Advancing Liberty in 2013: Ten Rules of Thumb
FEBRUARY 01, 2013 by LAWRENCE W. REED
“A New Year’s resolution,” the old wisecrack goes, “is something that goes in one year and out the other.” True enough for most of us, most of the time. So when 2013 got underway, I decided to skip the resolution ritual. Instead, I planned to work harder, longer, and smarter this year on behalf of something I can’t imagine life without—liberty.
As indispensable as liberty is to the progress of humanity, its future is never assured. Indeed, on most fronts, freedom has been in retreat for years—its light flickering against the winds of ignorance, irresponsibility, short-term gratification, and power lust. That’s why it’s all the more important that those of us who believe in liberty become more effective spokespersons.
The Rules of Thumb
Toward that end, I offer the well-worn “top ten” list. These rules of thumb do not appear in any particular order. So I leave it to you, Dear Reader, to decide which ones are more important. (Because it’s not meant to be a final word on the matter, I also invite readers to add to the list.)
1. Get motivated. Liberty is more than a happy circumstance. It’s a moral imperative, worthy of every ounce of passion that good people can muster. It’s not just about getting keyed up in an election year, or responding to some issue of the day. It’s always the difference between choice and coercion, between living your life or others living it for you (and at your expense). If liberty is lost, it may never be restored in your time or in that of your children and grandchildren. For solving problems, avoiding conflict, and bringing people together, there’s no worse course than politics and force, and no better path than liberty for peaceful exchange and cooperation to flourish.
2. Learn. More precisely, never stop learning! To be an effective persuader, there’s no good substitute for commanding the facts and the foundations. Know our ideas backwards and forwards. You can never read or listen to too much economics, history, or philosophy to be the best persuader in your neighborhood. Let the other side talk in bumper stickers. Come armed with substance as opposed to slogans.
3. Be optimistic. It’s tiring and disheartening to hear the defeatists talk like this: “It’s over. The Republic is lost. There’s no turning back. Our goose is cooked. I’m leaving the country.” What’s the point of such talk? It certainly can’t be to inspire. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pessimists only disarm themselves and dispirit others; there’s nothing to be won by it. If you truly believe all is lost, the best thing to do is defer to the possibility that you may be wrong and let the optimists lead the way. (That means leaving pessimism at the door.)
4. Use humor. Even serious business needs moments of levity. Seasoning your case with humor can make it more appealing, more human. If you can’t smile when you’re making the case for liberty—if you can’t evoke a smile or a chuckle from the person you’re talking to—then you’re on the way to losing the battle. Humor breaks the ice.
5. Raise questions. You don’t have to lecture every potential convert. Learn to deploy the Socratic method, especially when you’re conversing with a rigid statist ideologue. Most of the time, such people hold the views they do not because they’re well acquainted with libertarian thought and have rejected it, but because they just don’t know our side. A skilled line of questioning can often prompt a person to think about their premises in ways they never have before.
6. Show you care. It’s been said that people don’t care what you know if they don’t know that you care. Focus on real people when you argue for liberty. Laws and policies inimical to liberty produce so much more than bad numbers; they crush the dreams of real people who want to improve their lives and the lives of those they love. Cite examples of people and what happened to them when government got in the way of their progress. That said, don’t dwell on the negative. Be just as generous in citing examples of what specific people have accomplished when they’ve been given the freedom to try.
7. Seize the moral high ground. Liberty is the one socioeconomic arrangement that demands high standards of moral character. It cannot survive if people are widely dishonest, impatient, arrogant, irresponsible, short-term focused, and disrespectful of the lives, rights and property of others. This truth speaks volumes about the moral superiority of liberty over all other “systems.” Humanity is composed of unique individuals; it is not an amorphous, collective lump to be pushed around by elitists who fancy themselves our masters and planners. Any arrangement that purées our distinct lives in a collectivist blender is a moral offense. Use this argument to strike at the very heart of any opponent’s case.
8. Develop an appealing persona. A libertarian who knows all the facts and theories can still be repulsive and ineffective if he’s condescending, vengeful, coarse or crude, self-righteous, or often in “attack” mode. This is why Dale Carnegie’s classic, How To Win Friends And Influence People, should be on every libertarian’s “must-read” list. Do you want to change the world or just beat your breast? Talk to others or talk to yourself?
And slow down on the negativity! Some libertarians only talk about bad news. These are the folks who see nothing good happening anywhere. This attitude comes across as if they’re telling you, “Stop having fun. The only good news is that there isn’t any. If you think there is good news, we’ll tell you why it isn’t.” This attitude wears badly and rarely wins converts. Heroes and heroic stories are all around us; don’t ignore them by dwelling on the scoundrels and the disappointments.
9. Don’t demand total and immediate acceptance. Have you ever run into a libertarian who lets you know that unless you fully confess all your intellectual sins and repent on the spot, you’re a pariah? The history of progress in ideas provides few examples of wrong-on-everything transforming into right-on-everything in a momentary leap. We must be patient, inviting, and understanding. Know when the cracks are appearing in an opponent’s wall and give him room to tear it down himself. Remember that all of us hold views today that we didn’t accept in our past. None of us came out of the womb with a copy of The Road to Serfdom in our hands.
10. Make allies, not enemies. A handful of cloistered, ineffective—but noisy—libertarians fancy themselves keepers of the faith. They behave as though the greater enemy is not those who embrace no libertarian precepts at all, but rather those who embrace many, but not all, libertarian precepts. So when they find a fellow libertarian who once held different views, or departs from orthodoxy on an issue or two, they start to vilify him. It makes them feel good, but works against the larger cause. If we say we want to make the world a better, more libertarian place, we can’t make it painful for anyone to move in the right direction.
ABOUT LAWRENCE W. REED
Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008. Prior to that, he was a founder and president for twenty years of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught Economics full-time and chaired the Department of Economics at Northwood University in Michigan from 1977 to 1984.