Ideas Aren't Enough—Freedom Needs Good Stories

Good stories introduce people to liberty long before they think about policy.


Having spent most of my career engaged in political debate—as a writer, teacher, organizer, and think tank president—I'd like nothing better than to counter the grave threats currently facing American liberty with the standard tools of public policy. 

Are politicians meddling more and more in markets? Then let's publish rigorous empirical research, powerfully written books, and attention-grabbing articles to convince them of their folly. Is the progressive quest for equity threatening equality under the law? Then let's explain, patiently and persuasively, how such goals are best accomplished by eliminating barriers and embracing individualism rather than redistribution and collectivism. Are professors and students being "cancelled" for expressing impolitic ideas? Then let's strengthen First Amendment protections on campus. Is the practice of American government increasingly at odds with the principles of federalism, separation of powers, and the rule of law? Then let's pass new laws or constitutional amendments to restore the ideals of the American Founding.

The strategy is familiar and inviting. It fits like a comfortable shoe. I'd like to believe it would kick the ball hard enough to score a goal, but experience has convinced me otherwise. While such activities are necessary to the defense of classical liberalism, they fall far short of being sufficient.

Most Americans don't think about politics and government very much. For the most part, that's a trait worth celebrating. Their daily lives aren't consumed with legislative procedure or partisan bickering. They vote but they don't obsess about it. They answer poll questions about specific policies, but their answers are often more artificial than insightful, reflecting more the choice of terms and limited range of options presented than what they really think. Even within the political class—by which I mean not just elected officials but also the people who staff their offices, run and fund their campaigns, and try to sway their decisions—abstract concepts and abstruse arguments fail to explain much of what people say and do.

Ideas do have consequences. But those consequences are contingent on factors beyond the substance and soundness of the ideas themselves. They depend on context, on timeliness, on presentation. Among elites and masses alike, ideas have the greatest consequences when embedded in narratives.

Human beings aren't calculating machines. We're storytellers. Our facility for language has helped enable learning, planning, cooperation, and exchange, propelling our species to success. As my friend and former Duke colleague Frederick Mayer explained his 2014 book Narrative Politics, social and political movements need something more than shared goals and concepts to thrive: They must inspire costly, time-consuming behavior by busy human beings whose default setting is to take no notice or action. "Facts are great, analysis is important, but if the goal is political mobilization, a shared story is essential," Mayer says. "You cannot beat a story without another story. Politics often revolves around a contest of stories."

Champions of liberty have been repeating this wisdom to each other for years. That's why we are quicker to spotlight a particular student harmed by ineffective schools, or a particular professor harmed by speech codes, or a particular entrepreneur shackled by regulation, rather than just citing empirical studies or presenting philosophical arguments.

But even case studies and anecdotal leads are insufficient. Ideas assume tremendous narrative power when expressed in novels, shows, films, and art. "All stories are fictions," Mayer observes, "yet some fictions are essentially true."

There may be no truer description of government tyranny than the scene in Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress when the protagonist, Mannie, reflects on what he and other residents of Luna left behind on Earth: "Do this. Don't do that. Stay back in line. Where's tax receipt? Fill out form. Let's see license. Submit six copies. Exit only. No left turn. No right turn. Queue up and pay fine. Take back and get stamped. Drop dead—but first get permit."

Generations of young people gained their deepest understanding of totalitarianism not from lectures or textbooks about the Soviet Union but by reading George Orwell. Many heard their first full-throated defense of markets and individualism not from economists or historians but from Ayn Rand's characters. And for many, their first introduction to the seductions of power—and to the qualities it takes to resist them—came from watching the hobbit Sam become a ringbearer in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King: "Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be." But "deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command."

Young (and not-so-young) readers also encountered a key passage about the abuse of power in The Magician's Nephew, by Tolkien's friend C.S. Lewis. The nephew in question, Digory, had just called his uncle "rotten" for breaking a promise to trick another character, Polly, into transporting away:

"Rotten?" said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look. "Oh, I see. You mean that little boys ought to keep their promises. Very true: most right and proper, I'm sure, and I'm very glad you have been taught to do it. But of course you must understand that rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys—and servants—and women—and even people in general, can't possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny."

As he said this he sighed and looked so grave and noble and mysterious that for a second Digory really thought he was saying something rather fine. But then he remembered the ugly look he had seen on his Uncle's face the moment before Polly had vanished: and all at once he saw through Uncle Andrew's grand words. "All it means," he thought to himself, "is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants."

Such classics are still popular today, as are more-recent works by liberty-minded writers and artists. But there aren't nearly enough of them, I would submit, to sustain a rich culture of freedom. Large swaths of today's popular entertainment cast business as the villain, government as the hero, and everyone else as helpless victims. They exalt "social justice" over freedom, expediency over truth, and the collective over the individual. We can and should rebut these calumnies with facts and arguments. But we must also tell many more stories of our own — in print, audio, video, and art. A few may break through to become bestsellers or cultural touchstones. But such an outcome isn't required to accomplish the task. In today's splintered marketplace, producing a large number of works with discrete audiences and themes is likely to be more effective than placing a few big bets and hoping for a blockbuster.

The defense of American liberty and the renewal of American institutions cannot be accomplished without patient capital invested in intellectual infrastructure. I believe in the value of scholarship, policy analysis, journalism, leadership development, and academic programs. But in the "contest of stories" that forms the substance of most political disagreements, lovers of liberty must use all the tools at our disposal.

To quote a character in Mountain Folk, my novel of the Revolutionary War: "Glory is a lonely man. Best marry him to Victory."

NEXT: Liftoff

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  1. And let’s not forget L. Neil Smith and his Probability Broach novels. You want a full-blown Libertarian universe, he’s got it.

    1. One doesn’t need full blown libertarian masturbatory fantasy. Just the ideas of freedom presented in a positive light. Don’t need preaching.

      Vernor Vinge, for example, if you insist on sci-fi. His novels and his short stories. Very good, the right ideas, but they’re in the background and not pushed into the reader’s face. Basically, people can solve problems without resorting to government, and really smart people with the absolute best of intentions aren’t any better at ruling over other people.

      1. Miss Liberty dot com’s Film and Documentary World have great reviews of videos that have pro-libertarian themes, both explicit and subtle. She picks some very good ones!

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      2. I think it does get pushed in the reader’s face at one point in Deepness in the Sky. Suddenly, brutally, beautifully. The “When a dream dies” part.

  2. The Little Red Hen is always good.

    1. One of my favorites to read to my children.

    2. Many of Aesop’s Fables have wonderful street-smart insights for all ages.

  3. FFS. Freedom needs truth and transparency. Ideas and stories will never be in short supply.

    1. A spoonful of sugar helps the libertarianism go down
      the libertarianism go down
      the libertarianism go down
      A spoonful of sugar helps the libertarianism go down
      in the most delightful way

    2. We spent four years of one side of the spectrum deliberately ignoring the shenanigans of their leader. Heck, my mother still thinks of him as one of the most moral men to have ever held the office.

      People don’t want the truth, and only tolerate transparency so long as it doesn’t reveal the truth. People are happy believing their fantasies. Thus we provide fantasies (stories) that aren’t statist at their core.

      1. “We spent four years of one side of the spectrum deliberately ignoring the shenanigans of their leader…”

        We’ve now spent five years listening to the whining and lies from TDS-addled assholes like you.
        Fuck off and die.

    3. Both are necessary, especially if they get people to the most important thing: Doing something to make us all more free.

  4. Despite being a douchebag and super liberal, Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity are the best modern Libertarian stories out there, talking about freedom, government overreach, attempts at fixing society and how it backfires, and more. Great characters living on their own, deciding to walk away from government tyranny.

    1. I’m a big fan of these! Captain Macolm Reynolds is perhaps my favorite television hero of all time, and in Serenity utters one of my all-time favorite lines, regarding the attempts to “fix” society, or rather, people, with appalling consequences and uncounted deaths,

      “As sure as I know anything, I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world. Maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, 10, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people…better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I aim to misbehave.”

      1. We seem to be experiencing a marked dearth of Malcolm Reynolds in our world.

        1. Sadly, we also seem to have an abundance of volunteers to be “The Operative”.

          1. Sadly indeed, correct on both counts.

            1. Except, unlike the operative, they don’t understand that once Utopia is built they don’t get to live there. They don’t only think they get to live there, they think they will be ruling once they get there.

              1. Indeed, and, lacking that self-awareness, they are unlikely to recognize the horror their success means when/if they see their goals realized.

                  1. Sure, what are tens of millions of innocents dead, after all, in the glorious quest for World Domination?

                    Sounds like a Final Solution to me – or else the CCP party line.

                1. It’ll work next time!

      2. I love me some Firefly and Serenity! The only show where can learn cuss-words in Mandarin Chi-knee and philosophical insights said in a Western drawl.

        “Curse your sudden and inevitable betrayal!” –Wash the pilot fighting toy dinosaurs.

        “If they take the ship they will rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing, and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” –Źöe on the nature of Reavers.

        Simon: It’s fun, being forced to the ass-end of the galaxy. To get to live on a piece of lèsè [garbage] wreck. And to eat molded protein. And to be bullied around by our pien juh duh jiou chiao ren [stubborn disciplinarian] of a captain. It’s fun.
        Kaylee: [offended] Lèsè?

        Inara: So. Would you like to lecture me on the wickedness of my ways?
        Book: No, I brought you supper. Although if you’d prefer a lecture, I’ve a few very catchy ones prepped. Sin and hellfire… one has lepers.
        Inara: [smiling] I think I’ll pass.

        “You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.” –Captain Mal to Shepherd Book.

        “Bible’s broken.” –River to Shepherd Book on The Bible

        Jayne: Six men came to kill me one time and the best of them carried this. It’s a Callahan fullbore autolock, customized trigger and double cartridge thorough-gauge. (he holds it out to Mal) It’s my very favorite gun.
        Mal: She has a name.
        Jayne: So does this! I call it Vera.

        “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another.”–Captain Mal on Jayne.

    2. Firefly/Serenity owes a lot of that not to Joss Whedon, but to Tim Minear. The two make a great team. But the libertarian sensibility comes from Minear.

  5. Such classics are still popular today, as are more-recent works by liberty-minded writers and artists. But there aren’t nearly enough of them, I would submit, to sustain a rich culture of freedom.

    Don’t worry, John. I’m sure AI will pick up the slack.

  6. Ideas need stories to spread them…. Hmmmm

    Perhaps this is why we have these gatekeepers:

  7. As a novelist in a small way, I’ve inserted, a little sneakily, anti-established-government, pro-self-government ideas.

    A man recalls a custody proceeding, “People who neither knew nor cared deciding for those who did.”

    Deploring of regulations treating adults like children.

    Private charity – doing good to actual known individuals – over public charity, doing something for God knows whom.

    It can’t hurt, anyway.

    1. “People who neither knew nor cared deciding for those who did.”

      That is a pretty great line.

      1. Thank you! It’s a terribly important point these days.

      2. Except you want dispassionate uninvolved people settling disputes that the parties themselves cannot settle.

        1. It is still a pretty good line, even if it doesn’t describe an organizing ethos for a society.

        2. In context, it’s whether a 17-year-old high-school graduate with a steady job and several other revenue streams is fit custodian for his 12-year-old brother, or whether the younger should be placed in foster care. All “involved” parties (i.e., those who know and care), including neighbors, are agreed as to the fitness of the young man. It’s the State which argues for foster care – a non-involved party, which neither knows nor cares as to the specific circumstances, and is only mollified by one neighbor’s pledging to act as semi-guardian to both.

          1. Exactly — I said that the parties themselves cannot settle.

            1. If evidence and knowledgeable testimony present a picture of fitness, what’s the State’s legitimate interest – without counter except age – in making itself a party at all? I say it has none.

              But that’s why I’m libertarian-leaning.

    1. Wasn’t this part of the Monty Python “Blackmail” game show skit?

  8. If people are child-like idiots, and need to be led to think, do they deserve freedom?

  9. Here’s what scares me: Young Adult Fiction has been totally taken over by the Woke. The narratives going into our children’s heads are the narratives that have been approved by socially conscious committees who think the answer to everything is moar government. YA is a cesspool of woke. Favorite stories from just ten years ago could not get published today.

    1. The Hunger Games, however, is one of the most nakedly hostile-toward-government books ever written.

  10. I’m not sure a book called “The Return of the King” is a good choice to promote freedom. The return of kings is what we want to avoid.

    I wasn’t familiar with the other book cited, i>The Magician’s Nephew, but the phrase “breaking a promise to trick another character, Polly, into transporting away” confused me. Promising to trick somebody is usually a bad thing. It turns out it didn’t mean that the promise was one to trick Polly, but rather that so tricking her was the breaking of the promise. I think. But it was confusing.

    1. Yeah, I never got much of a libertarian vibe from Tolkein, with hereditary nobility, recognizing our betters as anointed leaders, and castigating those seeking treasure.

      1. Plus, the Mayor of Laketown is presented as someone who loves trade more than war, which is a bad thing in Tolkien World. The movie plays this up even more than the book does.

      2. I love those books but there is nothing libertarian about them.

        There are multiple themes. There is a religious Christian theme which is very strong. The resurrection of Gandalf. The power of faith over temptation. Gollum, too long on the dark side, achieves a sort of salvation by death and in doing so saves the world.

        It has strong moral themes about the nature of good and evil. In Tolkien’s world a good society is an ordered society with clear roles for everyone. Think of the relationship between Frodo and Sam for example.

        I could go on about this all day.

    2. The point is the lust for Power, even if you think you’ll “do good” with it.

  11. Progressives have the best stories.

    West Wing? Earth shattering.
    The Newsroom? Tears every time.

    1. The Newsroom? Tears of laughter – or boredom – I assume? That show was garbage, despite the talent and production values.

      I’ll give you West Wing – that was quite entertaining, though my favorite character was Alan Alda’s Arnold Vinick – I’d vote for him in a New York minute.

      1. He’s being sarcastic. To most libertarians, the West Wing’s apotheosis of Democrat politicians is little stomach-turning.

        1. I suppose as a writer and former actress, I enjoyed West Wing for its qualities in those areas.

          1. Fair enough. One can enjoy Macbeth even though it’s explicitly monarchist – no reason one can’t enjoy well done statist narratives. To each their own, and all.

  12. There are plenty of new novels coming out all the time promoting liberty. For example: my book The Mummy of Monte Cristo, which incorporates Austrian economics and rugged individualism into a classic story of adventure and revenge, all with a horror twist.

  13. Oh, I get it. He’s pushing his new book.

  14. Then let’s explain, patiently and persuasively, how such goals are best accomplished by eliminating barriers and embracing individualism rather than redistribution and collectivism.

    You already accept the progressive premise that the objective of politics is to achieve collective goals. And that means that you have lost the debate from the start, since the value system of progressives is simply different from yours

    Libertarianism is about liberty, not about accomplishing goals.

    The defense of American liberty and the renewal of American institutions cannot be accomplished without patient capital invested in intellectual infrastructure.

    At this point, it doesn’t matter anymore. Libertarians and conservatives dropped the ball decades ago. Liberty in the US is dead and it’s not coming back. Americans have become so ignorant of liberty and rights that even people like you delude themselves into thinking that your progressive-style arguments amount to libertarianism.

    1. “Liberty in the US is dead and it’s not coming back. Americans have become so ignorant of liberty and rights that even people like you delude themselves into thinking that your progressive-style arguments amount to libertarianism.”

      You need to channel your inner Honduran asylum seeker. That might help you appreciate the bounty you have. It takes a feat of imagination to accomplish that. It’s not impossible, fiction writers do it all the time.

    2. “Liberty is dead”

      ‘No it’s not it’s just resting.’

      Libertarians were never a cohesive movement. It was always like heading cats. Yet we have survived. That is because the power of the individual with natural rights cannot be denied.

      It is not purely an intellectual exercise. We all do this every day. We make our own choices and our own destinies when we wake and go about our day.

      “A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them. – P. J. O’Rourke

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