TO WIN CONVERTS WE MUST WIN ARGUMENTS
At the April 18 Libertarian Party of Minnesota Convention, 1996 presidential candidate Harry Browne outlined a strategy for gradually getting more libertarians elected to both local and national offices. He optimistically predicted that, if his formula were followed, we might within two decades have many Libertarians in Congress, governerships, and possibly even the White House.
A critical part of his suggestion was to recognize the difference between "winning converts" and "winning arguments."
Libertarianism, on its face, appeals to self-interest and to apparently primitive moral principles, such as personal sovereignty balanced with personal responsibility, and non-aggression.
Why, then, should authors or speakers like me complicate things by playing devil's advocate? I could say that I have an ego and I refuse to play anyone's foot soldier. To be frank, I sometimes view myself as a distraction, as a non-team-player who attracts personal attention by questioning what seem to be simple truths. With a runner on first base and no outs, I'm supposed to bunt, not swing for the outfield Green Monsters. Why not hustle the public for members, carry signs or scream slogans at demonstrations or even (if I really want attention and to meet people) run for office, but otherwise settle down and "get a life?"
Well, I'm not convinced that we've really won all the arguments. I don't think we're really prepared for them. When I listen to people talk, I feel like the history or philosophy professor taking points "off" on an essay final exam answer for leaving many key concepts and arguments out. I don't think I'm alone in the party in saying this. For example, Tom Regnier, writing in the June 1998 Libertarian Party News (p. 16), maintains that we should be more specific as to practical problems even in presenting our apparently simple platform.
Harry Browne's April speech, in fact, mentioned some plausible counter arguments to our strategies, but even Browne did not get down to all the fundamentals.
The public, in fact, will have to be convinced that it can really "afford" libertarianism and non-usufructual self-ownership(*). We're familiar with the rough outlines of the counter arguments. The left indignantly talks about how a culture of undeserved "selfishness" is predicated on minority oppression and exploitation; the right talks about "family values" as most narrowly interpreted. Both sides suggest that ordered liberty, as we know it, cannot survive the anarchy that ideological libertarianism seems to demand; it's like keeping civilization going on Mars with almost no atmosphere (well, maybe the Grays can).
Most people, in fact, grow up with the idea that representative democracy is supposed to resolve common moral matters, like those requiring shared sacrifice, personal restraint or even certain conformity in psychological motivation, so that "normal" and even disadvantaged people can lead productive family lives in relative comfort. The idea that morality may itself have layers which government cannot or should not reach is rather new to most people. The creative process required when government retreats is not an easy sell, because the remaining popular tension and energy do not appear to be based in meeting real people's immediate needs.
The problems concerning equal rights for lesbians and gay men provide a good sneak preview into this moral debate. For example, why should gays hide behind the concept of "immutability," even if that notion is a scientific half-truth? Why shouldn't the choice of an adult significant other be a basic individual right and choice under personal sovereignty? The moralists on both sides, used to a tradition of collective aesthetic realism, shrug in stunned disbelief on that one.
If a number of my good libertarian friends actually do get elected to high office (and, seriously, I now believe this CAN happen) we will find implementing a libertarian program much more difficult in practice than its simple precepts suggest. But that is indeed why we need to continue good scholarship into the issues, in all their psychological, political and practical aspects. Those term papers we wrote in high school and college did serve a purpose. They forced us to understand how people very different from ourselves think, to view what makes them tick, and ultimately how to reach them. Academics taught us how and when to win arguments. Yet, I concede, balanced practical living must then round out learning how to reach out and win "converts."
There is a good way, though, to present libertarianism to the still uninitiated public in a way that is both simple and intellectually honest. We can say something like this. "Government shall not attempt to regulate personal moral choices except one: that one adult human being does not perform aggression upon or violate the choices of another. If you think this just gives people more freedom than they can handle, ask yourself this. First: are you uncomfortable with having more freedom because your freedom to succeed means you are "free" to fail, that if you can choose or reject others, then they can likewise reject you? Second, if you are objecting to slicing open the safety net, are you uncomfortable with caring for or about vulnerable or needy people, especially in your own family?" This would be a good way to pull moral debate away from the "collective good" back to expanded personal responsibility. We've got to get people to savor their own sour grapes and sweet lemons.
This might be a way to say to people: "we can get rid of all income taxes - both federal and state - and replace them with nothing. It's up to you. It's about personal responsibility, but it's about even more than not doing wrong; it's about affirmatively changing your own personal priorities." From these questions, we can then go to many of the more specific problems, such as the environment, health care, the aged, privacy rights, discrimination, and military policy.
A more libertarian future requires both numbers and depth. It requires both action and love. Yet, with both components we can see both political and psychological libertarianism explode.
(*) usufruct means the right to use the property of another (rent-free) as long as the property is not harmed.
Published in the May-June 1998 Minnesota Libertarian, p. 8.
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