Saturday, February 11, 2012

How to win libertarian converts and influence voters

There is an old saying, something to do with catching flies with either honey or vinegar; honey works better. Of course people aren't flies, but like flies they are attracted if they are treated "sweetly." By that I mean, if they are treated like individuals, listened to, respected, and made to feel that they matter; they will be more apt to listen to you. People don't like being lectured to, admonished and frightened. I am as guilty as any one of doing just those things with respect to my libertarian beliefs. So, when I came across this blog post by accident, I knew I had to repost it.
Josiah Schmidt was the writer, an American, wise beyond his years and generous enough to allow me to repost it. It has been translated into a couple of European languages. Its long, and it's not a panacea, but if it gets you thinking on how to be a better communicator, it was time well spent.

We are at a crossroads in history. People are increasingly unhappy with the State and are losing faith in its ability to solve major problems. Yet, at the same time, those Americans who say they want limited government are also the ones who want Social Security and Medicare to be untouchable. Support for government spending on defense, health care, anti-poverty measures, and pork for the home district is just as high as it was ten years ago, and in some cases even higher.[1]

Libertarians have a real opening here, but we need to acknowledge that our current strategies are just not cutting it. The liberty movement has made great strides in the past decade, thanks largely to Ron Paul and the Ludwig von Mises Institute. However, when we look at the unrestrained growth of government over the past century, what do we as libertarians have to show for ourselves? We have more Austrian economists around today than ever before, but can we name one government program that we have been able to get curtailed or abolished? One significant liberty that we have fought for and won?

We have a marketing problem.

The first step to improving our strategy is by admitting that our present tactics really aren't working.

We've become very good at engaging in high-minded academic debates and writing wordy articles and treatises, but we have utterly failed in making the ideas of liberty popular and accessible to the average person.

I'll be offering some suggestions in this article, and much of what I have to say takes inspiration from a classic book entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. I've come to the conclusion that this book may be the single most important piece of literature for the liberty movement.

I believe this is one of the fundamental paradigm shifts the liberty movement requires: we need to view everyone--and I mean everyone, including the Glenn Becks and Keith Olbermanns of the world--as a potential friend. Rather than being an angry, cynical, disgruntled movement, we need to be a movement that reaches out to people and makes people want to be a libertarian.

1. Let's understand people, not criticize

We libertarians have a nasty habit of talking down to people and scolding them. But all this does is put people on the defensive and cause them to strive even harder to justify themselves. At the end of the day, we only incur resentment because of it.

Instead of calling people taking government assistance "welfare queens," or calling people working for the government "bureaucratic leeches," we need to understand that these individuals are people, just like us. They genuinely feel like they're doing the best they can. People on unemployment or food stamps are fathers and mothers trying to provide for their children on a limited income--an income that they might scrounge up after working long hours at multiple jobs.

We can recognize the fact that the welfare state is a totally counterproductive mechanism for helping those who are struggling to provide for their families, but we can recognize this fact without treating these people like scum.

When we encounter people with whom we disagree, instead of calling them "shills" or "sheeple", let's understand why they think the way they do. The vast majority of people who support the War in Iraq or think Social Security was a good idea don't do it because they just love destroying other people's lives. They do it because they honestly believe they're doing the right thing and looking out for the best interests of others. Instead of being angry with them, let's make a sincere effort to truly understand where they're coming from before we offer them our take on the issues.

We libertarians pride ourselves on being a smart bunch, but it takes a lot more intelligence to understand and sympathize with people than it does to look down our noses at them and scold them. We need to brand ourselves as the political clan that hears people and understands them, not as the one that sits in ivory towers and merely preaches to them.

2. We need a message that makes people feel good about themselves

Instead of making people feel stupid or lazy or evil, let's appeal to their sense of self-respect. Instead of trying to goad people into doing what we want them to do by pointing out their every flaw, let's find where people are going in the right direction and heap praise upon them where praise is due.

All too often, I'll come across someone who calls themselves a "conservative," and when I ask them to explain their political philosophy, it will go something like this: "I'm tired of all the pork and welfare spending, and we need to have a strong, well-funded military, and we need to make sure the politicians don't cut our Social Security or Medicare, and we need to stop trading with cheap goods producers like China." Of course, the last three things they support (an expensive military-industrial complex, loads of entitlements, and trade protectionism) are all forms of "welfare," which they claim to oppose.

But instead of snarkily pointing this out, we should strengthen our common ground with them and pat them on the back for understanding that so much of the money that Congress spends on various projects is all about winning re-election and not about really benefiting taxpayers, and for understanding that programs like unemployment insurance only serve to incentivize poverty and that what people really need is a hand up, not a hand out. These are important principles that not everyone understands, and rather than angrily inquiring why this person is too "retarded" to apply these same principles to other areas, we should lavishly praise the fact that they adhere to these principles in the areas where they do, and encourage them to continue to apply these principles consistently in all areas.

3. Make people WANT to be libertarians

In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie makes the point that although strawberries and cream may be his favorite food, he doesn't put strawberries on the hook when he goes fishing. He attracts fish by putting worms on the hook, because that's what fish like. We as libertarians must take this lesson to heart. Instead of talking about the issues that we think are most important, we must practice speaking in terms of what the listener wants.

Often, we libertarians will rant to people about the Federal Reserve and inflation and bond bubbles and what-have-you. But the average person doesn't normally care about things like that. And can we blame them? Most people probably don't even understand what we're talking about. But what everyone understands is the rising prices at the gas pump, or the rising price of food at the grocery store, or the fact that something you could get for a quarter as a kid may now cost five or ten bucks. These are things that people can relate to, in terms that real people can understand.

One person who is an absolute master at talking to people in their own terms is Judge Andrew Napolitano. One of the most famous examples is when the Judge brought Sarah Palin on the June 12th, 2010 episode of his FOX Business show, Freedom Watch. He spent the whole show building up common ground with Gov. Palin on issues like personal responsibility and fiscal discipline and lean government.

He then recounted to Gov. Palin the experience she had during the 2008 campaign, when a hacker infiltrated her email account and exposed all sorts of personal messages, without her knowledge or permission. He sympathized with her and agreed how terrible it feels to have one's privacy compromised, and then asked her if she thought the Patriot Act should allow the federal government to do the same thing. "No, of course not," she answered. Bam. By simply making the issue applicable to her personally, Judge Napolitano had gotten Sarah Palin to criticize a key component of the Patriot Act--a sacred cow for Republican politicians. (He also did the same thing with the marijuana prohibition, getting her to call for de-facto decriminalization!) [2]

Judge Napolitano could have criticized Gov. Palin and argued with her all day about the Patriot Act, and she probably would have never budged from the standard neo-conservative line. In fact, she probably would have gone even farther into the neo-conservative corner in an attempt to defend herself, and likely would have left the show full of resentment for Judge Napolitano and his annoying questions. Yet, instead, he called attention to her inconsistent views indirectly, and got her to take stances far more in the direction of libertarianism than many other major Republican figures would be willing to go.

By spending the whole first half of the interview praising her commitment to individual liberty and fiscal responsibility, he gave her a good name to live up to--and she preferred to try to live up to that good reputation he had built up for her, even if it meant going out on a limb and saying things a normal Republican politician might not be expected to say.

Another aspect of making people want to be libertarians is being enthusiastic. Why should people want to be libertarians when they see us constantly moping around, making snide remarks, wailing about the dismal future of the country? Regardless of the truth of our statements, no one wants to believe things that are going to make them miserable. Nobody wants to get involved with a group of cynical mopers.

If you were a non-libertarian, which of the following approaches would make you more likely to investigate Austrian economics and libertarianism:

A). "Leviathan is out of control, the country is headed down the tubes, and if you want to have any chance at surviving hyperinflation, you need to pick up some Rothbard and buy some gold. Watch this video of Peter Schiff's terrifying predictions if you want to know just how screwed we are."

OR

B). "Do you want to know how to prosper and provide for your family, even during rough times? Check out the amazing track record of this financial analyst named Peter Schiff! He thinks that East Asia is a new land of opportunity, and he's been saying for decades that storing your savings by buying gold would be a great way to hedge against rising prices. Boy, was he ever right on the money!"

Yeah, my wording of B isn't perfect, but wouldn't you be far more interested in learning Austrian economics if someone approached you with B, rather than A?

4. Become interested in other people as human beings

When I was helping drum up support for Ron Paul's HR 1207 bill to audit the Federal Reserve, I called my Representative's office a few times over the course of a couple months. The first time, I made a point to sound serious and stern. I was an upset constituent and my Congressman needed to listen to me! The voice of an older woman was on the other end. She sounded tired and weary. "Good!" I thought. She must be getting lots of angry calls from people like me! I told her I supported Ron Paul's Audit the Fed bill and wanted to make sure my Congressman did also. She said she wasn't sure and that she'd let the Congressman know how I felt. I rolled my eyes, certain that my message would never really get to my Congressman, thanked her, and hung up.

After a few weeks and no news from my Congressman, I called back again, this time angry. The same older, tired woman picked up. I demanded to know where my Congressman stood on the issue. She sensed the anger in my voice and got snippy as well, telling me curtly that he hadn't taken a position on it.

Another few weeks later, still with no news from my Congressman as to his stance on the Audit the Fed bill, I decided to call again. But this time, a different voice picked up. Tired and weary, but a slightly younger sounding woman. I decided I would try something different. She began with the standard office greeting. I introduced myself, told her I was calling about HR 1207, but then asked "How are you?" There was an immediate change in her voice. After presumably listening to hundreds of angry calls all day, she sounded relieved to hear someone who treated her like a human being.

"Oh, you know," she said. "About what you'd expect."

I chuckled a little and teased, "Yeah, I bet you've been dealing with angry citizens like me all day."

"You have no idea," she said, and began to relate to me a couple of the more ridiculous calls she had taken earlier that day. I laughed with her and empathized with her and listened to her. I treated her like a real person. Our little tangent conversation only lasted for a minute, but by the end of it, her voice sounded lighter.

"You were calling about the Audit the Fed bill?" she asked.

I responded in the affirmative, and asked if she could pass along a message of my support to the Congressman.

"Of course!" she responded, as though I were an old friend of hers, asking for a small favor. She took down my name, address, and email, and asked me again to make sure she was writing down the bill number correctly. "I'll write him a note and personally hand deliver it to his desk."

I thanked her enthusiastically, wished her a nice evening, and hung up. I didn't really think much of the conversation. The next day, I was astonished to receive a personal email from my Congressman. And not just one of those generic form emails, thanking Constituent's-name-here for expressing their concerns and blah-blah-blah, either! It was an actual, personal email from my Congressman, stating that he had decided not only to support Ron Paul's Audit the Fed bill, but to become a cosponsor. I was thrilled!

I don't know how much influence I personally had on my Congressman's decision to cosponsor that legislation, but it's clear to me that it's much easier to get somebody to do something if you treat them like a real human being.

5. How to argue with people

We libertarians are typically of the opinion that all we have to do is argue with everyone and headbutt them with our impeccable logic over and over again, and surely they will eventually agree with us, because, well, we're right. Unfortunately, the vast majority of arguments end with both parties more convinced than ever that they are correct. The person with whom you are arguing will probably never be swayed by your arguments, and even if he is, his pride and his fear of losing face will prevent him from admitting it.

The best way to start out an argument is by not arguing. Instead, ask the other person what they think--and be genuinely interested in it. Try to see things from their point of view...honestly. Be respectful of their opinions and hold your tongue for just a little while, even if they say things you think are just flat-out wrong or idiotic. Let the other person do the majority of the talking and choose your words wisely. Don't say much, but when you do say something, make sure it's very well thought out and full of humility.

When it's your turn to talk, don't immediately draw attention to the idealogical conflict(s). Rather, start out by finding the common ground you share with your opponent. The most helpful tool is one that the famed libertarian interviewer Jan Helfeld is known for using: the "Socratic method."

This can begin by getting the other person to say "Yes" to something, and then leading them on a trail of "Yesses," and letting them arrive at the correct conclusion on their own. They won't always allow themselves to come to agree with you. They may very likely realize where it is going half-way through, and end the conversation prematurely. But you will certainly have more success this way than you will be simply yelling your positions at each other over and over again, and more importantly, you will have made the other person think through your argument and see how you came to arrive at your conclusion. Your position will not seem quite so crazy or outlandish to them anymore, and if you're really tactful, you might even get them to adopt your position (often with them believing that it was their own idea to begin with--but hey, who cares, right?).

For instance: You could pontificate all day about how it's not an economic benefit when a war strikes a country and all the houses are bombed and must then be rebuilt. The person you're arguing with might simply respond by repeating a line like, "World War II got us out of the Great Depression! Just look at the statistics!"

Well, wouldn't it be more effective if, perhaps, you started out by asking, "If you're on a desert island, and you spend a whole lot of time building nets and spears and a hut, you would be poorer if a strong wind came along and knocked down your hut, wouldn't you?"

The other person will more than likely respond, "Well... yes."

"And if there happened to be another person beside yourself on this island, who was good at building huts? Let's say you catch the fish to feed the two of you, and in exchange he builds the huts to house the two of you. If a strong wind came along and knocked down your huts, you guys would be poorer. You'd be poorer because your friend has to work extra to rebuild the huts and you have to work extra to catch more fish so that he has the extra energy needed to accomplish this difficult task. Correct?"

"Yes. Sure."

"Well, what if the huts were destroyed by a bomb rather than a strong wind? That would make no difference, right?"

"Yes, okay."

"And what if instead of 2 people on the island, there were a different number of people on the island? Perhaps 3 people, or 10 people, or 1 million people? That would be irrelevant to the fundamental nature of the issue, correct?"

"Yes, I suppose that's correct. I see your point now."

Now, the dialogue might not go that smoothly, but by helping the other person along in a friendly and respectful manner, aren't you more likely to get the other person to truly understand where you're coming from, rather than if you just stand there and pontificate to them? And a word of caution: if you should succeed in converting someone to your point of view, don't gloat: "Nya nya nya I told you so" or "Ugh, why couldn't you recognize something that simple in the first place?" Let the other person save face.

6. The best way to sell something is to give it away for free

This has come to be known in libertarian circles as "Tucker's Law," named after Jeffrey Tucker, the editor of Mises.org. Mr. Tucker took a page out of Leonard Read's playbook. When most other libertarian theorists were struggling to sell their books and literature, Leonard Read decided to just give his away for free. It is no surprise, therefore, that Read's literature spread like wildfire and he became one of the most well-known and respected libertarian writers of his time. Likewise, Jeff Tucker has been getting a hold of classic libertarian and Austrian School texts, putting them into the public domain, and posting them on the Internet for anyone to download for free.

To this I owe everything I know about Austrian economics. It is because of Mises.org's loads of free literature that I was able to go from knowing nothing about anything about economics, to having devoured literally hundreds of books on economics and political theory, including Ludwig von Mises's Human Actionand Murray Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State.

One of my most inspiring memories from the Ron Paul 2008 campaign was when a group of Ron Paul supporters stood outside a local Republican gathering on a blistering cold night and offered free hot chocolate to attendees as they exited. They also offered Ron Paul for President leaflets. Warmed by the generosity of these Ron Paul supporters, Republicans who might have otherwise quickened their pace to avoid being proselytized by one of those crazy libertarian people actually stopped to chat friendly politics with these Paulites. That group of Paul supporters ended up making tons of connections and doing a world of good for the Paul campaign that night. Let's face it: people love free stuff. Especially when it's honest-to-goodness free stuff, with no strings attached.

If you want someone to read Economics In One Lesson or America's Great Depression, don't just hector them into buying it. Lend them your copy, or better yet, give them your copy. Don't worry about when they'll return it, just be happy they've agreed to read it, even if they don't get around to cracking it open right away.

Conclusion

We libertarians need to come to terms with the fact that the cards are stacked against us. The tentacles of the State reach everywhere, and the nature of the State is to constantly seek more power and glory for itself. Trying to convince people that the State is not the solution but the problem pits us in direct opposition to many of the most powerful organizations in the world. We are going to have to use better tactics than other schools of political philosophy.

We've been at work for a long time now, and to be brutally honest, we have little to show for it. It's not that we haven't been putting forth enough effort. We don't have a quantity issue; we have a quality issue. Our efforts don't just need to be increased. Our efforts need to be of an entirely different nature than they currently are.

We need, in effect, a compassionate libertarianism. Not a libertarianism that compromises our principles, but a libertarianism that makes a better effort to understand other points of view, that makes it clear that we see people as real, good-intentioned human beings, that builds bridges rather than creates enemies, that makes people enthusiastic to be a libertarian, that--instead of just arguing with people all the time--helps people understand libertarian theory on their own, and a libertarianism that is approachable and down-to-earth.

There's no easy way forward in our battle against the State, but with a major attitude readjustment and a more emotionally intelligent presentation, we can be a lot more successful at winning libertarian converts and influencing voters. We only need to be brave enough to first admit that a change in strategy is long overdue.

Sources:

1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/09/AR2010100903308.html
2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoiwXJCdX_A

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