A Simple Lesson in Libertarian Communication

Want to be a more effective libertarian communicator starting tomorrow? Want to be twice or even four times as effective within a week? You can be, and you don’t have to master Neuro-Linguistic Programming à la Michael Cloud, nor do you have to memorize the word magic of Marshall Fritz. You need not know what a Ransburger Pivot is, and you don’t need to buy a bunch of audio tapes. You can be your nerdy self and even use the phrase “cult of the omnipotent state” in polite company. I can summarize the lesson in one line:

“Don’t be silly unless you are telling a joke.”

Or if I wanted by the brutal drill sergeant I would put it more bluntly:

“Don’t be silly and earnest at the same time. It makes you look pathetic.”

I guess I should clarify a bit, and explain how libertarians in particular (including me for many years) tend to be inadvertently silly. So let’s add one more line:

“Use error bars, and the verbal equivalents.”

Libertarians say the silliest things without realizing it. I am not suggesting liberty is wrong or that libertarians are stupid. Far from it! Libertarians often outsmart themselves and oversell otherwise good ideas. Recall the late Harry Browne who often quipped:

“Government doesn’t work.”

Which is why my mail never arrives, the interstate highways are made out of Jello and you need to employ the Mafia to enforce any contract.

Maybe not. Government does work. It may be inefficient and downright brutal at times, but it does work. Even the old Soviet Union worked after a fashion. Most Russians did survive Stalin, and after Stalin the Soviet Union became less bad. The government even figured out more humane techniques (such as internal exile) to keep dissidents in check.

Government is dangerous. Market based solutions are often better. The advocates of big government frequently overstate the value of their favored programs and regulations. But government does work. It is complete lack of government which is problematic. Here is another:

“Man is a rational animal.”

Which is why men never make demonstrably false statements like “Government doesn’t work” and why Marxists quickly changed their minds once the Soviet experiment proved so disastrous. This is why the art of advertising consists of listing benefits and features in a logical fashion and politicians can simply state their platforms on a web page and await the voter’s decision.

Maybe not. Man is not a rational animal. Maybe we need to become rational animals in order to survive in this era of high population and nuclear weapons, but rationality is not our core nature. The natural man plays power games and defends his hunting grounds from rival clans. Rationality is a more modern feature which requires considerable training to master.

“The lesser of two evils is evil.”

This is technically correct, but implies a call for irrational action. Even if both the Republican and Democratic candidates are bad in a particular contest, one of the two is usually worse from the standpoint of liberty. If all libertarians (broadly defined) wasted their votes on underfunded candidates instead of supporting the lesser of two evils, we would have gotten socialized medicine decades ago. (See my Business Plan for a New Political Party for some useful loopholes in the lesser of two evils dilemma.)

“Your vote doesn’t count; vote for me!”

This comes off as particularly pathetic. While the odds of a particular vote making a difference are indeed small, the cumulative effect is obviously real, and simply voting is a cheap civic duty. If voting is useless, why vote at all? If you want to merely “make a statement” why expend huge efforts petitioning for ballot access, attending conventions, and complying with FEC regulations? Just write your message on a poster and stand on the sidewalk for a few hours.

“On my first week in office I’ll abolish the income tax and replace it with nothing.”

So, do we advocate explicit default on the debt, a retroactive tax on retirees who contributed to Social Security, or hyperinflation? Government spends way too much, and the income tax is overly complex and destructive. But a great deal of the money has already been spent, and the bills need to be paid, even under a libertarian regime. For now, responsible libertarians must settle for tax fairness and simplification until the bills are paid and entitlements phased out.

“Then I’ll dismantle the Federal Reserve System and go back to a gold standard.”

Once again, this is an incredibly irresponsible statement. The economy is horribly overleveraged, and all the players have factored continued inflation into their contracts. An overnight return to a gold standard constitutes a retroactive change to existing contracts, just the sort of thing for which we despise the Fed. We can and should make the money system more transparent, tighten reserve requirements, eliminate tax incentives for excessive debt, and yes, work our way back to a gold standard after deleveraging the economy and giving the players sufficient heads up. This is a decade’s long project at least.

“Taxation is theft.”

Technically true, and I still use this slogan, but then I quickly admit that it may be necessary theft for some government services and perhaps justifiable theft for others. Taxation is a moral compromise, which may be less bad than the alternatives. Anarchy, however, is problematic. I’d like to see some experiments to see if competitive overlapping governments work better than the geographic monopoly governments we have today. Cuba would be a nice place to start; even failed anarchocapitalism would be superior to the current regime, and Cuba has a nicer climate than New Hampshire. But a ringing moral call for immediately dismantling all government as we know it is stupendously irresponsible.

Mastering the Lesson

Take the overstatements above and turn them into true, defensible statements. Feel free to use weasel words. That’s what they are for. The truth is more complex and subtle than we can fit into sound bites, so we must employ approximations, but we need to make our approximations clear.

Apply the same lesson to whatever libertarian propaganda you are currently reading, whether it be LP News, a book or your favorite blog. Try to see the words from the perspective of a skeptic, someone who needs to be convinced with truth and logic vs. someone who reads them to feel good knowing someone else shares similar sentiments.

Finally, explore your own internal thinking. The biggest danger of bombastic rhetoric is that you can start believing your own propaganda. This holds true for all ideologies, and why it is good for the mind to debate political enemies and read their news sources. Correct your internal thinking and the correct words will come out of your mouth, no audio tape lessons needed. Even when your words prove clumsy, you will find more heads nodding in agreement, more listeners willing to sit still for second helpings of your wisdom.

And eventually, more politicians voting for legislation you like.

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