Libertarians’ Image Problem

The so-called marketplace of ideas might be the only market that has been left relatively untouched by governments around the world. This rings especially true in the West. People can freely exchange thoughts and ideas with each other without the State interfering. Granted, of course, some ideas are directly and indirectly subsidized by the government, but on the whole, people are free to “buy” and “sell” ideas as they please. In this sense, ideas are much like any other type of product. And much like any other type of product, ideas, no matter how good, need to be marketed. They need to be packaged neatly, in a way that appeals to as many as possible.

This, somewhat ironically, seems to be completely lost on most libertarians. I say “ironically,” because one would expect free-marketeers to understand how markets work in practice. By expressing sentiments such as the desire to “just be left alone, man,” and that accepting welfare makes you subhuman, libertarians have created an image of being selfish, greedy, and hating the poor. However valid your arguments may be, if everyone thinks you are an asshole, no one will listen. If libertarianism is to enter the mainstream anytime soon, it is imperative that its image is not stained by tactless don’t-tread-on-me rhetoric.

In a series of columns for Libertarianism.org, Cato researcher Jonathan Blanks offers some thoughtful reflections on why so few blacks are libertarians. And while his prescriptions to remedy this are somewhat alarming, albeit perhaps not surprising for someone who works at Cato, Blanks does raise an important question. The answer, though Blanks would have you believe otherwise, I believe, is in fact not to compromise on principles (if this is the answer, you are probably asking the wrong question), but to acknowledge the situation in which many blacks—and other minorities too, for that matter—find themselves. While Jim Crow might be gone in the U.S., institutional racism is still alive and well. To find an example of this, one has to look no further than the criminal justice system, which disproportionately targets blacks. African-Americans represent 14% of regular drug users, but comprise 35% of those arrested for drug offenses.1 People of color are far more likely than whites to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for drug offenses.2 Of course, the criminal justice system and drug war are not the only instances of institutional racism; Thomas Sowell argues that affirmative action in fact hurts blacks.

African-Americans are not the only group that often find themselves alienated by libertarian rhetoric. Low-income individuals and welfare recipients, regardless of race, are scared off by the vile, insensitive rhetoric that many libertarians adopt. Rather than describing welfare recipients as lazy, stupid, or immoral, libertarians ought to focus on the structural problems that put and trap people in welfare in the first place, and acknowledge that most welfare recipients have not chosen the situation they find themselves in (nor do they want to stay there). By requiring students to attend public schools in their jurisdiction, the State ensures that the poor stay poor and the wealthy stay wealthy: Children who live in rich communities that generate a lot of tax revenue attend better schools while those living in poor communities are stuck in subpar schools that often times are not even capable of teaching kids to read, let alone advanced calculus. Moreover, since low-income families have less disposable income after taxes than high-income ditto, they are often unable to pay for their children to attend private schools. Libertarians have real solutions to these unfortunately very real problems, so why not talk about them more? Why opt for hateful rhetoric (which usually includes racist undertones in addition to the standard poor-people-are-lazy nonsense) when it is possible to talk about how the poor would benefit from freed markets?

But hateful rhetoric toward certain ethnic and socio-economic groups is only part of the problem (though a very large one). Another problem is how many libertarians engage anyone who dares question their beliefs. I was made painfully aware of this just a few weeks ago, when I found myself in disagreement with someone on Twitter. Our discussion soon attracted attention from a somewhat large group of libertarians, and within a matter of minutes, the invectives came hailing down. Suddenly, I was ignorant and lacked “a basic understanding of what libertarianism is”—because I took issue with someone’s interpretation of private property rights—and a so-called “LINO” because I had remarked earlier that intentionally using offensive and provocative rhetoric makes you come across as an asshole (apparently now boorish behavior is a libertarian principle). Mind you, this was a discussion regarding fireworks. The sort of reactions that some libertarian writers elicit when writing about more important issues are lightyears worse. Granted, all this fades in comparison to the kinds of comments that political opponents, particularly those from the left, often receive.

Now, I have no doubt in my mind that both the liberal and conservative movements are just as bad, or likely even worse. But that is a poor excuse for despicable conduct on the part of libertarians. If we, as we claim to, truly do cherish free markets—especially the free market of ideas—tolerance, even in the face of statists and illogic, is a must. Actually, yelling “statist!” at everyone who disagrees with us is not going to accomplish anything, in part because offending others is a surefire way to make them stop listening, and in part because it makes no sense to use “statist” as an invective, since there is no established norm of anti-statism outside of libertarian circles.

Instead of seeking to offend, humiliate, and antagonize people in debates, libertarians ought to do the opposite; be nice, and genuinely consider the ideas of our political opponents. Give them credit for good arguments, and never—I cannot stress this enough—insult their egos by telling them they are wrong. There are far better ways of expressing disagreement. The so-called Ransberger pivot, a communication principle invented in 1982 by Ray Ransberger and Advocates founder Marshall Fritz, is an excellent example of this. The Ransberger pivot is simple, elegant, and highly effective: Instead of arguing, listen to what the other person has to say, try to understand how they feel and why, and then explain how your solution is preferable to theirs in achieving the same goal.

By always holding ourselves to a high standard, we force our intellectual opponents to make a choice: They can either choose to reciprocate, by being polite and listening to and seriously considering our arguments, or start throwing mud. Spoiler alert: People who throw mud do not win arguments, and certainly do not win the hearts and minds of others. So let us not be those people.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0508_1.pdf, 45.
  2. Ibid., 47.
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7 comments

  1. Excellent post, excellent points. Thank you sir.

  2. […] Persson has a post up claiming libertarians have an image problem. I was planning a post to address this topic anyway, so this just adds some more material to what I […]

  3. john_p · · Reply

    Tom Woods said somewhere along the line of following the non-aggression principle only make you a libertarian, you can still be an a-hole.

  4. Maybe folks just don’t like having their feeble arguments beaten to pieces at cocktail parties by Libertarians.

  5. “People who throw mud do not win arguments, and certainly do not win the hearts and minds of others.”

    Except that’s exactly how the statists have been winning the arguments and the hearts and minds for generations.

    I’m not saying to sling mud and such, but to say it’s ineffective is to ignore reality. In mainstream media, in internet debates, everywhere, a libertarian can present a calm well presented argument and the statist will just call the libertarian ‘selfish’, ‘uncaring’, perhaps use ridicule or worse and the peanut gallery will side with the statist who did not present a supported argument.

    The statists argue from emotion because it works.

  6. Penny Worth · · Reply

    We and the so-called ‘religious right’ have an image problem for a reason: we often as libertarians come across as know-it-alls without compassion, thought or graciousness. The Daily Paul, and its replacement, Popular Liberty, give us plenty to think about here: http://popularliberty.com/3527/liberty-popular-libertarians-are-not

    One of the biggest problems we have is separating the idea from the communicator of the idea. People like to believe their intentions are good, so therefore their positions will be. Disabusing them of this misconception takes time, patience , a search for common ground and a gracious attitude toward the person, even if we disagree on the issue. Sadly, many take the approach of judge, jury and executor, instead of defense attorney. It would be best if we would try to find common ground and fight for that, rather than start turf wars.

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