If Libertarians are anything, they are passionate. Libertarians want more people to understand the philosophy of freedom; so they cite stats, figures, authors and books that influenced their thinking and hope other people will respond to the message in the same way. Too often these “great” arguments fall upon deaf ears.
It isn’t easy to convince someone to change their worldview, but it can be done. If there was an exact “blueprint to conversion” that existed, I would just publish that and watch the world turn into a better place. Instead, there are a few general principles you should be aware of that will help you be more persuasive as you explain to others why libertinism is right for them.
Step one to convert someone to libertarianism is to establish trust. Nobody is going to change their mind unless they see you as trusted messenger — someone who is knowledgable, honest, sincere and responsible.
You cannot establish trust without listening. As a libertarian, you are willing to think outside of the box. You know far more about politics and economics than most people; so naturally you want to shout your philosophy from the rooftop for everyone to hear.
This is not how people communicate. Normal human interaction doesn’t go out the window just because you understand the business cycle. Communication is a process of back and forth.
Listening is often more important than speaking. An intent listener, who asks thought provoking questions, will be viewed as a great conversationalist by others. Aim to spend 70% of the conversation listening and only 30% of the conversation talking.
There are two main benefits to listening. First, you will learn a bunch of new and useful information about the person. You will find out the issues they care about, why they care about them and how they came to hold certain beliefs. Second, as a good listener you will build trust and open the door for further communication.
Dale Carnegie wrote “there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument – and that is to avoid it.” This is great advice for libertarians. There are only two possible outcomes to an argument. You either lose the argument; or you “win” the argument and leave the other person annoyed and looking for post-hoc rationalizations, which they will easily find.
In other words, an argument accomplishes nothing and in the end both sides walk away more convinced than ever that they were correct.
Conversation > Argumentation
Argumentation creates a “gloves up conversation” were both sides enter into fight mode. If you actually want to convince somebody to become a libertarian instead of picking arguments, the person must be in conversation mode instead of fight mode. If you are having a conversation instead of an argument, mutual respect is earned and disagreement becomes welcomed and even tolerated. People are open to new ideas and new lines of thought when they are in conversation mode, but not when they are in fight mode. No matter what the topic, keep your cool and seek conversations instead of arguments.
You’ve Got Trust — Now What?
Show that your values align.
It is essential to create strong foundation if you are building a house. Only later will you add finishing touches like plumbing, painting, trims, etc. When you are discussing ideas with others, you must take the very same approach. Libertarians are viewed as radicals. To break down barriers and make a persuasive case for liberty, you must show people that you share common ground and believe in shared values.
Luckily, most of us share many common values with one another. This is true regardless of our existing political persuasions. Everyone, whether on the left, right or libertarians; believes in fairness, caring, loyalty, truth, justice, equality, security, freedom, etc. The difference between left and right lies not in the values we share, but often in the definition or application of the values (for example, equality as material conditions or equality as equal under the law).
Here’s the point: nobody is going to listen to your 5 point plan about how to fix the tax code if you haven’t shown your values align — that you’re ultimate goal is human flourishing instead of haphazard destruction. Prove values align first, then later you can work your way to detailed policy prescriptions.
Appeal to Emotion
In his book The Righteous Mind, psychologist Johnathan Haidt breaks down the human mind into two distinct and divided parts: the “conscious verbal reasoning” (what libertarians tend to use in persuasion) and the “automatic and intuitive” mental processes.
The problem for libertarians is the division in our minds is not equal. The automatic and intuitive part of the brain — the part most libertarians ignore during persuasion — controls up to 98% of our mental processes.
This means the conscious verbal reasoning part of our brain is like a human being sitting atop a massive elephant. If 98% of mental processes are controlled by “automatic” forces, you will have no success in political persuasion without “speaking to the elephant first.” Since many libertarians (including myself) came to hold their beliefs through logical argumentation, this is a tough pill to swallow; but it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that in order for libertarianism to gain a broader appeal we need to “speak to the elephant” instead of passing out copies of Human Action and hoping that logic will prevail.
This begs the question: How do you speak to the elephant? These moral beliefs that make up the elephant and influence us, according to Haidt, break down into five primary categories: 1. fairness (vs. cheating) 2. caring (vs. harm) 3. respect for authority (vs. subversion) 4. loyalty (vs. betrayal) 5. purity (vs. degradation). Sometimes Haidt adds a 6th category that libertarians understand well: liberty (vs. coercion).
Talk About “Caring” and “Fairness”
We know in order to be persuasive advocates for liberty we must show others that our values align. We understand that we must appeal to the emotional side of people. But where exactly do we start?
Jonathan Haidt’s research provides an interesting jumping off point. He shows that of the five moral foundations; liberals, conservatives and independents all hold the values of “caring” and “fairness” in high regard. While conservatives view all the “moral foundations” as equally important, liberals and independents view caring and fairness as vastly more important than the other moral foundations.
This means you must show how freedom, free enterprise, tax cuts or whatever issue you are talking about is “caring” or “fair.” If you do this you are speaking directly to a moral foundations that everyone shares in common. This is especially important if you are speaking to a diverse audience containing a mix conservatives, liberals and independents.
Here are a few brief examples of how to weave the moral foundations of caring and fairness into your argument:
“It is not fair to take 50% of someones labor whether they are poor, middle class or rich. We need tax relief from the government, not tax increases — the government already takes well above anything resembling a fair share.”
“The average joe is far worse off when government forcibly takes their money and wastes it on bombs overseas”
In the second example, “caring” was implied and not explicitly stated. This is because it is not enough to state that “freedom is fair” or “freedom is caring”, you must genuinely appeal to the moral foundation in order move the elephant. Zingy one liners are not enough to change an entire worldview, they are just the beginning.
The best way to illustrate important moral foundations and move the elephant comes from storytelling.
Illustrate Issues Through the Use of Stories
Think about how powerful the impact of a good story can be. It can be about a friend, a friend of a friend or somebody from an entirely different country or time period; a well crafted emotional story will stir up a noticeable physical reaction in an audience. We are literally hard-wired to understand and respond to storytelling, which is why human beings have used stories to pass on knowledge and traditions for thousands of years.
If we want to “move the elephant” and help people understand the importance of liberty, we must understand how and when to use our stories effectively. Some people call this process getting a“Ph D” in liberty: personalize, humanize and describe the issue.
For instance, take the issue of healthcare. As libertarians, we understand that it is not within the proper scope of government to provide healthcare for people (even before we consider the inefficiency and worse health outcomes). But to the average Joe, educated in government schools and busy thinking about his life, family, and career; who cares about the “proper scope” of government when they believe peoples very lives are on the line?
To illustrate the importance of the issue, in a way that is impossible to ignore and anybody can understand, tell a story.
For example, “before Obamacare was passed, we were told that if we like our doctor we could keep our doctor. If we liked our insurance plan, we could keep our insurance plan. Well, soon enough after the law passed, my mom received one of the cancellation letters. She is self-employed and had a plan that she was perfectly happy with — until bureaucrats in Washington decided they knew what health plan would be best for her better than she did. After days and weeks on the phone, shopping in confusing exchanges where the rules are always changing, she now pays [X amount] more than before for health insurance. And she is not alone, [ X amount ] of other Americans also lost their coverage and millions more are paying [ X amount ] in higher premiums. It’s not only the fact that she now has to pay more for a health plan she does not want — she was lied to by people who will suffer no consequences for their decisions.”
Contrast that story with the way libertarians usually communicate: “Here’s a fact, there’s a fact, here’s an amount, there’s an amount; i’ve proven my case now listen to me.”
The fact of the matter is, when you buttress your facts with personal stories (like example 1), instead of all facts or all emotion; you can make a very compelling case for freedom and free enterprise.
“Frame” Your Stories
When you “frame” a story, you are picking particular symbols and imagery to make your argument. In other words, you choose the terms of the debate.
For example, if you are asked “how can we ensure that the rich are paying their fair share,” and you answer using the term fair share, you have already lost the listener because this is a loaded question. There is no way to answer this leftist frame because before you even answer, and no matter how you answer, the implication is that the rich are not paying enough money.
This frame must be rejected and a new one inserted in its place. “The entire concept of there being a fair share is complete nonsense, the real issue is that Americans need tax relief from an out-of-control-government.”
See what happened there? A well-crafted frame strikes both ways — now the conversation is about taxation with the implication that we need “relief” from it. You only need “relief” from things that are negative — from an illness, irritation or soreness of some kind.
Word choice is more important than most people realize and can be the difference between “just a conversation” and somebody who is seriously considering the ideas that you are putting forward.
To be effective at framing, you must spend time before a conversation thinking out the frames that improve your argument and help people understand your point. Most people, even those who think well on their feet, won’t be able to think of the best possible frames on the spot.
Don’t use Fancy Inside Baseball Language
Never use the word deontological, esoteric, minarchist or anarcho-capitalist (well, maybe not never, but be careful). Choose your words deliberately in order to make a point. Speak in a language that others understand. Others will figure out how smart you are without resorting to words that nobody outside libertarianism understands, and in the process you will convince more people to appreciate freedom.
End the Fed. Abolish the FDA. Cut taxes and spending. Ok. But why? Just asserting “freedom” won’t be enough for someone that doesn’t already agree with you. You must explain why the fed harms everyday Americans; why the FDA encourages worse health outcomes and why high taxes and spending never accomplish their stated goals.
Consider the person you are trying to convince: their entire life they have heard nothing but good things about these institutions, if they have heard anything about them at all. Even if you frame your argument carefully, no catchy slogan will make somebody question the existence of institutions that have lasted for over a hundred years without a very convincing why attached to it.
You need to articulate constructive solutions. Most people are not creative enough to envision a world without government roads or schools — and if they were you probably wouldn’t be having this conversation with them in the first place. Be ready to explain why and how the market provides goods and services more effectively than the government. If you cannot offer constructive solutions, you are probably not ready to be convincing others to change their world view.
Resist the temptation to answer “the market can do that.” Libertarians understand the market means millions and millions of people working together to solve problems, but this is an incomplete answer to someone who does not already understand the concepts of spontaneous order and free enterprise. If you can begin to show how “the market can do that” by offering constructive solutions, your argument will be much more persuasive.
Why — How — What
The “golden circle,” a concept put together by Simeon Sinek, is an examination and explanation of effective communication patterns used by inspired leaders and people.
Sinek says most communicators start with begin by explaining “what” they do — in terms of tasks.
“We make computers” or “we’re a law firm” or “we make automobiles.” Pretty straightforward. Chance are, if I asked you what you do for a living, you will say “I’m a student” or “I’m an attorney” or “I’m in sales.”
Next, most communicators say “how” they get these tasks done — in terms of what makes them better or more effective at achieving those tasks than others.
“Our computers are beautifully designed and user friendly” or “our firm has the best lawyers and we always perform well” or “our car has the latest navigation systems, leather seats and great gas mileage.”
Most of us we say what we do, explain how we are better and then expect a result to follow. For our purposes, the result we want is someone to become or think about becoming a libertarian. Most of us make case for liberty somewhat like this: “I believe in the non-aggression principle; it is the most simple and accurate ethical principle that is applicable to all interactions. Want to become a libertarian?”
However, Sinek explains that the most effective communicators explain the “why” before they explain “how” and “what.” In other words, most people communicate backwards; the best organizations and people lead with “the why.” This is because “people don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.”
Sinek’s observation actually ties together many of the concepts discussed above in this post.
The takeaway is we must begin by explaining why we believe in libertarianism even before explaining what libertarianism actually means.
“I am a libertarian because I want to see the maximum amount of human flourishing, innovation and overall prosperity. Libertarianism does this by removing the shackles of government intervention from the economy and establishing international peace through trade relationships. Libertarianism is simple and effective; and can be summarized using the nonaggression principle: No person or group has the right to initiate violence against others.”
The second case for liberty was much more powerful than the first — and all we did was switch the order of how the information was presented. Flip the order and watch the lightbulbs go off in everyone you converse with.
Sinek’s explanation of his golden circle concept can be watched here in about five minutes.
You don’t want to be on the defensive during a conversation. If the other side keeps asking pointed questions about who should bake cakes for whom — and you never ask questions of their premises or inconsistencies — you’re going to get stuck defending “more challenging” aspects of the philosophy without covering the big picture. Remember, the details are like “the plumbing” or “the what” — you must get big picture acceptance of values and “the why” before explaining the minutia will yield any results.
The other side wants to get you stuck in a “gotcha” moment. Instead of answering every question, stop and ask one of your own: “what is it that you are trying to achieve? What is your end goal? What is your vision of a better world?” These question can realign the conversation in a way more consistent with liberty.
Even better, asking questions of the morality or efficiency of the other side puts them on the defensive. When they are on the defensive, you will have a terrific opportunity to point out their philosophical inconsistencies and explain the attractiveness of liberty.
“Sell me this pen.” This famous scene from The Wolf of Wallstreet has an important lesson. In sales, the mistake most people make, according to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, is that they describe the features of the pen or enthusiastically tell you why the pen is outstanding or how it is different. “This pen is beautiful, it writes smoothly, it’s got the best ink and is really comfortable to hold.” Or “this pen is hands down the best pen i’ve ever used.” Try this experiment at home: everyone tries to sell the pen incorrectly.
The real way to sell the pen is to find out what the person is looking for in a pen, or if they even want a pen to begin with. Once you learn this information, you can make the sale based upon this knowledge or quit wasting your time and move on to the next person.
Consider yourself a salesperson for liberty and find out what the other person is looking for. This lesson meshes perfectly with the previous analysis of establishing shared values, asking questions and being a good listener. When you come across someone who is uninterested or unwilling to open their mind, that’s ok too; you have to know when to pick your spots and when to walk away.
Gently Point out Inconsistencies
“The libertarian sees no inconsistency in being “leftist” on some issues and “rightist” on others. On the contrary, he sees his own position as virtually the only consistent one, consistent on behalf of the liberty of every individual.” –Murray Rothbard
As Rothbard points out, libertarians are the only group that remain consistent across a wide variety of issues.
Famed community organizer Saul Alinsky wrote in his book “Rules for Radicals” that you must always “make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” Alinsky believes that nobody can live up to their own book of rules. This means both liberals and conservatives suffer from major inconsistencies according to their own value systems. If you can point these out, conversationally and not militantly, you will make progress in “selling” liberty.
Liberals claim to care for the poor, yet their policies trap often people in poverty. They claim that capitalism “commodifies” people without considering that its actually government that routinely commodifies the populace. Do you feel more like a commodity at the DMV or at Chick-fil-A?
Liberals claim that capitalism encourages greed without considering all societies have greed; and even worse, centralizing greed into one massive government structure results in mass inequality and in some cases mass murder. You can always find failed government policies that harm people and create unfair outcomes — use these to convince liberals the power of free enterprise.
Conservatives suffer from the same inconsistencies. They’ll talk a big game about freedom; that is, until freedom can be used by individuals to do something they disagree with. The conservative will articulate the corrupt nature of politicians and their wasteful domestic spending, yet put complete trust in the exact same political figures who advocate for reckless military adventures abroad.
In short, the person you are trying to convince will always have philosophical inconsistencies that run counter to their prevailing value structure. If you can locate and point out the inconsistency, gently, you will provoke further thought from someone. The word “gently” is important: If you berate them and smack them over the head with their inconsistencies, you will simply push them to some sort of post hoc rationalization of their previous position. This is extremely easy to do for the human mind; in fact, it is one of the reasons so few people ever change their minds at all. The phrase “gently point out” doesn’t mean “compromise your beliefs,” it means being persuasive through friendliness and building trust.
It is important to realize how well you understand libertarianism. If you can understand complicated articles and were able to get through Human Action, chances are you “understand” a great deal. It is one thing to understand a concept, it is another thing to explain it to somebody else.
Before you go out into the world and attempt to apply your knowledge by talking with other people, make sure you have explained it before. Whether it be on a blog, a video or in front of the mirror doesn’t matter; what is important is that you have articulated ideas and not just read about them. In the end, practice makes perfect.
What are the Most Convincing Libertarian Arguments?
While you should never open with the terms minarchist, anarchs-capitalist or any other “inside baseball” terminology that evoke negative frames from the onset, it is equally important not to “water-down” the message of liberty. The message is persuasive enough on its own, most people have just never heard it articulated well or even at all (How many times were you assigned Bastiat, Mises or Hazlitt in school?)
Here are a few of the most convincing starting points:
**Sometimes you will have policy discussions that are spontaneous, but there are always principles that are universally applicable. While you shouldn’t speak on matters that you are not familiar with, generally the answer will lie somewhere below.
The non-aggression principle: “That no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the “nonaggression axiom.” “Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else.” — Murray Rothbard
Natural Rights: This can sometimes be more effective as an explanation than the nonaggression principle. Natural rights are covered in most schools; this makes it an easier sell because people are at least vaguely familiar with the concept (the first wall of resistance is broken).
Ask people, after the right to life, liberty and property; what additional rights exist? Hint: the answer is none — any additional “right” somebody tries to add infringes upon the right to liberty of somebody else. How can healthcare be a “right” if that means forcing doctors to work against their will? How can food be a “right” if that forces farmers to work for other people.
Fortunately, free enterprise is the best way to allocate these resources and allow for innovation; but even if free enterprise was less efficient, the natural rights argument would still hold. Libertarianism is a winning philosophy because it holds both the moral high ground and achieves the best practical results.
Frederic Bastiat’s The Law: Bastiat builds upon the natural rights case by showing the only legitimate function of the law and thus government is to protect natural rights. Bastiat illustrates how a society that encourages “legal plunder” deviates from the proper function of the law and rewards political cronyism. Soon society devolves into a situation where everyone tries to get ahead at the expense of everyone else (using legal plunder), which is a recipe for disater.
How does Bastiat define legal plunder? Very simply: “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”
The Law is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the logical implications of the natural rights philosophy. Read the first twenty pages, they are packed with information and if you read 20 pages of The Law, you’ll definitely want to finish the rest (its short, my version is 55 pages.)
Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson: The subtile of this book says it all: it is the “Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics.” Hazlitt takes one basic economic rule — “never focus only on the immediate and seen effects of a given policy; always trace the effects for all groups over the long run” — and applies this lesson over and over until the reader can recognize and apply this lesson to a variety of issues; such as the minimum wage, rent control, tariffs, bailouts and much more.
Just about anyone can understand and apply this book. Nobody is stupid because they don’t “see the unseen” on their own; help them to understand this point by clearly and consistently applying Hazlitt’s lesson (we even have a video series to help you better learn the important lesson).
A Few Final Thoughts
Show the moral superiority of liberty. Most people, libertarian or not, agree with the basic thrust of the non aggression principle. They may deviate for this issue or that issue; they may make “real world” exceptions, but they agree with the idealism at the core of the statement. This can be a good starting point — an agreement of values — to get the conversation going and get that important early agreement.
Take the moral superiority argument much further. Illustrate how only free enterprise creates win-win opportunities for people because its entirely voluntary. Teach how only free enterprise requires service of your fellow man — despite the Orwellian language government employees use when the call themselves “public servants.” Economic freedom requires service because the only way to get rich in this system is to solve a problem and sell a product that your fellow man needs.
Explain how it would be immoral to hinder the only system that has ever taken people out of poverty. The moral argument is a winner — everyone wants to appeal to their idealism and believe they are on the side of what is right. Prevailing narratives aside, free enterprise is vastly superior on a moral level than government command economics.
Use the internet to your advantage
We live in a miraculous time. Like never before, we can hold people accountable for their previous statements with a simple youtube video. I’ve convinced people, not through my own persuasion, but by simply pointing them in the direction of videos like “Peter Schiff was Right” or written testimony of Ron Paul compared to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Access to this type of information is a game changer. More and more people will start to see the failures of government intervention because they actually have access to opinions that differ from the 3 main news channels.
Never Be Discouraged
We have the right message. The case for liberty is strong. Not only do libertarians hold the moral high ground, freedom is superior on practical utilitarian grounds as well. It is easy to bemoan the obstacles in the way of freedom, but there has been tremendous progress made over the last thirty years. The state keeps growing and spending; but more and more people are waking up to the message of liberty. With the internet, people are finally able to learn the truth, no matter how much propaganda they had to swallow in school.
Since the libertarian argument takes the moral high ground and wins on utilitarian grounds, that means we have a messaging problem. Sure, there are institutional obstacles in our way, but we must understand where and how to improve the way we sell libertarianism.
Practice the messaging tips, read and learn as much as possible and get out there and convince people of the truth found in the philosophy of freedom.