The Libertarian Virtues

This was very quickly typed up whilst waiting for a plane and is still very much in draft form. Constructive criticism, as always, is very welcome. 

Like many classical liberals, I have spent the past several months engaged in some degree of soul-searching as to the reasons behind the growing rise of both the forces of national populism and long discredited socialist central planning.

I have already articulated some of my thoughts as to how we can best articulate a positive agenda for the future here, and since delivering that speech, have further developed these ideas, which I hope to write up shortly and I feel fills in the ‘missing piece’ that that last argument was lacking.

However, in analysing where we are going wrong, it occurs to me that I have been missing a critical component. In addition to us attempting to improve on the marketing of our ideas, we need to focus on becoming better ambassadors for them. While related, this is a very different challenge, for it requires us to strive to become better people. As such, I thought what my weaknesses were, where I feel I have gone wrong, and what I should do to become a better ambassador for our ideas.

In the catechism of the Church of Rome, there is the idea of the Seven Virtues – personal qualities and character traits that everyone should strive to achieve. Therefore when looking at the traits that I should seek to achieve, I have chosen to frame them as the seven libertarian virtues. Let me know what you think of my attempt to create a little bit of libertarian self-help.

The Virtue of Empathy: When we see people struggling as the result of policy changes, accept it and empathise with it. We can not deny that globalisation and the freeing up of markets has caused social problems. While these are beneficial in the long run, the create losers. When someone has lost his job as a manufacturing plant has closed due to cheap imports, when a farmer has committed suicide due to falling milk prices, it is little succur to show an academic economic textbook about how we will be all better off. And in particular, if you well educated, cosmopolitain, and live in a city – like almost all libertarians – remember that not everyone is like you. In the United States, mortality rates for middle-aged white Americans have risen since the turn of the millennium, fuelled by suicide, drug overdoses, and liver disease, as well as heart disease and diabetes and are towns in the Midwest where more than a third of working-age men are employed fewer than 20 hours a week. This is shocking – which is why people are lashing out. Empathise, understand, and, if necessary, concede a point. It is far better to concede some points – even if you are in the right – and achieve a bond with someone that may lead to incremental change – than to alienate someone for ever.

The Virtue of Understanding: If people are opposed to policies you support, understand why. Do not consider them racist. Do not consider them ignorant. Understand why – and force yourself into a position where you can articulate their views. If you can not mount a coherent argument for tarrifs, for high taxes, for banning all immigration – then you will be unable to defend your beliefs adequately because you will never be able to understand who you are debating with. Once you understand others, only then can you start on convincing them.

The Virtue of Acceptance: I have never seen sexism in the liberty movement. In the same way I have almost never seen racism in society. Yet when almost every single libertarian female talks to me about sexism she has felt in the movement, there becomes a point where it is utterly ridiculously daft for me to deny this simply because I can not see it. Because clearly there is a problem – and perception is reality. Similarly, while I can not see racism, the fact that everyone I know from a minority has experienced racial abuse means we can not simply deny that it exists. Of course, this does not mean becoming a radical social justice warrior claiming structural oppression and the like. However, it does mean that when we have a dialogue with people, we acknowledge and accept their experiences – even if we do not see it ourselves. As much as the phrase ‘lived experience’ may make me cringe, there really is something to it.

 The Virtue of Philomathia: Learning is not limited to reading libertarian texts. If anything, their utility is limited – there are only so many variations that “freedom is good” can take.  Rather, we need to focus on learning more of the world around us – and its people. Libertarians need to focus on reading history (There is a reason the US founders were obsessed with the fall of Roman and Greek Democracy; why Burke’s views were shaped by the French Revolution; and how can we understand the cycles of history without seeing how Berlin was the most liberal city in Europe of the 1920’s and what happened just a decade after), theology (like it or not, religion is a powerful force in the world, and understanding it through its own eyes is essential to understanding both current and historical trends), as well as sociology, anthropology, and cultural criticism. Without properly understanding the world and its context, we create our own ideological bubble, our own ivory tower, divorced from reality and popular experiences.

The Virtue of Inclusion: The liberty movement is far too small for us to argue amongst ourselves over who is the One True Libertarian, or the distinctions between Rothbard. Hayek or Mises and Friedman, or socially conservative and more liberal minded people in their private lives. If we want to seriously reduce the size of the state, then the only chance we have is to work together and direct our attention on those who seek to enlarge it. Once we have achieved libertopia – then we can fight amongst each other.

The Virtue of Charity: If we wish to argue that civil society is far better to provide welfare than governments, should we not seek to lead by example? I commend people like Nat, Brian, Lee and others for the work they have done for non-profits and trying to help people in need, but should we not all seek to do the same far more than we already are? For how else can we demonstrate that non government welfare will actually work unless we put in the hard work ourselves? And, perhaps more importantly, how will we be able to understand the problems people face without us actually seeing them directly, rather than seeking to intuit them from a purely theoretical understanding

The Virtue of Vision: People are not convinced by reason or by arguments. If we wish to convince them, we need to connect on an emotional level (hence the virtue of empathy) but similarly be able to present a positive vision of society. To do this we need to understand where they are coming from, accept it, be a positive role model for our solution (hence the virtue of charity) but most importantly present a vision of the future. And how while things might be bad for them, it is our vision that will lead to a better future for their children. Most people will not be affected by how bitcoin or the sharing economy will change the way business is done. But they do care about leaving a better world. Create this positive vision for them – and in doing so incorporate all the virtues I have previously articulated.

 

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