Academic Libertarians vs. Real People

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September 15, 2006

Much has been written about how to best bring the light of freedom to the vast unwashed masses. "If only they could catch a glimpse of the true nature of the State!", freedom lovers cry, "they would rise up in mighty self-righteousness to smash the machinery of government!". Myriad schemes abound describing various methods to achieve this glorious mass enlightenment. Recently, Jim Davies has gone through much thought and trouble to produce The On Line Freedom Academy, the content of which is thoughtful and well-laid out, coaxing the participant to realize the benefits of freedom one step at a time. It's not an altogether bad idea, but the aspirations of the program to affect a fundamental societal shift toward libertarian ideals are greatly inflated. There are important premises of such an academic approach that are gravely erroneous.

Let's not kid ourselves. The repudiation of the State's legitimacy is an enormous paradigm shift for anyone to make. For the average statist, it's a tremendous body-blow to the ego, even when the realization takes place over a long period of time. Most people simply won't take that much damage to their psyche voluntarily. It's much easier to stick to the well-worn path of statism instead. Using an educational approach right away only works with the "intelligent layman," an otherwise motivated person who just needs to be pointed in the right direction by someone who is farther down the path. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people will not and cannot be swayed in this manner. They must usually hit rock bottom before they will even consider that their faith in government is misplaced. Like any other kind of addict, most statists must have their world-view violently and repeatedly assaulted if they are to have even a chance of dislodging the State's programming from their minds. Only the most grievous insults visited directly by the State might give the average citizen pause enough to ask the big questions about the nature of the State. But even when government directly inflicts the most personal, soul-wrenching agony, it's amazing that almost nobody stops to think that the system itself is at fault, and not some particular person or group. Sadly, most people default to the same set of tired political excuses, such as:

' "If only the government had enacted the right legislation, none of this would've happened!"

' "This is all the fault of the Democrats (or Republicans)!"

' "Don't blame me, I voted for Smith!"

These behaviors are a testimony to the success of government indoctrination. It saturates our lives from birth, and much like The Matrix, it creates a vast, invisible prison that is nearly impossible to detect unaided, much less to escape from. It takes something truly extraordinary to crack open the door of reality to allow a glimpse at what the real world looks like, and the sad fact is that the vast majority of people lack both the means and the motivation to fight their way out of this mental Alcatraz on their own.

Clearly, then, direct confrontation about the evils of statism is not effective, even to those whom the State has directly victimized. The State simply has too tight a grasp on most people's minds. It's better to take an indirect approach that doesn't immediately require someone to pay the high price of realizing that everything they know about government is wrong.

The second great error of academic approaches like Davies' is a lack of good WIFMs (What's In It for Me?) If you're trying to educate people, you have to hook them upfront with some strong WIFMs, because people won't even bother to listen, much less act, unless they see a strong benefit in their immediate future. There is very little tangible payoff to investing time and effort in a "libertarian academy," not to mention the enormous psychic cost of fundamentally changing one's worldview. The majority of Davies' WIFMs are focused on the outcome of large numbers of people adopting libertarian views. That might happen in the long run, and there's good reason to think so. But, in the prickly interregnum, how does one's ego hold up in a statist world with full knowledge of the evils being perpetrated by governments? For most people, it's a recipe for bitterness, resentment, helplessness, and finally despair. In this case, ignorance really is bliss.

Anyone seeking to share libertarian ideas in a positive, constructive manner must do so in a way that is non-confrontational and has immediate relevance to daily life. Just as an example, the subject of money is a great way to get one's foot in the door. Everyone is interested in money. It's usually not difficult to get someone to look over Murray Rothbard's excellent What Has Government Done to Our Money?, or even Bonner and Wiggin's Empire of Debt. From that point, someone might see an immediate benefit to reorganizing their investment and savings strategy. Maybe they even buy some gold, too. We all like to feel that we're in control, and people can have that feeling while at the same time we're busy sneaking in some introductory lessons on libertarian ideals. With any luck, our new 'student' will start down a path of self-enlightenment that might eventually take them to sites like Davies' On Line Freedom Academy, but probably not for a while. After all, we're not going to become a society of libertarian scholars, and no 'libertarian academy' is going to affect large-scale change.

Freedom ought to feel good right out of the box, without requiring a high upfront cost. Human nature being what it is, the bulk of people will take the shortest path, using the least amount of energy to accomplish what they think is in their best interest. Convincing them that their best interest lies in seeking freedom and not statism cannot rely upon an academic approach, because most of us are not academics. Instead, get people interested in things that can impact their lives right now and leave the intellectual stuff for those who can handle it, when they want to handle it. For everyone else, it's enough to get started by getting them engaged and moving in the right direction without lectures and coursework. A reliance on 'cold turkey' academic methods of converting someone to libertarian ideals is unworkable, because it goes against human nature. A gentle push from behind is worth much more than yanking from the front.

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Tony Sampognaro's picture
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Tony Sampognaro is a medicinal chemist and student of economics. He lives in Connecticut with his family and two dachshunds.