Liberty Matters

Converting The Prince?


One point made by people who have thought about strategy for social and political change is that while ideas matter and have an effect, it also matters enormously who believes which ideas when it comes to their having an impact on the real world. Ideas can be widely held among the general population and yet have little direct effect on public policy or the nature of the political system. This is true even (or perhaps particularly) in democracies. If they are honest, libertarians will often be thankful that this is so.  In economic policy, for example, the general public’s ideas on subjects such as trade or immigration are not of a kind that libertarians would like. Conversely an idea or set of ideas that comes to dominate elite opinion can have an enormous and direct impact.[121]
George Smith cites a chilling example of this in the case of witchcraft and witch hunting. During the high Middle Ages witchcraft and the belief in witches was seen as a popular superstition and not taken seriously by elites. (There was a belief in sorcery, the use of ritual magic to gain earthly ends, but this rarely led to prosecutions, and when they did happen they were normally of people who were themselves from the elite). However, during the second half of the 15th century many of the elites came to believe, first, that witches existed and had real power and, second that these powers derived from a pact with Satan, so that witches came to be seen as comprising an organized counter-religion. Because members of the elite believed this, it had an effect on the criminal justice system and in particular meant that local magistrates and clergy now took accusations of witchcraft seriously. When combined with the widespread use of torture to obtain confessions, this led to the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are two points to make here. The first is the one that George makes, citing W. E. H. Lecky, that what is crucial for the acceptance of an idea or argument is its credibility, with that depending on criteria of persuasiveness. There were, as he points out, many skeptics at the time, such as Reginald Scott or Johann Weyer, but for many years their arguments had little impact. Suddenly, though, in the early 18th century they succeeded and the witch hunts came to an end. The problem for people such as Scott or Weyer was that the canons of evidence and credibility used at the time meant that their critiques could not be accepted without also denying what were seen as essential Christian beliefs.[122] At this time it was difficult if not impossible to be an atheist, not only because of the serious penalties for such a belief but because the mental world of the time was such that without a belief in God the entire world was meaningless and incoherent.[123]
The second point is that the crucial part of the story was the attitude of the elite. Things changed and witch hunts happened and then stopped because of shifts in opinion among the elite rather than among the wider population. Belief in the existence of witches and their malevolent power remained widespread among the mass of the population long after the witch trials stopped. What was crucial was that the elite who controlled the criminal-justice system had changed their minds. (Or at least enough of them had).
So what does this imply for the spread and success of classical-liberal ideas? The first point is that ideas, no matter how well thought out, will not be credible or plausible if they run counter to what we may call the foundational assumptions of a time. So to advocate reducing the scale of government, or making well-founded critiques of government action and policy, will count for nothing if the idea of a world of minimal government (or a fortiori no government) means for most people chaos and the abandonment of the poor, because the basic idea of voluntary collective action has been lost. So foundational basic beliefs, axioms of thought if you will, matter.
The second point is one where obvious conclusions may actually be misleading. If it is the opinions and beliefs of elites that have an impact rather than those of the general public, then surely it makes sense to focus on influencing those elites rather than bothering with the wider culture. This indeed is the conclusion drawn by advocates of social and political change of all types for a long time. In its early form, during the time of Enlightened Despotism and in the works of people like the Physiocrats, the policy was to convert or educate the king. The idea was that if you could get the king on your side or persuade him and his ministers, then you could move society in a more humane and liberal direction. More recently this has become the dominant strategy among both left and right of conventional politics.
Now certainly this kind of strategy can have effects, particularly in the short term. It can be useful if the aim is to change a specific policy or to stiffen the spine of policymakers so that they resist misguided popular pressure. However, it has a number of serious problems, which mean that by itself it is very unlikely to bring lasting or extensive success (that being defined as a significant shift of the entire political and social order in a more liberal direction). There are two main problems. The first is that in the case of relatively small and organized groups (which elites are by definition), interests as opposed to ideas count for relatively more than they do for the entire population. This means that ideas will tend to gain traction when they happen to coincide with what the elite or a part of it sees as being its interest. This in turn means that the changes, even if desirable in themselves, will only tend to happen to the extent that they serve elite interests and will often take effect in a form that reflects those interests. Moreover, if elite interests or beliefs shift (which happens much more easily and readily than a shift in general sentiment), then all of the work done previously is undone.
The second problem follows from the first. Despite the obvious reality that elites have more power and therefore their beliefs have more impact, they are not in any society able to do simply what they want or think is right. They are always ultimately constrained by the wider climate of opinion that George referred to in his first piece. So in the United States, many elite figures understand that the entitlement state created by a succession of administrations and congresses since the 1930s is neither desirable nor sustainable, but they can do nothing about this because of widely held beliefs among the population at large (as well as in much elite opinion).
So to bring about fundamental change that is long-lasting, you have to change the dominant beliefs of society. (These are the “core” ideas that David Hart referred to earlier. As Peter Mentzel says, changing these is slow and difficult but nonetheless necessary.) The theorist we should draw on here is Gramsci with his idea of a hegemonic ideology.[124] Thinking this way will help you to, among other things, identify the dominant underlying ideas and their weak points. This is where the kind of mass movements Jim Powell talks about comes in. Paradoxically, all the historical evidence is that the best way to change a basic, or foundational, set of beliefs and attitudes is to campaign on a specific issue, one that raises challenges to those basic beliefs and hence changes them. Thus as Peter Mentzel says, antislavery campaigns did not only delegitimize that institution, they propagated an idea of the autonomous individual and undermined the widely held notion that human beings differed substantively in worth or moral standing. (Amongst other things, this undermined conventional notions of the relations between the sexes, which is one of the reasons why so many feminists came out of abolitionism.)
If we think about the current state of affairs in this way we can see one cause for optimism and one huge challenge. In the first place, there has been a growth of the idea that a good life is one of self-realization and the product of personal choice, and this has undermined ideas about traditional authority and led to quite dramatic shifts in attitudes towards issues such as same sex-marriage. Interestingly this shift has been brought about to a great degree by people who favor a substantial role for government in other areas and, in particular, a redistributive welfare system, despite the fact that their success in one area actually undermines the purchase of their arguments in others.
However, there is still the problem of what is has been undoubtedly the dominant set of ideas in developed societies since at least the 1930s and arguably the 1890s. This the one I alluded to in my previous piece: the idea that it is both desirable and possible for large-scale social action to be directed and controlled through conscious and purposive action by really smart people using the techniques of something called management. As with all really dominant ideas this is so taken for granted that it is hardly spelt out. The argument instead is over what ends should be pursued in this way and whether the most appropriate medium for the exercise of management and direction is government and its agencies or private corporate bodies. It is reflected in all kinds of ways in popular culture, such as the obsession with “leadership” and the idea that having one person rather than another in charge of a system can make a huge difference. (All the empirical evidence is that in almost all cases it does not). Another aspect is the concept or notion of a “social problem” as analyzed by George Smith, which implies that there must be some kind of “solution.” Yet another is the way that many people would rather believe that the world is run by amazingly evil and cunning but competent people rather than consider that the people “in charge” are actually incompetent morons who don’t know what they are doing and are making it up as they go along.
So what does that suggest about the kinds of issues Jim raises? More on that later.
[121.] The best known recent work making this point is of course Bryan Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011).
[122.] See Walter Stephens, “The Sceptical Tradition,” in Brian Levack, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp 101-21.
[123.] Lucien Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985).
[124.] Antonio Gramsci The Modern Prince and Other Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1959).