While advocating for the principles of a free society, libertarians find obstacles of all sorts. Whether one sees it as a battle of ideas or — better yet — a sales campaign, sometimes our methods of persuasion and debate become a big part of the message. Thus sometimes our mistakes become the biggest obstacle to our success. Lets review three very common ones.
1. Thinking that libertarianism is “intuitive” or “obvious”
To be sure, certain moral positions (on stealing and murdering) are universal and intuitive enough, but the whole edifice is neither obvious nor easy to grasp. The problem is, most people forget how they learned and especially, forget their previous ignorance. Thus, they project a light of knowledge over their past as if they always knew. This is easy to observe when one reads giants like Mises and Rothbard. The second after we absorb some keen insight of theirs, we internalize it and begin to think it is “obvious” and should be so to others. Well, it isn’t. We acquired it through long years of studying dozens, sometimes hundreds, of books. Every libertarian I know continues to read and debate the fundamentals of libertarianism, not only applications to current events or history. This tells me that libertarianism is an unfinished edifice with many parts, even if one can sum it up in several ways. Those essentials and summaries will never replace the whole of the doctrine.
2. Assuming common ground with everyone
The fundamental clash throughout human history, Liberty vs. Power, can only be properly understood when the basics are properly identified. Let’s begin with liberty. In ancient times, liberty was defined as the ability to participate in collective decision-making and independence from other nations. Thus, liberty was about political participation and national sovereignty. The individual was not the relevant political unit. It wasn’t until the advent of Humanism, placing the individual at the center of political and economic analysis that Liberty could start meaning what us libertarians need it to mean in order for our insights to be popular at any time and place.
Power, on the other hand, means political power for us. It springs from the use of force or the threat thereof. Education, the media, tradition and others influence human behavior but they can be either chosen or rejected if needed. That’s why any talk of commercial billboards or TV content having power over society is ultimately doomed to fail. But in the same way any talk about “oppressive bosses” or “gender oppression” are confusing. Bosses cannot deprive oneself of rights, because to have a boss (as opposed to a slave-owner, a socialist dictator, a lord or a king) requires a contract in which one has freely entered. Ergo, bosses implies rights and where there are rights there is liberty, and power is absent. A boss may be demanding, rude, etc but as long as one has “exit”, there is no oppression. Gender oppression strictly means that women are denied their (individual) political rights to personal integrity and property. But gender discrimination when those rights are fully present such as in most Western countries, on the other hand is an exercise of others’ rights. When men are preferred for a job over women, it’s the company’s loss to deprive itself of that talent. But in many professions that deal with security and force, such discrimination is not only necessary but wise. Confusing a lack of women’s rights with an exercise of men’s rights that we dislike is worse than misleading: it will invite State intervention to “fix” a non-problem. Or at best, a problem that has to be solved (if need be) through civil, pacific means.
Thus, power has to be understood as political power. Its ties to cultural forms are just that, ties.
If liberty and power have to be agreed upon in order for the libertarian discourse to make full sense, the same happens to the concepts of property, contract, market, State, law and a host of others. We cannot assume common ground with everybody, specially in postmodern times where every Western concept is being nuanced and redefined by barbarians inside the gates.
3. Ironically, forgetting about the importance of ideas and persuasion
Closely related to points 1 and 2, libertarians sometimes think (oh, the irony) that ideas stop mattering at some point. Once one has adopted the libertarian worldview, there is a strong temptation to make ideas disappear and consider people who trust the State to do X or Y as either lazy, dumb or corrupt. As a former socialdemocrat, I know that isn’t so: a myriad of political thinkers and activists have good intentions, but just haven’t been lucky enough to grasp the notions we hold so dear. To be sure, most know some version of our positions, but as any teacher can tell you that will not suffice. Making an idea your own, requires not only a good exposition of the concepts but also the right mood so to provoke a disposition to learn. Too many libertarians wield insights as swords with a self-righteous attitude, seeking to punish the non-convert. As any music buff can tell you, if you want a friend of yours to love some rock album that we cherish, a frontal proposition will almost never work. The human ego being what it is, that task is better accomplished by subtler means, making it appear as if he discovered that band by himself.
See, it’s our attitude that which drives people away from the ideas. If they were intuitive, persuasion would not be needed. But they aren’t. And if they are, then we’re two times at fault: socialist ideas then are the counter-intuitive ones but the socialists’ persistence and ability to persuade have brought success for them worldwide. What gives?
The fundamental clash throughout human history, Liberty vs. Power, can only be properly understood when the basics are properly identified.
In conclusion, libertarianism would benefit largely from a recognition of how deeply the battle of political ideas is only a special case of the global philosophical battle over concepts and significance. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to remind ourselves that a worldview such as libertarianism has to be subject to the same principles as any other good in the market is, even if the one for ideas is severely hampered and set against human liberty. If we are to succeed in such a market, we need to remember how the good was sold to ourselves in the first place, so we win over the hearts and minds of our contemporaries. Antagonizing them and assuming as obvious what is now — thanks for 150 years of socialist control of education — hard to grasp, is a recipe for failure.