How to Argue for Libertarianism

“Never argue over politics or religion.” I don’t know where this proverb originated but it is difficult to imagine a more useless piece of advice. Few people ever observe it, for one thing. Politics and religion are highly interesting topics; but unlike other interesting topics, such as science, we don’t need to appeal to authorities when defending our basic beliefs in these fields. We can think for ourselves from the ground up in politics and religion, and when we do—when we actually take the time and effort needed to arrive at reasonable beliefs in politics and religion—the results may qualify as legitimate accomplishments in which we should take pride.

Of course, all this is an ideal, and for many people it will never amount to anything more than an ideal. Reasoning is mental labor. It is a type of work, and we are unwilling to work unless we expect to gain something from it. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, most people would rather die than think; in fact, many do.

It is fair to say that most people probably give little thought to their beliefs in either politics or religion, but since this essay is concerned exclusively with politics I shall confine my remarks to this topic. By “thought,” in this context, I mean critical thought—and by this I mean a sustained effort to trace one’s political beliefs to their foundation and to identify the core principles on which that foundation depends.

Generally speaking (for there are always exceptions in matters like this), libertarians are a cut or two above the masses in the reasoning they have invested in their political beliefs. This is so partly because libertarian ideas are not part of the cultural mainstream in America, so few if any libertarians absorb their political convictions through osmosis, assimilating their ideas from “society” without giving them much thought. Nor will libertarian ideas usually make one popular with family, friends, and neighbors; nor will libertarian ideas advance one’s career prospects—so there is little motive to embrace libertarian ideas unless one is persuaded by their soundness and inner logic. Libertarian ideas generally run so contrary to prevailing social norms that a person must exert considerable intellectual effort before he or she becomes willing to embrace those ideas.

So how should one go about communicating libertarian ideas to other people, especially in face-to-face arguments? No rigid rules apply here; a great depends on one’s own background and skills, as well as on the background and skills of one’s interlocutor. For example, a libertarian well-versed in economics but with little or no knowledge of philosophy may wish to confine himself primarily to economic arguments. But these economic arguments may fall on deaf ears if one’s opponent has no interest in, or knowledge of, economics. This is one reason why it is always a good idea to have some knowledge of philosophy, which cuts across the boundaries of specialized disciplines. Philosophy deals with fundamental concepts and knowledge that apply to every specialized science, whether physical or social. Philosophy requires no specialized skills or knowledge, so even if one’s opponent has no background in formal philosophy, effective communication is still possible.

Adam Smith once observed that some people first become interested in ideas about freedom because of their aesthetic appeal. Libertarianism is a system of ideas, and within this system the ideas are so well-integrated that they convey a sense of intellectual beauty. This is an astute observation, judging from my own experience. I first became interested in libertarianism after reading Ayn Rand during my high-school years. It was Rand who first interested me in the moral foundations of a free society, and from there I went on to study history, economics, sociology, and social psychology. All of these disciplines seemed to fit together seamlessly, with no conflict or tension between them and moral philosophy. Libertarianism provided me with aesthetic satisfaction, broadly conceived; it provided a coherent and comprehensive ideology that made the world of human action comprehensible.

Despite the interdisciplinary nature of libertarian ideology, I have always believed that its ultimate foundation lies in the field of ethics. To quote a remark by John Milton (Areopagitica, 1644) that I have quoted many times before: “[H]ere the great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” The distinction between coercion and persuasion, which has been emphasized by many libertarian philosophers over many decades, constitutes the core of libertarianism. The fundamental purpose of libertarian theory is and always has been to justify this distinction and to specify when coercion among human beings is morally permissible and when it is not. Libertarian political philosophy is largely a systematic effort to apply this moral distinction to the realms of government and society.

This philosophical issue suggests an effective method of arguing for libertarianism—one that I have used since my high-school years and one that many other libertarians have used as well. This method consists of asking a person if she would consider it justifiable personally to compel, with threats of force, her peaceful neighbors to behave in a way she thinks they should behave, or to force her neighbors to contribute money to projects in which they have no interest or may even regard as immoral. Most people will answer “No” to questions like this; so long as our neighbors don’t violate anyone’s rights, they should be free to live their own lives as they see fit. (I specified most people because some people will disagree with the premise. I have in mind a Trotskyist I knew in college, who did not hesitate to affirm that he saw nothing wrong with personally compelling people to behave as he thought they should behave. This guy was pursuing a graduate degree in philosophy, but for all I know he may have become a career criminal.)

When a person concedes that it would unjust for her to force innocent people to behave as she thinks they should behave, it would seem a short and easy step to persuade that person to accept libertarianism, for libertarianism is little more than a logical spinning out and application of that selfsame principle. If no person has this right, then how can a government (which is but an association of individuals) possibly have his right? If no individual has the right to compel others—others, that is, who have violated the rights of no one—to live according to her dictates, then how can individuals possibly transfer this nonexistent right to a government? Or how can people authorize a government to undertake actions for which no single person has a moral authorization?

Since most of my readers are probably familiar with this method of argument, I won’t explain it further. But if persuasion were this simple, we would have many more libertarians than we actually do. So where does this argument fail, pragmatically speaking? Why doesn’t it persuade more people than it actually does?

In bridging the gap between what individuals may morally do and what a government may morally do, many people appeal to an ill-formed and intolerably vague version of the “social contract.” Somehow, we are informed, every American has agreed to obey the laws of our government in exchange for benefits provided by our government. But even if we were to accept this argument, it would not explain how a group calling itself a “government” became morally empowered to do things that would be condemned as criminal if undertaken by individuals. This is the mystique of government.

Having provided some background information, I now wish to turn to the art of persuasion itself. Let’s begin with an interesting observation by Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759; 6th ed. 1790).

The desire of being believed, the desire of persuading, of leading and directing other people, seems to be one of the strongest of all our natural desires….It is always mortifying not to be believed, and it is doubly so when we suspect that it is because we are supposed to be unworthy of belief….The man who had the misfortune to imagine that nobody believed a single word he said, would feel himself the outcast of human society, would dread the very thought of going into it, or of presenting himself before it, and could scarce fail, I think, to die of despair.

Probably the most useful element in the art of persuasion lies in the personal character of the persuader. It lies in our credibility. As Aristotle put it:

Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. His character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.

Credibility, as Aristotle suggested, emerges during the course of an argument or presentation. Your intellectual character—your manner of presenting yourself and your arguments—will establish more credibility than a string of academic credentials.

What, then, is credibility? If an Air Force pilot sights what he believes is an alien spacecraft, his report might be dubbed “credible,” thus distinguishing his account from that of a crank with a similar story. Because the pilot is a credible witness, his testimony deserves consideration and should not be dismissed out of hand.

Of course, credible people are sometimes dead wrong, so credibility has nothing intrinsically to do with true beliefs or valid arguments. Credibility won’t win an argument, but it will at least get your argument into court for a hearing. You will be unable to convince anyone of anything in a face-to-face encounter if you are not taken seriously to begin with. I shall have more to say about this subject in my next essay.

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