Thursday, May 25, 2006

Our Secret War

Two days ago John Stossel visited Cato to talk about his new book (and sell signed copies along the way). I'm a huge fan of Stossel, him being my earliest introduction to libertarianism, so I gladly went down to the District to listen to him speak. After he was finished, I asked him what Jeremy describes as the "stock Youngberg question" which boils down to "How can libertarians improve our rhetoric so we can better argue the case for liberty?"

On the news channels and radio stations there is a war going on between statism and liberty and liberty is losing. In academia we don't like thinking about it as a war. When professors and students make the case for less government, it really does just boil down to conveying the facts; we are talking to people who, for the most part, want to learn this stuff (or are at least a captive audience).

But outside the ivory tower it sadly boils down to winning and losing, not learning. A wittier argument convinces more people than a right one and I thought of all people, John Stossel, a libertarian journalist, could offer insights to improve our rhetorical arsenal. Facts are not enough when you're trying to convince someone who doesn't want to admit he could be wrong.

Mr. Stossel responded by acknowledging he's always surprised how poorly CEOs argue their case when put in front of a camera. Then he realized he wasn't answering my question so he continued not to answer it: "Just keep doing what you're doing at George Mason."

Recently Mike and I have been discussing how we can be better advocates. (Perhaps creating more posts like Libertarianism in 30 Seconds and Respond Another Day but with comments by people with more experience than us but I'm not sure how we would get this.) Over the summer I plan to add posts on this precise subject and hopefully I'll get company both in both comments and articles.

There's a clear need for better arguments. Our current ones simply state the facts: they are carefully formed, tailored to the conversation and can only change a few people's minds. Statist use broad, straight-forward arguments that do poorly in formal debate but bring countless droves to their banner when in the forum of mass media. In the mainstream debate, we are fighting only with sniper rifles and everyone else has a machine gun. I think it's time we diversify our weaponry.


Anonymous said...

Would you like some advice from your brother as someone who is not a libertarian but who reads your blog and sometimes comments on it? An outside perspective may be helpful.

David said...


I agree that the rhetoric is in need of improvement. I enjoyed Mankiw's paper "The Politics and Economics of Offshore Outsourcing", where he recounts his political fiasco while adviser to the president. He argues that terminology that is understood by economists to have negative connotations, such as "protectionism", is ambiguous or even positive sounding to the general population. Protection is generally a good thing, so economists defending free trade should use terms like "isolationist" instead. Anyway, Mankiw cites a few different term like that in his paper.


Jenny said...

The real problem might be that libertarians pride themselves on their logically-sound, factually-accurate arguments. The statists are perfectly willing to use emotions to get a response. I personally have mixed feelings about using an appeal to emotions. Are arguments over abortion, capital punishment, war, etc. helped by heart-wrenching personal testimonies and gruesome pictures? Maybe. Everyone else has converts. We don’t.

jeremy h. said...

Here is my "stock answer" to your "stock question": We should stop being shills for the current state-capitalist status quo. It sounds "leftist" when you first say it, but I think it rings true.

This is a trap many conservatives (gladly) fall into: apologizing for just about anything that big business does. Many libertarians do as well. It hurts our cause in so many ways.

Stossel commented, as others have, that very few super-wealthy businessmen are willing to praise capitalism. Why? I think the answer is obvious: they did NOT earn their living on a free market.

I believe that much of the current structure of "the market" today can be traced to various forms of corporate welfare, protectionism, regulatory capture, and intellectual property protections.

Many libertarians will acknowledge this fact, but will quickly add "but it probably wouldn't change much without all the interventionism." There is, obviously, no way to empirically test this, but I think it's quite a silly response.

But that's just me.