New Project: “Points of Liberty”

Here I go again, starting a new post with the complaint that I never get around to using this site as much as I should. Anyways…

 

I started this site about 7 years ago with the intent that it would be for promoting and supplementing a book that still hasn’t been written, and won’t be anytime soon. Recently though, I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be better to get a more concise project done instead. I’ll be writing up a short booklet that’s under five-thousand words long (a 30-minute read for most people) that can be printed and stapled in the same format as the publications featured here on Invisible Molotov.

 

The working title right now is Points of Liberty, with a subtitle to the effect of, “The concise case against government control.” You can think of it as a Cliff’s Notes summary of how to think through major policy issues, and some general heuristics to help you along the way for topics you don’t have hard knowledge of yet. A lot of it will be based on bullet points I plan on including in “State Exempt: Guide to a Voluntary Society” – but that book won’t get done unless I can complete something on a smaller scale first.

 

I’m a little uneasy about having the word “liberty” in the title, because that might give the impression to skeptics that I aim to assume more in the book than I really do. Rather than arguing from any political values, I’m hoping to argue from premises everyone already has. But more on all that later in this post…

 

Now for some backstory on why I suddenly decided to start throwing this together. It all comes down to what I’ve learned about public opinion research, and how Libertarians in real life try to (poorly) make their case.

 


 

In case you didn’t know, the median voter has a ton of misconceptions about policy issues that are far out of wack with what economists believe on the same matters. If Libertarians of any stripe (minarchist, panarchist, anarchist, you name it) want to see change happen, they’ve got to get a grip on how to persuade the highest number of average joe and janes with the least amount of effort.

 

Which brings me to my latest random instance of inspiration.

 

A while ago, I came across a talk given by Bryan Caplan on public opinion and why it’s a sobering field of research for Libertarians. You can summarize his talk as follows:

 

1. If you want to predict what politicians are most likely to do, you have to look at what the median voter wants. Special interests may play a role, but only because ignorance and irrational beliefs held by the general public allow them to get away with what they do.

2. Much of what the public thinks is extremely antithetical to what Libertarians wish they thought about political and economic matters. As a general rule, the more specific the issue the less Libertarian the answer.

3. If Libertarians want any hope at all of having their ideas change the world, they’ve got to be honest with themselves about what the public really thinks about policy issues rather than exclusively blame bad politicians and special interests. Change the revealed preferences of the median voter, and the popularity of politicians who are skeptical of government intervention in different areas of our lives will rise accordingly.

 

For staunch Libertarians to change things in the political sphere, you’ve got to learn what makes the median voter tick, and Bryan Caplan mentioned a point in the talk I linked to earlier that does give us hope. In surveys about what the public thinks about raising the minimum wage, support drops in half if people are asked to consider the possibility of reduced hours of employment for the workers it’s supposed to help. That pattern has been replicated in more recent surveys as well. All it took was the mention of a single trade-off and the general opinion of those surveyed reversed, so what if Libertarians took the effort to find similar points of persuasion with other issues?

 

About five months ago, Bryan Caplan participated in a Reddit AMA in which I had the chance to ask him directly about the possibility of using polling to find what trade-offs change someone’s mind the most on respective political issues. He replied stating that it would be an expensive venture, but it would be great if it became a common genre in public opinion polling (my thoughts exactly on both).

 

All this is only one side of the coin. Not only have I become convinced that there is a potential new strategy for deciphering what is most likely to change minds, but for over a decade now I’ve found myself frustrated at how bad people in my own camp are at making the case for their views.

 


 

In the last few years in particular, I’ve had a chance to really see firsthand how people from my own political camp tend to go about the process of persuasion. God damn is it stomach-churning to see how often they argue from premises that no one else agrees with to begin with.

 

My favorite example of this? Definitely Molyneux’s “Against Me” argument. Besides being a racist asshole as of late, he basically turned thousands of younger liberty-minded types into droids that do nothing but claim anyone who disagrees with them is a no-good terrible person who wants everybody to get shot. Go ahead, read that link again if you don’t know what I mean.

 

My point here is that things we take for granted (such as the famed “non-aggression principle”) are not at all taken seriously by people who don’t already agree with us. If you can save someone’s life by a modest initiation of force (like taking a penny from thousands of people), why shouldn’t you? That’s a consequentialist objection to natural rights that many lay people are right to bring up; a moral principle that allows someone to die for the sake of a slight

 

Instead, I really wish people in my political camp would admit that there are many politically-relevant values that people have a psychological attachment to. If you want to persuade more people, you need to do more than claim everyone who disagrees with you just wants you to get shot.

 

But the problem with most of the Libertarian arguments I hear isn’t just a matter of arguing from values that differ from those that disagree with us. The biggest problem I see is that people of my political stripe tend to argue for their views in a manner that’s completely different from what got them persuaded in the first place.

 

I call this arguing downhill. You start from the premise that NAP is a value any common-sense person would agree with, so you proceed to call every policy you hate an act of “force.” It’s easy to do because it flatters what you already take for granted. The problem with this? I’m betting you were persuaded by an “uphill” set of new information that built upon itself piece by piece instead. That is, you encountered multiple examples of why – for example – market competition is better able to drive down prices and boost quality than other approaches. No single finding was totally compelling by itself, but combined together you eventually became convinced as a matter of principle that market approaches are the best way to deliver goods and services. Oh, and you probably had to actually learn how markets and government operate differently before those examples could even resonate with you.

 

Let’s take economic issues for sake of argument. Did you once think the Great Depression was the result of too little government oversight? Did you think markets would lead to monopoly firms if government was left out of the picture? Did you think there were no viable alternatives to Social Security or Medicare/Medicaid because you didn’t know what the returns were for IRAs, or how cash-only health care centers work? Did you not understand what money even is, or why fiat currency is something to shy away from? Were you unaware of the difference between crony capitalism and true markets? Did you think many municipal services were just natural functions of local governments? Were you unaware of all the evidence that school choice programs deliver better results at a lower cost than traditional public schools? Did you think without an FDA, drug companies would be in a rush to kill their own customers, and thus their bottom line? Did you think raising the minimum wage was a no-brainer thing to do that wouldn’t lead to any negative consequences for the workers you thought it would help? Were you convinced that taxing everything the richest CEOs make each year would balance the budget?

 

I’m not expecting you to know your personal answers to all those questions. But what I do want to get across to any like-minded readers is that you probably didn’t adopt the views you have because someone came up to you and said “initiating force is wrong” and suddenly you agreed. That view had to be built up over time with more isolated “points of persuasion” before you were willing to buy into it. You needed an answer to quite a few questions before you became skeptical of government as a matter of principle.

 


 

Both the goals of highlighting compelling trade-offs, and arguing from premises most people already agree with are what I hope to pull off with this booklet. I’ll update it every several months based on feedback and my own experiences in putting the information to use. The format will be inspired by that of the FEE article, “Effectively Irrational.” Rather than a single paragraph per topic, I expect to have one giving an overview of it, another giving real-life examples that confirm the point I hope to get across, and then a little bit of space for references and further reading.

 

Learning to pack the most amount of information in the least amount of space will help me go a long way towards making State Exempt easier to write as well.

 

With all this in mind, a dream come true for me would be a pollster testing out the efficacy of some of the book’s content in the same way that people like Emily Ekins test out what convinces people to change their minds on major political bills today. Who knows? Maybe Caplan was right, and this really does need to become a new genre of research that gets the backing it needs?