Liberty Matters

Short Thoughts

A few short thoughts about things that have come up in the discussion.
First, I agree with what David Gordon says about my comments about ideas and their relation to material conditions. I should have been clearer. The problem of passivity that comes about as a result of a strict materialist view of historical change is due not to the thing itself (I agree with what he says about that) but to people believing that is the case. That’s why I mentioned Karl Kautsky and the kind of deterministic view of history he put forward, which both Bernstein and Lenin reacted against. I don’t think the argument is actually about ideas and interests (again, I agree with David on this). Rather it is that neither a purely materialist nor a purely idealist account of historical change is correct. Ideas do matter, but they are not the only cause of change. Material circumstances and conditions also play a part, and what you have to do is work out how the two interact -- an admittedly tricky task.
Second, thinking about Jason Kuznicki’s remarks about style does prompt some thoughts. The main one is that classical liberals should simply read some of the basic work about how to be persuasive. There are a number of simple things that come from this, such as that saying things with a smile is always better than being aggressive. Mr. Angry is not going to win many arguments, particularly if your target audience gets the impression (often rightly) that you are angry with them. One crucial thing is to know what kinds of language and imagery are appealing or will be simply understood. This is more difficult than it used to be because of the collapse of the common language of references to things such as scripture and classical history. But this is a problem for everyone, so it should not handicap classical liberals disproportionately.
The most important text that people should read, though, is Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind.[136] As he points out, arguments of certain kinds will make sense to some people but not everyone. The big problem for classical liberals is that arguments they find convincing are like water off a duck’s back for over half the population. So, for example, showing that somebody’s positions are inconsistent is a devastatingly effective argument to libertarians because they value consistency highly. Most people, however, are simply not bothered by this. Arguments based on “thinking” rather than “feeling” are also not effective. Above all, arguments about efficiency are persuasive to economists or the economically trained but not to anyone else. What is striking about Haidt’s model (as he points out) is that while classical liberals can understand and are to some extent receptive to the kinds of arguments made by “progressives,” the same is not true in reverse -- and this is not a matter of simple prejudice or closed-mindedness. (He argues that it is conservatives who have this problem, but that is because he defines “conservative” in the misleading and muddled contemporary American way. In reality many of the arguments made by contemporary conservatives have a considerable resonance for some people on the “progressive” side because they play off a shared concern with the polarity of sanctity versus degradation.) What this means, as Jim Peron, for example, has been arguing at the Moorfield Storey blog,[137] is that classical liberals need to use the language and address the concerns of those on the “progressive” side. Otherwise they will simply be ignored.
[136.] Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2013).
[137.] Moorfield Storey Blog <>. See for example the post "Ten Commandments for Libertarians" (Thursday, September 5, 2013) <>.