A key instrument of political persuasion is the logical argument. Advocates of every ideology back their ethical and political beliefs with arguments based on premises that reflect their fundamental views of the nature of reality and the nature of man.
Libertarians promote freedom-oriented values using closely reasoned arguments based on widely accepted social and ethical norms. Yet few people newly exposed to such arguments become libertarians. Why is this the case? Is it moral failure on the part of the listeners, failure such as envy or the desire for the unearned? Is it a refusal to accept rational arguments, putting faith or feelings above reason? Is it peer pressure, favoring the traditional and conventional?
Or is it something else entirely, something we’ve missed?
To understand why communicating the value of libertarian principles is often so difficult, we need to reexamine the nature of logical argumentation and the role it plays in political and ethical debate. Classical or Aristotelian logic is a powerful tool for grasping and organizing concepts and defining their relationships to one another and to reality. But decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas. Indeed, when used improperly or in an inappropriate setting, it often achieves the opposite of its intended result.
Decades of experience have shown that logic, by itself, is not an effective tool for marketing libertarian ideas.
A widely held belief among libertarians is that, aside from direct perception, the primary way that people acquire knowledge or beliefs is by using their rational faculties, employing either classical logic or mental processes that are reducible to classical logic. This is not true; and even if it were, the use of logic alone would not be an efficient means of promoting a libertarian worldview. Here are several reasons why.
When dealing with concepts, people construct mental models of these concepts. These models are mental images representing typical examples of the concepts under discussion, based on previous encounters with instances of them. For example, when one is presented with the concept “bird,” the image that comes to mind is likely a “generic” bird such as a robin or a sparrow, rather than a less typical bird such as a penguin or an ostrich.
Once an image has become associated with a specific concept in an individual’s mind, that image becomes the standard by which he or she judges any instances of that concept encountered at a later time. When presented with a logical statement — for example, “if A, therefore B” — a person will evaluate not only whether the statement makes logical sense, but also how well “A” and “B” match his or her mental images. If two or more competing arguments are presented, people usually accept the one most strongly in accord with their preexisting images.
This leads to difficulties in the realm of political discourse. Taking an example from the libertarian playbook, consider the following syllogism: “Taxation is theft. Theft is morally wrong. Therefore, taxation is morally wrong.”
As libertarian arguments go, this one is relatively straightforward, easy to explain and understand. However, a listener’s response to this syllogism and its embedded concepts will be heavily influenced by the images that these concepts generate in his or her mind. For a non-libertarian listener, the word “theft” is likely to conjure up the image of a conventional criminal rather than a tax collector.
By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought.
Since the argument presented by the libertarian conforms to the rules of logic, the listener will evaluate the validity of the argument based upon the degree to which the image of “tax collector” corresponds to the image of “thief” in the listener’s mind. If the listener’s mental images for “thief” and “tax collector” are too far apart, the listener may conclude that the libertarian is attempting to stretch the definition of the word “theft” beyond its appropriate boundaries, and as a consequence may reject the argument entirely.
This is more than a trivial issue regarding the effectiveness of libertarian outreach. Mental images can be much more influential than logical arguments in shaping and maintaining a society’s character, laws, and customs. The history and political culture of the United States at present provide a case in point.
For many Americans in the revolutionary era, the exemplar of a person fully entitled to liberty was a white male, preferably a landowner and farmer. Native Americans, African-Americans, and women were seen as inferior in various respects when compared to this idealized image, and thus not entitled to enjoy the same rights as white males. These images or mental models were widespread in colonial and revolutionary America, reflected in policies such as expulsion of Native Americans, enslavement of African-Americans, limitations on women’s (especially married women’s) property rights, and exclusion of all three groups from meaningful participation in the political process. The pervasiveness of these mental images partially explains how so many white landowners were able, in their own minds, to justify owning slaves while simultaneously fighting a revolution based on “inalienable” human rights.
Political and cultural images are no less powerful today. Most of them (though not all) help to sustain the perceived legitimacy and effectiveness of government intrusion into all aspects of a supposedly “free” society, even in the face of massive evidence to the contrary. Statist politicians take full advantage of these images to bypass rational debate as they advance their agendas. Virtually all political advertising in the mainstream media attempts to influence voters by appealing to their established mental images in order to manipulate their emotions.Experience has shown that such advertising is effective. By itself, logic cannot successfully compete with emotion-laden appeals to voters’ ingrained beliefs and habits of thought; if it could, libertarians would have won the ideological battle long ago.
People assign measurement parameters to qualitative concepts, based on how well particular instances of these concepts match their mental images. The relationship between concepts and measurement is a tricky one. Many concepts, such as height, require some form of measurement when applied to a concrete example. Concepts that are more abstract, such as motivation, can be given descriptive forms of measurement (“highly motivated”, “barely motivated”), allowing specific instances to be compared to one another. Finally, there are concepts, such as “bird,” that apply to a specific set of entities and appear to be purely qualitative and not subject to measurement — either a particular entity is a bird, or it isn’t.
But people apply measurement parameters to qualitative concepts also, in terms of the degree to which a specific example matches a person’s mental image. A penguin may have all the formal characteristics of a bird and yet be too different from a “typical” bird to be considered a full member of the “set” of birds. Faced with this conundrum, people often give only partial or qualified recognition to a penguin’s status as a bird (“a penguin is sort of a bird”).
When qualitative concepts such as “bird” are assigned a measurement component, their inclusion in logical statements becomes problematic. If this type of concept is used in the premise of a syllogism, the measurement component will also carry over into its conclusion, and in some cases will diminish the perceived validity of the entire argument.
Revisiting our previous example of taxation as a form of theft, a non-libertarian is likely to assign the concept “tax collector” only partial membership in the set of conceptual entities denoted by the word “thief.” Depending on the listener’s perspective, the concept “tax collector” will correspond to the concept “thief” anywhere from 100% (if the listener is a hardcore libertarian) to 0% (if the listener is a hardcore socialist who does not recognize any right to private property). Most people will estimate the percentage as somewhere in between, depending upon the degree of legitimacy that each person assigns to the concept of taxation and how reasonable the person considers a tax rate to be. The extent to which a person believes that a tax collector is a thief is the extent to which that person will agree with the libertarian’s position regarding the morality of taxation. Only rarely will such agreement be total.
The higher the level of abstraction, the more widely a population’s mental models of a concept will vary. Higher-level concepts are derived from multiple lower-level concepts. The same holds true for mental images. Each lower-level image varies from person to person, increasing the overall variation in a population’s higher-level mental images. As an analogy, consider a contest among several chefs preparing a meal from the same recipe. The recipe itself is identical for all chefs, but each chef’s interpretation of that recipe will make each final product unique. The more complex the recipe — the more ingredients used and the more steps required in the meal’s preparation — the greater will be the variation in the resulting dishes.
Propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public.
Variation among high-level images greatly increases the difficulty faced by libertarians seeking to change people’s minds through the use of logic. Most concepts relating to libertarian principles and values — concepts such as justice, morality, property, and individualism — involve high levels of abstraction. But the more abstract the concepts employed in a libertarian’s argument, the less likely is the listener to share the libertarian’s interpretation of those concepts. To convince people to adopt a libertarian view of high-level abstractions such as justice, one must also convince them to revise their mental models of the lower-level concepts that give rise tothese high-level abstractions. Often this can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of a non-libertarian’s core values. Logical arguments, no matter how elegantly structured, are not sufficient by themselves to accomplish this task.
Because of evolutionary pressures, people are “hardwired” to resist change, an attribute that logic alone cannot overcome. In his recently published book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo identifies a widespread human trait — one that helps explain why it is so difficult for libertarians to be successful in challenging the political status quo. He writes: “The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency, and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty, and instability as threats to its survival — which is, in effect, our survival.”
This universal human tendency — developed in a much more dangerous world to cope with ambiguous threats, and now part of our evolutionary heritage — raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the methods we use to advance our political philosophy. In employing an “educational” strategy using logical argumentation, we are constantly outmaneuvered by the hardwiring of the human brain that craves “stability, certainty, and consistency.” Our political agenda is not an obvious fit in any of these three categories. However, most libertarians do not recognize this as a serious problem, and ignore or downplay voters’ concerns regarding stability, certainty, and consistency, preferring to focus almost exclusively on the advantages of liberty and less intrusive government.
In doing so we make it difficult to gain adherents, because we are urging people to take a leap into the unknown and untried — at least in their experience. The prospect of instability triggers a perception of heightened risk and uncertainty in listeners’ minds. Most people are risk-averse, especially in matters concerning their own survival, their livelihood, and the wellbeing of their families. In times of crisis such as now, they gravitate toward solutions that promise stability, and shun proposals that are fraught with uncertainty, even if such proposals promise a greater level of individual freedom.
Given these reasons why logic alone cannot convince most people to adopt a libertarian philosophy, it might appear that our most potent weapon in the battle for liberty is inadequate to the task. But each of the limitations described above can be overcome by employing logic carefully and in combination with other means of persuasion. Here are a few suggestions in this regard.
If two words or phrases mean substantially the same thing, choose the one that is most likely to evoke the desired mental image in the listener’s mind. For example, defenders of economic liberty often use the terms “capitalism” and “free market” interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the two concepts are nearly identical in meaning. But to the general public, the word “capitalism” evokes a multitude of unfavorable associations and images that do not arise when the term “free market” is used.
For many people, “capitalism” conjures up images of politically connected financial institutions receiving government favors; multinational corporations “outsourcing” American jobs to cheaper and less regulated labor markets abroad; giant retailers crushing helpless smaller competitors; exploitation of conscientious workers by uncaring employers; and the awarding of multi-billion-dollar bonuses to rich Wall Street executives.
Although most of these undesirable events result from massive government interference in the economy, the public at large perceives them as failures of capitalism. This happens because of the pervasive influence of the media and the public education system, both of which are overwhelmingly friendly to “activist” government and hostile to business.
However, propagandists for big government find it almost impossible to demonize the phrase “free market.” Both words in this phrase resonate favorably with the public, and “free market” is familiar to many people as shorthand for a system of voluntary exchange. While “capitalism” can readily be personified and caricatured (“evil capitalist,” “plutocrat,” “exploiter,” “monopolist”), the term “free market” does not lend itself to such verbal distortion — we never hear statists castigating “evil free marketers.”
If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy.
When we promote our ethical and political principles through the use of logic, we are evoking people’s mental images as we attempt to appeal to their rational faculties. Our arguments can be much more persuasive if we strive to use words and phrases that evoke the most favorable images and associations in their minds. In this instance, promoting the “free market” rather than defending “capitalism” is more likely to achieve this goal.
Avoid the use of higher-level concepts when lower-level ones will address the issue at hand. For example, in casual conversation with non-philosophers, it is usually not helpful or appropriate to invoke natural rights theory, Austrian economics, or high-level abstractions such as individualism when discussing issues such as Wall Street bailouts and Obamacare. Most listeners will more readily connect with everyday libertarian talking points about freedom of choice and the unfairness of income redistribution.
Demonstrate that our policy proposals promote “stability, certainty, and consistency.” This means toning down the language of “radical upheaval” in favor of the language of “sensible reform.” As noted earlier, most voters are risk-averse when faced with the prospect of major changes in the social or political landscape. Such voters will be more receptive to arguments promoting a libertarian agenda if these arguments are presented in a manner that is reassuring rather than unsettling.
When proposing policies based on libertarian principles, avoid the temptation to insist that such policies be applied in every case. Although principles are not contextual, policies are. For most policies there are exceptional circumstances, such as “lifeboat” situations, that make it appropriate to modify them temporarily, or waive them. If we treat our political principles as axioms and our policy prescriptions as moral absolutes, our arguments become fragile; any real or perceived exceptions will weaken such arguments in the minds of listeners.
In libertarian circles, an unfortunate but common example of this phenomenon is misuse of the non-initiation-of-force principle (really a policy prescription rather than a principle), which states that no one may initiate force against another person. This policy is appropriate in most adult-to-adult interactions. However, in other contexts exceptions come readily to mind, such as dealings with children or persons afflicted with severe mental problems.
If our objective is to gain wider support for our views, insisting on unconditional acceptance of our policy proposals is a losing strategy. We can more effectively promote our principles, and receive a more respectful hearing from a non-libertarian audience, if we do not overstate our case by insisting that our ideas be put into practice regardless of any circumstances that may arise. Libertarian proposals for public policy are aimed at maintaining or defending values, and can legitimately be overridden when higher or more fundamental values are at stake.
Ultimately, our success in promoting a libertarian worldview depends not only on presenting well-reasoned logical arguments, but also on making sure that we employ language and concepts that are appropriate to the particular issue and the particular audience we are addressing. Putting in this extra effort can go a long way toward making libertarianism accessible and attractive to those we seek to reach.