Liberty Matters

The Most Reasonable People in the Room

I find nothing more entertaining than getting together with four or five other libertarians, opening a bottle of bourbon, and chatting about praxeology until the wee hours of the morning.
By most Americans' standards, that makes me ... a weirdo.
In my defense I am a happy weirdo. I love being a professional libertarian. Every day I look forward to going to work, and I recognize how rare a treat unalienated labor is in the grand scheme of things.
If you're reading this, you're probably something of a weirdo too. Not that there's anything wrong with that. And I'm glad you're with me, because we liberty people need to stick together.
Our little tribe could even be dead right about everything. I wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't think we had found something both true and important. When it seems that you have found something like that, it is enormously fun just to sit around and discuss it.
But if we really are right, then we are also called upon to sell our unconventional viewpoint. And I've got to confess that the late-night libertarian bull sessions begin to look like a guilty pleasure. To use the metaphor of economic production offered in the lead essay, high-level discussions are not necessarily primary production goods. They may be consumption goods, at least insofar as they don't lead, directly or indirectly, to any form of changed public policy.
Against Utopia
What might change public policy? I can name several things. First, though, a couple of warnings.
The vast majority of Americans simply aren't interested in our ideology. They do not want to learn about it. They do not want to hear about it. They may even find something vaguely disreputable about the practice of building an ideology in the first place, whether it be ours, or the socialists', or anyone else's. Americans aren't interested in ideology, period.
That all by itself may be a big part of why we haven't won.
In many cases Americans' disdain for ideology works out for the good. We have largely been shielded from fascism and communism, and we have even escaped many of the worst aspects of gradualist socialism. Even the socialists' utopianism  -- which Hayek clearly envied -- did not help socialism as much as Hayek feared it would. Being anti-ideological would appear to be a healthy part of our nation's political immune system.
My first caution, then, is that utopian visions are vastly overrated. The unappreciated truth about writing in the utopian vein is that utopias only rarely inspire on their first appearance. Most of them fail immediately, above all among Americans. There is much more in the way of bad and ugly about the genre, I think, than there is of beautiful and stirring. And even successful works of utopian literature usually age badly: Everyone remembers Aldous Huxley's dystopian masterpiece, which is Brave New World. Everyone forgets Island, his attempt at a utopia.
This suggests that trying to write the next Atlas Shrugged may not be the best strategy for us, even granting that the first Atlas Shrugged was a phenomenal success. (Which it was!) As an editor, I have seen dozens of books billing themselves as the next Atlas Shrugged, and none of them have stirred me in the slightest. Their authors might have done better to write a simple letter to the editor of a newspaper, or an op-ed about a local issue that mattered. They would certainly have wasted less time, and they might even have made a difference.
I do wish it were easy to be inspiring in the sort of comprehensive, broad-brush way that Ayn Rand so clearly mastered. But it's not easy. It's damnably hard, and as a result, our efforts are almost certainly better spent elsewhere.
Rationalism Is Killing Us
My second warning concerns rationalism in ideology. Among those who as a matter of habit think in abstractions, there is a dangerous tendency to ignore -- or even to flout -- that which passes for common sense. And so we are led down paths that do us no good as a movement.
Murray Rothbard frankly shot himself in the foot when suggested that in his ideal society a parent would have no positive legal obligation to feed her child, and that no one would have any legal right to interfere if she did.[34]
Rothbard need not have made the move he did. He might simply have said, as almost all other libertarian rights theorists do, that rights theory is a set of generalizations that begins with -- and that thus only applies to -- adults. We cannot expect it to give reasonable answers when it is applied, unchanged, to infants. If we want to make it work for infants, we first must consider how infants differ from adults.
There would be nothing inconsistent at all about such a position. But the danger I describe here is one of a foolish consistency, and I do think Rothbard fell for it. It's also exactly what happens when theory is pursued to the exclusion of empirical fact.
At times like these, a peculiar mental process begins to work in the minds of most readers. It was first brought to my attention years ago in an op-ed by William F. Buckley, one that I have unfortunately been unable to locate. I recall that Buckley was uncharacteristically kind to libertarians, at least for a bit. Then he narrated several of the Libertarian Party's then-current foibles, and he commented to the following effect: In every reasonable person there exists a little mental sorter, one that constantly asks whether one is not listening to the words of a madman. Whenever the sorter says yes, the reasonable person stops listening altogether.
It does not matter that the little mental sorter sometimes registers false positives. Life is short, and there are many clearly reasonable people to listen to. A few false positives is a small price to pay for weeding out all the nutcases in the world. Against this sorter, it does not avail that Rothbard believed that a libertarian society would see much less child neglect than we do today. It does not matter that he was exploring an odd lacuna in his theory, one he thought would basically never find its way into practice. The mental sorter has done its work: Rothbard is a nut. He shall be cast into the outer darkness.
So What Now?
That, my friends, is what we are up against, and I see only one way forward: We must become the most reasonable people in the room. At any gathering we attend, in any venue where we appear, it's up to us to play the straight man. If the status quo really is as crazy as we think, then we have no need to outdo it. Being reasonable attracts reasonable people. Being zany attracts attention, which is a different thing, and it only works until Buckley's mental sorter kicks in.
Now, this does not mean that we must surrender our principles so as to win over the unprincipled. Far from it. What it means is that we must whenever possible put empirical foundations under the things we have come to believe through abstraction. We must give people with no patience for ideology a reason to settle on libertarian policies anyway. As Ayn Rand wrote, "Americans are anti-intellectual (with good grounds, in view of current specimens), yet they have a profound respect for knowledge and education." That's where we need to be strong.
But doing so requires data. It also requires hard work. It may even require, on further examination, that we alter some of our beliefs -- but only if that's where the empirical investigation (and not the lure of political gain) ultimately leads us. We claim that we have courage in our convictions, and that considerations of principle have given us good reason to believe as we do. Very well, let us courageously put our beliefs to the test. If we are right, it is glorious. If we are wrong, we will have learned something. Either one should be counted a win.
Many individuals have been exemplary in this respect. If Milton Friedman doesn't immediately spring to mind, he should. But also Donald J. Boudreaux, Radley Balko, Timothy Sandefur, Jacob Sullum, Greg Lukianoff, Conor Friedersdorf, Clint Bolick, and more. These are the people who do the hard and not always fun work of turning abstract convictions into a measurable difference in the world. They don't agree on everything, and I don't expect them to. What they share is that they are convincing. As a direct result, they change American minds and prompt better public policies. I hope to see many more like them in the future.
[34.] See Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty (Auburn, Ala., Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2002), "14. Children and Rights," p. 100.