Why Libertarians Should Stop Talking About Liberty

I literally smashed this out in a record 13 minutes, so it clearly has a lot of work to go, but I would be very interested in your feedback on this as I would eventually like to write it up into something publication-worthy:

The current political dynamic – both in Australia and abroad – should be a warning to all of us who believe in individual freedom, small government, and free markets. Despite having the only ideology proven to increase prosperity, we are clearly on the losing side against the rising forces of populism and collectivism. Despite having networks of think tanks and activist groups around the world, despite having the best ideas, we are losing traction. And rather than seeking to blame the establishment, the media, universities, a rigged political system &c., we need to take responsibility for our errors as a movement and correct them.

I have previously written extensively about how we need to start thinking about moving beyond a dry economic argument and instead promoting a powerful emotional vision for the future. But I think the problem lies deeper than this. And the problem at its core is: we talk about liberty too much.

Now, I realise that some people might be thinking that I’ve just suffered an aneurysm, or worse still, joined the Niskanen Project For Negotiating The Terms Of Our Surrender. Let me assure you I have not in the slightest. Our beliefs remain the only way to ensure long lasting prosperity and we should never waiver from them. However, we need to think smarter about how we advocate them.

In writing about the foundations of moral philosophy, Jonathan Haidt posited different persons placed innate value on different moral foundations: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, Sanctity, and Liberty. Rather obviously, progressives valued fairness and care, conservatives valued sanctity, authority/respect, and loyalty, whilst classical liberals valued liberty. This all seems rather obvious: different people value things differently.

The key point from this however is that even the best case scenario for classical liberals has people prioritising liberty as being at under 10% of the population. As such, any appeal to ‘liberty’ is doomed to fail – because at most you will attract 10%, but even then considerable bleed will happen. Indeed, the idea of ‘liberty’ may well be possibly counterproductive in convincing many people who simply do not believe that it a value worth pursuing.

I wish to stress this again: every appeal to ‘liberty’ is doomed to fail because the population base of support is simply not there. 

What I propose therefore is that rather than talking about liberty we work to reframe our arguments so that they may appeal to persons valuing the other moral dimensions.

An obvious example of this is authority/respect, valued considerably by conservatives. Rather than championing individualism, as many are want to do, we instead should steer our arguments towards how “submitting to tradition and legitimate authority” is valuable – but it is the ever-powerful state that is the worst culprit in destroying these. Authority in and of itself, after all, is not illegitimate – the question is how it is derived, and the authority of social institutions in enforcing norms – as opposed to law – is not only better for society, but an avenue where “conservative” ends can be achieved through libertarian means. Similarly, libertarians may frequently mock “sanctity” but social institutions and civil society are surely far better at preserving these than the state that has done so much to crush them. If we accept the moral premise that these things matter, and argue from that, then and only then shall we reach people who we did not reach before.

The same principle applies when speaking to more progressive people who value “care” and “fairness”. A focus on the destructive nature of the corporatist state in perpetuating inequality (much in the way that Sam Bowman and the UK based ASI is presently trying to do) is surely better than the more hard-hearted attitude many libertarians seem to demonstrate in public debate. If you accept the moral principle of care and fairness, and argue from that perspective, once again there is considerable opportunity for common ground.

This is all rather self-evident, and many will respond by saying “but we do show how libertarianism will help the disadvantaged” for instance. The point I am trying to make, however, is that the way we are doing so is failing because we are not starting from the same point in terms of moral foundations as our interlocutors. We are still presenting our arguments and trying to justify them to others, as opposed to looking at things from their perspective. This is why I think exercises such as the Ideological Turning Test are so valuable, and I would love for nothing more than an international movement to make these happen. Because it is only when you can actually understand the other sides values that you can adequately craft a response.

And I need to stress: in talking about “liberty” we alienate people who do not believe in it as a value. Who believe it antithetical to fairness, to respect, and so on. As such what I am proposing is not that we try to complement our arguments with more empirical evidence as to how they help the disadvantaged etc. We have been trying this for decades, and have been failing at it. What I am proposing is that we stop talking about the virtue of freedom, and instead talk about the virtues that other people care about – and talk about it from the perspective that they are in.

People who believe in freedom support our ideals anyway. Given that they are under ten percent of the population, however, I think it’s time we tried to convince the other ninety.


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