government and what is acceptable in government than their fellow classical liberals."

    No, libertarians have a lower tolerance for the bullshit associated with the state and are more skeptical of the state than other ideologies.

    "I think liberty requires limited government and free markets, almost as a matter of definition. I don't think it requires non-active government."

    I don't disagree. What I do disagree on is what "limited government" means exactly. Also, what exactly is "non-active" government?

    Libertarians as a general rule broadly disagree over what is appropriate (either in a consequentialist or a non-consquentialist framework or a little of both) for the government to be doing with modern liberals and conservatives (note that I just chunk the label "classic liberal" because I think its 19th century jargon that no longer makes any sense - any use of it would be mere reinvention for current purposes in other words). There really isn't anything fancy or mysterious about this. That's the crux of the difference.

    1. One could similiarly put it, non liberatians have a lower tolerance for the bullshit associated with free markets and are more skeptical of them than libertarians.

    2. Though I don't think this is sufficient. Libertarians see government and markets in opposition. Others see them as different but both as essential and as often mutually supportive as in opposition.

    3. I don't see government and markets in necessary opposition and I am a libertarian and I don't think that is the general predisposition of most libertarians either; I see a goodly portion of what the government does as impeding the fruits of markets however (or alternatively as oppression visited on various individuals or groups who have less access to political power than other individuals or groups do - the classic current case being the wide disparity between whites and people of color re: their chance of going to prison, but there are many other examples).

      The main difference these days is that libertarians are "at the table" and "on the radar" as a philosophical and political movement that was not the case say a generation ago (which is prolly incredibly frustrating to liberals and conservatives a like - something which I find endlessly amusing). Same with atheists too BTW. I see that as partly the result of "growing the brand," but also mostly the result of what happens in an increasingly diverse commercial society where freedom of choice has more broadly expanded. The biggest thing is that the major political parties and the politicians are always going to lag behind on that sort of thing (which partly explains why people are dropping political affiliations with those parties like a hot potato). Of course this is basically a quintessential libertarian argument and I admit that; that is, greater choice being the best of all worlds.

  3. This is quite a excellent post, Daniel! Now I know why many people continue to misunderstand libertarianism in general and I really like your attitude towards economics. You don't seem to be this extreme right wing or left wing ideologue trying to espouse an absolutist, uncompromising ideology and being hostile towards others who don't agree with you. I don't identify myself as a libertarian or literally any political or philosophical label for that part, though I am sympathetic to many people in the libertarian movement and their causes. This blog has been an inspiration in how I've been thinking and approaching the issues. I have even had calm, civil discussions with Marxists on YouTube without getting into some conflict or altercation with them.

  4. Must I reiterate the distinctions between government and the monopoly state?

    I don't think that any libertarian, no matter of what sort, would oppose a strong system of governance and law. The difference lies in how this is to be managed within a particular society, as well as how it is dispersed.

    1. Do you think Kuehn could pass an ideological Turing test?


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.