Libertarian History/Philosophy

Lessons for the Liberty Movement

Patience and empathy are key to presenting the freedom philosophy effectively.



It goes without saying—I hope—that we libertarians should be patient and empathetic when we talk political economy with non-libertarians. Patience and empathy are generally virtues, of course, but libertarians have an additional reason to practice them in their political lives: they are keys to effectively presenting new ideas.

We ask a lot of people when we ask them to appreciate the merits of our political philosophy. [I'm assuming the goal is persuasion and not mere self-gratification.] We should think back to when we first encountered the philosophy. None of us started out understanding it. We had to read, think, and talk with people more advanced in their understanding than we were. Even a fledgling libertarian who starts out favorably inclined intellectually and emotionally to the philosophy needs time to digest the ideas. I can recall running newly acquired, but not-yet-well-understood, libertarian ideas by friends, parents, and siblings—only to be stumped by their questions and objections. I had to go back to the books or my libertarian teachers for further study and contemplation. The process takes a long time. Leonard Read used to say it takes a lifetime, and I believe him. Keeping this truth in mind will help shape our approach to non-libertarians. Don't underestimate the persuasive power of empathy.

Think what we're asking of non-libertarians. All their lives they (and we) were taught that government is the source of social order. It's easy to believe this because government is so visible. It's got all those big buildings filled with bureaus and people doing things that they say are indispensable to social order. Signs of disorder are easily attributed to nongovernmental sources. [Rising prices associated with inflation are easily blamed on the greed of sellers.] Then we libertarians come along and say it's not so. Perhaps we quote Proudhon (maybe without knowing it was Proudhon who said it): "Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order." Are we crazy?

Or perhaps we try to explain what Thomas Paine wrote so beautifully in Right of Man:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government. [Emphasis added.]

We can say those things, but why should anyone believe us? If the primacy of liberty were true, people would have heard long before we came along, right? Order without a conscious creator of order? It's counterintuitive. 

Libertarians have a good story to tell, but it's complicated. How many of us breezed through Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Israel Kirzner, and Henry Hazlitt? [Okay, maybe a few did.] Most people need to hear the story several times before it even begins to make sense and appears worth looking into. But before that can happen we need to get their attention. We need to give them a reason to question their worldview. That's no small task.

The idea of spontaneous, or undesigned, order is crucial to persuading non-libertarians that we are worth listening to. Most people like freedom. They want to live worthwhile lives, and they understand that this requires self-direction. Following a path set by someone else is intrinsically unsatisfying. What holds them back from embracing total freedom is their understandable fear that "too much" freedom would produce chaos. Sure, they value freedom, but they value order too.

"We can't have everyone running around doing whatever they want!" they say. Even if you explain the nonaggression obligation, they may not be fully convinced because they can envision chaos resulting from non-aggressive acts. They grew up believing that the Great Depression—mass long-term unemployment, poverty, hopelessness—was a natural market event that required government intervention to reverse. It's no easy task to scrape away layers of misinformation. It requires patience, and patience requires respect and empathy.

Some libertarians of a deontological bent may not want to cater to people who are apprehensive about the consequences of freedom. These libertarians insist that morality would compel them to favor freedom just as enthusiastically if they expected the worst kind of chaos to result. Of course, they don't think chaos would result, and despite themselves, they spend a good deal of time describing the good consequences of freedom and the bad consequences of government intervention. [That's what economics is for, isn't it?] In the face of bad consequences I'd still favor freedom too—though less enthusiastically—and I would not be hard on people who think consequences matter. We're not likely to get far trying to persuade people to embrace freedom and not worry about how things might actually turn out. [This, by the way, doesn't make me a consequentialist, or utilitarian, however. See "The Moral Case for Freedom Is the Practical Case for Freedom" and "The Consequences of Liberty."]

In the end, the success of the libertarian movement depends a great deal on its advocates. The ideas of course are important, but if libertarians do a bad job of presenting those ideas, most people will never give them a chance. It's up to us.

This piece originally appeared at Sheldon Richman's "Free Association" blog.