The Closing of the Libertarian Mind

In very draft format. I plan to clean it up later, but thoughts welcome.

Australia remains, largely statist, and despite a present flourishing of libertarian thought in the media and the election of Senator David Leyonhjelm, the majority of our population remain quite deeply committed to a pro-government mentality.

In order to achieve greater reach of libertarian principles, believers in small government need to re-examine just how they are communicating their ideas, because clearly some things are not working. I would argue that there are two factors limiting our effectiveness at communication, that insufficient attention has been paid to: Firstly, a growing echo chamber, exacerbated by the internet, creating an inability to understand those we disagree with, thereby making us unable to refute them. Secondly, many libertarians appear to have a strange refusal to read and engage with more contemporary academic work, instead thinking that arguments made many decades, if not centuries, ago is all that is sufficient.

Unless we address these two factors, our “year of the libertarian” will be limited to 2014, and not beyond.

I have previously attempted to promote ideological Turing tests, an idea proposed by Bryan Caplan. The idea was rather simple and designed to test whether a political or ideological partisan correctly understands the arguments of his or her intellectual adversaries. The partisan is invited to answer questions or write an essay posing as his opposite number, if neutral judges cannot tell the difference between the partisan’s answers and the answers of the opposite number, the candidate is judged to correctly understand the opposing side”

I would suggest that most libertarian keyboard warriors these days would fail rather miserably at such a test. The consequences of this are severe: if we do not succeed in understanding our opponents, we will never be able to convince them, or achieve the public policy change Australia desperately needs. No matter how well we know Locke or Mises or Friedman or Hayek, if we do not understand the arguments of those on the other side, then we are of limited use to the liberty movement. JS Mill put it best:

““He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion… Nor is it enough that he should hear the opinions of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them…he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.”

Jonathan Haight, writing in The Righteous Mind, noted how most political differences can be attributed to moral intuition which, while feeling like self-evident truths, differ across cultures, including the cultures of the poilitical ‘left and right’. As surprising as it may be to some, advocates for bigger government do not actually want economic ruin. Certainly, we may see this as the consequence of their policy prescriptions, however few people on the other side actually believe that that will occur. As such, in order to be able to convince someone who disagrees with you, the first step – the critical step – is to understand where they are coming from.

Several years ago, Eli Pariserk, then Executive Director of MoveOn.org, noticed something had happened to his facebook feed. Whereas previously he enjoyed reading links by conservatives, “I was kind of surprised when I noticed that the conservatives had disappeared from my Facebook feed… It turns out that Facebook was looking at which links I clicked on. And it noticed that I was clicking more on my liberal friends’ links than on my conservative friends’ links. And without consulting me about it, it had edited them out. They disappeared.”

This observation led Eli to write the 2012 book “The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think”, where her argued that “As web companies strive to tailor their services (including news and search results) to our personal tastes, there’s a dangerous unintended consequence: We get trapped in a “filter bubble” and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview”.

You do not have to accept Mr Pariserk’s conclusions to recognise the issue posed by filter bubbles is certainly real, but in a way that is caused not only by algorithms, but through self-selection and the people you associate with online.

While the problem with echo-chambers is perennial, the recent surge in libertarianism online – which you would initially assume to expose people to new and challenging ideas – has paradoxically heightened this problem. For while the internet has without doubt been a boon to the libertarian movement – previously isolated libertarian were able to find and identify communities of like-minded thinkers, to connect, and no longer feeling along, were able to become more active and creating the movement responsible for our current ‘libertarian moment’ – it has come at a cost.

The larger the movement became, the easier it became for activists to only interact with other like-minded activists, as a result, not only distorting their worldview, but making interacting with the general public and convincing them far more difficult. By pushing the centre of gravity of online discourse very sharply to the libertarian corner, it has become very easy to become unhinged from the reality of the world around us – and, by not taking seriously the writings of our opponents, we do ourselves a great disservice. As people lose the ability to see the other side’s point of view, they lose the ability to be able to convince them (and, not to mention, come across as patronising jerks).

This is certainly not limited to libertarians: Julian Sanchez, a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, writing in 2010, noted the problem with what he dubbed the epistemic closure of the conservative community: noting that “many conservatives have developed a distorted sense of priorities and a tendency to engage in fantasy

Mr Sanchez concludes that this epistemic closure “and a self-defeating one, because it corrodes the kind of serious discussion and re-examination of conservative principles and policies that might help produce a more self-assured movement.”

Does the same not apply to libertarians?

If the only people you associate with share your values, then you lose your compass of where the centre of the population actually is, and what is reasonable, so and fringe ideas become more palatable.

This sort of intellectual cocoon may be worse for libertarians than conservatives and leftists, precisely because so few people share our views, thereby by virtue of being so outside the mainstream, this sheltered worldview makes it even more difficult to relate to others.

Let’s be clear about what Australians actually believe:

  • Less than 20% of Australians oppose manufacturing subsidies, or oppose capping CEO salaries, or oppose a financial transaction tax, or support privitisation, or believe that foreign companies should be able to buy Australian farmland.
  • Only 21% of Australians oppose a super-tax on banks, and only 23% of Australians oppose establishing a government owned bank.
  • 67% of Australians believe in increasing our corporations tax (already one of the highest in the world).

Australians are overwhelmingly statist – and unless you engage with them, this is something that may easily slip you by. And unless you are aware of what political reality is, you will never be able to successfully change it.

However, it is necessary to not only address the ideas of the rationally ignorant, it is necessary to grapple with the politically active and highly educated and informed statist.

As brilliant as Mises or Hayek or Friedman were, and they are certainly relevant to today’s society, they are insufficient to engage in the contemporary battle of ideas. The world has changed in many ways since their writings, but even more so, so has our understanding of the world. Re-fighting the socialist calculation debate simply isn’t where it’s at anymore.

In order to engage in debate, and in particularly, to combat the ‘smart leftist’, we need to understand where the boundaries of our current knowledge are. Whether this be reading more of the new institutionalists economically, understanding the contribution of monetary theorists such as Scott Sumner, the amazing work on the relationship between the individual and the state by James C. Scott, Bryan Caplan’s application of public choice theory to voting, Deidre Mclousky’s application of economic history, the list goes on – this is where the intellectual cutting edge is of people who believe in small government, so why don’t most libertarians familiarise themselves with it?

I am as guilty as any party in this! I am beyond ashamed that I usually only read pieces agreeing with what I already know, and not furthering my knowledge in any way! I’m quite sure the people I really should be reading aren’t even in the aforementioned lists – because I too am guilty of this bubble thinking! Similarly, I am ashamed I have read almost no intelligent statist authors who have recently published, and certainly there are many. How can we engage our opponents and be taken seriously by bystanders, if we attack not them, but someone half-century dead?

The world changes, debates shift, and while the ideas of liberty are constant, their practical application changes through time, and – particularly as we consider ourselves such a future looking ideology – we need to stay up to date. The closing of the libertarian mind to new ideas is a severe problem we need to address.

One of the best initiatives to come out of the radical-left Think Progress is their “Three Things Conservatives Wrote This Week That Everyone Should Read”:

“Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.”

This is an idea every single one of us certainly ought adapt. For unless we appreciate, understand, engage with, and sufficiently recognise the value of opposing viewpoints, we shall not have that much success (incidentally, perhaps one of the best reasons, in fact, for libertarians to join mainstream political parties may just be not to influence them, but as some sort of reality check as it forces exposure thereby grounding you. )

This is by no means an easy task. It is difficult to read people you disagree with. It is even more difficult to read them charitably, to put yourself in their shoes. I struggle with this constantly, and must confess my general failure in several policy areas to be able to do this adequately, making me a far less effective advocate.

The problem I have identified is neither new, nor unique to us, however it is one which, I suggest, has been amplified by the internet. I would argue, however, that we ought hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we can at least start by charitably reading our opponents, and engaging with contemporary intellectual debate. After we have done that, convincing others will follow.

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2 Responses to “The Closing of the Libertarian Mind”

  1. John Humphreys Says:

    Pfft… you’re just saying that because you haven’t read enough Rothbard. 😉

  2. jordanrastrick Says:

    Great post, Tim.

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